Cuban Heels
The first was a 58 year old Cuban grandfather from Miami who looked like a fit, slim hipped, silver-haired Elvis Presley impersonator; but without either the sneer or the rhinestones.
Instead José favoured old Levis; faded from frequent laundering and ironed into a military crease down the front; white t shirts and an old biker jacket which he'd had since he was a kid of 32 or something. He usually drove up to his sister's in Atlanta for Labor Day, but this year, he stopped by my brother's place on West Palm Beach Drive, in the urban sprawl twenty miles south of Tampa.
Being a Brit with only cop shows, medical dramas and sit coms to draw on - I had expected West Palm Beach Drive to be full of lean, tanned flashy guys wearing seventies clothes, all touting guns and driving low flashy convertibles; and hell, I even expected beaches with palm trees. I must have mixed it up with Hawaii-Five-O, or maybe Starsky and Hutch by-the-sea.
Anyway - it was too bloody hot to drive anywhere without all the windows shut and the air conditioning on full blast. In Pittola, where my brother lived - known locally as the Pitts - the town beach was filthy and ringed only with garbage, plastic bottles, rubber gloves and worse. It was full of dog-shit and old guys with Michelob guts ogling old ladies in day-glo bikinis who, excuse me, should've been in full purdah with just a slit for their Moschino sunglasses. Even the stumps of the palm trees looked like fag ends, ground into the dirty sand, and geriatric enough for 24-hour nursing care. And although there were guns - the guys carrying them weren't wearing flares, big collars or Hawaiian shirts; and they mostly weren't cops.
My brother conned me. He said, in his fake American, broguey Scottish accent with rolling rs and glottal stops:
Sure - just come over here for a coupla months sis - it'll be great. You can have the beach house to yourself, feed the cats, get some rays, see a bit of the country.
Big lying shit. He took the Corvette, put the Eldorado on blocks in the drive - for that down home trailer trash look that hasn't caught on yet at Conran - and he left me an ancient lumbering Buick.
It was a monster - bigger than a hearse, greener than St Patrick's arse, and steering it like working out with an abdominiser. I was too scared to drive on the highway, in case my brother wasn't the only geographically displaced Glasgow Celtic fan in Florida, and I got shot for my body work by a crazed Catholic crack-head. Who knows - there could be a market for these things just like there are for stolen Range Rovers, though instead of stripping them down and shipping them out to Italy, they smuggle them into Govan and sell them off to religious bigots,
Anyway, as a result of my cowardice on all fronts, I didn't get further than the local mall. This wasn't what Eddie meant by seeing the country, I know, but it was as much adventure as I could handle.
Even this wasn't worth the minimal effort involved - the mall suffered badly from the effects of globalisation. It had the same branches of Gap, Starbucks, Benetton and the Body Shop that we have in every high street back home but with a parking lot the size of central America. If they built it in Panama it would be the bloody capital city.
I ended up doing all my grocery shopping at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Mimosa St (a boulevard of fast food outlets and used car retailers wihtout a sprig of mimosa in sight - not that I have a bloody clue what mimosa actually looks like) at the far end of West Palm Beach Drive. The drive part, at least was accurate - Eddie lived on 1255 - you could only attempt to walk to the shops with enough gear to camp overnight on the sidewalk. The store sold only fags, girlie beer and lurid snacks designed to colour co-ordinate with the old beach bags' bikinis. Needless to say I gave up all notion of cooking real food and became something of a regular at Franks-r-us next door.
Meanwhile, Eddie's beach house, far from being the bijou ranch on stilts within earshot of the breakers that he'd led me to believe in his annual local-boy-done-good letter, was a prefabricated garden shed with a rickety deck. It had been dumped in a scorched, weedy sub-lot that had once been someone's garden, within earshot of gang warfare from nearby Satellite City, and about as far from the sea as fucking Idaho.
Then the bastard shuffled off to Buffalo, or deepest Montana to be exact, leaving me the pleasure of house-sitting his girlfriend's two neurotic, baby-substitute cats, with nothing but three crates of Kitty Lite for comfort. The cats acted like a couple of teenagers with an eating disorder. They stayed out late, never called home and picked at their food. Each meal involved elaborate food rituals and very fussy table manners. They would only eat low calorie, cholesterol free cat foot - which I had to cut it up into dime sized chunks, put it in the exact same bowl every day, in the exact same place, at the exact same time, and be out of the room when the fussy felines arrived back from Urban Kitty Outfitters - or wherever it is that adolescent cats go to shoot the breeze.
If I missed a deadline because, say, I wanted to catch the last few minutes of Cagney and Lacey (shame because I always like to wait till Mary Beth gets back home to Harvey at the end of the episode), then that was that! Big sulks all round. Hissing, and pissing under the breakfast bar - the cats went on food strike and cried all night because they were hungry.
Bastard cats.
I don't know what they had to complain about. Their food looked a lot better than mine. I lived on take outs, blueberry peach beer, multipack fat-free corn chips that gave me diarreah, fish sticks and microwave French fries; comfort food to sustain me through reruns of all those misleading cops shows that had got me into this mess in the first place.
Though the cops had an even more unhealthy diet than either the cats or me; they kept stopping for cardboard coffee and donuts. Lucky things.
It was lonely. So lonely. I wasn't used to being so totally on my own - this was, after all, an enforced vacation. If it hadn't been for cable tv and the girlfriend's home computer, I'd probably have started dressing the cats in matinee jackets and bootees while singing them Scottish lullabies, or done something desperate like clean the bath. Instead I just tuned in and turned up Van Morrison to drown out their mewling. Good old Van the Man can whine with the best of them - those pussies were totally outclassed.
Anyway, the girlfriend was in telesales: Miss American lightbulb, bringing enlightenment in the form of a 40 watt bayonet halogen light unit right across the continent. I didn't know it was possible to have quite so many variations on a simple theme, but you learn a lot when you snoop through someone else's files. According to her home directory she sold best in the Prarie states and was very big in Canada (well obviously it gets dark there) and she did a lot of business on the internet. By the end of my fourth jet-lagged night there, so did I.
You know - the world wide web is a great thing. At home, I used the computer only to type up my column, file the copy, and maybe send the odd work related e-mail, but at Eddie's the internet became my obsession. When you're left alone for a protracted period of time with only Doritos and two mentally disturbed cats, you get rather fond of swapping monosyllables with sad fucks from Alabama. You get to appreciate, and value the friendship of the sociopath who works in a convenience store in Virginia with no money, no sex appeal and a morbid interest in rubber wear. Your heart gives a little leap when you walk into the chat room and guys like DonkeyDude (profile-35/m/NC part time DJ ) wave at you across the virtual space of Bar Anorak, saying:
Hi there sugar - wanna drink.
Well I'll take a virtual double Vodka on the rocks if you've got one, DonkeyDude. I'd reply, cheerily.
Now who's the sad fuck? I mean cybersex is one thing, but cyber alcohol is just plain ridiculous.
So I became a nerd, sitting there with a bottle of licorice cherry Alcopop beer in one hand, a mouse in the other, while the tv blared away behind me entreating the La-Z-Boys, custom upholstered in Celtic tartan to:
come on down to Crazy Joe's Toyatothon on Route 5.
I chugged my beer, swore at the cats and surfed the net. I met up with soldiers at bases all across the Eastern seaboard and an awful lot of shut-ins from Tennessee, which must be the masturbating capital of the USA. I mean - don't they have women there?
Newly skilled at lightbulb recognition, I soon added keyboard shortcuts to my resume. Thanks to my cyber-buddies, I also learned how to download software so we could page each other from the furthest reaches of the virtual universe, like Captain Kirk calling earth from the starship Enterprise.
I began to recognise the abbreviations for most of the states, knew all the time zones, learned to avoid Canadians who made the Tennessians look interesting, and became fluent in cyperspeak.
I could:
LOL (laugh out loud) without cracking a smile.
ROTFLMBO (roll on the floor laughing my balls off) even though the only balls I had were little kitty ones with bells on.
And I could occasionally, though not often, get a guy to talk dirty to me in proper sentences.
Which is where José came in.
I found him, rather bizarrely, in a Girls and Animals room which, I quickly discovered had nothing much to do with ten year olds and their pet bunny rabbits. Rather it was full of perverts who were rather too fond of the family dog than they should have been.
I don't know why he was there. Hell, I don't know why I was there - but we started to chat.
So are you into dogs or what, I asked rather suspiciously
No - I mean, my daughter has an Australian Shepherd, he replied. It's a cool dog, but I only take it for walks - none of this kind of crazy shit. I'm just here by accident.
(Well I let that pass - I was hardly one to talk)
So what's an Australian Shepherd, then? Like a German Shepherd but with a suntan and a cork hat?
LOL he types,
You've got a sense of humour he adds, like a GSOH was a Gucci handbag that not many people had.
You're funny.!
Yep that's me. Really bloody laugh-a-minute, funny.
I'm British , I replied as if that explained anything. No point in saying Scottish. The yanks think that Scotland is a province in Canada.
Oh yes - I love the British sense of humour, he types. I just love Benny Hill.
Now it's debatable whether I'd consider Benny Hill to be representative of the cutting edge of British humour - for a start he's dead. One day someone's going to do for dead unfunny guys what they did for dead poets - that is either forget them or run classes in them in boondock universitites. But, it's true, the Americans are big fans. So I accept the compliment graciously and we trade a/s/l (age, sex, location)
Me: 25 (I'm lying)/f/Fla
Him: 41(he's really lying)/m/Fla
Whadayaknow - we're in the same state, he types
Hell - we're in the same ball park. Almost.
I learned that he wrote technical manuals for a software development firm in Miami, and also that he was a very literate and grammatical seducer, if a bit textbook at times.
But it wasn't till we progressed from screen sex to phone sex that I discovered he still spoke American with a sexy Spanish accent and,
Soon he tells me he's driving up to his sister's on Labor Day weekend - 'for the holiday'.
I didn't know there was a holiday - the idea of having one single day devoted to a celebration of labor is laughable. That's what they have sick days for.
So, sugar, why don't I swing by you and we go have dinner someplace?
Did I agree? Comeawn - I mean, is the Pope a proponent of pre-marital sex?
Of course I didn't.
The guy could have been a stalker, a sex-fiend, a serial killer, a thieving junkie, a low down nasty, cheating adulterer (oh no - I forgot - that was me!). He could wear cowboy boots, and a string tie. He could even like line bloody dancing.
On the other hand, he could be 17 years older than he'd previously told me; with three grandchildren; a kid in drug rehab; and be the 1957 Havana Mambo, Rumba and Samba champion.
When I heard all that, I relented. My mother had been a big fan of ballroom dancing. She favoured old-time and formation dancing, but I had always preferred the Latin stuff - they always had the best dresses - not that I wanted José to turn up in an off the shoulder net number with hand sewn sequins.
I figured he was an old guy - he couldn't do much damage. He probably had a surgical corset and kept his teeth in a plastic case. So I told him that I was really 29 (though I was still lying) and just drew him a map.
Do you have an A-Z? I asked
A what honey?
You know a street map.
Honey, if I stop my car in Pittola and start looking at a street map they're gonna have my balls swinging from their rear-view mirror like a coupla dice.
Oh well, never mind. Very prosaically, we agreed to meet at the Starbucks on the Mall on Route 114E - it was the only place I knew where I didn't have to parallel park the car.
The day of our rendezvous it was pissing with rain - like a bloody monsoon - worse than anything Scotland with its dreary climate can ever throw at you, even in the depths of winter.
The rain was jumping off my bonnet like a team of Russian gymnasts and I couldn't see a thing. I drove to the mall like a little old lady on her once a week Sunday drive, and cars swooshed past me, spraying half the Gulf of Mexico repeatedly over my steamed up windscreen.
By the time I got to the coffee shop, in spite of having the air conditioning turned up high enough to cause frostbite, I was sweating, pinker than a tart's boudoir and a lot less fragrant. My freckled lobster face wasn't improved by the red lipstick I hurriedly added before I left the parking lot.
I burst through the door of Starbucks - what is it about their doors? First they don't move, then you push a bit harder, and suddenly after one big heave it springs open and catapults you into the room - works really well with a cup of hot coffee in your hand.
My hair was a ball of strawberry fizz, my skirt creased, my Kenzo orange embroidered balcony bra which had looked so chic in the shop, totally visible through the front of my shirt. What was worse, the balcony seemed to have suffered some subsidence and one dark, nipple was peering out of the right cup.
José, however, was looking pretty damn fine. He'd told me he was tall but I hadn't reckoned on how much space he'd take up in a room. He had his head buried in a Spanish novel, an empty expresso cup on the counter before him and big shoulders broad enough to shore up the building. THere were no obvious sequins but, unfortunately, he was indeed wearing cowboy boots.
He was standing near the front of the shop, leaning against the dark wood shelves filled with cafetieres, candy cigars and novelty chocolates. I could see that he had a really nice tight bum and big thighs: The kind of guy who looked as if he could shimmy up a telephone pole one handed, with a hammer in between his teeth. My kind of guy.
I was prepared for the silver hair, but the jacket with the bleeding heart stitched on the back, and the tattooed knuckles came as something of a surprise; but hey, he was still expecting a twentysomething Brit and not a thirty-six year old Scotswoman. A Scotswoman who could currently be mistaken for the ugly red-haired girl in Abba, if she'd taken up a career in porn instead of pop, and had big tits and a $95 bra with matching g-string.
He also thought my name was Cassandra.
Well look, sorry, but Mell doesn't have quite the right chat-room ring to it. You just have to have another persona. Besides, classical or historical names help you to weed out the educated nerds from the high-school drop outs, or at least the high school drop outs from the ones who didn't go to school at all. In my Cleopatra phase, one guy asked me if I lived with the Faros.
Not unless you're talking about a town in southern Portugal, and even then, no, I replied.
I didn't waste my time with him. He was probably the kind of guy who wanted to do things to your love tunnel. Gross.
Another guy asked me if I was looking for romans. I thought he meant was I into Italians, but it turned out he just couldn't spell.
But I digress, we were in the coffee shop and José seeming to sense me standing behind him - either that or he heard my hair sizzling, turned his head to reveal the same, wonderful craggy face that I'd already seen in photographs. He put his book into his back pocket and smiled the kind of smile Castro should put on tourist posters.
Cassie, baby, he said, gallantly bending to kiss my hand.
You look just like your picture - and as if you've just got outta bed, after a really hot night.
His long slow laugh sounded like hot chocolate would if you made it with double cream, brandy and a sprinkling of crushed bitter, coffee beans. If Starbucks ever decide to market it they should just call it the José, and I'll have a grande please with lots of whip.
Sorry, I mumbled, doing the hair-luffing, face-patting bit and wondering if I had lipstick on my teeth before I dared smile back. I wanted to give my mouth a quick rub to make sure but I couldn't manage to extricate my hand from his. It seemed to be welded on.
I'm a bit of a mess I'm afraid - it's this weather.
Yes well it is the hurricane season baby - you gotta expect it.
Which brings me neatly to another point that Eddie the Bastard forgot to mention. Florida has hurricanes at the end of summer.
It wasn't until they started interrupting Miami Vice with Severe Storm Watch warnings, that I realised there was a good reason why Eddie and girlfriend had flown north for the autumn. Remember seeing it on the news Mell? Remember that dull old programme with the old guy and the blonde girl they put on a staggered schedule so you can always switch over and catch a tv movie on another channel instead? Remember seeing something about Florida being flattened by Andrew then Diana? Remember the year they declared a state of emergency after Frederick?
Yes, it was all coming back to me now, but Eddie wasn't and I was bloody stranded.
I'm fairly worried about it, actually, I mumbled again.
There's something about having a barely intelligible accent that brings out the self defeating mumbler in me. Thankfully José seemed to be able to understand me even when I talked into my chest. He thought I had a really cute 'English' accent and truly couldn't tell the difference between me and the Queen.
Everytime I spoke he smiled in wonder as if I'd ended the sentence with a knickerless handstand.
'love that accent baby...'
My neighbour says I ought to board up the windows but I don't have the first clue how to do that. I was hoping you might help me.
José growled, a rich, deep Hispanic growl:
Sure baby. No problem. I did my own place before I left. We'll fix you up in no time.
He managed to prise his hand away from mine, took me by the elbow and escorted me purposefully out of the coffee shop, into the parking lot.
He didn't seem inclined to talk, which was a relief. It's jolly awkward finding things to say to a man who you don't really know, but who has already verbally caressed every part of your body. There's nothing in Anne Landers that covers this eventuality. I know - I looked.
In the parking lot José stared at my green hearse with disbelief.
You hired this? he asked
No it's Eddie's.
Jeez, the guy must be colour blind. Leave it, he said. We'll go in mine and come back for yours later when the storm's passed.
I skipped into José's old Ford pickup truck, like a kid getting a ride home from school with her dad, which actually, if you do the maths, was generationally possible. Then we stopped by the hardware store where José bought several sheets of board, a box of nails and a hank of rope before negotiating the flooded roads back to house.
But when we drew up outside Eddie's place, José took one look at the place and shook his head.
Honey - this whole damn rinky dinky shack will just blow away - forget storm-proofing the windows - your gonna need to get outta here. You'd be safer sleeping in that bus of your brother's. He pointed at the Eldorado.
What's with this guy and automobiles? he asked
Damn it, I thought to myself. I had tidied up the house and hidden all Eddie's Soldier of Fortune, Modern Warfare and Amateur Mercenary magazines in the closet. I'd made him lock up the rifles in the cellar before I even arrived in the country and I'd stored the lurid collection of photographs of him in combat gear playing at being GI Joe, but you can't hide everything.
He had a deprived childhood, I replied. 'He didn't get to play with cars like the other kids so now he collects them - he's got an old Stingray and his girlfriend has a Cadillac.'
I could have been honest and told him that it was because Eddie was a racist. He bought up old cars because otherwise, 'the spades got them.' Every stretch automobile that Eddie had ever owned was in his opinion one liberated from the black community.
Somehow I didn't think José would appreciate Eddie's efforts so I said nothing.
We waded through the sidewalk, climbed onto the stoop and let ourselves inside. The noise of the rain on the roof was deafening. It was almost 5 o'clock and time for high tea at the feline Ritz. I started faffing around with Kitty Lite, silver spoons and porcelain bowls. It pissed me off that the bloody girlfriend would pay money to have her car garaged but not the cats.
Honey, let's get going - why don't you throw a few things into a bag and we'll check into a hotel.
Pictures of room service and silver trays concealing fresh fish, maybe red snapper or blackened swordfish, a baked potato with sour cream, sweet butter, and luxury of luxuries, vegetables that hadn't been reconstituted from dehydrated flakes, were dancing seductively through my head. Fluffy towels, bath robes. White crisp sheets. A mint - or Belgian chocolates - on the pillow.
But what about the cats? I asked coming back to earth with a whack,
I can't just leave them
Well, forgive me for blaspheming, baby, he said - for José had excellent manners.
'....but fuck the cats.'
I looked at his big, wizened hands the size of dinner plates with the slightly callused fingers and I thought that, on balance, I'd rather fuck him.
I turned on the weather channel and saw the forecast had only just gone from a severe storm to a tropical storm watch - and there was no immediate sign of hurricane Miguel heading straight in our direction. So what the hell, I did.
I'd felt his roughened fingers touch the skin of my arm, and his lips brush against the back of my hand but our first kiss was hanging in the air like an electric charge waiting to hit earth. It had been a while since I had kissed a stranger; well a couple of months at least, and before that a lifetime. I wondered if I'd forgotten how to do it but as I bustled around the kitchen throwing a half-full vaccuum pack of cat food into the waste disposal and a pair of scissors into the garbage, he caught my wrist and pulled me towards him.
It all came back to me.
I thought the unfed cats were making more of a din than usual until I realised the purring was coming from me.
He had a fine body for an old guy. A bit of a belly, a slight slackening of the skin so that when you stroked it the wrong way it concertinaed like a paper fan; but his tits looked a whole lot better than mine are going to look when I'm 58. He had great upper body strength and his hips were not the hips of a man who sat at a desk all day, pushing paper, though - sad but true, he did have a dick the size of a pencil.
Okay, a chubby pencil; something between a kid's crayon and a magic marker, but a pencil nonetheless - he must've had to go to Japan or somewhere to buy his condoms.
I kept moving my thighs around as he kissed me, wondering where his dick actually was. I thought he just had a lighter in his pocket. It was a bit of a disappointment when I discovered he didn't smoke - but I managed to rise above it.
In a manner of speaking.
Thankfully, he was a master at overcompensation, and as an encore he taught me how to do the samba outside on Eddie's porch. We lit lanterns and danced into the night while the rain from tropical storm Miguel turned the yard into a dirtwater lake and the boombox played the Bossa Nova from Eddie's CD of World Cup 1999 Anthems, on a loop.

He stayed five days.
We rode out the worst of the storm dancing between the kitchen and the bedroom where I perfected my dips. In other circumstances my mother would have been proud of me. Old Miguel never developed into a full-scale hurrican so instead of ordering pizza we drove to the supermarket and filled the refridgerator with plump, tasteless vegetables, half the GNP of Argentina, and ice cream.
He fried steak and omlettes for breakfast. I showed off and made chilli with limes, Thai green curry, Persian chicken stuffed with raisins and apricots - and on Labor Day I cooked gourmet shepherd's pie - a tarted up version of mince and potatoes - in honour of the workers. I told José it was the Scottish staple diet - that and Irn Bru - which didn't translate very well..
Then, as custom dictated, I put away my white shoes.
A funny idea - I mean do the workers really care if you wear white shoes in the autumn?
By the time he left I'd mastered the Bossa Nova and the Pasa Double though I found the Cha Cha effete and silly, especially when José got on his tippy toes and shimmied.
We lay in Eddie's bed and traded lives and pictures. He flipped the three different kids from three different wives out of his wallet for my inspection. I saw the Australian shepherd, which looked surprisingly normal - not a tinnie or a surf board in sight, followed by assorted snaps of his three grandchildren. In return I showed him my two boys standing outside in the garden of our house in London.
So don't you miss em? he asked, a question that even a man who's abandoned all three of his wives can ask and still make you feel guilty.
Of course I do - but they're almost grown now. They're at boarding school. They hardly know I'm gone.
Boarding school? He repeated with as much puzzlement as if I'd said I'd had them both stuffed and mounted on the sideboard.
Don't even go there José. It wasn't my idea. I've been through this argument a hundred times and lost it every time.
Nice looking kids. What are they called?
Harry and Julian. I said apologetically - I'd lost the names argument too.
I didn't ask him about the symbols tattoeed across his knuckles and in return he didn't ask me why I was living all alone in a dilapitated shack in West Palm Beach. So thank god, I didn't need to elaborate on the whys and wherefores of my enforced sabbatical from conjugal bliss. I didn't need to tell him that my husband had kicked me out for a very extended, open-ended vacation.
He found a contractor who would come and board up the house in the event of Miguel getting his older brother to come along later and finish off what he'd started. He drove the Buick back from the parking lot and checked the oil.
He told me he used to be a musician when he first arrived in America, before he settled down and got a proper job - just around wife and kid number three. He played Spanish love songs on Eddie's 11 string guitar and taught me the words to Me Sole Querida. I had heard my mother play the same song on the radiogramme when I was a child, as she one, two, three, tapped around the linoleum floor of the kitchenette with imaginary partners - or maybe smooching with my dead father for all I knew. But that had been the Dean Martin, or Tony Bennet, English version - the Spanish words sounded so much nicer.
So we sang duets, and José stroked my thighs with his callused thumb, which I now realised was from the guitar strings and not manual labour, lifted me up in his arms and carried me into the bedroom, saying:
esta mi mariposa, mi amore'
He told me:
mi corizon is tuo
and promised to come back whenever he could get away from work though naturally, he was lying.
He was lying so much that if he had been Pinoccio his nose would have been a whole lot bigger than his pinga and we'd both have been delighted.
In fact I never saw him again.

After he went the novelty of late onset adolescence wore off. I paced the floors of the one and a half baths, open plan sitting room with galley kitchen, second bedroom/study and master bedroom with dressing room and closets bigger than our entrance hall back home. I colour co-ordinated Eddie's socks - difficult when you're talking shades of gray - and re-organised the girlfriend's clothes in her walk-in wardrobe according to size. I would have alphabetised her spices except she only had two jars. She obviously didn't cook - well, except for the cats.
I had long, tearful conversations with Eddie's picture at the side of the bed, though in truth we had never had much to say to each other. He was six years older than me, and age apart, would probably have had more in common with José than me - they could have discussed riffs or chords, or ethnic cleansing.
We'd never been close - managing to keep in touch through my mother who passed on bits of news and second hand letters until she forgot who we both were. But now that she was spending her days staring into space from a high backed chair in a nursing home in Bearsden, we had to deal direct, memorise each other's phone numbers, birthdays, and, after years of indifference, pretend to give a damn.
Eddie had left home when I was about eight or nine, just after dad died. He left school, joined the army, and after his contract was up bummed around the world playing at soldiers. Wherever CNN had a foreign correspondent, Eddie had a war. He'd eventually ended up in Northern Californian, then Texas, and finally here in Florida where he met Ms American Lightbulb. He had never married - he said he didn't know how to be a husband - I , on the other hand, had made being a wife into my life's work.
Now it was all I knew how to do - that and cooking. I might have married up the social scale but if I hadn't started working as a food writer for first the local paper, and later a national daily, I'd have achieved no more than my own grandmother. She had been a cook to the local gentry, and though I was now married to the local gentry, we both knew all about a life in service.
I hadn't cooked properly in years though. There was no point. When the kids left, Jack started having business lunches in fancy restaurants every day. In the evening all he wanted was a bowl of soup or a sandwich, and sometimes not even that.
I still bought cookery books, and tested the recipes for my column on next door's dog and, when they were around, Jack's brother's family. They, lucky people, still had their children at home. They often came round for Sunday lunch when I found myself alone at the weekends while Jack worked overtime in his office in South Kensington.
The first cook book I owned was from a cheap series printed on grungy paper which my mother had given me when I left home. It was called Cooking for One and featured rather appalling recipes for things you could make on a Baby Belling two ring stove - suicide stew and oh-god-I'm-sad spaghetti sauce. It almost seemed like a foreboding of what my life was to be - living alone in a bedsitter eating single portion boil in the bag cod steaks with two fucking cats. I couldn't think of anything more depressing. My current beer and chips diet though sordid was at least less pathetic than cooking for one.
But god, I missed my home. I started dreaming about my kitchen, and the spread of cosmetics on the chest of drawers in my bathroom. I started dreaming about Jack - not dreams of torrid passion, but - even more unlikely - of finding him standing at the end of the bed chatting about his work. I missed that constant, if elusive, promise of company at the end of the day. The glass of wine at nine o'clock, the peck on the cheek, the brief exchange of 'news'. The silent back next to me in the bed while I chuntered on about the boys, or the newspaper until Jack's snoring told me that I could call him a fat, miserable, boring bastard without him retaliating.
When I tried to think of anything that Jack had actually said to me over the past six months, Eddie's picture rose to new heights of sparkling wit and erudite conversation. Okay - the photograph didn't answer - but at least Eddie looked interested.
Also he didn't snore in bed.
So Eddie and I got reacquainted. We skipped Celtic's goal average and their chances of winning the Scottish FA Cup Final and went straight to sex, lies and videotaping
Do you think there's anything Freudian in me sleeping with your picture beside me?
Let me tell you, if you want Freudian, I can give it to you in spades...'
Oh - you don't know what that means - of course - you're not into any of this psychological shit. Good old Eddie - never met a problem you couldn't solve with a gun. Except maybe the dead dad thing - you can't shoot that up with a MP11.
Okay - well what about kinky then?
Bad taste?
And me and José getting it on in your bed - tacky huh?
Well let me tell you - not as bad as in your husband's bed, especially when you don't even bother to change the sheets afterwards. But where were we supposed to do it - in Julian's room with the F-15 bomber poster above the bed? Or in Harry's with the full Chelsea squad watching? That's one Freud too far, even for me. What about the guest room - or the kitchen like that film with Jessica Lange making bread and making out with Jack Nicholson?
We did do it in the kitchen - once - right on the long oak refectory table which Jack swears came from some monastery in Northern France, it's surface polished by the elbows of celibate monks. It must have been a novelty for all of us.
Then there was the weekend in Birmingham when I was shooting the pilot for a cookery programme - like the world needs another cookery programme as long as there are Thai take aways. I wanted to call it Can Cook But Can't be Bothered, but the producer didn't think it had the right ring to it. So, while taped in front of a live studio audience, I deep fried courgettes with paprika mayonnaise, made greek-style fried eggs with goats cheese on flat bread, and wore a sports bra so my tits wouldn't jiggle around when I was mixing the batter for the cherry clafoutis,
I smiled sweetly and chatted to the camera, like the Virgin Mary was my younger, wilder sister - and all the time I thought about the man in the hotel room waiting for me, and the sports bra really seeing some serious athletic activity.
You're a whore Mell, said Jack, some months later when he learned, not even the worst, of it.
My wife is a bloody whore.
He was right - I'd been a whore for a while, but I took a terraced house in Fulham, a Volvo Estate, an account at Harvey Nichols and a membership to the Harbour Club (unused) instead of money.
So what do you think Eddie - am I a whore. Will I burn in hell for all eternity. Will Jesus still love me?
Eddie, good man, said nothing - and he didn't seem too shocked.
However, even with our little tete a tetes, I still couldn't get used to being alone - totally alone, except for the Home Shopping Network whose presnters looked about as hard up for company as I was. Except they got phone calls.
José didn't call. Not surprisingly, Eddie didn't call. Even Miss American Lightbulb didn't call, which considering her devotion to those cats, meant she didn't realise how close I was to dumping them outside a pet shop with a label attached saying 'please incinerate me.'
I rang the nursing home to find out that my mother still thought she was the compere on Come Dancing and kept asking the nurses to make sure the taxi was ordered to take her to the Semi Finals in Blackpool.
No change there then.
I also continued to phone home dutifully once a week hoping for forgiveness but Jack would never take my calls. He left the answer phone to pick up my awkward attempts at upbeat, friendly desperation - a relief to both of us. I called the boys at school on Sunday afternoons and once they called me at Eddie's place, in the middle of the night because they couldn't get the time difference straight in their heads. I'd sent them both an international phone card but I knew talking to me was the last thing on their minds - way below making the football team and not getting caught smoking dope in the dormotories.
They suspected nothing.
For years I had been promising myself a couple of months of work, time to travel, visit old friends and see the bits of the world that I couldn't see in the two weeks twice a year that Jack allowed himself to be absent from his office.
As far as they were concerned this was it. Time off for bad behaviour - a gourmet cooking tour of the United States, with special emphasis on Tootsie rolls and Cheezie Doodles.
Mummy's gap year.
We'd all been having supper one night in early August after Jack had found out about my affair, and without even mentioning it to me - he just announced that: Mummy needed a break.
'She's going off for a while',.he said
Then he kicked me under the table urging me to pick the ball up and bounce it cheerfully.
'Yes I thought I'd take a few weeks off.' I stammered.
'Oh longer than that, darling. A couple of months at least. We don't need you back here before the boys come home at Christmas. You take your time.
I couldn't speak. My voice had packed up and gone on ahead.
'I could visit Uncle Eddie in Florida, then maybe go up to New York - just wherever the fancy takes me.' I improvised brightly, willing my voice not to break in mid-sentence.
'Cool,' said Jules.
'Will you get me some American football shirts?' he added.
'Hey don't cry, mum,' said Harry,
'We'll be fine - you don't need to worry about us.'
I wiped my tears. Silly boy. That was the problem.
One of Jack's main arguments for boarding school was that all that ritual bullying, buggery and bad food 'was character building and made one independent'.
He was proven right. The boys were almost men - they didn't need their mother any more - nor, it seemed, did their father.
I got their boxes ready a few weeks early. Their father booked them into soccer camp starting in mid August and then handed me an open ended air ticket.
We were all sent away.

The next man was a journalist on the Tampa Gazette who wrote one of the dreariest life-style columns I had ever read, even in the land where dreary life-style columns are king. Each week he pontificated about family life, hand-made cookies and home-spun philosophy, topped off with a little homily and a blessing on the side. A real dreck sundae.
He was like the bastard child of Martha Steward and Gerry Springer and did everything in print but sing the national bloody anthem. He got right up my nose. Smug bastard; everything solved in 800 words and back home in time for pot-roast and popcorn by the fire.
By the end of September Bill Clinton had brought the country and Monica to their collective knees. On Page 12, Section 1 of the Tampa Gazette Luca La Scala was musing on life and picking oranges from the orange grove surrounding his fake Spanish hacienda to squeeze for platitudes. He believed in the missionary position, Christian values and family suppers (prepared earlier by the Peurto Rican housekeeper), and slept safe in the knowledge that he, God and the tooth fairy had all voted Republican.
As far as Luca was concerned the President's tamudic definition of sex was most worrisome, not because it demeaned women, but because it meant his five year old daughter no longer thought that a blow job was a very bad cold: Something that vitamin C wouldn't cure no matter how many oranges he squeezed.
He prayed for Bill. Hillary prayed for Bill. Chelsea and the Rev Jesse Jackson prayed for Bill. Bill even prayed for Bill
I bucked the trend and prayed for Monica. We whores stick together.
Luca's had a small black and white picture next to his by-line - artistically cropped to make him appear sober and candid.
His wife, Elizabeth, wrote for the women's pages of the same paper. She, however, had a full-colour head and shoulders portrait. She was one of those pneumatic fifties starlet types who look like Barbie on steroids, with French manicured spatulas instead of fingernails and glossy acrylic hair extensions.
Oh - okay - I'm being bitchy, the hair was real.
On page five, section 2, she would be making holiday wreathes, bottling peaches from the orchard or arranging flowers (all prepared earlier by the Puerto Rican house-keeper) and discussing every aspect of her personal life stopping just short of Luca's bowel movements.
All that public togetherness - it made me sick.
They were so self-referential that you wondered why they didn't change the paper's name from the Tampa Gazette to Stuff About Us. It was like one of those round robin letters that people you hardly know send out at Christmas, complete with posed studio photographs:
Chuck just made MD and McKenzie (all middle class American women have surnames instead of Christian names - like public schoolboys) made partner in her Law Firm. Little Chuck junior was class valedictiorian, Home-coming King and Captain of the football team and Henderson got accepted at five ivy league colleges..
What these things never say is that Henderson is a dyke, Little Chuck Jr addicted to tranquilizers, McKenzie a neurotic control freak who everyone in her office hates and Chuck busy chucking dollars down the g-string of a lap dancer twice a week in Hogie's House of Ho.
Anyway, I read the women's pages for the cookery features - mostly of the candied-yams-and-marshmallow-tuna-noodle-surprise-casserole type of thing (the real surprise being that anyone would ever want to eat it) or one-thousand-things-to-do-with-a-glut-of-rotting-zucchini recipes, so I could hardly avoid Mrs Happy's byline.
Then it seemed only natural to turn to the main section, read Mr Happy's column and seethe. I rather enjoyed hating them both. I gave me a break from myself.
He always published his e-mail number at the bottom of his column so that Baptists could write in and congratulate him on being the voice of reason. So one day, maybe a week after José had gone - after I'd told Eddie my life story and called three toll free numbers telling the firms that their truck drivers drove like Hizbollah suicide bombers - I dropped him a line.
Dear Mr La Scala, I began politely
Ever since I arrived here in Tampa, I have been struck by how often you and your wife Elizabeth talk about each other in print.
I wondered if perhaps you live in a very large house and can't find each other. Maybe you should institute an appointment system and have a conversation now and again,
Melanie Fortesque.
Quicker than a speeding bullet the reply was blinking in my in tray.
Dear Ms Fortesque,
If you were, say, the sort of person who didn't have a meaningful life of your own - the kind of pathetic little dork who had nothing better to do with their sad, empty life than write whingy letters to newspaper columnists, you might appreciate that by sharing our lives with our readership - my wife and I fulfil an important function in the local community.
However, since it is clear you have a full, rewarding life - I can understand how you might find our columns tedious. I therefore suggest you just don't read them.
Luca La Scala
Ouch. That hurt. I looked in the bathroom mirror where each morning I cleansed, toned and exfoliated with the girlfriend's beauty products. Indeed I was that kind of dork. And I had open pores.
Of course, back home, I had had my own share of cranky letters from readers. Mostly men who thought my attitude to food wasn't reverential enough, and my recipes too slap dash. When men start to cook they think it's fucking art, but when women do it - it's survival.
Right from the start I wanted to write about real food that didn't involve getting up at dawn and picking wild mushrooms in the local forest. I grew up in a council estate where the single tree was a public urinal for Dr Moreauish mongorel dogs, and wild mushrooms just the fungus growing on the bathroom wall. I had no time for all that pretentious farting around. I wrote for women who microwaved, defrosted, burnt the stew, dropped the spaghetti down the sink and who, just occasionally, wanted to prepare something wonderful without too much sweat.
In the new testament of American family values according to Saint Luca and Our Lady Elizabeth, the art of cooking is something that should be passed down from mother to daughter in cosy, kitchen bonding sessions. If this was the case I'd be an expert at boiling mince and running to hide burnt pans at the bottom of the garden before god the father came home from work and smelled the smoke. As a child we ate an awful lot of hurriedly scrambled eggs.
Though after he died, we didn't eat a whole lot of anything until I learned how to use a tin opener, and later, how to scramble the eggs myself.
So, I found it easy to ignore these stuffed shirt purists who wrote and told me that I hadn't specified which country the paprika should come from for the Hungarian goulash - like anybody really gives a damn. Anything from the United Federation of Schwartz is good enough for me.
I loved the postcards from women in Peterborough who told me my recipes were every bit as good as Mark's and Spencers, and a lot cheaper. I treasured the little letters people would send me with details of their lives, telling me how much they enjoyed a particular dish, and when they'd cooked it. There was a real sense of sisterhood. We were all out there, fed up with fish but frying it anyway - turning a chore into a skill.
Who cared about the crazies - Mr Lemon up his Ass insisting that his pasta should freshly rolled between the thighs of a Napolean maiden.
Well, I didn't. I just ignored them. Until I too became one of the dreadful alien breed of ranting, dorks from Dorkchester.
Somewhat subdued, I wrote back:
'Ouch,' I said.
Then rallied:
However, if, say - I am the kind of pathetic little dork who has nothing better to do with my sad empty life than write whingey letters to newspaper columnists' and even I find you boring, then you must be pretty bad - right?'
'Wrong.' he replied.
Who died and left you in charge of the Pulitzer Prize anyway? In fact, if you can bear to flirt with boredom, just one last time, you'll see that we don't continually write about ourselves - momentarily I mean to talk about the true meaning of the holidays. A message you might benefit from.
Oh well, I thought. I stand corrected.
The holidays - you mean you're going to bang on about Christmas spirit in September? Are you this premature in all your ejaculations?'
P.S. According to my dictionary momentarily means short lived - so do you mean you are going to write about in for just a second - or is grammar only important in English newspapers.
There was a few days silence after that remark.
'I meant of course Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving.' he said eventually, making no mention of the little Americanism which, together with de-planed, .... and .... had been bugging me since I got here. Shop assistants, who couldn't be bothered to serve you, were always going to be with you 'momentarily', though it said more about their attention span than their punctuality.
Thanksgiving, I know about. Although we don't have it in England, even I get that concept - Giving - Thanks - though this year I have a little less to be thankful for than you and Mrs de Luca in Shangri-La newspaper land.
But Hallowe'en - does that really qualify as a holiday? What are you celebrating - candy corn, scarey costumes - the walking dead? I asked. 'Only in America...'
'So what - you're British?' he replied. And then it all got very predictable - Benny Hill, Basil Fawlty, Tea and Scones - and that's before we even got to Scotland. Then we had shortbread, 'Scawtch', tartan, Braveheart 'I loved that movie' and the 'the guy I go sailing with comes from Stirling - maybe you know him...'
Suddenly I had a brand new penpall in Tampa, just a half hour up the coast from Pittola.
I'm not, no really, I'm not - into married guys, despite what my recent history might lead you to believe. I met Jack when I was eighteen and was married to him by the age of twenty. The rest was non-stop conjugal fidelity, until last year anyway. Jose was between wives when we met - and as for the internet adulterers scattered across middle America -they don't count. There was no real exchange of body fluids - according to the President of the United States of America, and you can't get much higher than that, it can't even be classed as sex.
But Luca was very publically married - Jeez you saw people riding buses reading about his marriage. You bought stories about his marriage for two quarters from those automatic newstands on the street.
However, Luca had one very important quality. He was a writer. He could type.
There is nothing less sexy in cybersex than a man who can't touch type and who keeps erasing his mistakes, on screen, and labouriously rewriting them.
What r u wari
Qhat r u wearing
What r u weariml
It makes you want to scream - oh for fucks sake - 'I'm wearing a pair of black panties and a lace up corset'. (Though, of course, you're in one of your brother's undershirts, a pair of pyjama trousers with ketchup stains from the hot dog you're eating, and your feet are covered in green slimey seaweed stuff from Avon's Beatutiful Feet Collection.)
But you know they'll only stagger on
'a pear of vla, black, pantiles, pranties....'
until you are left in no doubt why they're using a computer for sex instead of picking up women in bars.
They're all dislexically hanging around in lingerie stores trying to buy women drinks while they shop for 38DD foundation garments.
Luca was the only man I met who could type faster than me, even one handed - or so he claimed...
We quickly went from mutual insults to:
'what's a nice lady like you doing in a bad place like Pittola?'
To which I answered that I was visiting relatives, without mentioning that the relative in question was three thousand miles north, teaching survival skills to a bunch of crackpots in Seattle and not expected back for a month or so.
'Have you gone around - down to the Keys, Up to Orlando, over to Palm Beach?
Yeah, well I'd seen a lot of Palm Bloody Beach, that's for sure.
I explained that I didn't go out too much - that it was a working vacation. I said that I was a cookery writer and that I was trying to write a book. What the hell - what difference was one more lie going to make amongst so many of it's predecesors?
I haven't even been as far as Tampa, I said.
Why not come up one day next week and let me take you to lunch? We have some great restaurants here. Do you like Italian?
What is it with all these guys trying to buy you food when all they really want is a fuck? Anyway, it was easy to decline the invitation. There was no way I could even begin to think of driving as far as Tampa. The one and only time I'd attempted the journey I had to stop in a weigh station and call the local police to take me back home. I got hopelessly lost in the tangle of slip roads, tunnels and overpasses that made up the highway which snaked through the suburbs.
The policeman who drove me back thought it was the funniest thing he's heard in years:
'Yes ma'am - it ain't everyday I get called out to the highway for a damsel in distress - especially a real pretty English damsel.'
Though when I gave him my address is Pittola, it kind of wiped the smile off his face.
'You shouldn't be living out here all alone in the Pitts, ma'am. I hope you got good locks on your doors.'
He wanted to come in and check my doors and windows but I though the sight of Eddie's mercenary gear - which at that time was still scattered across the living room - might have troubled him. Not to mention the size of the arsenal stacked against the cellar walls. I had enough hardware downstairs to see off the Sandinistas. Not that I could even aim a water pistol straight. But fear didn't keep me awake at night. Pretty much nothing kept me awake at night after three bottles of Blueberry peach beer.
'I can't come to Tampa, I don't have a car,' I said.
'No problem' said Luca. 'I'll send a limo.'
'What to Pittola?' I stammered.
'Sure - give me your address. Let's say Wednesday? We'll go to Vittorio's - you'll love it. The car'll pick you up at a quarter of twelve - okay?'
'Okay,' I replied weakly, ' Americans eat so early - I'm hardly out of bed by eleven. I would have to get up a bit earlier that morning to leave enough time for the Avon three steps to beautiful skin routine, a soak in Stop N Shop Spa bath treatment, and a quick swipe with Eddie's razor. I guess the girlfriend must have waxed because they only had really pungent smelling Pamolive shaving foam, but I didn't expect Luca was going to get within sniffing distance of my legs.
Not on a first date, anyway.