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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'....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
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
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
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,
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
'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
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 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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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 -
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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.