Pip

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Pip


FREYA NORTH Pip


Copyright

   This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.

   Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF

   

   First published in Great Britain

    by William Heinemann 2003

   Copyright © Freya North 2003

   Afterword © Freya North 2012

   The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

   ‘The Tears of a Clown’. Words and Music by Stevie Wonder, William Robinson and Henry Cosby © 1967, Jobete Music Co, Inc./Black Bull Music, Inc., USA. Reproduced by permission of Black Bull Music Inc., Jobete Music Co., London WC2H 0QY. All rights Reserved

   A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

   Source ISBN: 9780007462254

   Ebook Edition © June 2012 ISBN: 9780007462261

   Version: 2017-11-28

   FIRST EDITION

   All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

   For Mum and Dad

   We never know the love of our parents for us till we have become parents.

   Now I know! Thank you.

   ‘Clowns work as well as aspirin,but twice as fast

   Groucho Marx

   Table of Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

ONE

   ‘There’s really not that much difference between lap dancing and doing what I do,’ Pip McCabe proclaimed in a very matter-of-fact way over a robust but imaginative dinner that her uncle Django had spent the afternoon preparing in celebration of his three nieces’ weekend visit home to Derbyshire. Django spooned a large portion of something alarmingly beige on to his plate and appeared to contemplate it at length. In fact, he was considering his eldest niece’s words, wondering if he’d misheard, wondering if Pip had changed jobs; wondering, basically, what on earth he was going to do with her. Pip’s two younger sisters, Fen and Cat, sniggered into their semolina. Django had proudly called it ‘polenta’. But that was imaginative both with the truth and with the ingredients of the dish itself.

   The three sisters tactfully referred to it as ‘polenta’ because they, too, were being imaginative with the truth as well as heedful of the chef’s sensitivities. Having been brought up single-handedly by their uncle Django, the McCabe girls were well accustomed to his eccentricities and loved him all the more because of them. He devoted the same imaginative attention to idiosyncratic detail in his dress sense as to his cooking. The sisters saw nothing untoward about pea soup with tuna and stilton, or rhubarb crumble with Jelly Babies instead of rhubarb. They had never gone hungry and their taste buds had developed a commendable and valuable robustness. Nor did they think it odd that a man in his late sixties should dress in the souvenirs of his colourful past. Today, as Django dolloped polenta on to his plate and enlivened it with a hearty slosh of Henderson’s Relish, he tucked his paisley cravat (he’d partied with the Kinks in the 1960s) into his cambric shirt, and loosened the enormous buckled belt he’d acquired at some free festival or other, currently holding together a pair of jeans Clint Eastwood would have coveted for a Spaghetti Western.

   ‘Philippa,’ he said, chewing thoughtfully, ‘I implore you to elaborate.’

   ‘Not much difference at all, really, between lap dancing and my line of work,’ Pip mused whilst masticating. ‘Same attention to make-up, same use and abuse of one’s body. Strutting one’s stuff for money. Having often ghastly punters to deal with. Always being gawped at. I’m pretty much a painted lady, too – quite literally.’

   Her family regarded her. Everyone chewed. They all thought to themselves that they were sure polenta was meant to melt in the mouth, not glue the hinges of the jaw together. If Jamie Oliver was to be believed. It tasted good, though, and surely that was the point.

   ‘It’s a new take on polenta,’ Django reasoned out loud. ‘A polenta for the Millennium.’ Privately they each wondered how long he could credit (or blame) his experiments in the kitchen on the Millennium. As his jaw worked energetically, his mind turned to the vagaries of his niece’s career.

   ‘The main difference between my work and lap dancing,’ said Pip, holding her fork aloft for good measure, ‘is the working hours. Because, of course, I tend to work days and not nights.’

   The McCabes observed with awe how the polenta on Pip’s fork defied both gravity and her expressive hand movements to adhere with such determination.

   ‘Surely the main difference,’ Django said, sipping sherry from a teacup because he had used the sherry glasses earlier to measure olive oil and Tabasco, ‘is that you wear substantially more clothes when you perform.’

   Django, Fen and Cat were momentarily unnerved by the fact that Pip’s confirmation was not immediate.

   ‘Yes,’ she responded at length, ‘and no.’

   ‘No?’ Fen asked.

   ‘No?’ Cat echoed but with a raised tone.

   ‘No!’ Django boomed as an order, not a question.

   ‘I’ve modified my motley,’ Pip shrugged. ‘Somewhat skimpier – it’s spring, after all.’

   ‘God, I wonder whether to move back,’ Cat said, with an audible lump in her throat, as the sisters journeyed by train away from rural Derbyshire and Django, back down to their lives in London.

   ‘Listen, it’s still very early days for you,’ said Fen, thinking that actually Cat’s split with her odious boyfriend hadn’t come a moment too soon. ‘Why don’t you see how you feel after the summer? After all, it’s been a long-held ambition for you to follow the Tour de France as a journalist – give it your all.’

   ‘God,’ Cat sighed. Her dream-come-true was now more like a nightmare-in-waiting, such was the low ebb of her self-esteem.

   Pip regarded her youngest sister and decided in an instant that humour was essential. ‘Think of all those bronzed thighs, all that testosterone, the lashings of Lycra!’ Cat couldn’t help but giggle. Pip felt she could now introduce a little common sense. ‘You’ve wanted to get up close and personal for years. Here’s your chance. It’ll be an excellent opportunity for someone in your position – further your career as a sports journalist plus get over Bastardwanker. And, of course, you never know whom you might meet.’

   ‘I’m off to Paris soon myself,’ Fen announced, ‘also to be surrounded by mouth-watering male physiques. Not in Lycra on bicycles, though,’ she all but apologized to Cat.

   ‘You’re a weirdo,’ Pip teased. ‘The men you salivate over are all marble and bronze sculptures.’ Fen, an art historian, found nothing remotely weird in her penchant for the work of Rodin and his followers and she screwed up her face and poked her tongue out at Pip in protest.

   ‘Well, I have no plans for Paris or pedallers,’ Pip said in such a tone as to suggest that she wouldn’t want to cross the Channel anyway, ‘but I, too, am due to be surrounded by men.’ She opened a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps and offered them to her sisters. ‘Holloway, actually,’ she said, with such gravitas that she might well have said Hollywood. ‘I’m doing a show for a young man called Billy. And all his mates.’

TWO

   ‘Billy Billy Billy,’ Pip chants under her breath whilst putting on a hair band and laying her make-up out in front of her, ‘Billy’s the birthday boy. He’s the blond one in the Gap sweatshirt.’ She stares at her reflection in the mirror she always takes with her. She’s learned from experience not to trust other people’s mirrors – distortion, however subtle or slight, could have utterly drastic consequences. So, wherever she performs, regardless of the size of her audience, the length of her performance, the shortcomings of the venue or the fee she charges, Pip always demands of her client a changing-room with good natural light and a suitable surface other than her knees on which to prop her mirror. Today, she is in Holloway. The gentrified side; where fashionable young folk with large sums of money have been buying up the gorgeous terraces from elderly owners who paid ‘two bob’ for their homes decades ago.

   ‘Billy’s the birthday boy,’ Pip murmurs, applying her slap, ‘blond hair, Gap sweatshirt.’ She stares at her face.

   I remember, when I was fourteen and had bought my first eye-shadow – admittedly bright green – Django saying, ‘Philippa, you’re pretty enough without make-up!’

   Now look at me!

   ‘Positively garish,’ she mutters, wielding a bright red lipstick with gay abandon and adding a final flourish of powder to set the lot. She scoops her hair into two schoolgirl bunches, tying large polka-dot ribbons on each. She puckers up her lips and blows her reflection a pantomime kiss. ‘Well, this is for Billy,’ she says, standing and springing up and down as a warm-up. ‘He’d expect nothing less from me. He’s the birthday boy.’ She hops lightly from toe to toe, jiggling her arms and fingers. ‘Gap sweatshirt. Blond hair.’ Pip clears her throat and hums ‘Happy Birthday’ very fast. She’s ready.

   ‘She’s great,’ Zac Holmes, who’s been watching quietly from the back of the room, murmurs to the man standing next to him. ‘I must get her number. So many of her ilk can be such a let-down – and pricey, too. You sometimes don’t get what you pay for.’

   They watch as Pip does the splits. Billy and his mates gasp with delight. The man next to Zac gives her a round of applause and chuckles, ‘Do you reckon she has business cards to give out?’

   Zac feels tired. He rubs his eyes, wondering why he’s wearing contact lenses and not his glasses. His eyes feel dry and uncomfortable. It’s suddenly all a bit too noisy and frantic for him. He’d rather not be in Holloway; he’d rather be diving into a gorgeous cool swimming-pool in the Caribbean, soothing his eyes, refreshing his limbs. But chance would be a fine thing. He hasn’t taken a holiday for over a year. He stifles a yawn. He really ought to go home. He has work to do, despite it being the weekend; regardless that it’s the first weekend he’s officially had off in weeks. Billy’s birthday was fun for a couple of hours but Zac has had enough now. He doesn’t much like Holloway. He’s never really cared for birthdays. He let his own thirtieth come and go without so much as a quick drink with colleagues after work, let alone a celebration with friends or family. And that was almost five years ago. Birthdays. Bollocks. Yes, he’s going to go.

   The show now over, Billy and the gang are guzzling down the drinks and tucking into the grub. Zac is hungry but doesn’t really fancy anything on offer. He’ll grab something on his way home to Hampstead. Someone knocks a drink over and it soaks Zac’s right trouser leg. No one seems to notice, let alone apologize. It really is time to go.

   ‘Happy birthday, Billy old man,’ Zac says, turning on the charm and ruffling Billy’s hair boisterously. ‘I have to go. I’d love to stay but I can’t. I have to work.’

   Someone else is vying for Billy’s attention and another drink is sent flying.

   ‘Have a great party,’ Zac continues. ‘Happy birthday.’

   ‘Where’s Tom?’ Billy asks, not seeming too bothered if Zac stays or goes.

   ‘He was hoping to come,’ Zac says, ‘really wanted to. But he hasn’t been feeling too well.’

   ‘Say “hi” from me.’

   ‘Happy birthday, Billy,’ Zac repeats.

   Alone, out in the hallway, Zac rummages around for his jacket. He has a headache lurking and is muttering ‘Nurofen’ under his breath. He’s suffered with his headaches a lot recently. He searches his pockets but finds only Marlboro Lights. Why does he always carry cigarettes when he rarely smokes more than two a day and doesn’t know why he even smokes those two anyway?

   ‘Stupid fucking idiot,’ he hisses at himself.

   ‘Language!’ chastises a female voice.

   Zac turns around. Who? Oh. Her. Without the make-up, eyes still quite a startling blue-green. Dressed down in jeans. Upright, not doing the splits. Hair in a plain pony-tail. She’s smaller now, close to and not in costume.

   ‘I didn’t recognize you with your clothes off,’ says Zac and then cringes. ‘I mean, with your clothes on. I mean, in jeans.’

   She laughs. ‘Did you enjoy the show?’

   ‘Great,’ Zac answers economically. He really doesn’t feel much like chatting. He’s hungry and headachy in Holloway when he’d so much rather be home alone in Hampstead.

   ‘Thanks,’ the girl says, with grace.

   ‘Have you a card?’ Zac asks, remembering he wanted one though now wondering why.

   ‘Sure,’ she says, and one seems to materialize, as if by magic, from what appeared to be the swiftest snap of her fingers.

   ‘Ta,’ says Zac, not looking at her, pocketing her card without even glancing at it. He’s at his car. He gets in and drives off. Doesn’t give her a backward glance nor even so much as a ‘goodbye’. His headache is threatening to consume him.

   Pip McCabe thinks he’s rude, though. She stands on the kerb side, watching him drive away – too fast.

THREE

   You can tell a lot about a person by the friends they keep. You would think you could tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear and the place they live. However, you’d be hard-pressed to guess what Zac does for a living by analysing his dwelling, his dress or his disposition. Each is at odds with the other and none are remotely representative of the stereotypes traditionally associated with Zac’s particular vocation.

   Take a look around his flat. To say it sings with colour is an understatement. It’s not so much a symphony of colours as a full-blown rock opera. To forgo the approved, if ubiquitous, muted heritage hues predominantly deployed by fellow Hampsteadites was no act of rebellion, no salute to the Shock of the New on his part. Zac simply opted for oranges and turquoises and citrus greens and parma violets because they are his favourite colours. Leyland Paints groan when he comes into the store. He spends a fortune there because he is so exacting. ‘No. I said ultramarine and I mean ultra,’ he’d complain and they’d have to spend a morning adding a dribble of this and a drip of that until Zac nodded and grinned and proclaimed something along the lines of ‘Turquoise-tastic! Fan-bloody-brilliant! Ultimate ultramarine. Ta.’

   Zac’s inspiration comes not from the Sunday Times ‘Style’ section, certainly not from Changing Rooms, not from hip clubs, but really just from his own predilections. Zac is in no pretentious pursuit of retro-psychedelia; nor is his home an arty-farty appraisal of the merits of kitsch. Objectively, elements of his colour schemes are indeed psychedelic and some of his furniture and objects are quintessentially kitsch. But he only chooses what he loves. He doesn’t refer to style magazines. In fact, when he flicked through a copy of Wallpaper at a friend’s house, he thought it so brilliant that he started chuckling because he genuinely assumed that the magazine was a parody on other style magazines. He was quite horrified to learn it was serious. ‘But it’s so far up its own arse,’ he’d reasoned, ‘they might as well call it Toiletpaper.’

   Zac doesn’t read about art but he does love to look at it. He didn’t consider trend when he was choosing colour for his walls and furniture for his rooms but he did pay homage to Matisse. Zac simply loves colour for its own sake. He loves the greenness of green, the blueness of blue, and he finds great expanses of solid colour incredibly satisfying. He cannot comprehend how colours can be in and out of fashion. He loves it that he cannot fathom how colour can convey movement, rhythm and mood. It’s a mystery he is content to be awestruck by.

   My job’s stressful. The building is grey. I want to come home to energy and a place that – I don’t know – grins. Turquoise and orange have always made me feel positive. Green makes me feel refreshed. What’s all this crap about blue being a ‘cool’ colour – cool in what respect? Cold? Or hip? Pardon? I just find blue relaxing. Swimming-pools and cloudless skies.

   Zac goes for things he really likes the look of. He loves things that amuse him. His acid yellow PVC banana beanbag chair is just as comfortable as his black leather Eames lounger. He knew the Eames was almost vulgar in cost but what price ultimate comfort for reading papers or snoozing or chilling out with a beer? The Eames serves much the same purpose as the banana chair but the banana chair was forty pounds. Zac didn’t think it a ‘bargain’, he simply thought ‘funky chair, great colour, really comfortable’, bought it on the spot and took it home on the bus. He doesn’t own a coffee-table so it’s just as well that he doesn’t buy sumptuous coffee-table tomes. Though he loves the feel of his Folio editions of fables and myths, he also devours commercial paperbacks. His book shelves are crammed with them. ‘What’s wrong with Grisham or Herbert?’ he might say. ‘They’re bloody good reads.’ He sometimes rereads Wilbur Smith and he really quite liked Bridget Jones’s Diary. He read it on the tube going to and from work. He was aware that people stared at him. He didn’t care.

   It’s always open house at Zac’s. His flat just has a subliminal effect of putting people in a good mood. He doesn’t officially entertain but he has the sort of personality and the type of place that encourage people to pop in. Male friends stop by for a beer or two if they’ve had a crap day at work or a row with a wife or girlfriend. And those very same wives and girlfriends pop in if they’ve walked their feet off perusing Hampstead’s shops. Zac tells them to ‘take a load off’; while he fixes them a juice, they revolve a while in the Eames, or snuggle gratefully into the bizarre banana chair. If their kids have thrown tantrums at the Finchley Road Sainsbury’s, they’re dragged in to let off steam at Uncle Zac’s; scampering around his flat, throwing themselves on to his large low bed, rolling off on to the tufty orange rug by the side, coming back into the living-room to snuggle on Mummy’s lap and gaze at the lava lamp or quietly snigger at the massive painting that’s allegedly of mountains but really looks like a large pair of blue bosoms.

   Ah, but have a look inside Zac’s wardrobe. It’s like an archive for Gap. Beige, navy or black. No deviation. Trousers, shirts or pullovers. He owns one suit. It’s currently at the dry-cleaner. It’s navy. He never wears it by choice; only if he must – a meeting with specific clients, a wedding, a funeral. His underwear is unremittingly black and blue.

   His kitchen reveals his obsession with gadgets which he affectionately calls ‘toys’. A top-of-the-range fully automatic espresso machine, a sixties-inspired juicer, an impressive if intimidating array of Global kitchen knives, all manner of high-shine stainless-steel utensils hanging from hooks above the granite worktop. His fridge-freezer is, of course, one of those cavernous walk-in American machines that do ice and cold water and can take a whole sucking pig plus the apple. There is no pig inside, just a staggering array of ready-meals. Does this man work for M&S? No? He must have a discount card, then, surely? No? Does he have substantial shares in the company, then? Or is this simply what you’d call brand loyalty? Or is it just plain laziness? No wonder that all his utensils and gadgets look so pristine – they’ve never been used. He has no need of any of them. You do not need a mandolin from Divertimenti to prepare an M&S ready-meal. The only things requiring any chopping are the tomatoes (aesthetically still on the vine) and, of course, the oranges for the juicer (despite the fact that there are cartons of fresh juice, every conceivable variety, in the fridge). His friends’ offspring like the cupboard over there best; it contains the most astonishing variety of biscuits, chocolates and crisps. Have a peek in his kitchen bin – nothing but chocolate wrappers and cartons from his shove-it-in-the-oven-at-190-degrees meals. Zac Holmes hides nothing. He is totally at ease with his likes and dislikes and the choices he’s made.

   ‘I like figures,’ he said ingenuously on a recent date with a Canadian girl who’s the cousin of one of his friends. ‘I really love getting my teeth into them.’ The Canadian girl was so charmed by his open personality, so taken with his slate-grey eyes, handsome face and naturally athletic physique, that she told him her figure was honed to perfection because she worked out five times a week and could they please get the bill right now, though their main courses had not yet arrived, so he could take her back to her hotel and get his teeth into her figure. Zac obliged. He doesn’t like to disappoint people. And he does love figures. He didn’t let her down back at her hotel. He didn’t get his teeth into her but he certainly employed a fabulous technique of nibbling and sucking.

   Zac likes sex very much. He has quite a lot of it. To him, it’s a colourful, fun, recreational activity and he’s rather good at it. He doesn’t mind at all that over the last three years or so sex has not led to deep and meaningful relationships. He’s had two of those during his life. One from his late teens to his early twenties, the other in his late twenties. He’s not now shying away from commitment. And, nearing thirty-five, though he does, of course, have a past, it is one with which he is at peace. If there is any baggage, he certainly doesn’t look on it as a burdensome weight on his shoulders. He hasn’t been in love these past five years. But his life hasn’t lacked for it. He’s loved his last five years, loved the sex he’s had – the quick flings, the threesome, the three-month dalliance, the couple of six-month demi-relationships. He hasn’t met the right girl because he really isn’t looking. Sex wouldn’t be the better for it. Nor does his life want for lack of it. So, being single is neither a problem nor a conscious decision. However, because he’s not on the lookout, he might well not recognize Her.

   In all probability he certainly wouldn’t recognize Her if she came dressed as a clown: all stripy tights, mismatched lace-up shoes, a short frilly ra-ra skirt, pigtails sticking out starchily at odd angles. And a face powdered white, eyes delineated with black diamonds and star shapes; a comedy smile; a nose with a very red tip.

   But there again, why would an artist like Pip fall for a chartered accountant?

   In fact, how would their paths cross anyway?

   They crossed the once, at Billy’s party. But by next year, Billy probably won’t want a clown. He’ll want to take a posse to the cinema. Or McDonald’s. Or both.

   And so, when Zac came across Pip’s card a few days later, it had been through a hot wash, fast spin and tumble-dry. It was frayed and faded when he found it, half stuck to the back pocket of his jeans. He could just make out ‘Clown and Children’s Entertainer’. After some scrutiny, he reckoned the name was Merry Martha. The phone number remained legible. But he didn’t make a note of it and he put the card in his kitchen bin without another thought.

FOUR

   Pip McCabe’s flat, like Zac’s, gives away little about the career of its owner. There’s nothing remotely zany or even vaguely theatrical about the interior. It’s neither colourful nor quirky. Though the basement flat is a small space, it doesn’t seem cramped on account of Pip’s aversion to clutter. No ornaments. The pictures on the walls are non-representational, frameless and subdued in colour. Photos held in stylish thick glass sandwiches are of her family, though Pip herself features in few. Pip’s home is an essay on calm; gradations of neutral hues for walls, floors and soft furnishings. The stripes and spots and frills and flounces and plastic and kitsch of her clowning – her clothes, her props, her funky chunky shoes – are immediately and neatly stored as soon as she returns from work. There’s never any leftover washing-up to be done. There’s never a damp towel left scrunched on the bathroom floor. The bed is made as soon as she’s left it. Not that it even looks that crumpled when she rises each morning.

   Pip’s favourite drink is red wine. She doesn’t care for white, for champagne or for spirits. She likes a good Rioja best of all. And she has the utter confidence to happily drink it – and sometimes quite a lot of it – in her spic-and-spandom, with not one spillage to date. Maybe her training as an acrobat has something to do with it. At work, she flops and flaps and fools around but such japery is attributable to consummate physical control; at the centre of her slapstick and tumbling are balletic grace, athletic stability and acrobatic control.

   When Pip McCabe is out and about, at work or at play, she is the life and soul, she’s the girl who gets things going, she tells the first joke, she’s the last to leave. When Pip McCabe is at home, however, she wafts around quietly with music playing softly. She’s happy with the solitude, confident with quiet, content in her own company. Alone in her flat, she provides the best audience in front of which she can truly be herself. She’s entertaining; she’s a children’s entertainer. But she’d really rather not entertain at home. Which was why Mike, her last steady boyfriend, left her. She never let him in. The door to her flat and entry to her heart remained closed.

   She’s a great illusionist, is Pip McCabe. Her home isn’t Conran, none of her stuff is from stockists recommended by Elle Decoration. Rather, she has a cunning way with calico bought cheaply from Berwick Street and furniture bid for at Tring Auction Rooms. If she wasn’t a clown by trade, Pip could well earn her living as an invisible mender. However, that’s not to say there aren’t a couple of flaws, a little fraying, in her own fabric. But she’d rather keep them invisible and try to fix them in her own way and in her own time.

   There are two nights a week when Pip would rather not be at home, absolutely never alone if she is. Tuesdays and Thursdays are exhausting for her though she works a maximum of four hours in the afternoons on these days and never as Merry Martha. Pip won’t ask for support, for help, for company, but she tries to ensure that her evenings on these days are occupied. Pizzas are good, movies are better, a fair few drinks in a raucous bar is the ultimate, watching Friends at a friend’s home will do and she has even been known on one or two occasions to have people round to hers, Rioja at the ready and comfort food aplenty. This Thursday she quite fancied seeing her sisters but Cat is in bed with flu and doesn’t want a visit, much less to provide company, and Fen is suddenly up in Derbyshire again, assessing sculpture in a private collection. Pip turned to her honorary sister instead.

   ‘Megan?’ she phoned.

   ‘Philippa McCabe,’ Megan responded, thinking to herself But of course, it’s Thursday. ‘I was going to call you. Do you want to do something?’

   ‘Sure,’ Pip said casually, as if she had only been phoning for a chat but Megan’s suggestion of meeting up was most appealing and how convenient that she herself happened to be free. ‘What do you fancy?’

   ‘To be honest,’ Megan said in a lascivious whisper, ‘I fancy a bit of Dominic. He’s the brother of Polly’s boyf, Max – you’ve met them. But I don’t think he’s on the menu tonight – so I’ll settle for pizza.’

   ‘Sounds good to me,’ Pip laughed.

   ‘Or alcohol,’ Megan interjected excitedly, as if she’d overlooked its existence.

   ‘Either,’ said Pip.

   ‘Both!’ Megan declared and they arranged to meet at Smorfia in West Hampstead.

   Pip settled down to a bath, dipping her body deep into the water, right up to her lower lip.

   Wash the day away. Soothe. Cleanse. Breathe.

   She closed her eyes on the day just been and what she had seen. She opened her eyes and stared at the taps. She could be in West Hampstead in less than half an hour.

   The waiters flirted extravagantly with the two women. Megan was a regular and Pip had been often. The restaurant was small – friendly, noisy and smelt heavenly. Megan and Pip filched food from each other’s plates and chatted nineteen to the dozen, though on occasion this meant talking with their mouths full.

   ‘Was it tough today?’ Megan asked, tearing a much larger slice of Pip’s pizza than she’d intended.

   ‘It was,’ Pip confirmed, helping herself to Megan’s pappardelle, ‘particularly.’ Megan didn’t ask more and Pip didn’t elaborate. Pip enquired about this Dominic chap and Megan swooned off on elaborate tangents, describing potential wedding cake design and fantasy honeymoon destinations.

   ‘Has he asked you?’ Pip enquired.

   ‘Asked me what?’ Megan responded.

   Pip thought about it. ‘Anything? Your favourite colour? If you snore? If you’ll marry him?’

   Megan laughed heartily. ‘He hasn’t even asked me out yet,’ she admitted, raising her eyebrows at herself, ‘let alone kissed me, never mind asking me to marry him. But hey, I’ll live in hope. Or in day-dreamland at the very least.’

   ‘Well,’ said Pip, slightly histrionically due to a fast-flowing Chianti and a lot of garlic in the food, ‘if you ask me, day-dreams endanger reality.’

   ‘You’re too bloody cynical for your own good,’ Megan pouted, ‘and for mine.’

   ‘No, I’m not,’ Pip protested, ‘I’m just sensibly circumspect.’

   ‘Bollocks!’ Megan retorted, because Pip was her best friend so she was allowed to. ‘Your mum ran off with a cowboy when you were a kid and bang! you don’t believe in true love!’

   Pip chewed thoughtfully. ‘I’m fine about love. I just don’t trust men with a penchant for rhinestones and rodeos!’

   They chinked glasses and laughed.

   Megan picked a large glistening black olive from her friend’s pizza, scrutinizing it admiringly before popping it into her mouth. Pip mopped at Megan’s sauce with some leftover bruschetta. ‘The thing about love,’ she said with her mouth full, ‘is that it requires one to get naked.’

   Megan looked a little blank. ‘Well, if you leave your clothes on, you tend to get a little messy.’

   ‘But that’s my point,’ said Pip. ‘Once you’ve laid yourself bare, it often becomes messier.’

   Megan looked baffled.

   ‘Reveal?’ Pip said first, tipping her head one way. ‘Or conceal?’ she continued, tipping her head the other way. ‘I guess I’d rather keep covered up than expose myself.’

   ‘But you have a great physique,’ Megan protested artlessly.

   ‘I’m talking metaphorically,’ Pip laughed. ‘God, I forget you work in numbers not words.’

   ‘Being a maths teacher doesn’t make me an emotional moron,’ Megan sulked – but not seriously.

   ‘Of course not,’ Pip said, ‘but you do fall in love too easily and you get hurt.’ Over the years, Pip had witnessed Megan in pieces several times. Privately, Pip felt Megan’s experience in terms of quantity and variety thus counted for little; certainly it hadn’t paved the way to happy-ever-after. Pip found it difficult to fathom how someone who had been badly burnt by love’s flame could continue to thrust herself into the fire.

   Megan pouted through Pip’s silence but was quietly relieved that Pip was keeping her misgivings to herself. Megan topped up their wineglasses and winked lasciviously. ‘Well, I bet you I’ve had more fun and frolics than you with your “I don’t need a man” bollocks.’

   ‘But I don’t!’ Pip attempted to proclaim though it was met with another energetic ‘Bollocks!’ from Megan. ‘Seriously,’ Pip remonstrated.

   ‘Well,’ Megan said, ‘just as well, then, isn’t it? Because working as a clown called Merry Martha doesn’t really make you millions and dressing like a clown called Merry Martha really isn’t going to have the men flocking. At least, no male over the age of eight.’

   ‘Ouch!’ Pip winced theatrically because she didn’t want Megan to know that her words had actually confronted her more than anticipated. Megan had meant no malice. Like many around Pip, Megan had become used to her friend shunning romance, wealth and the panoply of either. And, like those closest to Pip, Megan knew Pip would actually benefit from a little of each.

   ‘Share a pudding?’ Pip suggested, changing the subject.

   ‘How about share each other’s – order one each? Asking me to choose between pannacotta and tiramisu would be the same as asking me to choose between George Clooney and Brad Pitt.’

   ‘Hmm,’ Pip mused, ‘I was going to choose fruit salad.’

   ‘You’re just trying to be wholesome!’ Megan said astutely. ‘Live a little!’ Soon enough, she was swooning over desserts and Dominic in equal measures.

   ‘I hope it happens for you,’ Pip said sincerely whilst wielding her spoon with gay abandon between the two bowls. ‘He sounds lovely. And suitable.’ Megan raised her glass and her eyebrow. ‘Thing is,’ Pip said, because the wine was enabling her to do so, ‘I say I don’t need money because, in truth, I’ve never wanted – let alone needed – anything I can’t afford.’ She sipped contemplatively. ‘I like bargain hunting. I rather like doing upholstery. I get a kick out of people asking “Heals?” and me saying “Hell no, house clearance”.’ Megan spooned the last of the pannacotta into Pip’s mouth. ‘And I say I don’t need a man,’ Pip continued, ‘because I’ve never felt for someone enough to really feel that life wouldn’t make sense without them.’ She ran her finger around the tiramisu bowl though their spoons had already scraped at practically every vestige of the dessert. ‘I guess,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘I’ve managed to reach the grand old age of thirty without ever being in love.’

   Megan contemplated this. She chinked glasses with Pip. ‘You know what, McCabe,’ she said, ‘to be honest, that’s no bad thing.’ Megan sighed. ‘Sometimes being in love is more hassle than it’s worth. Way too costly.’

   Deep down, that’s what Pip had long had a hunch about. ‘You see, for me,’ she said, pouring the last of the second bottle of wine into their glasses, ‘there are nice blokes like good old Mike for every now and then. And in between times,’ she whispered, eyes wide for dramatic effect, ‘there are vibrators.’

   Megan shrieked with laughter. The other diners turned and stared.

   Pip snorted into her wine. Paulo, the young waiter, had eavesdropped the conversation. He decided it prudent and hopefully profitable to present the girls with complimentary Sambucas.

   ‘You get what you settle for,’ Pip murmured softly. It was the early hours of Friday morning when Pip finally decided to go to bed. She’d been sitting up with a bottle of Evian, waiting for her living-room to stop revolving at such an alarming rate. ‘If I settle for anything less, I’ll be the one who pays.’ The revolutions of the room had slowed to approximately three per minute. ‘Anyway, you don’t enter your thirties without a fair weight of baggage from your twenties. And I’m not having someone else’s dumped on me. I’m absolutely not unpacking it for them. I don’t do baggage and that’s that, really. Simple.’ The room was settling nicely into one revolution per minute. ‘Vibrators it is, then.’

   The room is stationary. And silent. The Evian is finished and Pip feels hydrated enough to see what lying down feels like. ‘Friday Friday,’ she says to herself, trying to recall her timetable as she walks through to her bedroom.

   Face painting at Golders Hill Park, lunch-time. Party in Chalk Farm at tea-time.

   You could have a lie-in, Pip.

   Me? God, no. If I have spare time, why on earth fill it with doing nothing? I have loads to do. I can find loads to do.

   Can you face being horizontal?

   Let me see. Not too bad.

   Are you all right in the dark?

   Yes. I’m not afraid of the dark.

   Pip is in bed. Lying still in the dark. She loves her bedroom. No clutter. Walls the colour of oyster mushrooms. Thick curtains the colour of crème caramel and behind them, cream roller blinds at the window the colour of cappuccino froth. She bought the blinds in the Habitat sale; the curtains were a freebie from a set-designer friend of hers. They had been on a BBC costume drama and had required a fair bit of deft needlework from Pip. The blisters and pricked fingertips had been a small price to pay for such hallowed curtains. She laid the carpet herself. It doesn’t quite fit but her strategically placed furniture hides this from view. It looks like sisal but is much kinder to bare feet. The massive rusty stain that enabled Pip to purchase it for less than a quarter of the price is conveniently straddled by her bed. Her bed has a birch, Shaker-style headboard, very simply panelled and beautifully made. She picked that up for next to nothing as it had a split right through it. But she worked with wood filler and sandpaper and stain; it took her a month, but now you can’t see the join.

   However, what she loves most of all about her bedroom is something she had to pay full price for – indeed, over the odds – and that is the remarkable quiet considering her flat’s proximity to Kentish Town Road. This had cost her the asking price for the flat two years ago. Though most of her pennies go straight towards the mortgage and Camden Council’s absurdly high council tax, she doesn’t begrudge a penny. It might be a small space subdivided by stud walls, but it is her own place, her haven, and she loves it.

   Pip submits herself to the stillness and silence and stares upwards to where the ceiling ought to be though she can’t determine its surface in the darkness. She tells herself it is now Friday, that Thursday was indeed yesterday. But in effect, it still feels very much Thursday that she is closing her eyes and going to sleep from. Right now, her evening with Megan doesn’t seem as current as the afternoon preceding it. Sure, Megan and she talked about life, love and the universe. And vibrators. But none have the resonance of her afternoon.

   ‘Night-night, little ones,’ she says out loud, ‘see you next week.’

FIVE

   George Saunders is nine years old. He is into his sixth month on Reynolds, the renal ward at St Beatrix’s, the children’s hospital in the City affectionately known at St Bea’s. He’s uncomfortable and fed up. And now he’s agreed to having his eyes tested because they’re about the only part of him that haven’t been tested. He thinks they’re fine. But he wouldn’t be surprised if they’re poorly. Everything else seems to be.

   ‘Well, here we go, then,’ the doctor says. ‘Cover your left eye – that’s right – what? Yes, I know it’s your left one – I said that’s right, right? Good, use that hand, right? Or that one, left – we’re not testing your hands, are we? Right. Left! Whatever. Ho-hum. Just shut that eye and tell me what’s written on this card.’

   George stares at the card held in front of him.

   i

   ‘i,’ says George.

   The doctor is making those stern contemplative muttering sounds that they are famous for. ‘Right. Now please cover your right eye with the other hand. Lovely. Can you tell me what’s written on this card?’ Another card is held in front of George. He looks at it, then looks at the doctor. He really doesn’t want to smile but invisible magnets haul the corners of his mouth up towards the mobiles dangling from the ward’s ceiling. He reads the card again.

   I

   ‘Um, i,’ he says, stifling a giggle.

   The doctor looks at him sternly. Regards his mother, too. And nods sagely at the ward sister who is hovering. ‘I declare that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with this young man’s “i”s,’ the doctor says. And then the doctor takes out a hammer and starts bashing George’s arms. George giggles as the hammer makes funny beeps and dongs on impact. After all, the tool is made of red and yellow plastic and is light as a feather. ‘Now look what you’ve gone and done!’ the doctor chastises. ‘Nurse! Nurse! Quick, call the doctor! My nose! My nose!’

   The nurse laughs. ‘Incurable!’ she declares and walks away.

   George is smiling widely. The doctor’s nose, bright red at the best of times, is flashing. ‘Quick!’ George is told. ‘Give me your bed and your tubes and those things that do all that bleeping – I need them more than you!’

   ‘Are you coming back next week?’ he asks, very interested in the stickers the doctor has just given him, having magicked them from behind George’s ear.

   The doctor regards the young patient. ‘Yes. I reckon so. Perhaps. If I can switch my nose off.’

   ‘Brill,’ says George. ‘See you then, Dr Pippity. Bye!’

   ‘Good aftermorning,’ says Dr Pippity, clicking her heels together and saluting so clumsily that she clonks herself in the eye. Her nose continues to glow on and off. She points at her gift of stickers: ‘Don’t eat them all at once!’ she declares. She turns from George and walks away, jauntily, with a peculiar skip every step or so. ‘Pippitypippity,’ she mutters as she goes. ‘Pip. Pip. Good aftermorning!’ She settles herself quietly into a chair by the bedside of a small girl who feels too poorly to move, let alone speak. But, in a glance, Dr Pippity clocks a glimmer of welcome in the girl’s eyes. So we’ll leave her sitting there awhile, performing simple and silly tricks. She’s carefully placed a magic wand in the little girl’s hand. It’s one of those trick sticks that segments and collapses. Dr Pippity is feigning frustration with her bedridden assistant. Who, in turn, now has eyes that hint at a sparkle.

   The shift is over. Dr Pippity is exhausted but as she makes her way to the small room she uses to change in, she skips and ‘pip pip’s everyone she passes; the sounds of squeaks and bells emanating at random from any of her many pockets; her nose lighting up every now and then, apparently much to her consternation.

   Her changing-room is basically a glorified cupboard along a corridor on the ground floor. Dr Pippity doesn’t mind. There’s a sink. A small table to prop her mirror on. A stool. She removes her nose. She takes off her slap and in doing so, emotionally wipes away the tougher parts of her day. She hums softly as she unbraids her hair from the taut pigtails. Her scalp feels both sore and relieved. She runs her fingers through her hair, amused, as always, by the kinks and curls that will take a few hours, if not a wash and blow-dry, to calm down. It proves to her that her naturally straight hair suits her best. It still amuses her to remember how she longed for a perm in her teenage years and how she cursed Django who forbade it. The hippy in him, however, was happy for her to experiment with henna (‘If it’s herbal it’s harmless! If it’s organic don’t panic!’ being one of his favourite maxims). Unfortunately, henna turned her mid-mousy brown to garish barmaid orange in the space of half an hour. It took half a year to dull down and fade. Pip has decided to be at peace with her natural colour ever since. She keeps her cut softly layered and shoulder length. It may be mousy and straight, but it’s glossy and frames her face becomingly, crowning her features well.

   From her doctor’s coat pockets she lays out the tools of her trade and wipes everything with antiseptic cloths. A comedy stethoscope. Five different types of magic wand. Small red foam balls that, with a little surreptitious rubbing between the palms, or a heartfelt ‘abracadabra’ from a child, metamorphose into a selection of miniature animals. A huge pair of plastic scissors. Handfuls of stickers. The squeaking plastic hammer. She takes off her doctor’s coat. It’s a real doctor’s coat, in thick white cotton, but embellished with colourful patterns on the pockets and with her name, ‘Dr Pippity’, emblazoned on the back like some kind of patchwork tattoo. An intricate circuit and a couple of AAA batteries enable her to make the squeaks and dongs. She takes off her luridly striped pinafore, with the flowers on springs attached to the kangaroo-style pouch, the badges dotted here and there with ‘I am 8’ and ‘smile’ and various cartoon characters. She peels off her tights – she customized this pair so that one leg has multicoloured dots and the other has wriggling lines. She showed them off that afternoon, very forlornly, to a girl with no hair up on Gainsborough, the cancer ward.

   ‘I’ve not got no hair no more,’ the child had told her. Dr Pippity had sat beside her and stretched her legs out. ‘This leg here,’ she showed the girl, ‘has the multicoloured measles.’ The girl gingerly placed a finger over the spots to check. ‘And this leg here,’ Dr Pippity declared, ‘has worms!’ She’d been able to muster a giggle from the girl. The girl hadn’t giggled for days. It felt good. For Dr Pippity. For the nurses. For the children in the beds to either side. But especially for the little girl with cancer and no hair. And she was the point.

   ‘And that’s the point,’ Dr Pippity says as she takes off her tights and puts on a pair of navy socks instead. ‘That’s my job.’

   The clothes and the bits and pieces that accessorize Dr Pippity are placed carefully into a really rather dull beige holdall. Pip checks her reflection and wipes away a smudge of slap that she’d missed. She pops her mirror into her bag, tucks her white shirt into her jeans and leaves the room, closing the door quietly. Not that there’s anyone to disturb. The wards are all upstairs. She walks through the main entrance, not now recognized by anyone, though many of them would know her at forty paces in her slap and motley.

   Zac did a swift double take when Pip passed him, but he didn’t linger or even look back. Over the years, he has known so many people at the hospital – as faces, or as names, too, or even well enough for a quick conversation – that he doesn’t think to try and place Pip. He’s got things on his mind, anyway. So has she, she didn’t notice him at all.

   ‘Fen? It’s me.’

   ‘Hiya, Pip.’ The sisters chatted on their mobile phones as they left work; Fen walking away from Tate Britain, her older sister hovering near the ambulance bay.

   ‘Fancy a film?’ Pip asked, pronouncing it ‘fill-erm’ as is a McCabe tradition. But Fen explained she had ‘a bit of a date’ and would Pip mind awfully therefore if she didn’t. ‘A bit of a date?’ Pip teased. ‘Which bit – just the arms and torso of some poor sod? Oh, for God’s sake, tell me it’s a real hunk, not just a hunk of sculpture you’ve fallen for.’

   ‘Shut up!’ Fen protested lightly. ‘It’s only that Matt bloke, the editor of the Trust’s magazine, Art Matters,’ she justified. ‘I’m still just the new girl at work, remember. Nothing to read into – it’s just a quick drink.’ However, Pip was sure that there was a veritable novel to read into. Fen could sense her older sister’s smirk. And Pip knew her younger sister was blushing slightly.

   ‘Be good!’ she warned her. ‘And if you can’t be good—’

   ‘—be careful,’ groaned Fen, finishing off another McCabe-ism.

   ‘Have you spoken to Cat today?’ Pip asked. ‘Is she OK?’ Fen hadn’t. ‘I’ll give her a call,’ Pip said, ‘cook her something hearty and wholesome.’ Deep down, Pip would have preferred someone to do the looking-after her. It was a Tuesday, after all. But she’d never ask. Certainly not her younger sisters. As eldest sister, she had duties to them, responsibilities – in lieu of their mother who had left them to cavort in Colorado.

   ‘Are you off, Pip? Off duty? Off home? Off somewhere else?’ Pip turns. It’s Caleb Simmons, all chocolate eyes and husky voice and olive skin smoothed over exceptional cheek-bones.

   ‘Just wondered if you wanted to go for a quick drink? I’m through for the day,’ says the brilliant young paediatrician, ruffling his immaculately tousled hairstyle. Handsome enough for a role on ER. Compassionate to the children, patient with the parents, charming and courteous to the nurses, to the hospital staff, to the clown doctors and to the janitors alike. He’d asked her the same question a couple of weeks ago. Today, she gives him the same answer she’d given him then.

   ‘Sorry,’ says Pip, with an apologetic shrug, ‘I already have plans.’

   No, you don’t.

   I do. I just haven’t quite made them yet.

   ‘Another time, then,’ Caleb suggests with equanimity and a dashing smile. With hands in his pockets, his white coat flowing out behind, he turns back to the hospital, sharing banter with the porters and patients he passes.

   Pip went to see her youngest sister, Cat. And had a draining evening. Cat was heartbroken, now at the stage of denial and daft hope. She begged to be allowed to phone him. Pleaded with Pip to promise that this was a bad dream and she’d awake soon. Prayed that they’d get back together. Yet if Pip could grant wishes, she wouldn’t allow a single one of Cat’s to come true.

   ‘He was horrid to you,’ Pip tried to reason without lecturing, ‘he was a nasty piece of work. You are going to be fine. I know it doesn’t feel that way right now, but I promise you that there will be a time when you breathe a sigh of relief that your life has no place or space for him.’

   Cat looked absolutely flabbergasted. ‘I don’t believe you,’ she sobbed. She didn’t believe a word Pip tried to say, didn’t want to believe her, didn’t eat a mouthful Pip had prepared. In protest, Pip wanted to shake sense into her sister, to yell home truths at her. But she didn’t. She was trying hard to be sensitive and diplomatic, although, after the day she’d had, she really didn’t feel like counselling Cat. But she did. It was her duty.

   You should have said ‘yes’ to that lovely Caleb Simmons.

   Then what would Cat have done without me?

   Exactly as she did with you there.

   Caleb’s not the answer.

   But he might be a nice little diversion. A handsome distraction.

   I haven’t the time. Or the inclination, to be honest.

   Honestly? Really.

SIX

   So that’s who it is. I remember. She was the clown at Billy’s party. She did that extraordinary juggling thing whilst doing the splits. She told terrible jokes which the kids loved. Didn’t I take her card?

   Zac was over at the drinks machine when two clown doctors bustled into Out-patients, creating merry havoc in their wake. From his quiet vantage point outside the fray, he recognized Dr Pippity as being the clown from his nephew’s party – albeit with toned down make-up, wearing a doctor’s coat and performing at a very different venue today. He sipped his coffee by the machine, watching the clowns at work, enjoying the children’s reaction to them. Though the clowns brought colour and a certain cacophony with them, there was a moving gentleness to their gestures and jokes.

   ‘Hey ho and what’s your name? Is it Mildred? Or perhaps Millicent?’ Dr Pippity asked, shaking the hand of a small boy in Out-patients who she’d seen before up on the wards. Eczema. His skin looked so sore but she gauged in an instant that a level of physical contact would be right. So she shook and shook his hand, operating a hidden squeak in her pocket. ‘Dear, oh dear, would you listen to that! I’d say your elbow needs some grease!’

   ‘My name’s Tom,’ the child protested, having a giggle at his squeaky elbow, ‘not Mildew or Militant.’

   ‘Of course it is!’ Dr Pippity exclaimed, clasping her hand to her head and setting her nose alight in the process. She almost fell over, whilst rolling her eyes. ‘And Tom is a very fine name. My brain has run out of battery. Can you help start it again?’ She handed the boy her toy hammer and pointed to two positions on her forehead, much to his delight. ‘How old are you?’ she asked. ‘One hundred and thirty-two?’

   ‘No, I’m almost six years old,’ he said, as if to a simpleton. ‘I live in Swiss Cottage.’

   ‘In a swish cottage, hey!’ Dr Pippity gasped. ‘Is there room for me?’ The boy said he didn’t think so and the clown doctor pretended to cry, blowing her nose into an enormous polka-dot handkerchief.

   ‘Sorry,’ Tom shrugged.

   ‘Do you like Kylie Minogue?’ asked Dr Pippity, merry once more. Tom shrugged. ‘Britney Spears?’ The child dipped his head in a fairly noncommittal way.

   ‘I like Hermione,’ Tom offered, ‘from Harry Potter.’

   Dr Pippity scratched her head, looking perplexed.

   ‘Her-my-oh-knee,’ Tom elucidated.

   ‘Your knee? Her knee? What knee? Oh! Hermione! Well,’ said Dr Pippity, ‘I have a present for you, a lovely picture of Hermione on Harry’s Potty. For you to colour in.’

   Tom looked happy and expectant. Dr Pippity presented him with the picture. Tom stared at it and tried very hard not to look disappointed, and then not to smile. A grin triumphed over a pout. ‘It’s you!’

   Dr Pippity looked horrified. She looked from the picture to herself. ‘Good golly – you’re right!’

   ‘Thanks,’ said Tom, looking at the picture; he was secretly starting to like Dr Pippity just as much as Hermione. And certainly more than Kylie or Britney.

   ‘Ta-ta, ta-ra, toot-toot!’ sang Dr Pippity. ‘I must be on my way.’ And with a hop, skip and a jump, she left Out-patients for her ward rounds.

   ‘Look!’ Tom showed off the picture to his father who had returned to his son’s side with a cup of water from the vending machine. ‘You missed her – she’s funny! Last time, she made me a tortoise from a balloon. Is she a real doctor, Daddy?’

   ‘A real clown doctor,’ Zac replied, taking a nearby leaflet publicizing the Renee Foundation by whom Dr Pippity was trained and funded. ‘Have you seen her before, then?’

   Tom nodded. ‘A couple of times on the ward. And when Mummy brought me last time, that clown lady was here.’

   Zac nodded and kissed the top of Tom’s head. ‘Laughter is brilliant medicine.’ Out-patients now seemed dull and down without the clown.

   ‘Yes,’ said Tom, ‘that’s what the nurses say, too. And it doesn’t sting like creams.’

   ‘If it stings today,’ Zac said, ‘you squeeze my hand and say any swear-word you like. Though you’re so brave I doubt whether you’ll need to.’ He could see Dr Pippity down the corridor by the main entrance, standing on one leg. Really quite a nice leg, actually. Despite the lurid tights and clumpy, bright orange DMs.

   ‘Can you buy me some new crayons,’ Tom asked, ‘after they’ve done me?’

   ‘Magic word?’ Zac prompted.

   ‘Please-please-please-thank-you.’

   ‘Have you heard of these hospital clowns?’ Zac is in Marylebone, eating Lebanese with friends. ‘I took Tom for his appointment today and there were a couple working. They’re amazing.’

   ‘There was that Robin Williams film a while back,’ said Will.

   ‘Patch Adams,’ his wife, Molly, filled in, ‘but he was actually a bona fide doctor.’

   ‘I picked up a leaflet,’ Zac said. ‘It’s a charity – they fund specially trained clowns to work in hospitals all over the world. It made a difference to Tom, that’s for sure.’

   ‘How is he?’ Molly asked.

   ‘So so,’ Zac said, but with a note of hope to his voice. ‘That’s the cruelty of eczema – when it fades, so does your memory of it; when it suddenly comes back with a vengeance, you have to deal with the physical and mental affliction anew. Tom seems to be coping this time around. He’s not being teased at school, thank God, but it breaks my heart, it really does.’ He looked to the middle distance. ‘He’s too young to have to be so brave.’

   They ate in contemplative silence awhile. ‘June?’ Molly asked.

   ‘She’s fine,’ Zac referred to the mother of his child, ‘getting married in – well – June!’

   ‘Same bloke?’

   ‘Yup,’ said Zac, ‘it’s cool – he’s great.’

   Molly picked spinach from her teeth. ‘You must meet my friend Juliana – you’d really get along. She’s gorgeous.’

   Zac replenished the wineglasses. ‘Sure,’ he said. His friends were always setting him up – not because they wanted to see him matched and hitched, not because they were remotely concerned about him being single in his mid-thirties; in fact, they didn’t do it for his sake or benefit at all. Zac was so universally liked, famous amongst his friends for being well-adjusted and fun to be with, that they introduced eligible women to benefit from his company. Zac, they felt, had such a heart that it couldn’t be broken.

   ‘Great,’ said Molly. ‘I’ll fix up drinks or something for the weekend. She’s over in London from South Africa for about six months on some project. Tall, very tall. She’s a babe.’

   Zac didn’t enquire further. He trusted his friends’ judgement. They always presented him with lovely women to play with. And what made the game such fun was that when it was inevitably over, there never seemed to be winners or losers. It seemed to him (and hitherto thankfully to them) that it was the taking part that was the point.

   ‘I hated clowns,’ Zac mused, ‘when I was young. They frightened the fuck out of me.’

   ‘Isn’t it a risk, then, putting them in hospitals with sick kids?’ asked Will, who had been far too engrossed in his lamb to participate in the conversation thus far.

   Zac thought back to St Bea’s. ‘I think the hospital clowns obviously tone down their make-up and slapstick and tricks. Their faces weren’t lurid at all – just a bit of white here and there, rosy cheeks, neat little red nose, funny pigtails.’

   ‘Weird job to choose, though, don’t you think?’ Molly pondered. ‘You know, literally making a clown of yourself every day. Having to look daft and behave like a fool.’

   Zac considered this. ‘I suppose,’ he shrugged, ‘but the one who spent time with Tom was bloody good. And, obviously, she could judge her success immediately so it must be pretty rewarding.’ He poked around the couscous with his fork for crunchy bits. ‘She didn’t look daft at all, really.’

   Quite beguiling, actually, if I think about it. Which I have been, for some bizarre reason I can’t fathom.

   Plates were cleared, puddings were chosen and the subject changed. Molly and Will were hiring a villa in Sardinia over the summer and did Zac want to join them at all? And then Will started talking about work and his nightmare boss. And Molly started telling Zac about Juliana.

   ‘She was young,’ Zac said, slightly absent-mindedly, ‘late twenties? Something like that. You could see how hard she was working; how she was tuning herself totally to the needs and quirks of each kid she sat with. She was great.’

   ‘Who? Juliana?’ Molly asked, very confused and a little drunk by now.

   ‘No, the clown,’ Zac said, ‘the one who treated Tom today.’

   ‘Clowns give me the creeps,’ said Will, asking for the bill.

   ‘I’ve never found them particularly funny,’ Molly said.

   ‘I found them pretty scary,’ Zac repeated, ‘when I was a boy.’

   Zac dreamt of Dr Pippity a couple of nights later, which he found odd, having not thought about her since the day at St Bea’s. The dream oddly disturbed him, though it was completely out of context – no Tom, no hospital. Dr Pippity had no make-up, no clothes defining her as a clown. In fact, she had no clothes on at all. She didn’t speak with a zany voice, she didn’t speak at all. But she did perform the most amazing trick on Zac. Her mouth, his balls. Zac awoke with a hard-on that required urgent attention. He went to his bathroom to clean up and caught sight of himself, sleep bleary, in the mirror.

   ‘For fuck’s sake,’ he chastised himself, ‘I thought clowns scared me – they’re not supposed to seduce me!’

   I must need a shag or something. About time. Ah well, the luscious Juliana, considerately lined up for me by Molly.

   He couldn’t get back to sleep so he went through to the living-room, flicked on the television and lounged in his banana chair, zapping channels and settling on MTV. Soon enough, the vacuous pop tunes irritated him, though the volume was low. He went to the kitchen for a glass of water and was momentarily bemused by the sight of the fridge. Dr Pippity, meticulously coloured in by Tom with his new crayons, grinned back at him.

   He wanted to see her again. And he knew how simple that could be.

   ‘Billy’s party! I just phone and ask my sister-in-law for the entertainer’s number. Pretend it’s for Tom or one of his friends.’

   Momentarily, he was quite excited about how easy this would be but soon enough, this disconcerted him. So he turned his back on the picture and took his briefcase to the bedroom.

   Why on earth am I still thinking about her – let alone dreaming of her? She’s a bloody clown – she probably hides behind her make-up and is a total social imbecile underneath it. Or irritatingly zany. Or just plain weird.

   You liked her legs and can see that she’s pretty even in preposterous pigtails and pan stick.

   God, all she did was visit me in a wet dream and now I’m telling myself I want to see her again. I must be overdue a shag, that’s what it is.

   Zac fell asleep, sitting up in bed, the lights on, papers strewn all over the duvet.

   Zac met Molly’s friend Juliana. She was sexy in a sophisticated, cool way. Zac decided he could forgo a sense of humour for such seductive eye contact. However, before he called her, there was something he needed to qualify first. The next Thursday, Zac told June he’d take Tom to hospital for his creams. June was pleased – she could have her wedding-dress fitting in peace, she told him. The clowns were there, but this time both were male. They were great and lifted Tom’s spirits. It helped him enormously, his mind was taken away from his physical discomfort and he had a balloon in the shape of a parrot to take home. Though Zac knew all along that was the point – the clown doctors were not for his benefit but Tom’s, of course – he couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed not to see Dr Pippity.

   His disappointment did, however, make him feel a little foolish. He sat Tom down with a drink and a biscuit when they arrived back in Hampstead.

   ‘I’m just going to make a quick call,’ he told his son. Tom was happy to munch and sip.

   ‘Juliana? Hi there, this is Zac. We met at— Oh! Sure. I’m fine. Are you well? Great. I was wondering if you had plans tomorrow night? Shall we go out to play? Cool. Super.’

   The lovely Juliana. Why on earth I was disappointed not to see Clowngirl again, I don’t know. Hot date tomorrow – what could be better?

SEVEN

   Zac has had no further dreams, wet or otherwise, featuring Pip. Which is just as well, really. Firstly, it wouldn’t have been fair on Juliana, who Zac has been seeing for a good few weeks now. Secondly, it would have made it just a little more awkward and loaded when, the next time they did meet, Pip was to run her fingers through his hair, fondling his ears in the process.

   Dr Pippity frequently ruffles the hair or tweaks the ears of patients’ parents and siblings. She’s been trained to. It’s part of her job. It serves a twofold purpose. It’s another way of eliciting laughter from the sick child, plus an important part of a clown doctor’s work is to treat the family of the patients because they’re often suffering, too. Clown doctors aim to lighten the load; to help diminish the burden carried by patients and their families in some small way, however temporarily. A minute spent grinning, laughing even, is a veritable tonic. It is also a minute when pain subsides and worry is sidetracked.

   However, Pip has never had her handling of a parent backfire. Sure, sometimes her jokes and tricks have fallen flat – the parent perhaps feels awkward or reluctant due to desperately concealed stress and worry. But the patient has always enjoyed the tomfoolery and Pip knows, and the parent knows, that that’s what matters. For Pip, though, to be hit on by the father of a patient, in front of the mother, too, is a situation wholly unexpected and for which she’s had no specific training.

   June, Tom’s mother, hadn’t intended to come to the hospital that day. She was up to her eyes preparing for her wedding that weekend and Zac had said he’d take Tom for his appointment.

   ‘It’s guilt,’ Zac had teased her gently, when she had phoned to say that she’d come to the hospital. ‘You running off on some glorious Caribbean honeymoon, leaving your son behind to fend for himself.’

   ‘Bastard!’ June had cursed in her defence, but fondly. ‘He’s not fending for himself, he’s staying with you!’

   Zac gave a sharp intake of breath. ‘Dicey,’ he warned, ‘leaving him with me – well, that’ll be fending for himself, all right.’

   ‘You are a sod,’ June laughed, ‘and anyway, you cad – it’s not as if you ever took me on a sumptuous honeymoon.’

   ‘Well,’ said Zac, ‘that’s because I never married you.’

   ‘Bastard in capital letters,’ June jested. ‘I’d’ve declined even if you had asked me on bended knee with a rose between your teeth and a fuck-off diamond ring. I’m late. We’ll see you in Out-patients at 3.00.’

   I didn’t ask her to marry me. It didn’t cross my mind. Or hers. And, if I had, she’d have said ‘no’ anyway and thought me insane. It wasn’t an issue. The only issue was to be good parents to a child born to two people who were strong friends and had been having good sex for quite a while.

   Zac, wouldn’t most people define the ultimate relationship to be one where friendship and good sex prevail?

   Now, yes. At my age now – yes. Though the two never seem to go hand in hand nowadays – not that I’m complaining. Juliana is fabulous in bed, but neither of us is pursuing this even for friendship, let alone intimacy. And lovely lovely Lisa – one of my closest friends but the thought of screwing her verges on incest. Or take Pru – the two occasions we’ve been to bed were pretty nondescript, yet we have a great laugh together, getting drunk, talking rubbish. So that’s why my life wants for nothing. I have great friends. And I have fantastic sex. But it’s horses for courses in my book. I’d rather have an enviable stable of different steeds and a choice of, er, mount, than only the one horse, just the one all-rounder.

   You’re talking a string of spirited fillies versus just the one old nag?

   No. I’m not. That makes me sound a cynic and a cad and I’m neither. June and I were young and impetuous and full of those ideologies that, in your twenties, you formulate and think are the answer to life itself. We had an on-off relationship for a long time. She actually fell pregnant during a time we weren’t officially seeing each other. It was a casual one-nighter, like we were prone to have in those days. But our philosophy – then as now – was that we could be awesome parents and great friends and simply not live together as Man and Wife, or Girlfriend and Boyfriend, or He and She, full stop.

   And it works?

   You ask Tom. Just you ask him.

   Out-patients. June and Zac sat with Tom, looking like a very normal family. Except for the fact that the topic of conversation between the three of them was June’s imminent wedding.

   ‘Mum is worried in case I drop the ring,’ Tom said, looking to his father for camaraderie and perhaps one of his inimitable one-liners.

   ‘We’ll sellotape it to your hand,’ Zac said, ‘and I’ll carry a couple of spares in my pocket. In fact, we’ll do a swap, Tom. You give me the real ones – I’ll give you cheap imitations. Your mother won’t know the difference – and I doubt Rob-Dad would realize, him having more money than sense, your second dad.’

   ‘I’ll be sure to tell him you said so,’ June chided with a chuckle.

   ‘So’ll I,’ Tom said, with glee. Zac, though, had already teased Rob along these lines in the pub recently and Rob had quite ably sparred back.

   ‘Anyway,’ Zac continued, ‘you and I will flog the jewels at the pawn shop in Camden and we’ll bugger off to the Caribbean on the proceeds. Which hotel did you say you’re staying in?’

   ‘Daddy said “bugger”,’ Tom remarked.

   ‘The Jalousie in St Lucia,’ said June, ‘and don’t swear in front of the children.’

   ‘But you said “shit” this morning, Mummy,’ Tom said artlessly, ‘when you dropped that glass.’

   ‘I said “shoot”,’ June fibbed feebly. Tom was about to protest when a commotion caught their attention.

   ‘Look, Tom!’ said his father.

   ‘The clowns are here!’ said his mother.

   Dr Pippity recognized the little boy with the eczema though she couldn’t remember his name. She’d seen him upstairs and down. Up and down. It was good to see him in Out-patients again. She remembered seeing him on the ward once, swathed in dressings and looking like a mummy. Eye contact, on that occasion, had really been all she could use. So, in Out-patients, it really was a pleasure for her to use what she referred to as her Princess Diana approach – to touch and hold what others’ prejudices would recoil from. She did ‘round and round the garden’ for Tom, and the ‘tickle you under there’ part produced a Harry Potter keyring from behind his neck that he was most chuffed to be allowed to keep. Pip had bought a job lot from a dodgy stall at Camden Lock – unlicensed merchandise about which she had no qualms, confident that most children wouldn’t notice the lack of a surreptitiously stamped TM.

   ‘Are you still in love with Hermione?’ Dr Pippity asked the boy, because though she couldn’t remember his name, she did recall that he wasn’t into Kylie. That Britney wasn’t his kind of girl.

   ‘Sort of,’ Tom said, because it was the truth – he quite likes Natalie Portman now, too.

   ‘Does that mean I have to wait for you to marry me?’ Dr Pippity pouted. Tom looked slightly embarrassed. ‘Well, I can wait for about, hmmm, twelve and a quarter minutes,’ Dr Pippity continued, taking out a huge toy clock from her pocket. Tom laughed. As did his mother. As did his father. She’d seen him before, too. Probably right here in Out-patients or perhaps upstairs on the wards. The boy’s father was looking at her almost imploringly. She misread his gaze. She thought perhaps he needed treatment by the clown doctor.

   So she ran her fingers through his hair.

   Pip ran her fingers through Zac’s hair.

   She’s running her fingers through my hair.

   ‘Yuck! Yuckkity yuck!’ she declared whilst Tom laughed, June giggled and Zac was showered with the paper bits from a hole-punch. ‘I don’t think Head & Shoulders will get rid of that dandruff. That’s terrible. Have you come to see the doctors? On account of that horrid dandruff? Are you here for a head and shoulders transplant?’

   ‘No,’ Tom interjected, a little seriously, ‘it’s me. We’re here for me. For my eczema. Not my daddy.’

   ‘Well, I think I can fix your daddy’s Dandruff Disaster,’ said Dr Pippity, producing an oversized pair of green plastic scissors the size of gardening shears. She hummed and sang and worked the toy all over the father’s head whilst his son and the mother grinned. ‘Oops!’ Dr Pippity declared. ‘I have cut off his ear.’ She held a hand over Zac’s left ear and made a theatrical display of searching high and low. Balancing the scissors precariously on his head, she produced a large, false ear from her pocket. ‘Ear you are, dear,’ she said, ‘ear you go, ear’s another one.’ Her jokes were so corny that the adults had to laugh and to Tom, not quite six, her puns were extraordinarily brilliant and the cause of much mirth.

   Undivided attention for just five minutes seemed to have a value lasting much longer – but soon enough, Dr Pippity was on her rounds, with her scissors and her hole-punch clippings and her spirits and her skill. Tom remained animated right up until he was called. June went with him. Zac stayed in the waiting area. And when Dr Pippity yodelled a heartfelt goodbye to everyone, that she was off on her rounds, Zac followed at a discreet distance.

   What Zac didn’t know – how could he – was that when clowns are in slap and motley, they are locked into their clown personae until the moment of make-up remover and cotton wool. It’s not dressing up. It’s not acting. It’s a dignified art and profession. It’s a very serious business. Who would ever accuse Superman of being Clark Kent in fancy dress? Clowns never drop their guise. Not even when they are on their own. And so it was Dr Pippity, not Pip McCabe, who was alone in the small washroom the clown doctors use to sterilize their props, wash their hands with antiseptic and compose themselves between ward rounds. Though the door was open, she was unaware of having an audience. Zac loitered out in the corridor, glimpsing her now and then as she larked about with the bin, treading on the pedal so that the lid opened and shut like a mouth – and a very good conversationalist it made, too.

   ‘Excuse me,’ Zac said, when she emerged. ‘I just wanted to say “thanks”.’

   Momentarily, Dr Pippity couldn’t quite place him – her mind was on the cancer ward she was about to visit. Then she caught sight of a few stray hole-punch pieces. ‘That’s okey-dokey,’ she said, in her clown voice.

   ‘I saw you at my nephew’s party,’ Zac said, wanting to keep her there for a moment, wanting her to be herself, wanting her to himself; not wanting to follow her towards the ward. ‘Billy?’

   ‘Dr Pippity doesn’t do parties,’ she said, needing to be on her way and slightly disconcerted by this man’s attentions. Weren’t his wife and child downstairs?

   ‘In Holloway? A couple of months ago,’ Zac persisted. ‘You gave me your card, not Dr Pippity, the other one. Mad Molly or someone. I had a headache.’

   ‘That’ll be the dandruff,’ Dr Pippity jested, inwardly slightly insulted that Merry Martha could be thought of as Mad Molly.

   I knew a Mad Molly once – she was barking mad and pretty unpleasant.

   ‘I lost your card. Can I have another?’ the man asked. ‘I mean, do you get a coffee break on this job? Can I buy you a coffee? Or a drink – what about a drink after work? I live in Hampstead – where do you live?’

   What the fuck am I doing? June is downstairs. And Juliana is this evening.

   What the fuck is he doing? His wife and kid are downstairs and he’s asking me out for a drink and wanting to know where I live?

   ‘I only drink orangey-lemony-blackcurranty squash,’ Dr Pippity declared, initially irritating Zac until he saw that she spoke mainly to a young patient who walked slowly past them, ‘and that yummy stuff,’ the clown continued, pointing to the drip the child was trundling and managing to raise a hint of a grin from the patient in the process. ‘I have to be on my way,’ Dr Pippity told the man, adding sotto voce, ‘it’s good to see your son in Out-patients rather than the ward. I’m pleased for him. For you, for your wife.’

   ‘She’s not my wife!’ Zac declared, immediately regretting the urgency and defensiveness in his voice.

   That’s as may be, thought Pip as she made her way towards the ward, but whoever she is or whatever she isn’t, she is the mother of your child and she and he are just downstairs.

   ‘Idiot!’ Zac cursed himself, as he returned to Out-patients.

   ‘Weirdo,’ Dr Pippity said to herself as she entered the ward. ‘I don’t think I’ll ruffle the hair of grown men for the time being.’

EIGHT

   ‘Gold is ill!’ Tom chanted. ‘Please? Gold. Is. Ill!’

   Zac never tired of his child’s propensity to pronounce a word the way he heard it, even if the meaning became skewed. Tom was a master of this. He thought his grandpa was ill with Old-timers because he was seventy-five, after all. For Zac, Old-timers seemed to sum up June’s father’s affliction much more astutely and more sensitively than Alzheimer’s. And now, this Saturday afternoon, Tom was saying that gold is ill with great conviction and joy.

   ‘Golders Hill it is,’ Zac granted and was rewarded with a hug that turned into a full-on rough-and-tumble. Zac loved the park at Golders Hill, an annexe to the heath extension at Hampstead. Flamingos and wallabies and rhea birds and deer, not to mention excellent home-made ice-cream, too, were all on offer. Families commandeered this section of the heath; mums and dads with Mamas&Papas prams and Bebecar buggies and every Fisher Price toy ever produced. There was a delightfully old-fashioned feel to Golders Hill Park; it had none of the pretensions of nearby Hampstead High Street. The Barbour brigade, with their designer labradors and under-retrieving retrievers and aesthetically muddied Range Rovers parked in the pay-and-display in Downshire Hill, never ventured to this enclave of the heath near Golders Green. And the gays who cottaged and rummaged and flirted and felched in gloomy areas of the heath nearer Whitestone Pond also left Golders Hill untouched.

   ‘Do you think Mummy and Rob-Dad are having ice-creams too?’ Tom asked as he and his father strolled and licked their way over to the paddock to gaze at some goats.

   ‘Probably,’ Zac said. ‘Hey! This time last week you were performing your ring thing.’

   Tom looked at his toy watch which permanently read 3.30. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘and I didn’t need sellotape.’

   ‘You were brilliant,’ Zac said earnestly, ‘and you made their day. You made everyone’s day.’

   ‘I hope that Mummy and Rob-Dad are having ice-cream at this very very very minute,’ said Tom, pulling his father towards the deer. Zac, who thought that the concept of time zones might be just beyond his son’s grasp, assured him that they most certainly were. The deer were Disney delightful; the goats, however, were pungent enough to make their ice-cream unpalatable so they meandered back towards the rolling lawns.

   ‘Good God,’ Zac said under his breath at the very same moment that Tom declared ‘A clown! A clown!’ The child stopped. ‘It’s the clown!’ He looked at Zac and beamed. ‘Quick! Let’s go! Come on, Dad.’

   Shit. It’s only bloody Her. Clowngirl. She’ll think I’m stalking her. It’s not like I have a pair of sunglasses to hide behind. I’ll keep an eye on Tom from a discreet distance and bury my nose in the paper. But that’ll make me look like a comedy spy, of course. Anyway, Tom’s not even six years old. He has ice-cream dribbling down his wrist in high wasp season. I must accompany him, I’m his father.

   ‘Daddy, look!’ Tom went charging back to Zac, standing on the periphery of parents near the stage. ‘It’s Dr Pippity, isn’t it – but she’s got funny clothes on, and much more stuff on her face than at St Bea’s.’ He scampered back to the throng of children and heckled with the best of them.

   Oh dear, what have we here? Pip said to herself whilst she made an expert mess of bendy balloons. It’s that bloke with the dandruff. Looks like I have my own personal stalker. Look at him, loitering behind his paper. I can’t see the wife anywhere. Well, he can look – but I hope he doesn’t linger.

   ‘See! Spaghetti!’ Merry Martha declared, holding aloft a scramble of balloons to much laughter from her young audience. ‘Blast and bootlaces! I’ve forgotten the magic words – does anyone know any?’ From the audience came shrieks of ‘abracadabra’ and ‘open sesame’. A girl at the front in an immaculate dress with matching hair ribbons was sitting patiently, cross-legged, with her hand held aloft.

   ‘Magic word?’ Martha asked her gently.

   ‘Please,’ the girl revealed.

   Martha performed a cartwheel to signify her approval. ‘The best magic word of all,’ she declared with a nod to the cordon of parents, ‘a very pretty please from a very pretty young lady.’ Her hands worked this way and that, whilst her face contorted into a display of entertaining grimaces and pouts. ‘Voilà! No more spaghetti – a sausage dog instead! Oh! And another. Ah! And one more!’ She distributed the balloons carefully to the quieter children in her audience, thanked everyone for coming and gave a genuflection of prodigious proportions. ‘Time for you all to have a drink or a wee-wee,’ she proclaimed, crossing her legs as if that was what she needed to do, ‘before the puppet show. Ta-ta, ta-ra, toot-toot.’ Two flic-flacs and she was off the stage.

   Tom made his way back to his father. ‘Did you see? Dr Pippity?’ Zac nodded and suggested they return to the goats now that there was no ice-cream to spoil. ‘No,’ said Tom firmly, ‘I want to go and say “hullo” to Dr Pippity.’ Zac tried to say she was going home, that she was only half Dr Pippity today. ‘No!’ Tom declared. ‘You can’t be a half. Let’s go and say “hullo”. She’s better than stinky goats. Come on, Dad, please?’

   Why can’t she just bugger off quickly instead of meandering her way through the park, chatting and jesting with every child she passes?

   ‘We don’t have time,’ Zac tried to reason with Tom.

   ‘We only just got here,’ Tom protested.

   ‘She’s busy,’ Zac said, not looking at her, not looking at Tom.

   ‘She snot,’ Tom sulked. ‘All the other children get to talk to her – look. It’s not fair, it snot.’

   You’re right. And why do I even care what she thinks of me? And why do I appear to care about it more than I care about Tom?

   ‘Go on, then,’ Zac said, ‘run. I’ll tell you how fast you are. Just say a quick “hullo”. I’ll catch up with you.’ Tom belted off. Dutifully, Zac timed him, to the fraction of a second. He’d never fob his son off with an estimate.

   Pip was trying to extricate herself from a thuggish nine-year-old boy and his sidekick who were trying to pickpocket her for balloons.

   ‘Dr Pippity?’ Tom greeted her shyly.

   ‘Shove off!’ snarled the larger boy, pushing him. But then as he stared at Tom a look of horror crept across his face. ‘Yuck, look at him!’ His friend did. ‘His skin’s coming off – and I touched him!’

   ‘Flaky boy!’ his friend joined in. ‘I could puke!’

   The larger boy wiped his hands with desperation on the grass. Pip was appalled. She’d worked with children with all manner of disabilities and afflictions for so long, frequently she no longer saw the physical manifestation of their illnesses. The boys were haranguing Tom whose eyes were smarting.

   Don’t cry, little guy, Pip thought, it’s what they want.

   Tom’s bottom lip quivered. The older boy suddenly pushed his friend against Tom. ‘Ha, ha, you’ll catch his manky skin!’

   The younger boy burst into tears, genuinely distressed, rubbing his arm furiously, as if his sleeve was contaminated with germs. He was no longer actively attempting to tease and hurt Tom. He was now fearful for his welfare. ‘Mummy!’ he sobbed, running off.

   ‘You horrible little boy,’ Pip said in her own voice, the sound of which completely took the bully aback. ‘Go away or I’ll phone the police.’

   ‘I’ll tell my dad on you,’ he said, backing off nevertheless.

   ‘And I’ll tell your dad on you,’ Pip threatened, ‘picking on littler boys, trying to steal balloons. Who do you think you are? Sod off right now or I’ll start yelling.’ Standing there, hands on hips, multicolourful and made up to the nines, Pip still cut an imposing figure to the child who sauntered off, kicking turf and grumbling. ‘Horrible child,’ Pip reiterated. She turned back to Tom who was trying to wipe his tears away before she saw. With her thumb, Pip stroked the last of the wet off his cheek. And then she licked her thumb and smacked her lips. ‘Yum, yum!’ she cooed, in her clown persona once again. ‘You have the most delicious tears in London The World The Universe.’

   Tom managed a smile. ‘You are Dr Pippity,’ he declared.

   ‘Sort of – I’m actually also Merry Martha today. Are you all right?’ Tom nodded. ‘Boys like him,’ Pip said, in a gentler voice, with a cursory nod of her head in the direction of the other children, ‘they’re just silly bullies. I bet he wets his pants and has no proper friends.’ Tom’s smile broadened. Pip glanced towards the entrance to the park. She had a party to do in a couple of hours. She really should be on her way. But then she glanced at Tom.

   God. I can’t just leave him. Little mite.

   ‘Where are your parents?’ Pip asked.

   ‘My mum’s in the St Lucy Jalousie,’ Tom said, wondering if he had the word order correct, ‘in the Caribbean. But my dad’s over there.’

   ‘Come on, let’s go over there, then,’ Pip said – though giving her stalker the wrong idea, or the slightest encouragement for his perversion, was something she’d really rather not do. ‘I hope you don’t let idiots like that stupid boy upset you,’ Pip said as they walked.

   ‘I try not to,’ said Tom with a weariness Pip felt no child his age should know. ‘I just say “sticks and stones” to myself.’

   ‘“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”,’ Pip quoted back to him.

   ‘That’s right!’ Tom said, feeling he had a true ally. ‘My dad says it’s what’s on the inside that counts.’

   ‘Beauty comes from within,’ said Pip. Tom loved her even more.

   ‘And anyway, the doctor says I will grow out of my eczema when I’m older. And it isn’t catching at all,’ he continued, almost pleadingly.

   ‘Of course not,’ said Pip, taking his hand and walking on. ‘Why aren’t you and your dad in St Lucia, too, in the Caribbean?’ she asked conversationally, on their way over to the trees. Aware of the yarns children could spin, Pip had presumed the boy’s mother wasn’t truly away.

   Mummy’s probably making all sorts of North London organic stuff for the kid’s tea. In a kitchen more suited to a Cotswold cottage, no doubt – Aga and gingham and scrubbed wood units.

   ‘My mum’s on honeymoon,’ Tom explained, ‘with Rob-Dad.’

   Pip decided it was time to give the child’s imagination a break so she changed the subject to balloons instead. ‘If you could have a balloon that looked like anything you wanted it to, what would it be?’

   And please God choose a cat, dog, parrot or tortoise.

   Luckily, Tom procrastinated for so long that Pip had blown a balloon and twisted it into a parrot by the time he said ‘Giant anteater, actually’.

   ‘Will a parrot do?’

   ‘It’s brill! Thanks, Dr Pippity.’

   ‘Martha.’

   ‘Martha, then.’

   ‘Actually, you can call me Pip.’

   ‘Who?’

   Zac, unaware of his son’s altercation with the bully, did not know where to look, let alone what to expect, on observing the clown and his son making their way towards him. So he pretended he was engrossed in his newspaper. But that seemed rude. So he watched them approach. But that seemed ruder. So he decided to meet them halfway.

   ‘Look at my parrot, Daddy.’

   ‘It’s lovely,’ Zac told Tom, thanking the clown without looking at her. Pip thought the man spent an inordinate amount of time displaying a bizarre level of interest in her balloon sculpture but it gave her a chance, however fleetingly, and however quickly she dismissed it, to see that, in the sunlight, away from the hospital, no matter how peculiar he was on the inside, he was clad in a most appealing exterior. Eyes the colour of slate. Handsome face with neat features. Dark hair, short and neat. Trim physique clad in nicely cut clothes. Though a slight preponderance of navy, Pip felt, considering the balmy weather.

   I don’t know why I’m even noticing. He’s not my type.

   Oh? What’s your type, then, Pip?

   Don’t have one.

   So how do you know this chap isn’t for you?

   Because he’s not. He’s nuts, for starters, plus he has a kid. A child, for heaven’s sake. Anyway, there’s Caleb to consider.

   I thought you weren’t considering Caleb at all?

   ‘She’s got lots of tricks,’ Tom was telling his father, ‘and lots of names, too.’

   ‘I have,’ said Pip in Martha’s voice. ‘It means never a dull moment for me. If I’m boring myself, I just become Martha. If Martha’s getting on my nerves, I summon up Dr Pippity. If Dr Pippity is tired, then I’m just plain old me.’

   See! Zac thought, with a degree of relief. She is an utter weirdo. With what is probably a sectionable personality disorder, too.

   Yet he couldn’t help but think that she wasn’t ‘plain’ in the slightest, whatever she might protest to the contrary. And however lurid her clothing and daft her make-up.

   ‘Most people are locked up if they have as many personalities as me!’ Pip said, right on cue, but to Tom and not Zac.

   See, Zac thought, vindicated, she’s barking.

   ‘I must be off,’ said Pip. Then she looked at Tom and took a sniff at her arm. She wrinkled her nose: ‘Yeuch, I am off – past my sell-by date!’ Tom giggled, Zac tried not to. She stopped herself from saying ‘not really’ to the bloke lest he thought she actually did smell, though why she cared what he thought she didn’t know.

   ‘Watch how fast I can run!’ Tom boasted. Watching him belt off towards the deer enclosure, Pip marvelled how quickly children could bounce back from a knock. She was also quite charmed to see how his father timed him.

   ‘Two revolting kids were picking on him,’ Pip told his father when Tom was out of earshot, ‘little sods.’

   Zac nodded gravely, keeping an eye on the second hand of his watch. ‘I bet he bore up OK,’ he said.

   ‘Yes,’ Pip confirmed, ‘but they were vile.’

   ‘Poor old Tom,’ said Zac. ‘It’s awful to say he’s used to it – but he is. And for the most part, it doesn’t happen often.’

   ‘Well, I’m off,’ said Pip, despite a perceptible loiter to the contrary which infuriated her.

   ‘Yeah, good idea,’ Zac said, with a derisory sniff in her direction, ‘you do whiff a bit.’

   Why did you say that?

   Why did he say that?

   Why the fuck did I say that?

   Your sense of humour is so dry it’s positively parched, Zac. Backtrack.

   But he’s standing there, an unfortunate and involuntary smirk stuck to his face while he racks his brain for a way to minimize the insult without drawing more attention to it. It’s taking him too long. See, Pip is smiling cursorily but she’s backing off.

   She must think I am an absolute arse, now. I was only trying to pick up on her own joke.

   Pip didn’t see it that way. Why should she? After all, look what she’s had to go by from Zac before.

   What a dick. And whether it’s a lack of manners or a warped sense of humour on his part, I can’t say I really care.

   ‘How fast?’ said Tom, panting.

   ‘There and back?’ Zac asked. ‘Two minutes forty in all.’

   ‘Where’s my clown?’

   ‘Gone home, little ’un.’

   Tom wasn’t too upset. He now felt sure he’d see her again. Dr Pippity. Or the Martha one with more make-up and fewer clothes. Zac reckoned so, too. And didn’t quite know how he felt about it, now that he’d made a prat of himself for the second, even third, time. Hastily, he reminded himself she was a clown, and wasn’t that an odd thing to choose to be? And hadn’t clowns frightened him when he was young? He thought of Juliana; her long legs and no holds barred. Then he considered Clowngirl with her stripy tights and daft voices.

   Well, not that he’s to know, but the next time Zac sees Pip, he simply won’t recognize her at all.

NINE

   ‘How was your visit today?’

   ‘It was good, thanks – tiring as ever, but rewarding.’

   Bloody hell! Caleb’s managed it! Pip has granted him – or, rather, allowed herself – a couple of drinks after work. She’s chosen a Sea Breeze and she’s sipping it demurely. Ironically, today’s one Tuesday when Pip needn’t have worried about being on her own – the messages left on her mobile during her hospital rounds had Cat clamouring for Pip to cook dinner (and she’d provide plenty of wine), Fen imploring her to come and see the new Julia Roberts film (and she’d buy the popcorn) and Megan begging her to come and meet Dominic (and thus advise her whether to proceed). All three presumed Pip would be free for them.

   sorry, already have plans she texts back to each of them, adding a few more kisses for Cat than the others. They’d just have to manage without her – now there was a novel notion! Cat was depressed about this, Fen was slightly pissed off and Megan was downright devastated, but Pip turned her phone off. Good job, really. One call taken from a friend or sibling in need and she’d have left the pub and Caleb without a second thought. But she’s happily ensconced in an old Windsor chair, sitting by the window with the slow sun of the early evening drifting in and bestowing aesthetic merit on all it glances off. Pip watches Caleb as he returns from the bar with peanuts and crisps. The light is catching his features, accentuating his cheek-bones and strong jaw line, spinning a little gold from his chocolate eyes. Pip feels content with her decision to have him for company.

   ‘Anything to forgo rush hour on the Misery line,’ she had said nonchalantly half an hour ago in answer to his suggestion of a quick drink. He’d been ready and keen to head off right there and then. Pip had laughed. ‘Would you mind awfully if I changed and took my slap off? We might not get served otherwise.’ Caleb had regarded her with the sober contemplation he bestowed on his patients. ‘Nah,’ he said dismissively, at length, ‘you look fab and funky as you are. Let’s go.’ And with that, he had forcibly marched her down the stairs to the ground floor, out through the foyer, past the ambulance bay, through the courtyard where the more able-bodied patients took fresh air, beyond the hospital perimeters and out into the world. She did, however, manage to remove her false nose and slip it, sleight of hand, up her sleeve and then into her pocket.

   And now she’s sitting in the Windsor chair, across from Dr Caleb Simmons who is straddling a stool and presenting her with peanuts and crisps to accompany her Sea Breeze. He’s drinking down a pint of lager. She can see that paediatrics is thirsty work. He’s tucking into the snacks, too. ‘I hardly ever find the time to even grab a sandwich on the hoof,’ he explains, almost apologetically. Because for the next few minutes his mouth is full of peanuts, all that’s possible is small talk – but it relaxes Pip and she’s pleased to find out minutiae like his age (thirty-four), how long he’s worked at St Bea’s (three years), where he lives (Hoxton) and that he’s going on holiday in a month to Belize (with a friend). He doesn’t like to speak with his mouth full so he answers Pip economically and doesn’t ask her anything. Much to her relief.

   ‘Would you like another drink?’ Pip asks, because she would certainly like another Sea Breeze. When she returns to the table, the snacks are finished and the packets have been meticulously folded into compact triangular pockets. A finicky process that strikes her as being at odds with Caleb’s easygoing personality. She doesn’t dwell on it. Actually, she is rather enjoying his company and would be happy for them to make an entire evening of it.

   Caleb buys the next round.

   ‘Here’s to the clown doctors,’ he toasts, ‘and all that you do for the hospital.’

   Pip is touched. She raises her glass and chinks his. ‘Do you feel we make a difference – truly?’ she asks. ‘We’ve only been at St Bea’s six months.’

   ‘Absolutely,’ Caleb replies. ‘You have to remember that though the kids know we are here to make them better, they also associate us with discomfort and pain what with the procedures and operations and drugs we administer. You lot provide fun and relief – you’re the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.’

   ‘That’s great to hear,’ says Pip, chinking glasses. ‘The Renee Foundation is placing clown doctors in Manchester and Glasgow this autumn – that’ll be seven hospitals in the UK.’

   ‘How did you get into it?’ Caleb asked, because he’d never really thought about it and it now struck him as rather intriguing.

   ‘I was working as a clown already,’ Pip explained.

   ‘Odd,’ Caleb mused, ‘but interesting. How did you get into clowning?’

   ‘Oh,’ said Pip breezily, ‘I think I was possibly born one. No,’ she corrected, ‘necessity dictated I become one very early on – family traumas and all that, so creating laughter and distractions became my responsibility and, soon enough, my forte.’

   There wasn’t a lot Caleb could say to that, so he nodded in what he hoped, by virtue of his bedside-manner physiognomy, was an understanding way.

   ‘Plus,’ Pip continued, quite proud of her c.v., ‘when I was little, a retired clown lived nearby and he used to paint my face for me. I’ve barely modified it since then.’

   They were suddenly aware that Pip was still in her slap and that the other drinkers were casting inquisitive glances in her direction. Pip didn’t mind that she was the centre of some quiet attention; for once, she quite liked it. ‘I have my own egg, you know,’ she announced proudly. ‘Clowns register their clown faces by painting the design on an egg shell,’ she explained, ‘so if you want to check whether I’m kosher, you can visit the Clowns Gallery in Hackney where my egg is displayed alongside hundreds of others.’

   ‘So there’s a whole clown community?’ Caleb asked.

   ‘There’s even a clowns’ church,’ Pip informed him, ‘with a service of thanksgiving for the gift of laughter and the life of Joseph Grimaldi on the first Sunday of February. If I was more God-fearing, I’d go,’ she added almost apologetically.

   ‘I had no idea,’ Caleb mused. ‘I guess I just thought of clowns nowadays as being slightly dodgy entertainers – perhaps comics who aren’t funny enough or acrobats who aren’t accomplished enough or actors who aren’t skilled enough. I imagined you all worked in isolation, leading odd lives, generally hiding behind your masks.’

   ‘I’m a very capable acrobat,’ Pip proclaimed, ‘and I turned down drama college for circus school. I trained under a brilliant French clown called Manouche. I’m also pretty good at trapeze. Clowning is an art, you know,’ she continued earnestly. ‘It requires physical skill, dramatic ability, imagination with a sense of the comic and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of human nature.’

   ‘Did you run away to the circus?’ Caleb asked.

   ‘No.’

   ‘Have you seen Cirque du Soleil?’

   ‘A billion times.’

   ‘Do you smoke?’ Caleb asked, offering her a cigarette and lighting one for himself.

   ‘Not if I’m sober,’ Pip replied, feeling on the way to woozy but thankfully still at the stage of refusing cigarettes. ‘Look at you, Doctor!’ she remarked. ‘Don’t you know fags’ll kill you?’

   ‘Totally,’ Caleb said darkly, ‘that’s why I do it.’

   Pip took a sip of her drink and thought that she really shouldn’t think he looked sexy the way he drew on the cigarette.

   ‘Ever eaten fire?’ Caleb asked, taking a deep drag.

   ‘No,’ said Pip, ‘but I’ve played with it.’ She was rather pleased with that answer.

   ‘So have I,’ Caleb said somewhat gravely. ‘Do you juggle?’

   ‘Yes.’

   ‘So do I,’ said Caleb, rather darkly. Pip decided swiftly not to read into this so she suggested they go for food.

   ‘What do you like?’ Caleb wondered.

   ‘I don’t know,’ Pip said. ‘What do you fancy?’

   He drew on his cigarette and regarded her levelly. ‘I fancy you,’ he said, with intense eye contact. Pip giggled though she cursed herself immediately for doing so. She felt nervous – and it irked her.

   ‘I want to get out of these clothes,’ she said, not intending innuendo but quite enjoying Caleb’s raised eyebrow and sly smile.

   Back at St Bea’s, Pip changed and then they had sushi in a place off Liverpool Street. It probably wasn’t a good idea to mix sake with the Sea Breezes she’d had earlier. Certainly not a good idea for it to lead to her happily accepting cigarettes from her date. Though the second made her feel quite queasy, being in the company of a doctor put her at ease. So she had a few puffs of a third but politely declined the suggestion of a nightcap.

   ‘I’m doing face painting in Brent Cross shopping centre tomorrow – I’ll need a steady hand,’ she justified, ‘and then I have a birthday party to do in Hampstead Garden Suburb at tea-time – and I’ll need a clear head if I’m going to do a handstand and God knows what else.’

   ‘Another time?’ Dr Simmons proposed.

   ‘Sure,’ Pip heard herself saying with no pause for thought, ‘why not?’

   What a gent – hailing a black cab and escorting her halfway across London, telling the cabby to wait, please, as he took Pip to her front door.

   ‘Great evening,’ Pip thanked him, wondering in her somewhat boozy and brazen state if he might kiss her; hoping that he would, thinking she really ought to maintain eye contact to encourage this to happen. She looked up from her bag, from pretending to fumble for keys. Lovely eyes, she thought, hers darting away from his; at first shyly, soon enough coquettishly.

   ‘Good-night, then,’ he said, luring her eyes back to his as his face came close to hers. He kissed her gently on the cheek, his lips lightly brushing the corner of her mouth.

   ‘Night,’ Pip all but whispered, keys in her hand, her eyes locked on to his. She lifted her chin and parted her lips and immediately, Caleb’s mouth was on hers and swiftly, his tongue was flickering at her lips. And suddenly, her tongue was in his mouth. The kiss slowed and intensified. He tasted of soy sauce and lager. He tasted of being a man, a doctor called Caleb Simmons. When their mouths separated, suddenly the sound of the taxi’s chuntering diesel engine seemed very loud, very near, somewhat impatient.

   ‘Shall I send the cab away?’ Caleb murmured, using his little finger to lift a lick of hair from the corner of her mouth, using his thumb to smooth it behind her ear. ‘Shall I come in?’

   Pip wanted more kissing. In fact, she wanted a lot more. All of him. All over her. Rude sex would be very nice, thank you very much. They could begin in the cramped porch, start ripping at each other’s clothing in the sitting-room, be down to underwear, dry humping against the wall of the corridor, then arrive at her bed buck naked and raring, even roaring, to go. She had the desire. She had the imagination. Thanks to the Sea Breezes and sake, she had the confidence. And in her bedside drawer, she even had the condoms. The sex would be tantalizingly urgent and over quickly. A fuck. But they’d rest up a little and then do it again, more languid, lasting longer, going further, going deeper, coming to the same conclusion (simultaneously, if they could synchronize).

   Caleb was fondling her breasts through her clothing and Pip, with his thigh between hers, was rubbing herself rhythmically against his leg as they continued to kiss. The cab’s engine was clicketing, the meter running. Sex was an imminent possibility. A pricey one, thought Caleb, estimating the cab fare whilst continuing to tongue Pip. Perhaps too costly, thought Pip, pulling away though it took some strength, mental and physical.

   Pip sent Caleb on his way. ‘Another time,’ she said, placing her finger on the tip of his nose, then kissing him softly there.

   ‘Sure,’ said Caleb with his easy smile. ‘Good-night, Pip.’

   ‘Night, Dr Simmons,’ Pip said, waiting till he’d climbed the basement stairwell and was up on the street, smiling down at her, before she opened her front door and let herself in.

   Of course she wasn’t going to let him in – not physically, certainly not metaphysically. And it didn’t really have much to do with her busy schedule the following day. There hadn’t been a man in her house, let alone her bed, to say nothing of her life, for months. And even then, she didn’t truly let that one in. While Caleb’s osculation had made her horny as hell, her pride and her privacy had kept him at bay. Anyway, as she often proclaimed to her friends and sisters, there were always vibrators. So, as Caleb headed for Hoxton in the cab, his hand lolling over his hard-on, Pip went to bed with a rather peculiar-looking contraption which made strange whirring sounds at inopportune moments. It did do, however, exactly what it said on the packaging.

   The only thing about having an orgasm with a battery-operated device is that post-coitally one is hugely aware of one’s solitude. I guess sometimes having a bloke in your bed is preferable, even if he does roll over, fart and fall dead asleep.

   But Pip makes light of this. Even to herself. She sits up in bed and takes two Nurofen with three glasses of water. She cannot afford to be remotely hungover when she awakes. Tomorrow is a very full day but one when she’ll see off most of this month’s mortgage payment. She switches off the light but stays sitting up. She’s spared no thought for Fen or Cat or Megan, hasn’t a clue how their evenings turned out. Though she tries to conjure up an image of Caleb, strangely enough it is that odd stalker bloke who slopes across her mind’s eye. Vividly. She’s slightly taken aback that he should accost her so.

   But there again, she thinks to herself, he is my stalker.

   Nevertheless, she wonders why she’s conjured him up.

   I guess his presence serves to emphasize just what a nice chap, by contrast, Caleb appears to be. Well-adjusted. Quite conventional. Nice manners. No kids. Little baggage. Friendly.

   ‘Pretty normal, really,’ Pip whispers into the darkness, slipping down under her duvet. And, of course, Pip is very earnest about the importance of being normal.

TEN

   When Pip isn’t working hard earning her wage by making people laugh, she spends much of her spare time looking after her sisters and caring for her friends. Invariably, this requires making them laugh, too. For free. Regardless of overtime and weekends. And then there’s Django; Pip feels compelled to lighten his load. He’s worried about Cat and it is to Pip whom he turns for updates and reassurances. Her phone bill is huge. As is her supermarket bill on account of all the soup she makes for Cat’s freezer and the luxurious treats she buys to cajole her youngest sister’s appetite.

   Pip has grown up believing that she is her sisters’ keeper. For one who spends an inordinate amount of her day falling about and fooling about, her duties as clown and eldest sister are responsibilities she takes very seriously. She’s the Great Looker-After. It’s not that her friends and family forget that sometimes perhaps she, too, would benefit from some TLC, actually it wouldn’t cross their minds that she’d ever need any. Good Lord, Philippa McCabe is never blue! She’s never had a crisis in her life! She’s so capable, so happy-go-lucky, she orders her life beautifully, she’s totally in control! However, there is small print to such compliments and it reads that actually Pip McCabe is never allowed to be anything other than happy herself, therefore available for others unconditionally whensoever she’s needed. The world would stop turning if Pip cried ‘help’. What would Cat do? Or Fen? Or Django? They wouldn’t know what to do and, quite frankly, they wouldn’t like it. Pip’s needs would be their loss. They’d be at a loss; utterly.

   For the most part, Pip doesn’t feel used or hard done by. Quietly, we can surmise that her eagerness to be the Great Looker-After and Dispenser of Laughter in some way guards against any enquiries into her own welfare. Pip wants everyone to be safe and happy, but she is also aware that, for as long as they are the ones in need, they won’t have the wherewithal to probe or pry into her well-being.

   Consequently, she hasn’t told anyone about Caleb. She’ll argue that there’s nothing to tell. Perhaps, though, it’s to avoid being questioned. Pip doesn’t have any answers. And she doesn’t like to be questioned. Nor has she told them about Zac – what on earth is there to tell? After all, she doesn’t yet know even his name – and she can’t very well refer to him as Stalker Bloke. Anyway, quietly she’s aware that she’s elaborated to herself, for her own amusement, the extent of his interest in her. Deep down she knows he’s not a stalker, just a bloke who keeps bumping into her, whose social graces are clumsy. Pip believes it is preferable to keep Caleb and Zac to herself, so she can indulge in imaginative tangents whilst she’s having a bath or travelling to work; sneak in a little day-dream whilst Megan or Cat or Fen discuss this grave matter or that. Fundamentally, though, Pip knows that to expose the bare facts surrounding either man would reveal that there’s not much there at all, really.

   There’s been little development between Caleb and Pip since their late-night doorstep embrace. Dr Pippity’s visits to St Bea’s don’t always coincide with Dr Simmons’s ward rounds and when they are on the same ward at the same time, both clown and doctor are too focused on their patients and their jobs to sneak away for even a quick hi-how’s-it-going, let alone consult diaries and arrange dates or steal a kiss, for goodness’ sake. Yesterday, he pinched her bottom just before she changed wards. She was quite taken aback. She felt compromised – believed his behaviour to be unprofessional. Fortunately, she was just about to go into the washroom to disinfect her props and wash her hands, so the symbolic wiping of a paper towel against her posterior restored her composure and enabled her to continue with her ward rounds in fine style.

   ‘I’d rather you didn’t pinch my bottom again,’ she warned, somewhat prissily, when she came across him having a cigarette in the ambulance bay as she made her way to the tube.

   He looked crestfallen. ‘What, never ever again? But it’s so damn pinchable, Pip.’ He stood up and came close. ‘In fact, I’m glad I have a fag in one hand and the Telegraph in the other or I’d be in full fondle of your buttocks right now.’

   Don’t bloody laugh at his lousy rubbish joke. He’s incorrigible. Don’t even bloody smile.

   ‘You’re incorrigible!’ Pip protested, frustrated that she was so easily flattered and praying she wasn’t blushing.

   ‘You’re blushing,’ Caleb said. ‘And I’ll be happy to bet dinner that you’re not blushing on those cheeks alone,’ he remarked, kissing them for emphasis, ‘or that it’s merely these lips that are moist right now,’ he whispered, kissing her mouth.

   Pip McCabe was truly stuck for words. His blatancy, his lewdness, was an unexpected turn-on. What was she meant to say? Should she admit that, yes, she really did want to go to bed with him, and judging by the state of her knickers, why didn’t they just forget the whole dinner-wager thing and cab it back to one of their flats right now? Or should she act all demure? Or should she play hard to get but flirtatious with it?

   For Christ’s bloody sake, this is the kind of advice I dispense to my sisters and friends the whole time. I’m forever helping them to compose fabulous soliloquies. And now I’m standing here like a lemon, gawping and speechless, flushed, drooling and damp. I can’t practise what I preach because I can’t remember what on earth it is I advocate.

   ‘Cat got your tongue?’ Caleb asked slyly, raising one side of his mouth into a sly smile.

   Pip McCabe regarded him. Momentarily, her thoughts wandered to her sister, Cat. She ought to call her. She really ought. Later.

   Now, however, she tilted her head and placed her hands on her hips. ‘Actually,’ she heard herself say, ‘there’s a pussy who’ll have your tongue in a flash.’

   Jesus, Pip! Was that you? You minx!

   God knows where that came from! How can I switch from pissed off with him for pinching my bum to suggesting cunnilingus? I should go. I really should. I have no idea whether this is a good idea – and that is the point precisely. I’ll go. I’ll go and see Cat.

   ‘Dinner, then?’ said Caleb. Now it was his turn to hope that his excitement wasn’t too obvious and he nonchalantly held his Telegraph against his bulging groin as a precaution.

   She’s speaking my language. And it’s an invitation beyond my expectations at this stage.

   Though Pip’s mind was flooded with half-sentences of ‘I should …’ and ‘I’ll phone Cat to …’ and ‘For God’s sake, I really …’ and ‘Django won’t be …’, her voice had a mind of its own. ‘Your place or mine?’ Pip asked. ‘And let’s not bother with dinner.’

   Time will tell whether it was a good thing or bad that a seamless, Hollywoodesque scene-change straight to the bedroom – to humping, writhing, sighing, happy, glistening bodies – was denied them. Caleb was on a late shift that night. And the next night, Pip had promised to accompany Fen to the birthday party of the editor at her work who she was furtively starting to see. So Caleb suggested Saturday night and Pip accepted as demurely as she could.

   However, the verbal acceptance of carnal relations between the two of them – the acknowledgement of the imminence of this – took Pip a good few strides on from her senseless celibacy. Her attitude changed and with it, her demeanour. Quite possibly, the subtle but significant shift altered the potency of her pheromones. Or at the least, simply bestowed an allure of availability and willingness.

   Little did she know that before Caleb would get her into bed, she’d have been bought drinks by Zac and would have accepted a date from him.

ELEVEN

   When Pip saw Zac across a crowded bar, she was hardly going to tell her sisters ‘Oh look, there’s my stalker, yes, I suppose he is quite handsome but don’t be fooled by good looks because actually he’s rude and odd, to say nothing of the baggage he lugs around, brimming with an ex-wife and sick son.’

   There again, nor was Pip likely to reveal that, in the next twenty-four hours, there was a strong possibility that she’d be in bed with a doctor from St Bea’s with whom she’d already had great aural sex.

   But Zac was there that night and Pip was quite taken aback that she should be amused rather than disconcerted, perhaps just a little excited rather than unnerved, that she had a certain pride rather than horror that the man over there, yes, the good-looking one in the navy jeans and navy shirt and spectacles that used to be free on the NHS but no doubt now cost a small fortune, was her own personal stalker.

   Perhaps there was a part of her that would quite like to say ‘See that bloke? I can’t get away from him.’ Not because she sought her sisters’ protection – because she didn’t really fear him at all and of course she could look after herself well enough, thank you very much – but because actually, she was rather proud that her so-called stalker was so easy on the eye. However, duty called and decreed that the only blokes who warranted her focus were the one Fen was considering sleeping with, and the one Cat was deludedly desperate to have back. Tonight was about encouraging Fen to go for it and persuading Cat to leave well alone.

   No. Pip wouldn’t be saying a word to her sisters. She couldn’t possibly. What – have the focus on Pip McCabe? Put herself in the hot seat and under the spotlight? Good God, no. No, thank you. Pip’s a great believer in there being a Time and a Place; frequently she uses the unsuitability of one or the other as a prophetic sign or else a perfect excuse. Soho, in the hurl of her sister’s potential boyfriend’s birthday party, provided her with neither the time for Zac nor the place to mention him to anyone. Ah, but there again, Pip, nor would a quiet night at your flat, or Fen’s or Cat’s. And a weekend up in Derbyshire wouldn’t be the right forum either, would it? Over the phone wouldn’t do. Nor would the grapevine. The time and place are rarely aligned in Pip’s eye.

   So, Pip sipped champagne in Soho, providing morale support for one sister (Fen’s morals were, for the most part, in good shape) and utter support for the other (Cat had had a bad day after quite a good week, and the champagne was making her slightly unsteady on her feet). It had taken all manner of cajoling – including Pip walking on her hands at Cat’s flat earlier – to persuade the youngest McCabe to come out with them. And now look at her, bedecked in Whistles, partaking of champagne and eliciting a few appreciative glances from present company. Pip was well aware that champagne could be a dangerous thing. A little was a very good idea, too much could be disastrous, the distinction between the two could be perilously indistinct.

   ‘What do you think of the Holden guy then?’ Cat whispered, nudging Pip and giving a surreptitious nod in Fen’s direction.

   ‘Well, he’s well-spoken,’ Pip analysed, ‘charming, too. Obviously fairly well-to-do, not that it should count for a jot. I’ve been watching him and he gazes at Fen at any opportunity. That’s good. She’s not one to waste time on someone who feels anything less than absolutely smitten by her. I think he could well be worth her while. Good luck to her.’

   ‘I like champagne,’ giggled Cat, who simply thought Matt hunky, Fen lucky and that they should go for it, ‘and I like those dingle-dangle things.’

   ‘Looks like Fen’s on her way to Matt’s dingle-dangle thing,’ said Pip.

   Cat whooped with laughter. ‘I meant the lights here!’ Pip knew perfectly well what her sister had been alluding to, but she also knew that her misinterpretation would cause merriment. Which it did. Pip raised her glass to the lighting – interestingly constructed multifaceted cubes of coloured Perspex floating with no visible means of support, diffusing light into colour and mood. Cat chinked glasses with Pip, her very own visible means of support.

   ‘I like the padded walls,’ Pip remarked and, to test her theory, Cat gently nodded her body against them. Pip sat down and patted the space next to her: ‘But Jesus, these seats are uncomfortable.’

   Cat snuggled against her sister. ‘Is there any more champagne?’ she wondered out loud. ‘I love champagne.’ She paused, looking temporarily alarmed. ‘I think I might be having fun.’ She looked at Pip with her brow concertinaed. ‘Am I? Is that OK?’

   ‘Why don’t we discuss it over more champers – I’ll go and find some,’ said Pip, delighted that her sister had found something that she loved and was halfway on the road to having fun.

   ‘What do you think?’ Fen hissed, catching Pip’s arm as she embarked on her champagne quest.

   ‘I think free champagne is a fabulous idea but I think it’s all gone,’ Pip said. ‘Certainly it’s gone to Cat’s head.’

   ‘I mean about him. About Matt?’ Fen asked wide-eyed and close to, eagerly awaiting her sister’s response.

   ‘I think any man who has a party in a room with padded walls is very considerate indeed,’ Pip colluded, ‘and any man who stands all those bottles of champagne must be worth keeping.’ She observed her sister. ‘And I think any man who sets his attentions on my sister has impeccable taste. And he’d better treat you very nicely or the dingle-dangles will get it.’ Pip winked at Fen and wandered off in search of champagne.

   ‘Dingle-dangles?’ Fen murmured to herself.

   There is no more free champagne. Pip decides, though, that champagne is what Cat must drink. Not because Cat loves the stuff, but because Pip won’t have her mix her drinks; she’s mixed up enough as it is. If it’s champagne that’s giving her joy, champagne she shall have. To the bar she goes.

   And that’s when she comes across Zac.

   She takes her place along the counter right next to him. Their elbows touch. But it is only when the barman allows her to queue-jump that she’s aware of him. Zac stares at her, irritated. Pip glowers back. Then she quickly looks away.

   Fuck! It’s my stalker.

   It is indeed. And he’s pissed off. He’s been brandishing a twenty-pound note in the direction of the barman for ages without success.

   ‘What’s a guy gotta do to get a drink round here? Sport a cleavage?’ he grumbles with a touch of wit that the noise of the bar renders inaudible.

   Grumpy sod, Pip thinks. ‘Sorry,’ she says, establishing eye contact, ‘you were here first.’

   ‘Whatever,’ he says brusquely, ‘go ahead.’

   He doesn’t recognize me. He hasn’t a clue who I am.

   Pip can’t order and pay quickly enough and she weaves and shimmies her way back to Cat who is chatting amiably to Fen and Matt. A side of her wants to go, wants to avoid confrontation, doesn’t want Zac to suddenly recognize her, to approach, let alone converse. A side of her, however, newly unleashed thanks in no small part to Caleb, wants to play, wants to rile Zac and surprise him. A side to her is amused that he doesn’t recognize her and a side to her is slightly irked. So she stays, with half an eye on Fen, half an ear for Cat who is now drunkenly verbose, and half a mind to search Zac out and perform a magic trick on him.

   Luck puts Zac directly in her path a short while later when she returns to the bar for yet more champagne for Cat. This time Pip smiles directly at him and he smiles back. That pretty girl who audaciously pushed in at the bar, he observes. The one who looks vaguely familiar.

   At the heaving bar Pip waits an indecently short while to be served.

   I haven’t a clue how I can feel insulted by him in Holloway, offended by him at the hospital, disconcerted by him on Hampstead Heath – and yet now rather taken with him in Soho.

   Especially as you have Caleb keen and he comes with no added complications of children and stalking tendencies.

   ‘Champagne, please.’

   Ask yourself which bloke your sisters would deem the more suitable.

   ‘Two glasses, thanks.’

   I’m not telling Cat and Fen a thing – much less asking them anything of the sort.

   When Pip turns from the bar, drinks in hand, she tries to catch Zac’s eye but he appears to look straight through her. She feels oddly rejected. Rejecting her feelings, however, she returns to the other side of the club where Cat is actually allowing herself to be chatted up by one of Matt’s mates and barely senses her sister’s return. Fen, meanwhile, has her lips a centimetre from Matt’s and she plants the first of many birthday kisses. Pip averts her gaze and busies herself tracing the rim of the wineglass. It feels as though her work is done. She feels like a spare part. She feels she is no longer needed. She wonders if she could just slip away.

   ‘Look, I know this sounds corny – and I swear it really isn’t my style – but maybe I could buy you a drink?’

   Stalker Bloke!

   She hadn’t seen him approach. She hadn’t expected him to. She’s unprepared. It’s not a state she is familiar with or one that she likes.

   Shit.

   For God’s sake, why not just say ‘yes’, Pip, with a ‘please’. Flicker your eyelashes and have a flirt. He’s only offering to buy you a drink and you don’t currently have one, Cat having just swiped it. Nor do you have anyone to talk to. This might pass the time. This might be amusing.

   ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Pip all but cautions, ‘I’m here with my sisters.’

   ‘Well, I’ll get them drinks, too, if they’d like?’ he suggests. ‘Or is it more that you need their seal of approval?’ He’s ingenuous but momentarily, Pip wonders whether he’s mocking. Then, however, she observes that his face is open and his eyes are soft and he’s tilting his head in an acquiescent way. He shrugs: ‘I don’t have sisters,’ he explains, ‘I wouldn’t know.’ He redeems himself with that.

   He still doesn’t recognize me. I don’t know whether to be offended or entertained.

   He’s tired, Pip. A little pissed, too. And the bar is atmospherically lit or downright dim. And you look pretty different out of slap and motley.

   ‘Look,’ says Zac, ‘can I buy you a drink, or shall I just dig a hole right here and dive headfirst into it?’ He’s never before resorted to chatting women up in bars but he’s elicited a laugh from the girl and he rather feels he’s done quite well. Friendly without being smarmy, witty not corny, self-deprecating not self-satisfied.

   ‘Sure,’ says Pip, ‘why not.’ Her sisters are occupied. Their glasses are full. They won’t need her for the time being.

   ‘What’ll you have?’

   Pip licks her lips and appears to think about it, her index finger raised for emphasis. ‘May I have,’ she ponders and pauses and then regards him with direct eye contact and a lascivious twitch of her mouth, ‘may I have orangey-lemony-blackcurranty squash?’ Zac stares at her because, what with the pervasive chatter, the ambient music playing a little too loudly and the good few beers in his system already, combined with the trippy dingle-dangle lighting, he thinks Pip has asked for a cocktail he hasn’t heard of but that he probably should know. ‘Orangey-lemony-blackcurranty squash.’ she repeats.

   ‘Right,’ he says, trying to remember the precise order.

   Pip repeats her request, once more, in Dr Pippity’s voice. And she raises her eyebrow and gives him a sly grin. And it is then that the penny drops.

   ‘Bloody Jesus bloody Christ,’ he murmurs. Pip can’t hear him but she can certainly lip-read. ‘Clowngirl?’ Zac exclaims. ‘Dr Whatsit or Merry Thingy?’

   ‘Pip McCabe,’ Pip says cordially, extending her hand most demurely, slightly concerned that he looks just a little alarmed.

   ‘Crikey,’ he says, and is immediately concerned that his vocabulary and the fact that he’s ruffling his hair excessively is all a bit too Hugh Grant.

   I won’t say ‘I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on’, then.

   ‘What’s a nice clown like you doing in a circus like this?’ Zac asks instead.

   There’s a pause but fortunately Pip breaks it with a laugh.

   ‘We have to slip out of our slap and motley sometimes,’ she explains.

   ‘Is that what it’s called?’ Zac asks, vaguely interested, eyeing the queue at the bar.

   ‘Sometimes, it’s more slop and mutley,’ Pip says.

   ‘Now, tell me slowly what it is you drink,’ he says, quite wanting a trip to the bar to restore his composure.

   Pip laughs: ‘They wouldn’t mix it correctly here, I fear,’ she says, ‘so make mine a glass of red.’

   ‘Coming up,’ he says, relieved. ‘My name’s Zac Holmes, by the way.’

   ‘Good to put a name to the face,’ says Pip drily, ‘after all this time.’

   Zac sets off for the bar but returns almost immediately. ‘I’d just like you to know,’ he shouts above the music, ‘that I’m not some crazy bloody stalker.’

   ‘I know,’ Pip says to him, ‘you’re Zac Bloody Holmes.’ He nods, relieved, and heads for the bar. Pip watches him.

   He has a pretty winning smile – for a stalker. But he also looks a little like my friend Susie’s ex. And God, did that guy screw her up by screwing her over and screwing her sister.

   Don’t tar him with the same brush. Don’t tar him, full stop. You hardly know him.

   But I ought to remember that he’s been insolent to me before. And he started chatting me up – In A Bar. And didn’t realize it was me. He’s probably on the pull. This is probably his style. If so, it clashes with mine.

   And of course you mustn’t forget that you have your big date with Caleb tomorrow night.

   Exactly.

   ‘Wait till I tell Tom,’ Zac says, returning with drinks. ‘You know – my little boy?’ His face lights up. ‘Of course you do.’

   ‘How is he?’ Pip asks, and is told he’s doing OK. Zac starts talking about him, the usual anecdotes laced with paternal pride, which of course run on and on. After a while, with her drink almost empty, Pip wishes the subject would change.

   And I also wish I didn’t find him attractive. I mustn’t. It must be the alcohol. After all, this is the bloke who has stalked me in hospitals, been rude to me at children’s parties, behaved oddly in public parks and has been making passes at me in a bar. And he has a kid and an ex and he’s odd. So what if he’s good-looking? Distortion by drink!

   ‘We’re not talking baggage as in a small backpack,’ Pip says into her wineglass a little later when Zac has gone to the bar to replenish their drinks, ‘we’re talking excess baggage – on such a scale that he’d be fined heavily if he tried to check it in at the airport.’

   Zac returns and confirms Pip’s misgivings when he starts regaling her with Tom’s Harry Potter obsession. He’s just about to ask her what sort of a name Pip is and what sort of a career clowning is, when two girls approach. They flank her like bodyguards and eye him with some suspicion.

   ‘Zac,’ Pip interrupts, glad for a chance to move on from Tom and J.K. Rowling but bemused that it is the arrival of her sisters expediting it, ‘these are my sisters, Cat and Fen.’ Privately, Zac is almost irritated by their eccentric names, but he greets them politely and hopes they’ll go away.

   The sisters don’t go away. Cat and Fen hang around because they are unused to seeing their sister in male company, a stranger’s company. So they loiter.

   Oddly, Pip wishes they’d go away. Of course, she blames the wine.

   Why else would I quite like this Zac Holmes odd sod to myself for a little longer?

   Fen whispers to Pip that Cat is pretty pissed and should they all go? Pip can see that Cat really should leave now but should not return home unescorted. Fen, with sudden nerves over Matt, wants them all to leave together. Go back to hers and make popcorn, she suggests. Have a chat, she proposes. For a split second, Pip is exasperated and just wishes her sisters could take some initiative and take care of themselves. Even if just for half an hour longer. However, she says nothing of the sort. She tells Fen not to be stupid, she’ll take Cat home, Matt will no doubt take her home. ‘It’s his birthday,’ she spells out. ‘You’re his number one present.’

   Pip returns her attention to Zac who is being stared at by Cat, not for any reason other than that she’s at that stage of inebriation when whatever her gaze falls upon is fixed. Fen kisses Cat and nods at Zac. Then Pip nods at Cat and gives Zac a quick peck on the cheek. ‘Ta for the drink, Zac,’ she says, ‘but I have to go. My sister here is lovelorn and pissed. It’s a fatal combination.’

   ‘Sure,’ Zac says almost eagerly, because the sad drunk sister looks as though she may well burst into tears or throw up. Or do both, in whichever order, rather soon. Pip guides her out. Zac watches her go. She has a nice bottom.

   Let her go. Odd sisters with stupid names. Come on! Not my type. To say nothing of the fact that she’s a frigging clown, for Christ’s sake.

   However, when Pip returned unexpectedly a few minutes later, he was surprised how pleased he was to see her. Her drunk sister was looking ominously green around the gills and Pip gave him an apologetic raise of her eyebrows as she guided Cat towards the toilets.

   ‘My sisterly duties do have limits,’ she said, standing by his side moments later. ‘Accompanying Cat right into the loo goes beyond them.’

   ‘Look, can I perhaps buy you a drink sometime when you’re not surrounded by sisters and we don’t have to yell above dippy-trippy music and the bar staff aren’t fascists?’ Zac felt uncharacteristically nervous but the beer in his system encouraged him to ramble on. ‘I mean, I know it appears I’ve been rude to you in parks and hospitals and kids’ parties but it’s been unintentional – just unfortunate. I’m not rude by nature, honestly. Nor do I chat up girls in bars, or anywhere really, for that matter. And I’ve never met a clown who isn’t male and elderly and scary.’ He paused for breath, wondering how to follow that. ‘And I’d like to buy you a drink because you seem interesting and you’ve meant a lot to my son.’ He stopped and scratched his head. ‘But I don’t want to buy you a drink as a grateful parent-type,’ he rattled on, ‘but actually simply because you. Are. Really. Quite. Pretty.’

   Oh, fuck. What am I saying?

   God – what is he saying?

   Pip hadn’t yet said a word in response. And the lighting had been momentarily dimmed to such a level that Zac could barely make out her features, let alone judge her expression.

   ‘Well, Pip, I’ve made a fool of myself.’

   However, just the slightest shake of her head, just the glimmer of a smile, bolstered Zac. ‘Look,’ he said, laying a hand lightly on her shoulder, ‘I just think maybe it might be a laugh to get together for a quick drink sometime.’

   ‘Sure,’ Pip shrugged. Though she had the time, she suddenly found she did not have the inclination to give accepting his offer a second thought. ‘Why not!’

   ‘Cool,’ he nodded, so surprised at her equanimity that all he could do was say ‘cool’ again into his beer glass.

   ‘I’m in the Thomson’s directory,’ she said, extending her hand to shake his. ‘Well, Merry Martha is.’

   ‘Cool,’ Zac said one final time.

   Then there was a Cat amongst them, looking grey and sheepish. Pip started to guide her out. She turned around and nodded at Zac. He made a telephone motion with his hand. She nodded again. He watched her put her arm protectively around her sister and then they were gone.

   Zac hadn’t spared a thought for Juliana. He didn’t mind in the least that she wasn’t with him that night. She had prior arrangements. Not that he’d invited her, anyway. After all, they were only simply seeing each other – fairly regularly, yes, but with no stipulation of exclusivity. They weren’t an ‘item’ and this was underlined by the fact that when they went to bed – which was the purpose of each time they met – they did so to have sex, not to make love to each other or sleep together.

   Zac rejoined his friends in the club and brushed off their questions about who was the girl he’d been chatting to as ‘just someone I’ve bumped into a couple of times’.

   I’m not sure why I want to pursue this Pip McCabe, he mused as he headed home by cab a couple of hours later. ButI do know I’d like to pursue her – so I guess I’ll find out why when I do.

   I haven’t spared a thought for Caleb.

   Pip considers this fact as she tucks up Cat in bed, bucket at the ready, before making a bed for herself on her sister’s sofa.

   Does that mean I’m an old slapper? Or is it like having two job offers and initiating second interviews before deciding which one to plump for?

   ‘Hang on,’ she says quietly into the darkness, ‘I already have two jobs.’

   For a girl who has proclaimed that she isn’t remotely in need of one man, let alone two, she nevertheless goes to sleep wondering whether Stalker Bloke will call, and how her date with Dashing Doc will turn out tomorrow. She hopes to see the former again soon. And she’s looking forward to seeing the latter sooner than that.

TWELVE

   She’d never admit to it, but Pip was actually quite looking forward to not spending a Saturday night on her own. (Though she has oft proclaimed that Saturday nights are overrated and are a great opportunity to catch up on ironing.) And she was looking forward to not having sex on her own, too. (Though, as we well know, she is a great advocator of the merits of vibrators.) She was hopeful that, this time tomorrow, she wouldn’t be reading the Sunday papers on her own, either. (Though she has never revealed to family or friends that it is only ever on Sunday mornings that she is prone to feeling just on the lonely side of alone rather than happy to be on her own.) She felt it was fair to suppose that this time tomorrow, she might be snuggled up in Caleb’s bed (which she’d envisaged to be a mahogany bateau lit, billowing extravagantly with white Egyptian cotton); papers and croissants and fresh fruit all in a scatter around them. She could almost smell the coffee. Perhaps they’d wander off to Petticoat Lane or Spitalfields or buy bagels in Brick Lane for brunch.

   Just then, waking on Cat’s uncomfortable sofa at the crack of Saturday dawn in noisy Camden, the notion of East London on a Sunday seemed romantic, even exotic. Pip felt as though she was off on a mini-break. For a tryst. Breakfast in bed. Hand in hand, strolling around places she’d never been. Silently and quickly, she dressed, tidied away the bedding and popped her head round Cat’s bedroom door. Her sister was sleeping very deeply. Pip wrote her a note saying she hoped the hangover wouldn’t be too tenacious – recommended Nurofen and regular Coca-Cola stirred to flatten the fizz – and then left to stroll, a spring to her step, back to her own flat a mile away.

   Once home, she ironed. She ironed because, of course, she would be otherwise occupied that Saturday night. She ironed whilst trying not to wait for Caleb to call and to distract herself from checking the time too frequently. She allowed herself to check the time only after ironing every four items. She ironed everything that needed it, as well as a fair few items that didn’t.

   She sat down, bemused and unnerved. Not because Caleb hadn’t yet called, but in acknowledgement of her own anxiety. It was this which perturbed her. She read into it. She was anxious as to when exactly he would call, and she was anxious that there again, he mightn’t. It unnerved her that actually, she did care one way or the other; that what Caleb did or didn’t do, might or might not do, was affecting her mood. He had control and he didn’t know it but she knew that he had; it worried her that she seemed unable to redress the balance. She couldn’t do the mind-over-matter thing which she had so frequently extolled, and which she had exhorted her friends to do – and she minded because it mattered.

   She told herself that if Caleb hadn’t called by 11.30, he wasn’t worth it; but it was approaching that time now and it made her anxious. Ten minutes later, she told herself that if he didn’t call by noon, it meant he wouldn’t be calling at all. She told herself that the fact that he hadn’t yet called must mean he wasn’t that keen. She asked herself if he was worth being bothered about. Why did she care? Why couldn’t she just take it or leave it? Have him or have not? Happy-go-lucky – that was what she was famous for. Instead, alone, she was angry with herself. Silly stupid cow. All it had taken was one snog in her stairwell, and one flirtatious conversation in the ambulance bay, to turn her into any one of the number of her girlfriends who’d turned to her frequently over the years fretting whilst waiting for phone calls.

   Of course he’ll phone, she’d say to them. Don’t read anything into it, she’d say. And when those phone calls never came, Pip would successfully reassure her girlfriends that he wasn’t worth it anyway, he wasn’t worthy of them. It appalled Pip that today she was unable to practise what she preached.

   Her phone rang at 11.52. Before she answered it, she tried to recall the deep meaning she’d allocated to post-11.30, pre 12.00. He hadn’t called by 11.30 so, oh yes, that’s right, of course, it meant he wasn’t worth it. She felt the ball was in her court when she picked up the receiver. She lost the serve, however, when she heard Cat’s voice at the other end, thanking her for looking after her. Pip felt deflated. And irritated with Cat, to whom she gave short shrift.

   Bugger. If Caleb bloody calls now, I’ll just pretend I’ve completely forgotten and I have other plans and I’m terribly busy and I had such a late night in Soho last night so maybe another time, Dr Simmons.

   The phone rang. Pip refused to acknowledge the shot of adrenalin, the hit of hope, as she answered it.

   ‘Hiya, Pip, Caleb here.’

   She said ‘hullo’ demurely, whilst inside her head, the voices of the London Philharmonic Chorus were belting out a triumphant ‘Hallelujah!’. It was 12.05. What had that meant? Well, it didn’t matter any more, did it, because here he was, chatty as you like, phoning her and arranging their date.

   ‘Still free?’ he asked. ‘What shall we do?’

   Well, Pip, aren’t you going to have completely forgotten? Aren’t you going to enforce a rain check in your pursuit of the hard-to-get line?

   ‘Well,’ said Pip, pretending to think about it.

   ‘I could come over – I know where you live,’ Caleb suggested lightly.

   ‘Or I could come to you – because I don’t know where you live,’ Pip riposted. ‘We could browse Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields and buy bagels from Brick Lane. It’s all new territory to me.’

   Yes, Pip – why not divulge your Egyptian cotton fantasy too and, while you’re at it, go ahead and order your Sunday papers as well?

   There was a pause at the other end. ‘It’s just – well, sorry – but I’m needed. I’m on call tonight,’ Caleb apologized.

   Do not sound disappointed, Philippa.

   ‘Oh,’ said Pip, sounding disappointed.

   There was another pause.

   Why not implement your rain-check theorem? If there isn’t going to be a Sunday morning, is a Saturday afternoon really worth it?

   ‘Hey, I don’t have to leave till 7.00-ish,’ Caleb was saying with detectable eagerness. ‘It’s only noon now.’

   It was settled. He gave Pip his address and though he gave her directions from Old Street underground station, she called for a cab instead and dismissed the fifteen-pound fare.

   This was the stage that her friends would text her. In cab – wish me luck! Or perhaps hot date – think of me! Or even off 4 rampant sex. Call u l8r! Though Pip would text them back a mixture of enthusiasm and advice, she’d also chide them for jumping into cabs, at some man’s command, with such haste and eagerness. But of course, as she headed east by cab, there was no one for her to text because no one knew of her plans. Indeed, no one even knew of a Dr Caleb Simmons.

   Caleb’s flat was smaller than she’d imagined and she had to be stern with herself not to be disappointed. She hadn’t considered that it might be in a modern block. She’d been thinking loft apartment in quite some detail. And there was no bateau lit. Just a smallish divan without a headboard and with a navy blue duvet set. She checked it out on a surreptitious snoop after asking for the toilet. The bathroom was too cramped for a bath. She noted the Psycho shower curtain with the silhouette of Norman Bates’s mother brandishing the knife. She swiftly decided it must have been a Christmas present from some younger brother. She observed that the lid was on the toothpaste, the soap was not soggy in the dish and the toilet seat had been down when she entered. The flat was clean, uncluttered and tidy, the walls were white and the flooring was wood laminate throughout. She’d have decorated pretty similarly if she had lived here, she thought, and quietly congratulated herself and Caleb on their compatibility when it came to décor. However, the apartment was not remotely soundproofed from downstairs’s television or the blazing row being conducted upstairs in a mixture of Anglo-Saxon expletives and patois.

   ‘I’ve had to tend to a broken nose in the past,’ Caleb told her, motioning to the flat upstairs. ‘She whacked him.’

   ‘Well,’ Pip said lightly, pleasantly surprised by cornflowers in a vase, ‘I suppose it means you don’t have to resort to the telly for soap opera.’

   I’m sure Cosmo would say a vase of flowers shows a strong man at ease with his feminine side! Good.

   ‘What are your neighbours like?’ Caleb asked with genuine interest and slightly wistfully.

   ‘Elderly,’ Pip said. ‘The one directly above me makes the best apple crumble in the world.’

   I bet his cooking skills are quite good, too – I bet he sits at that table over there and eats properly, not propping a ready-meal on his lap in front of the TV.

   ‘Lucky!’ said Caleb (who often ate ready-meals, occasionally at the table but usually while watching TV). ‘Talking of apple crumble, I’m hungry – shall we go out and grab lunch?’

   They ate Greek, ordering every meze on the menu and a couple of items off it, too. The staff greeted Caleb with familiarity and warmth and Pip was delighted. Mr Popular. Mr House Proud. Mr Flower-arranger. Mr Normal. Dr Simmons.

   Mr Psycho Shower Curtain, Pip?

   I told you, I reckon that was a gift from some dodgy brother.

   Does he have a brother – dodgy or otherwise?

   I don’t know. I haven’t yet asked. And if he doesn’t, so what – Mr Post-modern Sense of Humour it is!

   Pip made sure that she matched Caleb in the garlic stakes and she also made sure that she surreptitiously limited how much pitta she ate. She’d read in one women’s glossy or other that Bread Brings Bloat. Garlic breath was one thing, a pot belly quite another. She couldn’t believe that a dodgy diet tip was dictating her lunch. The pitta was lovely – slightly charred – and she was only allowing herself one slice. Ridiculous. She would surely direct such a word to any of her friends who eschewed pitta for the same reason.

   After lunch, they strolled around and looked at the buildings and chatted idly about what they usually did at weekends. Pip didn’t say ‘ironing’ – she said, ever so casually, ‘I tend just to hang out – if I’m not working.’ Caleb said he was on call more often than not. Pip told herself she ought to lodge this fact for future musing. She could well have Caleb and continue her routine of Saturday night ironing. She even thought about the following weekend, hoping Caleb wasn’t on call, hopeful that he’d try to change shifts if he was.

   ‘I love shops like these,’ Pip enthused in front of an All A Quid emporium. ‘I buy lots of stuff for Dr Pippity in such places.’

   ‘Let’s go in then,’ Caleb suggested, holding the door for Pip and earning points by doing so. (Mr Manners, she added to her list.) They spent a happy and lucrative half hour there, Caleb insisting on paying for the treasure that filled Pip’s basket. ‘See it as a twenty-quid donation to the Renee Foundation,’ he said, brushing away her effusive thanks. She kissed him with gratitude. And he kissed her back. With lust. And then they kissed each other desirously though they were blocking the doorway. Only the shopkeeper clearing his throat, and an elderly passer-by tut-tutting, decided them to walk briskly back to his flat and continue their kissing there. It was late afternoon, after all. And, after all, he was on call that evening.

   The fact that his flat was even more noisy than before lunch put Pip at her ease. It lent a certain ambiguity to her sudden giggling – because the woman upstairs yelled ‘You’re a fucking pathetic bastard cunt!’ at much the same time as Caleb grunted involuntarily on lifting her T-shirt to feast his gaze on her breasts presented pertly in a broderie anglaise bra. And for similar reasons, Caleb hummed the theme of Grandstand drifting up from the flat below when Pip unbuttoned his jeans and eased them down his legs. Pip could bite her lip and raise her eyebrows as much for catching sight of the impressive bulge in his Calvins, as for hearing the woman upstairs yell ‘Fuck off and get out of my fucking life, you twatting tosser!’ By the time that Caleb and Pip were naked, the television had been turned off and the twatting tosser had obviously fucked off. Yet they stood, in stillness and silence on a Saturday tea-time, admiring each other’s nudity and their very good fortune. They were relaxed and raring to go.

   It had been a long time since Pip’s last sexual encounter. And that had been a nondescript and slightly perfunctory session with Mike, the sweet bloke she’d never been in love with, many months ago. She’d known Mike for quite a while. He had treated her to many dates before asking, with great reverence, if he might take her to bed. Caleb, by comparison, she hardly knew, yet she was happy for him to do all manner of things to her that afternoon. And she found she genuinely wanted to reciprocate. Not so much you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours; but more, you do that flickery thing with your tongue tip on my clit and I’ll do something feathery with my lips against your balls. And look, we can do so simultaneously! Pip and Caleb silently congratulated themselves on bedding such capable, imaginative and exciting partners. Caleb attributed Pip’s athleticism and inventiveness to her grounding in acrobatics and skill as a performer. Pip credited Caleb’s consummate knowledge of her body and his gentle but confident handiness and finger work to his demanding medical training. He seemed to her to be an intelligent, considerate and mature person. Coupled with the fact that she found him immensely attractive, she was utterly at ease and their coupling was intense and enjoyable.

   Of course he used a condom.

   Pip was home by 7.30. She was physically tired and emotionally exhausted and wouldn’t have had the inclination to do the ironing anyway, had there been any. She watched whatever was on the television, smiling to herself that, in all probability, Caleb’s downstairs neighbour was watching the same programmes.

   ‘Ruth?’

   ‘Hi, Zac! What are you doing in on a Saturday night?’

   ‘Just catching up on stuff – making a few calls, paying a few bills, watching a few vids I’ve recorded recently,’ Zac said nonchalantly, if a little defensively.

   ‘I thought you’d be wining and dining and sixty-nining.’

   ‘Well, you have a dirty mind and my brother can only have married you for that, not for your looks,’ he sparred back.

   ‘Fuck off!’ Ruth laughed. ‘Well, it’s good to hear from you – do you want to speak to your bro? He’s burping pleasantly, having polished off a take-away curry.’

   ‘Jim always was the one with manners – I’ll have him in a mo’. I just wondered if you have the phone number of that clown girl who did Billy’s party?’

   ‘Merry Martha? Sure, hold on. Hang on. Ah. Here. She’s good – quite pricey, but the kids love her. Are you planning for Tom?’

   ‘Perhaps. Maybe. I just thought I’d give her a call and find out what’s what.’

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