The food of love isn’t music. It’s grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.
As the waiter set the plate down in front of me, I could see that the tomato had sunk down into the cheese, creating an edible sculpture in the shape of a heart. It seemed appropriate for the occasion.
Outside, it was the sort of crispy, clear winter day that you get occasionally even in England, beautiful and sunny, without a hint of a cloud. It was the season of white lace doilies and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and teddy bears that squawked mawkish sentiments when you pressed their distended tummies. In other words, it was almost Valentine’s Day, and I had decided to do a little matchmaking of my own. Why should Cupid have all the fun? My boyfriend’s sister was desperately in need of a romantic intervention.
Boyfriend. It still boggled my mind that I had one. I was very aware of Colin’s arm draped casually over the back of my chair, as though it had always belonged there. It gave me a weird little thrill to realize that we were the established couple here, beaming benevolently upon the singles.
It was hard to remember that a mere three months ago both my personal and professional life had been scraping rock bottom. Like many a historian before me, I had come to England on academic pilgrimage, worshipping at that altar of scholarship, the British Library, with its multitudinous manuscript collections, in the hopes that the great god of the archives would prove merciful and shower footnotes down upon me. Surely, I had thought with all the boundless optimism of the fourth-year graduate student, the mere fact that scholars had been through those documents time and again didn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t find anything new. Those scholars hadn’t been me.
Which, in retrospect, probably meant that they were better qualified, but that only occurred to me once it was already too late to turn back.
I should have known something was wrong when my advisor’s parting words were Good luck. To his credit, he had—very gently—suggested that I might want to consider a different sort of topic. But I didn’t want to consider another topic. I was madly in love with my topic: “Aristocratic Espionage during the Wars with France, 1789- 1815.” It had dash, it had swash, it had buckle.
It also had no primary sources. My life would have been much easier had I followed my advisor’s suggestion and looked more closely into the careers of those men who spied for England under government auspices, and thus might reasonably be expected to show up in government dispatches and payrolls. That was far too easy. What I intended to unravel were the networks of independent adventurers, those daring souls who had struck out on their own for King and country, using their family connections and the benefit of independent income to create elaborate bouquets of flower-named spies: the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the League of the Purple Gentian, and finally, the most intriguing of the them all, the League of the Pink Carnation.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? I had arrived in London in September. By November, my fingernails were all gone, chewed to the quick. I had no footnotes; I had no dissertation. I was stranded in a country where the sun sets at four and I was never ever going to get an academic job, much less a tenure-track one.
They always say execution clarifies the mind wonderfully. So does the prospect of law school. I made one last desperate attempt. I sent out letters to all the known descendants of the Purple Gentian and the Scarlet Pimpernel, politely asking if I might please, pretty, pretty please, have access to any family papers they didn’t mind showing to a humble little Harvard student.
Have I mentioned that Colin is a direct descendant of Lord Richard Selwick, also known as the Purple Gentian?
Three months later, I was still reeling over my good fortune. I had enough footnotes to make my advisor’s eyes go pop; I had been given access to archival material the likes of which I had never dared to dream existed; and I was dating someone who could make my heart do a little tap dance simply by showing up in the room. I was so happy, it was scary.
Oh, I still suffered from the usual slings and arrows to which flesh is heir, like the Tube breaking down on me every other morning and the British Library cafeteria serving potato soup three days in a row. There were also the looming clouds of larger worries, like the fact that, although Colin claimed to be writing a spy novel, I still wasn’t convinced that his so-called research on the subject was entirely fictional in nature.
Colin’s great-great-great-grandparents had founded a school for spies; from what little he had let slip, his father had carried on in the family tradition, under the auspices of the army. Not to mention that Colin had been more than usually resistant to my poking around in his family’s past. Nothing more than that fabled British reticence? Perhaps. But I couldn’t quite exorcise the nagging feeling that there might be something more to it. The spy novel story was just a little too pat. If you were a spy looking for a cover story, wouldn’t the best cover be just that, a story? On the other hand, maybe I was just out-clevering myself, building up complications where there were none. Not like I’d ever done that to myself before.
When Colin hit the Times bestseller list, I’d be the first in line applauding.
Even leaving aside all the cloak-and-dagger stuff, there were practical problems on the horizon. Colin’s life was based three quarters in Sussex and one quarter in London, while I was due to return to Cambridge—the American one—in May.
But it was only February now. May felt a very long time away. I could deal with May when I got there. And in the meantime, I had extended visits with Colin both in London and Sussex, a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on my plate, and a full cup of coffee in front of me, with free refills to come. Life was good. Life was very, very good.
It only seemed fair to pass some of the happiness along.
I beamed across the table at Colin’s sister, Serena, who was doing a very good job of toying with her salad without actually eating any of it. Next to her, Colin’s friend Martin was devouring his pasta Bolognese as though personally determined to eat enough for both of them.
That wasn’t exactly how I had planned for lunch to go when I decided to take Serena up as my personal project.
It wasn’t that Serena was frumpy or dowdy or any of the usual devices of those teen movies where the more popular girl takes on the plainer one and makes her into prom queen. When it came to sartorial sense, Serena was several steps ahead of me. She had that fragile thinness so beloved of fashion magazines and whoever those cruel people are who create designer jeans: long, elegant bones with only the bare rudiments of skin over them. Her hair was long and soft and shiny and naturally straight and her face had the sorts of interesting hollows one gets from weighing about twenty percent below one’s recommended body weight. She was the sort of girl whose hair never frizzes and whose skirt never gets rumpled.
She was also painfully shy, borderline anorexic, potentially bulimic, and a disaster when it came to dealing with men.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Serena was an emotional train wreck. She might be an aesthetically pleasing and sweet-natured train wreck, but those are the most dangerous kind. Their looks attract all sorts of bottom-feeding predators, while their innate gentleness of spirit makes it impossible for them to stand up for themselves (see bottom-feeding predators, above). Her last boyfriend, whom I had had the misfortune to meet, had been a classic example of the type. He had used her and dumped her, but not before taking the opportunity to deliver a few more completely gratuitous blows to Serena’s already tottering self-esteem.
Serena needed a massive ego boost. And I, in my infinite matchmaking wisdom, had decided that boost was Martin.
If you’re wondering why I was taking such a touching concern in my very recent boyfriend’s sister, I’d like to claim it’s because I’m such a nice person. And I usually do like to think of myself as at least a reasonably nice person—I don’t kick puppies or cut the tails off kittens, and when I remember to, I generally slip some spare change into the Salvation Army collection box. But in this case, my interest was less altruism than self-defense. There’s nothing like competing for your boyfriend’s attention with an emotionally needy sibling to make you feel like the worst sort of evil psycho-bitch.
I know, I know. We’re supposed to be glad when the men we’re dating show a proper sense of concern for their fellow family members. It shows a heartwarming sense of responsibility and says good things about their potential husbanding skills. In the short term, however, it’s a pain in the ass. It was not that I wished Serena ill. Quite the contrary. I wanted her to be as happy as I was, so that when Colin and I went to parties, I wouldn’t have to worry whether she was going to have a meltdown in the middle of it.
Easier said than done.
I looked across the table, where Serena and Martin were doing a pretty good impression of two strangers at a Tube station, shoulders a safe twelve inches apart, profiles carefully averted. God forbid any spontaneous eye contact might occur. From there it was just a slippery slope to conversation. And heaven only knew what that might lead to. Nothing less than the fall of the British Empire, I was sure. Oh, wait, that had already happened.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Colin’s friend Martin was another of your common garden-variety emotional disaster areas. Just this past November, he had been dumped by the girlfriend he had met during his first week at University lo these many years ago. Martin was a broken man. From what Colin had said, I gathered that he was brilliant at accountancy, but after seven years of cohabitation, things like picking his own socks sent him into a full-blown panic attack.
Serena would choose lovely socks for him. After all, she worked in a gallery. After dealing with Degas and Renoir, the question of argyle or solid would be like a walk in the park. And it might, I had thought, be rather pleasant for each to have someone else to look after for a change. Serena could fuss over Martin and Colin wouldn’t have to keep fussing over her. It would be perfect.
Ha. It could have been perfect. I had forgotten that I was setting up two finalists in Britain’s Most Reserved Person contest. I bet they didn’t even talk to themselves in the mirror at home, much less to other people. At the moment, each was doing a fairly good job of pretending the other didn’t exist. My brilliant idea was tanking faster than the Hindenburg.
I didn’t even need to look over at Colin to read the I-told-you-so there. When I had broached the plan, his reply had been, manlike, “If anything were to happen between them, wouldn’t it just happen?”
Sometimes, guys just have no clue at all.
It was rather sweet, really. Adorably naïve, even. Our relationship had “just happened” in much the same way as the Treaty of Versailles had just happened, after months of plotting, scheming, maneuvering, and significant reversals.
Like I said, rather sweet really.
“So, Martin,” I asked, in the overly loud voice you use when asking friends’ children about school, “how is work going?”
“Not bad,” he said. It might have been the most positive statement I had ever heard him make.
“What is it exactly that you do?” I urged, leaning slightly forward in my chair and trying to feign an expression of interest in the hopes that it would inspire Serena to do the same. It inspired Serena to undertake a careful inspection of her arugula. “I’m not sure Colin’s ever told me.”
He told me. As my eyes glazed over, I wondered if that had really been quite the right technique. Asking an accountant to explain—in depth—what he does for a living isn’t the sort of move calculated to cause the impressionable to swoon. Not the right kind of swoon, at any rate. The arugula was far more interesting.
But perhaps Serena didn’t think so. As I snuck a peek at her averted face, her eyes suddenly lit up like the Fourth of July. A becoming hint of color bloomed in her cheeks and the hollows under her eyes didn’t seem quite so pronounced as usual.
I’d never seen anyone react that way to accounting principles before, but, hey, if it worked for Serena . . .
It wasn’t the accounting. Half-rising from her chair, Serena angled her wrist in a tentative wave. Martin petered to a belated stop. Scraping my chair around, I saw Colin’s friend Nick loping his way towards us.
“Hello, all,” said Nick, dragging up a chair from another table and plunking himself unceremoniously down into it. “How goes it?”
Our table was quite definitely meant for four—a cozy four—but that didn’t bother Nick. He cheerfully tilted backwards in his purloined chair, blocking the aisle.
An outraged waiter made a noise that wanted to be a growl when it grew up. Hearing it, Nick glanced up and raised a casual hand. “I’ll have a coffee. And can you toss me a menu? Cheers.”
Frigidly, the waiter handed over a menu with only a little less ceremony than Lord Lytton presiding at the official durbar proclaiming Queen Victoria Empress of India.
Letting his chair rock forward with a clunk, Nick flicked open the menu, leaving the waiter with no choice but to retreat, speechless, to the nether regions of the kitchen to procure the desired caffeinated beverage. I presume he spat in it a few times in the privacy of the kitchen.
I felt like spitting myself. Serena wasn’t supposed to be twinkling for Nick; she was supposed to be twinkling for Martin.
Aside from the fact that she and Martin were Just Perfect for Each Other (if only they would wake up and realize it), I was pretty sure our mutual friend Pammy had designs on Nick. That was all I needed, for Serena to get herself mashed flat in Pammy’s wake. And we all knew what that meant: Colin having to swoop in to pick up the pieces again, while I gritted my teeth and did my best to be patient and understanding. Even though she might be technically the prettier of the two, Serena didn’t stand a chance against Pammy. No one did. Pammy was the romantic equivalent of an artillery barrage. There was nothing to do but dive for cover as soon as you saw it—I mean, her—coming. Resistance was futile.
Pammy had tried to impress the wisdom of this approach upon me, but I had proved a poor student in that. I was more of the princess-in-tower school of dating, where you drop your hair out the tower window and desperately hope your chosen prince will take the hint and choose to climb up. If he doesn’t, you hastily coil your hair back up, retreat into the tower, and pretend you never meant it in the first place. Hair, what hair? Never seen that hair in my life.
I leaned more comfortably into the crook of Colin’s arm, marveling at the wonder of having an arm to lean into. Under those circumstances, it was hard to get too worked up about Nick’s gate-crashing.