Quiet but for the steps up, austerely wooden and creaking their age, then the door itself, which scraped and squealed open. There was a film of dust on everything, including the man in the doorway. He looked as if he had been torn away from a life’s work, as if preparing to smash four impertinent kneecaps, but something inside him clicked and we were shown in. Silently we made our way past ancient assortments of study and long-since-inspiring busts, my companion unable to keep his eyebrows a respectable distance from his hairline. Then a small back-office, where we were beckoned faintly to sit. Which we did.
"It's, ahem, nice to see you," said the proprietor, pronouncing the throat-clear rather than bothering to affect it.
"I suppose it must be," said Ben.
"You too," I said.
He shifted slightly.
"My daughters have told me all about you."
"Lies!" said Ben, attempting to perfect the moment with a friendly punch on the arm but connecting instead with a none-too-pleased left breast.
"Quite," was (looking down) all he could manage, Ben sheepishly withdrawing as he did so.
"You too," I said.
"So what is it you do?"
"Well," began Ben, "there's absolutely everything to be said for not working."
The man failed to conceal his wince.
"We've attended several promising interviews," I added.
“You’re—” he started, the rest of the sentence catching in his throat. He composed himself. “You’re— not employed?”
“Unemployed, in fact,” said Ben, enjoying himself.
I smiled weakly. “Between engagements.”
“I see.” The man took four slow, seething breaths. “And you expect me to give you my blessing, to give over my daughters to— the unemployed?”
“It’s the bride’s parents who foot the bill, is it not?”
It was always difficult being tactful with Ben about.
“Traditionally, at least,” said Ben. “And my friend and I are nothing if not traditional.”
“And what about after that?”
“How will you support them after the wedding?”
“By then we’ll have finished our novels,” said Ben.
“I’ve already deleted eighty pages. Can’t be far off now.”
By this time he had his chair turned completely away from us, staring down the wall for want of a window.
“Plot?” he asked, though the question mark was barely audible.
“Man wakes up one morning and suddenly realises life is cold and empty.”
“That’s a premise," he snapped. "What else happens?”
“Well, he walks about a bit, meets a few chaps, has a scrape or two. But he ends up not having changed his mind about it.”
“Yours was about spies or something, wasn’t it, Hugh?”
“No. I’m not quite up to the part where you come up with a plot yet.”
“No? Which part, then?"
He shut down at that point. We were both experts at provocation but it was as if he had willed his heart to cease. Nothing would awaken inside him again.
We went home and had sex with our girlfriends.
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