Genre: New Adult Contemporary Romance
Author: Jo Kessel
I don’t like being English. I never have. It’s always felt like such an un-sexy nationality. Let’s face it, if any foreigner were asked to conjure up a vision of the typical male Brit, most likely they’d be thinking of someone slightly overweight, over-boozed and over sunburned. Most other Europeans fare better. The Italians are all considered hot-blooded Romeos whilst the Scandinavians are a blonde bunch of Adonis’s. As for the French, granted they have a reputation for being curt and unfaithful, but deep down the rest of the world respects their infidelity, crediting the lot with being expert lovers even though most of them probably aren’t. The most flattering of British descriptions is that of an English Rose, but that wouldn’t fit someone like me. Far from being a sinewy blonde with a porcelain complexion, I’m more a pint-sized pre-Raphaelite – short, with waist-length brown curly hair and far too many curves. Not that being an English rose is a particularly flattering description anyway. Yes, it might be a beauteous flower, but it’s also got prickly stems which snare. No, in my opinion, whichever way you look at it, on a global, sexual scale, being English isn’t often an asset.
Hugo’s English. He’s as stiff upper lip Hooray Henry as they come. He’s tall and good-looking in that pretty, public schoolboy, foppish kind of way and he’s a charmer to boot. Think Hugh Grant and you’re not far off the mark - although if it was a toss up between Hugh (particularly the Four Weddings Hugh) and Hugo, there’d be no competition. It would be Grant all the way. I’ve always had a bit of a crush on him. Ironically, many women from all over the world would probably jump at the chance to jump on my Hugo because he’s English. Not because he’s the typical Brit though, but because he’s got the Hugh Grant factor and foreign females fall for that kind of thing. It’s the look, the manners and the self-deprecation. For me, however, nothing beats your language being spoken by somebody who’s not from your country. It’s undeniably sexy. It’s why I like foreigners.
Hugo is what you’d call a catch. My mother definitely thinks so. I’m sure she’s secretly hoping we’ll end up together. Son-in-law material doesn’t come any better. She could show him off and brag away till the cows came home. “My Danni’s Hugo” she’d boast to all her friends, with an air of smug superiority, “He’s a Barrister. He’s ever so clever.”
Indeed he is. Apparently you need to be fluent in Ancient Greek and Latin to get a first in Classics at Oxford like Hugo. Now, that might seem a useless skill to the less educated of us – after all there are no more ancient Greeks or Romans with whom to converse – but you’ve still got to be bloody brilliant to master it. You try making head or tail of a page of Homer’s Iliad! You’d soon understand why they coined the phrase ‘It’s all Greek to me’.
We met when I was fifteen. He was a couple of years older. “Danni Lewis” he’d remarked, at the end of our first proper conversation at some run-of-the mill teen party we’d gone to. “I think you’re great. You’re so original. You’re so enigmatic.”
“Well, thanks very much,” I’d replied. “You’re pretty nice too.” What I’d really wanted to ask was ‘what the hell does ‘enigmatic’ mean?’ I didn’t dare though because I didn’t want to come across as intellectually inferior. He’d clearly assumed that I was as clever as he was, which meant knowing a word like enigmatic even at the age of fifteen. These days I work hard at not making assumptions, although most of the time I fail dismally. I suspect we all do.
Anyway, as soon as I got back home I’d fired up my computer and checked the meaning of the word ‘enigmatic’ on an on-line dictionary. ‘Deliberately mysterious’ or ‘puzzling’ were the definitions I got. I’d liked that. It conjured up a vision of someone beautiful but unobtainable, a woman over whom you could obsess but not possess; a woman about whom one could never assume.
It took us ages to get together. We indulged in hours of what we called phone sex. In truth there was nothing remotely sexual about it. A typical late night, tucked up in bed conversation would go as follows:
HUGO: “Watch you doin?”
ME: “Mmmmmm, I’m just lying here, thinking about you lying there. Where are you, watch YOU doin?”
HUGO: “I’m just lying here on my bed, thinking about you lying there.”
ME: “U ON your bed or IN your bed?”
HUGO: “I’m on it.”
ME: “Well, why don’t you get in it?”
And so the scintillating dialogue would continue – although you’d have thought that a bloke who was destined to get a first from Oxford might be able to make slightly more dynamic conversation. I think the reason it took me six months to secure a date was because I kept being too enigmatic. The deliberately mysterious and puzzling me was quite clearly sending out the wrong signals. Hugo assumed I wasn’t interested.
Eventually one day, we were both sitting on my box room bed at my parents’ house in Hendon, north London, playing this stupid truth yes or no game when he came clean and I came clean and it was all very sweet and a date was put in the diary.
I was ten years old and having lunch with my grandmother. I think I’d just dared to ask (even though she was eighty-two) if she was still having sex with my grandfather. She never answered the question, but decided it was time to offer some useful advice. She must have got this from a Mills and Boon novel, because she sure as hell didn’t get it from her marriage. She was a Polish immigrant and married the first man she’d met on British soil. She spent the rest of her life trying to make the best of it. The conversation was remarkably one-sided and as usual, she kept getting her V’s and W’s mixed up. It’s a common Eastern-European linguistic affliction apparently. Anyway, the mentor-like chat went a bit like this.
“Now I vant to tell you something and I vant you to try to remember it ven you get older.”
“If a man ewwer makes you wery dizzy ven you kiss him, make sure you newwer let him go. You vant to make sure you marry him.”
“Why? Does Grandpa make you wery dizzy?”
“Eat your lunch Danni”.
I was on the brink of repeating my original ‘are you and grandpa still having sex’ question, but thought against it, gagging myself with a forkful of lamb and mushy peas. With hindsight, I wish I hadn’t held back. I mean, do most octogenarians still have sex? If so, what are the chances of cardiac arrest mid-orgasm?
Anyway, Hugo didn’t make me wery dizzy when he kissed me, but it was still very nice and he did make me happy. Phone sex progressed to pillow talk and we had a really good, solid relationship. He knew me inside out and always had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what I was thinking, which often got me in a lot of trouble.
I loved his company. He made me laugh and he stimulated me intellectually. I mean, how many other seventeen-year olds do you know who are nicknamed Ariadne? That’s what he’s always called me. It took a while for me to pluck up the courage to ask who Ariadne actually was. It turned out she was this Princess from Greek mythology who fell in love with a bloke called Theseus who was due to be offered as a sacrificial victim to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. But in order to save her loved one from his horrible fate she’d stuffed a ball of thread into his pocket as he was led into this prison of a labyrinth, meant to be impossible to escape from. But thanks to her (and the thread) he did escape and was never sacrificed and they lived happily ever after.
Hugo said he hoped an imaginary trail of string would always lead him to me, which is why he’d called me Ariadne. I think he was secretly hoping that I’d embrace this story with a bit more enthusiasm by calling him Theseus. But I couldn’t. It all felt a bit too un-cool. I preferred calling him Achilles, which really pissed him off because it didn’t demonstrate the same level of love and commitment. He hated the thought that he might be my Achilles heel. “Lighten up”, I’d said. “Don’t take everything so bloody literally.”
I’ve got to hand it to him though. He’s the only person who’s ever got me into a bath under the auspices of scientific experimentation. One day he’d told me to bring my bikini with when I went round. I’d hoped that meant we were going to his parents’ posh health club, and was frankly a bit miffed when I got there and he said we were staying put. “Why did I bring my bikini then?” I’d protested. “My fault” he apologised. “You probably don’t need it. But we are doing something with water.”
He led me into his parents’ bathroom. The tub had been filled to the brim. Curiously there were a whole load of plastic measuring jugs strewn across the floor. He explained that he’d been learning all about this Greek mathematician, Archimedes, the first person to work out that the volume of an object placed in a fluid was equal to the volume of the amount of fluid displaced by that object when submerged.
For some bizarre reason, Hugo wanted to work out my body mass Archimedes style. He’d drilled a small hole just above the water line. The plan was that when I got in the bath, my body mass would trickle out the hole and Hugo would be waiting to collect it in the measuring jugs.
“I don’t give a toss what my body mass is Hugo. I don’t even understand what you’re going on about.”
“Don’t be such a killjoy Danni. It’ll take five minutes.”
So off I went to put on my swimsuit and came back to stand hovering by the bath.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” I was no scientist, but felt pretty certain all would not go according to plan.
“Of course it will” snapped Hugo.
I stepped gingerly into the tub. A little bit of water trickled into a jug Hugo was holding up to the hole. “OK, you can sit down now Danni. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it so slowly, it’s all under control.” So I plonked myself down and Hugo looked on in horror as the volume of my body mass cascaded over the edge of the bath onto his parents’ cream shag pile, bypassing his too small hole entirely.
“Achilles, I think you should stick to the Arts,” I laughed.
“Oh shut up Ariadne. You never wanted it to work in the first place!”
See, told you he always knew exactly what I was thinking. Anyway, never one to miss out on a golden opportunity, and seeing as I was already in the bath, he told me to shove up and let some of the water out. He took off his clothes and sloshed himself beside me. Secretly I think the whole thing had been about getting me half-naked in the bath with him. Christ knows why he hadn’t just suggested that in the first place.
Even by the age of eighteen Hugo and I had spoken loads of times about marriage. “Do you think we’ll end up together” he’d ask.
I’d pondered and then joked about a possible scenario. “I don’t know. If you ever asked me I’m sure I should say yes, but probably wouldn’t. I reckon I’ll be more intent on screwing up my life. Maybe I’ll come crying to you when I’m mid-thirties and divorced, by which time you’ll probably be blissfully married to somebody else and I’ll have to live with the fact that I had the chance of happiness but turned it down.
I don’t know what it is about Hugo. Many people would dream of having what we have. It’s just sometimes I find myself in the kitchen of our Highgate flat (technically his flat, but we both live in it) sticking lemon sole under the grill when I should be out being wild and reckless.