*Features adult language and themes.*
“Where would you go for lunch in Soho if someone else was paying?”
Martha had looked up at him with a look of surprise on her face. “Oh, I don’t know. Let me think.”
She thinks I’m asking her out to lunch.
“Hix is good. L’Escargot is a classic, not as popular as it used to be, but still good quality. Satin is probably the most trendy place to go at the moment. Virtually impossible to get a reservation.”
“A reservation won’t be a problem. At least it won’t be my problem, the newspaper is paying.”
“Yes, the Observer want an interview for their Sunday supplement.”
“That sounds good.” Martha’s tone was cold and dismissive.
“You’re more than welcome to come, we can make it a double interview.” I know she’ll refuse. The time was she’d have snapped my arm off for a free lunch.
“That’s very nice of you to offer, darling, but I have plans I’m afraid.”
‘Plans.’ Never heard it called that before. “Anything fun?”
“No, not particularly. The charity has a meeting, we’re trying to organise another fund raiser for the summer season. I don’t know what’s wrong with people, they aren’t donating like they used to.”
Probably something to do with the global recession. People like to eat and keep a roof over their head rather than give money so some over-privileged tosser can recite Shakespeare via rap.
Martha had moved out of theatre production after a successful decade. Once Kurt had established himself in the UK, she decided that it was undignified for the wife of a minor celebrity to work. She started a charity to support local theatres and became an upper class beggar. She went from one socialite party to another asking for money in the most roundabout and polite ways possible. Her motto became: ‘A millionaire’s loose change can do a lot of good.’
Kurt didn’t doubt the motto but he couldn’t help thinking there were more pressing concerns than community theatre.
Kurt had taken her advice and told the paper he wanted to meet the interviewer at Satin in Soho. They said it was fine and got back to him quickly with a time for the reservation. Either Satin wasn’t as exclusive as Martha thought, or the Observer had decent pull.
He turned up early and was seated at a discreetly private table. He ordered a whiskey straight and downed it as soon as it arrived. He chewed some gum to try and break up the smell of it on his breath.
Looking around the restaurant it was clear to see why Martha liked it. The furniture was expensive because it was horribly uncomfortable, the chairs were low and the back support reclined at a strange angle. The tables were short too. Everything was panelled in heavy dark wood that had been luxuriously polished. Big swathes of satin cloth hung from the ceiling and curled around to the walls making them look like massive butterfly wings. He felt that if he left now without eating anything he would be presented with a bill for the time he’d spent there.
Maybe Martha’s fucking with me. This place looks a bit weird. Then again it’s very her. I bet she’s been here before. I wonder who she was with?
Kurt couldn’t help looking around at the patrons. They were very much part of Martha’s set. They all looked bored. It seemed that having any outward emotional expression would have been horribly common. If anyone was enjoying their food, they certainly weren’t letting their faces know about it.
I wonder if any of these people know Martha? I wonder if Martha has fucked anyone else in this room? He found himself wondering this more and more lately. Kurt knew that she was cheating. Martha knew that Kurt knew. They both resolutely ignored the things that they knew.
Martha had been pushing it though. She had become less and less discreet about her activities. In Kurt’s mind the phrase ‘fund raiser’ had become code for adultery.
A waiter came over leading an attractive woman to the table. She was very tall with short blonde hair and dressed in a very professional trouser suit.
She seems to be trying everything possible to deny her femininity. Despite the two huge giveaways right in front of her.
Kurt stood, doing his best to get out of the low chair with his dignity intact. He failed. They shock hands and sat back down.
“Nice to meet you Kurt, my name is Caitlyn. This seems like a very nice restaurant.”
“Pleasure to meet you Caitlyn. Yes, it is interesting. I haven’t been here before, my wife recommended it.”
“I’m sure she has excellent taste.”
“So she keeps telling me.” Kurt smiled.
Caitlyn took a voice recorder out of her pocket and waved it gently at Kurt. “OK if I use this?”
“Of course. Would you like to order a drink or something to eat first?”
“Sure.” The waiter came to the table as if summoned by telepathy. They ordered then tried to relax into each others company. Caitlyn opened a leather portfolio in front of her and took up a pen. “You don’t mind if refer to my notes?”
“Course not.” Kurt looked at the wad of paper. “Looks like you have plenty of info on me already. Sure we need to do an interview?”
Caitlyn smiled back at him, but it never reached her eyes. “There’s plenty that people don’t know about you Kurt. In fact, no offence, but a lot of people didn’t know a thing about you until ‘How to be Happy’ started.”
“No offence taken at all. I’m very pleased with how H-T-B-H as been received. It’s always nice to play to a larger audience. It gives me the opportunity to help more people.”
“Have you seen these yet?” Caitlyn slid a button badge over the table to him. It was yellow with a smiley face on it. With the words ‘How to be Happy’ running around the outside. “Self magazine are offering them to subscribers so people can identify who’s following your advice. They think it will help people link up in the real world and discuss the issues you raise in your column.”
Kurt picked up the badge. “I haven’t seen it, no. Seems like a good idea. I’ll have to keep an eye out.” I get 5p for every one sold.
“I guess I’d like to know a little more about how you got started in the ‘self-help’ business.”
Trying to act at ease, Kurt leaned back in the chair, expecting some support and not getting any. He tried to pull himself forward again without it looking awkward. “Well, like all good career moves, I just fell into it. I didn’t set out to do it. My career found me. The full explanation turns into a bit of a life story sort of thing. Are you interested in that?”
“Sure. I want our readers to get to know you a bit more. We’re after the man behind the advice.”
“OK. Well, I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. I’m an only child. My parents were exceptional people with quite mundane lives. They didn’t have high flying jobs or any expectations beyond paying the mortgage and having enough money to eat and go on occasional holidays out of state. They raised me with a very balanced outlook on life. I never expected very much and got pleasure out of small things. I never had a plan and I never expected to leave the town I grew up in.
“In my late teens and early twenties I worked in a local coffee shop and when I was old enough the bar in town. It’s a bit of a cliche, but people have a strange habit of sitting in these places and telling their server all their problems. Coffee shops are like the regular persons version of therapy. Bars even more so because of the alcohol.
“My friends used to come in for drinks and tell me about their lives, their jobs, family and of course, their problems. I would listen to them, and it seemed to help them out. Over time I began to give them bits and pieces of advice. Now, bear in mind I have no formal qualifications. I am not and have never claimed to be a phsycologist, sociologist or anything of the sort. I never had any specialised education or training. I just used the worldview given to me by my parents and my own life experiences, as limited as they might have been, to advise my friends as best I could.”
“So you were just a nice sociable, small town guy trying to help his friends out?”
“Pretty much.” I remember it well. It’s the one time in my entire career when all I was interested in was helping people.
“So how did that turn into a career?”
“It’s hard to say, really. It was a small town. I wasn’t the only guy people were talking to. Turns out my advice was quite useful to a few of my friends and they passed my name along. Soon I had perfect strangers coming into the bar to pour their hearts out to me and ask for my help.
“Well, I was taken aback to start with, but I couldn’t refuse people in need. It was quite a thrill. All these people cared about what I thought. They wanted, some of them needed, my interpretation of their issues and my solutions.
“A few people were so pleased with my advice that they offered me money for my time. I never asked for it. But I also didn’t refuse it.”
“So it just grew from there? You started giving advice and people sought you out. Seems a little odd. Why would complete strangers ask for your advice?”
“They weren’t complete strangers in the usual sense. It was a very small town. The sort of town where everyone knows everybody else’s business. People would come to see me and introduce themselves by how they were linked to my family.
“Course, the bar owner wasn’t all that impressed to see me raking a load of money in without getting a slice of it himself. So he set up a back room and started charging people to sit down with me. Again. It wasn’t my idea, but I didn’t object. I just thought I was helping people. I never knew you could earn money by helping people.” I never knew you could earn even more by pretending to help people either, but I learned quickly.
“After a while the local paper caught hold of the story and offered me a weekly article. You know, people writing in and me responding.”
“Didn’t people feel a little odd about asking someone so young for advice? I mean, how could you hope to help people a lot older than yourself with problems you hadn’t experienced?”
“I know. I asked myself that question too. I even said that to a few of them. They told me that my perspective on things was different. It put a new spin on what they were facing. That’s something that has been essential through my whole career. I don’t offer conventional advice. My way of looking at the world is just different to most people. I look at problems and see opportunities. That’s the basis of it all. I’ve always been a positive person.”
“How did it move on from there?”
“By the time I was 23 I had the newspaper column and I did talks around the local towns. I was earning quite a comfortable living. After one of the shows an agent from New York approached me and said I could do bigger venues in towns and cities.
“Once I had the backing of a professional agent it all snowballed. I found myself touring along the East coast of America.”
“So what bought you to the UK?”
“It’s a who actually. I met my wife in New York on my tour. That’s a sweet story actually…”
* * *
The interview lasted a few hours. Kurt had always been good at turning on the charm with interviewers. By the end Caitlyn had warmed to him and they even chatted for a while over drinks once she’d turned the recorder off.
It would have been so easy to find a hotel and sleep with her.
But that was impossible.
The whole reason women warmed to him was his persona. They liked the self-help Kurt. The guy that just wants to help. The kind caring Kurt that doesn’t care about the money or success. The one that wants to help others find the happiness he has.
Shame he doesn’t exist.
It had been strange thinking about the early days. He remembered the thrill of people twice his age asking him for help. It made him feel proud. It made him feel powerful.
That power was addictive. It’s embarrassing how quickly I lost my way. I have trouble believing I started out trying to help.
Kurt got a cab home. He was well lubricated. He’d found a bar and drank alone for a few hours once Caitlyn made her excuses and left, not before handing him her card with her phone number underlined.
The house lights were on when he got back, he paid the driver and tipped like only an American can. Everyone in the UK loved an American that didn’t drop the tipping culture. Kurt no longer did it out of habit. He had for the first few months he lived in London, then he’d stopped. Once he became a recognisable face he started again. Everybody remembers a good celebrity tipper.
I have to be seen to be generous. That’s why I have to be seen to listen to the driver’s chat as well. God, they go on.
After a bit of fumbling he managed to get his key into the lock and flopped through the door.
Home sweet home. I can do whatever the fuck I want now.
Kurt put his keys in a bowl on a table in the hallway. A sickly sweet smell hit the back of his throat. There was a vase of fresh flowers on the table too. He couldn’t remember seeing them before he went out.
There was no card, but they still had the clear wrapping on them.
Going through to the living room he heard Martha talking on the phone. Her voice was suspiciously low.
“Hello, Honey!” Kurt shouted with over exaggerated theatricality.
Martha spoke into the phone. “Hold on a moment.” Then to Kurt. “Hello, darling. Have you enjoyed a drink or two this afternoon.” It wasn’t a question. “I’m just talking to Cynthia, I’ll be off the phone in a bit.”
Kurt waved a hand at her and collapsed on the sofa. Martha put the phone to her ear and left the room. “I’m back. Yes of course I can come over, if you want me to. I’ll bring all of the fund raising paperwork, we can look it over together…”
Kurt enjoyed the feeling as the room spun around his head. He closed his eyes, but he could still feel it moving.
‘Fund raising’ huh? Bitch.
Next thing he knew Martha was in the doorway of the living room in her coat holding a pile of folders. “Cynthia is having trouble with Harold again. I’m going over to have a natter. We can look over the charity papers too, while I’m there.”
Kurt grunted a response.
“Don’t wait up for me. You know what she’s like when she’s distressed.” She turned and left.
As if anything could distress that harpy.
He couldn’t remember going to sleep, but he woke up a while later. The house was still empty. His head was throbbing. He went over to pour himself a drink and noticed the phone blinking, it had a message. He played it.
“Hello Martha, it’s Cynthia…”
Bitch. She didn’t even call her to arrange an alibi. That’s just lazy.
Kurt picked up the bottle and went back to the sofa with the phone and turned on the TV. He dialled a number from memory. “Hi Brian, it’s Burt. What matches are on tonight?… I don’t care if it’s half-time, I can still make a bet… A grand on United.
By the end of the match the bottle was empty and Kurt was asleep.
Many thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to comment below.