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Roger Partridge
Pfeuferstr. 36 • 81373 München (Munich)

Barbarella Translated (2005, Roger Partridge ©)

I work occasionally as a translator, but among my colleagues have never ever come across anybody like Barbara!

Normally when a young man – well at thirty-five, youngish – sees the current object of his desire the first time completely naked, his reaction is pretty straightforward. But it certainly wasn't so that night I went back with Barbara to her apartment. We'd been having a meal at a new and much reviewed restaurant. Yes, I know that sounds like page one of the seducer's manual, but in our case there were several major differences. First of all, she'd hinted several times she would like to be taken there. However, much more to the point, in the few weeks we'd know each other it somehow became clear to me she was just as much interested in a no holds barred physical relationship as I was. It's difficult to pinpoint why I was so sure about this. Perhaps it was the challenge in her eyes every time she looked at me, especially during our rare moments of silence. Or the fact that on every single one of our dates, even a visit to the cinema fixed up at short notice, there was not the slightest indication that she'd just thrown something on. And I'm quite sure she'd never lounged around in the same clothes all day. She always looked as if she'd just marched out of an exclusive boutique, colour matched, at the cutting edge of fashion and always absolutely right for the time of year – even for the time of day! Sometimes I felt that admiration and appreciation were not enough – I should be handing out medals as well. And this was even truer of her hair. A thick but silky mass of intensely black and curly hair down to her shoulders. It looked so wonderfully natural, but I suspected she was an especially valued customer – client? – of whichever hairdressers she patronised. However, one of the unspoken rules of our developing relationship was neither to ask questions nor to tease about anything concerning appearance. I wouldn't have wanted to do so in any case. Although she was hardly pretty – almost plain in fact with a small mouth, slightly crooked nose and a longish almost horsy face – her flawless skin and gleaming teeth together with her magnificent head of hair and tall and slim figure never failed to draw interested looks, from men and women, whenever we went out together.

And this was certainly the case that evening in the restaurant. There was however one difference: her usual air of unruffled poise was missing. What was particularly remarkable about our relationship was that we talked without a break and disagreed about everything under the sun – politics, novels we'd both read, films we'd seen, scandals in public life, and so on. At the beginning I had hoped we would find a few neutral topics too, about which we wouldn't have strong opinions and hence could discuss in a relaxed manner, but . . . there were no neutral topics. Barbara always had her own viewpoint and defended it passionately. This was occasionally irritating but at the same time rather exciting and refreshing especially as almost all my other friends, men or women, never seemed to talk about anything except their own problems or successes. Furthermore in spite of the passion she never seemed to get hot under the collar. But that evening there seemed to be an edge to everything she said and after a while I began to feel irritated as well. So when I paid the bill, trying not to think about the restaurant's price/performance ratio, my feelings were definitely mixed when she said, 'look, James, it's stopped raining. Let's walk to my place. It's only twenty minutes at the most.'

It was the first time I'd been to her apartment – and 'apartment' did seem somehow the correct description as it was neither a bed sitting room nor a two room flat. It was in a modern block and we travelled up to the ninth or tenth floor in a lift just large enough for four people. Unusually, she avoided my glance but seemed completely at ease, even smiling. Unlocking her front door she went in and I followed her, finding myself in a tiny but superbly fitted hallway. On the right there was a floor length mirror with shelves at all levels on both sides. Reflected in the mirror was what would I describe as an open wardrobe with so many coats that there was hardly room for my own raincoat. Turning to look directly at them I noticed they were all obviously Barbara's, being about the same size and very much to her current taste but – most striking all – they were all obviously meant to be worn at the time of year we're talking about, early autumn. Did she have somewhere else a further collection of winter coats – perhaps even coats for summer and spring as well. There were two doors in front of us and, opening the one on the right, Barbara went through to the main apartment. Was the other door only for a guest toilet or for a bathroom as well? Once outside the hallway my first impression was of a great deal of space. But I soon realised that this was partly an illusion. One wall was covered with doors, obviously built in cupboards, and most of the wall opposite the door was nothing but two floor-to-ceiling windows, with a tiny kitchenette or rather a galley next to it. Even to my untutored eye, this seemed to be fitted out with state-of-the-art kitchen equipment. But surely there was something missing . . . of course, no bed!

'So now you know a bit more about me, James. With what I earn I had two choices: space in the middle of nowhere or minimalist living here in town.' At that, she marched over to the third wall and pressed a hidden button. A full-sized bed gradually descended into the room, covered with a duvet and two pillows side by side, all perfectly in place – how ever did she manage that? It did of course reduce the available space but there were still two designer easy chairs and a coffee table not far from the fitted cupboards. Barbara went over to the galley and opened a cupboard with an impressive selection of drinks.

'I assume you don't have any business appointments late Sunday evening. What would you like?' I'd got used to her more or less barbed comments about my being in business on my own, even though as a freelance translator she was no nine to fiver herself. Otherwise, however, my situation was a lot different, having fifteen people working for me, most of them highly qualified software engineers with salaries and fringe benefits to match. I was obviously the first person – man or woman – she'd ever met who employed other people. Taking my silence as agreement to any wish of hers, she poured out brandy into two huge snifters and handed one to me. 'I know I was a bit of a bitch this evening, but now we can both relax.'

I was rewarded by one of her dazzling smiles. When we first met I did wonder how much she owed this to highly skilled and expensive dentistry. But no, she told me she'd been lucky and had had perfect teeth from the word go. My feeling of wellbeing was improving every minute, and not only because of the unusually good cognac – yes, most definitely the genuine article. After just two sips Barbara stood up with the half smile I remembered from the lift.

'Just give me five minutes, James'. She disappeared through a door that must have led, from the other end, to the

lavatory cum bathroom I had surmised in the hallway. How does that tie in with the local building regulations? I concentrated on enjoying the cognac, and let my thoughts wander.

Hearing the bathroom door open behind me I turned around. If what I'd felt when she'd conjured up the bed from nowhere was surprise, I now needed a completely new word, even astonishment was far too weak. She was absolutely naked – no towel in a strategic position – but somehow I couldn't quite take her in, or at least not simply as Barbara undressed. I stood up and faced her. What I hadn't noticed in the subdued light of the restaurant was that she had died the lock in her hair which had always been naturally white – she'd gone through agony in her early teens at school because of this – and died it a deep mahogany or chestnut shade that seem to make the blackness of the rest of her hair even more intense. Not for the first time I noticed how pale her face was, in spite of that year's unusually hot summer. (We had been swimming at the outdoor pool in her neighbourhood the last day before they closed but she kept in the shade, claiming she would get sunburnt otherwise. But now, seeing the almost luminous pallor of her face, not a shade darker than the rest of her body, I suspected she just didn't want any kind of tan. Her breasts, high up on her chest, were somehow different from what I'd imagined – and I certainly had speculated and fantasised. Not very large – certainly not Playboy standard – but tilted up in defiance of gravity, and aesthetically extremely pleasing. All part and parcel of an overwhelming impression of tall, slender grace and beauty. But most striking – even startling – and somehow difficult to fit in to my overall picture of her was the lack of any hair on her mound – not even the strip of a bikini cut. Quite new to me. All of the women I'd had any kind of sexual relationship with since leaving home – the brunettes Pauline and Jill – dark brown and light brown hair respectively, red-headed Teresa and blond Karen, had never shaved down there. And I'd always found the sight of their maiden hair … not erotic perhaps, but rather moving – especially Karen's honey-coloured growth – such a contrast in many ways to the feminine refinement of their bodies. And Barbara? The smooth surface was broken only by a cleft, two inches long – at least the part I could see. I found this almost incredibly arousing. But why? Because of its significance as the font of womanhood? I was reminded of something I'd seen the only time I had ever been in New York. Walking down a street in the Bronx – I always like leaving the tourist track – I came across a remarkable piece of graffiti. A naked woman, at least fifty per cent larger than life size, not at all fat but much fleshier than Barbara, and like her, without the slightest hint of pubic hair. The picture was fascinating and arousing but I had a very strong impression that it had been drawn – or rather sprayed – by a woman, certainly feminist and perhaps a lesbian too. The woman was portrayed to be in complete possession of her own body, and her pose was not provocative but rather aggressive – not for one second a plaything or even an object of desire for a man. Well, Barbara was much slimmer but, partly because of her striking head of hair, the unusual pallour of her skin and the uncompromising display of the key – portal? – to her sexuality there was also something rather aggressive about her. But soon, it couldn't have taken more two or three seconds, I did see her as a whole: charm, aesthetic appeal and erotic attraction – and yes, vulnerable as well. She was . . . presenting herself and my reaction to her appearance

was very important to her. I certainly couldn't just grab her, and stripping in front of her first seemed to be rather uncouth. Most of all, I had to be careful what I said, but she spoke first.

'It's the first time you've ever been at a loss for words.'

'It's the first time I've seen anyone upstage the rest of the human race.' She laughed, and I took this as a cue to ask, 'can I use the bathroom too? But I warn you – dramatic entries are not my speciality. And I'm an even more common or garden London male undressed than I am with my clothes on.'

'Let me be the judge of that, Jamie!' She was teasing me – to cover her vulnerability? She knew very well how I hated the pet name, but I never had the nerve to retaliate with 'Babs'.

Three minutes later – there are situations where delays can be fatal – I was lying next to Barbara on the bed. The duvet was already on the thick carpet. Getting into bed, I noticed some sort of snappers on the sides of the mattress. That was obviously the secret of the perfectly fitting duvet at all angles. She was lying on her back, and from a sideways position I started kissing her and fondling her with one hand. First her breasts and then inside that astonishing cleft. She was already moist and very quickly lost control, which was of course gratifying but also a little bit unsatisfactory. Her going off on a trip round her private universe was for me an interruption of the emotional contact. So every now and then I withdrew my hand completely from her body and just kissed her and looked into her eyes, welcoming her back to the launching pad, before touching her and once again lighting the fuse. After a while she realised what was going on and laughed.

'James, you're tantalising me. Don't you realise there are such things as good manners and consideration even in bed?'

'Frankly, no. I've never imagined making love was like making polite conversation over cucumber sandwiches or holding the door open and that kind of thing. Hey! What on earth are you doing. That hurt' She'd cupped my crown jewels in one hand and given them a slight squeeze.

'Just to teach you a lesson.'

In fact making love to her, or rather with her, as she was certainly capable of taking the initiative, especially regarding oral sex, was really wonderful. Except in the latter case, she was certainly content to let me take the lead, which was somewhat of a relief. Teresa, the redhead, like Barbara, had never been reluctant to state her own opinion and had been assertive in other ways. In bed she seemed to have difficulty in remembering who was the man and who was the woman. It was however absolutely clear that Barbara did favour one position over all others. She loved to sit upright, spearing herself on my manhood. She would shake her hair out over her shoulders and clasp her hands behind her head, lifting her breasts up higher than ever. I hated myself for thinking this, but it was almost as if she were auditioning for a soft porn film. I kept this to myself of course and concentrated on the erotic – and aesthetic– rush I was getting from this position.

After some time, when at least I had no more urgent wishes, we lay next to each other, with Barbara on her front but turned to look at me. I let my hand run like a roller coaster up and down from her neck to her waist and over her bottom and then back again.

'That was all rather splendid, James. You really aren't so

"common or garden" as you made out to be – or was that just false modesty?'.

'Think of it as a special effort for your birthday. Ouch! Leave my goolies alone!'

'I really don't think the word "effort" is appropriate, Jamie.'

She got up and walked around the room, seemingly aimlessly, but no, she stopped just in front of her desk and selected a book from the bookshelves above it. She opened it and started reading out loud. '''Courtly love still has a place in the 21st century. For a long-lasting and rewarding sensual relationship, a man should remember he is a cavalier – a knight – and never take for granted the object of his love and desire. He should never fail to be attentive to his beloved's wishes and needs, and love her in word and deed at all times. This may meaning changing his attitude towards women, even to his own sensuality, but he will never regret it." So there you are, James: Don't forget it and – 'she laughed 'you won't regret it either.' She put the book back into the shelf, turned round, came back to bed and lay on top of me without my having to support her whole weight. In spite of a certain amount of annoyance on my part – and the tenderness of my private parts – this did the trick. Nothing on earth could have held me back. After my own second trip around the universe – of course much shorter than hers, more like a whiz around a traffic-free London Orbital – it was my turn to speak. 'Who ever wrote that? A sexual therapist or a third-rate lecturer in medieval history?'

'It might not seem very high-powered to you, but it's absolutely true, and I hope you take it to heart'

I can never look back on that evening with her without feeling sad. For me and I'm sure for her too, it was a marvellous combination of lust and love, although in my opinion 'courtly love' didn't have much to do with it. And when I left her that night (I had to catch the first plane in the morning, and there were a lot of papers I had to pick up at my flat), dressed but dishevelled, I saw the possibility of an extremely long relationship. She hadn't bothered to dress – 'I never see the point of wearing anything at night – what are bedclothes for?'

'Who knows? Maybe I can keep you warm one day.' No reaction apart from the half smile again.

'Look, Barbara, I managed to catch the five o'clock plane. What do you think about going out to dinner tonight?' It was the following Friday and I was ringing from the airport after a week of gruelling and apparently unsuccessful sales presentations.

'I've just been e-mailed a mammoth translation which has to be done by Monday morning. Sorry, but it doesn't look as if we shall have a chance to see each other this weekend, James.'

'But Monday morning I have to go off again the whole week. You won't be working twelve hours all day tomorrow and Sunday too.'

Absolutely right – it'll be sixteen hours a day, and six tonight. That's the way it is for me. Jobs like this are a godsend – especially at weekends, when I can normally get another thirty percent on top of the normal rate. I just can't let it go.'

Intellectually I had no difficulty in understanding and sympathising with what she said. Every other part of me, however, was crying blue murder. How could should she make love the way she did Sunday night, be parted from me the whole week and then be so cool about not seen me again

for another week. 'But, Barbara, you have to eat. I like cooking. I could come round Sunday evening at say seven, you would carry on working and we would then eat just before nine. You would hardly lose any working time'

'James . . .' There was a silence of five seconds. 'I'm sure that all seems reasonable to you, but it really isn't so simple. To do a job well I can't stand any kind of distraction – or additional pressure. I have to know that I have time in hand. If necessary, to dawn on Monday. I must have this flexibility to survive – financially and mentally.'

I was beginning to feel something like panic. At the same time, I realised there was a lot at stake. One wrong step could do a terrible amount of damage. I breathed deeply a few times – 'hyper-ventilated' is the word, I believe. 'All right but I'll give you a ring around lunchtime Sunday – see how you're getting on.'

'Fine, but please don't try and get me to change my mind. It's not just the money: my work means just as much to me as yours does to you.' (It had passed through my mind that I could pay her in lieu of the mini-mega-contract, even with a hefty surcharge, and hardly miss it. I felt myself sweating at the thought that this could have slipped out!) 'Ring around among your friends. I'm sure you'll find one to go out for a drink with this evening. Have fun. Bye.'

Stunned I looked at my state-of-the-art smartphone, feeling it had somehow let me down. Barbara hadn't been definitely unfriendly, but where was the 'it's wonderful to hear your voice, James. I keep on thinking back to Sunday evening.' Can you be homesick for former girl friends? Feelings of tenderness for all four of them suddenly materialized. Whatever differences Karen and Co. had had, they did have normal, nine to five and not particularly high-powered jobs. All right, their conversational level was several notches below Barbara's. On the other hand, they were almost always available – and unmistakably pleased whenever I was. Availability! What I had formerly and mistakenly taken for granted was, I now realised, an extremely attractive and definitely not universal quality. Well, I could hardly ring up one of the girls now, and I didn't want to either. I was beginning to see my relationship with Barbara as one challenge after another. Perhaps I could rise to them all, but how long would my nerves take it?

'Thank goodness there are one or two things in life one never gets tired of.'

'What are they – apart from spending time with me?'

'Still too early to judge that, although with comments of that level the time seems to be getting shorter.' She turned on the full beam version of her smile. 'No, I meant just walking through the park at this time the year, shuffling through the leaves. It reminds me of when I was a little girl. My father always used to take me Saturday mornings to the local park to feed the ducks. Nowadays, unfortunately, very much frowned upon.'

'Feeding the ducks or going for walks with just one parent?'

'Don't overdo the laddish humour, James. A little goes a very long way. In one respect he was like you. He had to travel a lot on business and I often only saw him at the weekend. Looking back on it, I can see the walks with him alone were supposed to make up for his absences.'

'And did they?'

'He was somehow always a kind of figure of mystery to me – even of romance, almost like from a fairy story. I got on very well with my mother, she spent a lot of time with

my younger brother and me – she never went to work the whole time we were at school. But my father was somehow special. He often spoke at conferences on economic issues, In fact, there were occasional pieces about him in the paper, which I used to cut out and stick into my scrap book.'

'Presumably not from the News of the World.'

'Where ever did I get the impression that you're an intelligent and amusing man? What's happened to you in the last two weeks, James?'

'Oh, I was just hanging on.'

'If you must speak transatlantic English, get it right. It's "hanging in" there. In any case, what's the problem? The last half an hour you've been telling me how successful you've been this week – presentations ending in smiles, handshakes and new contracts. What more do you want?'

It was late Saturday morning just under two weeks after the last time we'd seen each other. I'd arrived back at Heathrow very late the night before, but had phoned Barbara from the plane to confirm that I would come round to her apartment for a walk the following morning. I say 'confirm', as I wanted to be absolutely sure she hadn't received another last-minute translating job. And now here we were: the weather was perfect for a walk, and I should be enjoying myself just as much as Barbara obviously was. But in the intervening two weeks our relationship seemed to have gone back four weeks. Why was that? I was certainly ready to carry on from that remarkable evening. But when I arrived, ready for a big embrace, all I got was a peck on the cheek. Barbara behaved very much as she had on the phone the previous Friday. This made me nervous and, she was right, somehow I wasn't quite hitting the right note. I had to the situation around.

'When you have a long translating job, do you ever find it at all tedious?'

'Depends very much on the topic. If the author doesn't really have anything to say, or doesn't know how to express it well, or even know how to structure an article properly, then it really is drudgery. I would love to be able to turn down such work. But now and again a text lands on my desk, so to speak, and after five minutes I realise a lot of hard work and research has been done and a lot of care taken in describing the results and in developing the arguments. That's a challenge and it all seems worthwhile – I mean making sure that my version reads at least as well as the original text. I feel as if I'm doing what I can do well and it's absolutely the right thing for me to be doing.' She turned to me and gave the first real smile of the day. 'It's so warm we could eat outside. There's an outdoor café nearby, we can get freshly baked quiches and that kind of thing. If you promise not to make any more silly comments, I'll treat you to lunch.'

She put her arm through mine and we walked on in silence. At last my spirits were perking up. We soon reached the café and Barbara was right, it all looked rather inviting and in a quarter of an hour we were tucking into several types of quiche with an imaginative salad and a bottle of rosé well above supermarket standard.

Half way through the second glass, she touched me briefly the back of my hand and turned on the Mona Lisa smile I remembered so well from the lift that evening, 'I've often looked back to that evening at my place. Somehow so different to what I'd expected.'

'Really? I was under the impression you took it all in your stride. Just a small blip on life's cardiogram.'

She laughed heartily. 'You definitely improve with wine, James. 'Unfortunately I am definitely hors de combat this

weekend. You know, what my mother always called the curse.'

I nodded, feeling disappointed but yes, protective too. Except on that one occasion Barbara never gave the impression of needing any other kind of gentle treatment. Still just ignoring the situation could hardly be the right reaction. 'Does it ever get really unpleasant and painful, Barbara?'

'No, I'm lucky and it's normally predictable – both start and finish. Yes, relief is at hand, I should be OK by Wednesday. If you like, I'll cook you a meal at my place. I hope you don't have any fads.'

'Only when it comes to women'. We then carried on eating, drinking and being rather pleased with ourselves.

But Wednesday afternoon I was the one on the phone breaking – or rather postponing – the date.

'Oh well, we can catch up one day'. The nonchalant way she said this would have convinced most men, but I detected some kind of undertone. – Hurt pride? Betrayal? Perhaps I was hearing things. One of my first ever international customers had rung up just after lunch to say he urgently needed to see me at eight the following morning – and it couldn't be any later. So I had to fly off that evening. I did in fact, consider pleading another urgent meeting or even illness. But Barbara had been right. It's not just about money. But still I did feel guilty towards her – one of the few times in my life when I felt I'd made the right decision but wasn't really happy about it. And next time we met – it was in the pub one evening as I felt I could hardly just ask her to cook for me at the next opportunity – I handed over a little box that was gift wrapped in the Japanese way. No, my trip hadn't been to Tokyo, with my small workforce and my very much eurocentric computer software I wasn't in that league, but my client was in Zurich and in the taxi back to the airport I spotted a shop with a Japanese name. I had time in hand and asked the driver to stop and wait for me.

'A present! Not a guilty conscience, I hope.' Was this a joke? She certainly didn't smile as she started to unwrap the object, and I felt my irritation rise as she obviously found the several highly contrasting layers a nuisance rather than a cause for admiration at the ingenuity involved. Finally she lifted up the present itself to have a closer look at it, still without any sign of what she was thinking. I found the high-tech widget just as fascinating as when I'd seen it in the shop. It was difficult to categorise – somewhere between an executive toy and an ornament for a shelf – but certainly suitable for a working environment, and I'd had Barbara's spartan desktop in mind. But it soon became clear that spartan was just right for her.

'Well, it was a . . . an original idea, James. But I'll have to think hard where I can put it.' In fact she could have meant this in two ways. It certainly wouldn't have fitted in her bag, long and flat and not much larger than a traditional man's wallet – the American 'purse' a much more fitting description than 'bag'. I couldn't help thinking back to the quarter of an hour I'd spent in the Zurich shop while the prosperous looking taxi driver waited outside, probably complimenting himself on an unexpected paid rest. But, much more serious, in spite of our many verbal sparring sessions, seeing her in her own surroundings and making love to her, I was obviously still a long way from finding out what made her tick. I sighed involuntarily. At least this made her smile.

'It's always difficult to get presents right. I never give any

– birthdays, Christmas or whenever. I see you bought it on your Swiss trip. How did it go?' I found the lack of animation in her tone appalling. Even being lectured on sexual etiquette was preferable to being exposed to polite conversation. Another challenge.

'"How did it go?" Flew off at four hours notice, missing a starring role in a brilliant love scene; hotel mattress stuffed with concrete; no time for breakfast; kept waiting for an hour in a freezing reception area with nothing but a cup of coffee obviously brewed while I was still in London. – And when I was at last given an audience my client only had twenty minutes.'

'So it was all a waste of time.'

'Did I say that? After he told me our software wasn't working I found out in two minutes his IT manager had made one very basic mistake. Riding high, I sold Roessler five days implementation support – and then with five minutes to spare asked him if there was anything else he wanted to discuss.'

'Wasn't that rather cheeky?' At last, more animation.

'Perhaps. Some people are impressed by a small dose of arrogance.'

'Let's hope your Herr Roessler is one of them. Another smile.' I'm glad the meeting was a success, James, but selling your services in Switzerland doesn't make any sense, when some Swiss company or other is probably doing the same here.' She then launched into a short diatribe against globalisation in general at the European and all other levels, using her arms and every square centimetre of her face to express herself. A lot of what she said seemed to me to have little to do with how international business or politics work, but I was happy to listen – far preferable to polite conversation. Best of all, when I dropped her off at her flat and she'd given me a short but enthusiastic kiss, she said, 'let's have another try tomorrow evening at my cooking you dinner, and hope there'll not be any other calls of duty before then.' I nodded.

Twenty-two hours later and we were revisiting her cognac. Not waiting this time for a big entry I stood up and gently pulled her to her feet. Fortunately she was wearing a sweater and trousers, no complicated buttons or hooks – intentionally? – And soon we were both holding each other, quite naked. (She must have helped me to get my gear off.) One consequence of her being well above average height was that not only were our eyes on the same level but I could feel the tips of her breasts touching my useless male nipples.

She laughed – she never giggled, 'I wonder if this is in the karma sutra?'

'I've never had much time for manuals.' I let my right hand wander down her tummy and to the beginning of her unshielded cleft, still very much an object of fascination to me. She quivered as I touched her there and, breaking away, led me to her bed, already stripped down. If I thought the first time we'd made love was close to perfection I now needed a completely new word to describe what I felt – and what I'm sure she was feeling too. Barbara was completely unrestrained and I certainly had difficulty in keeping myself back. I didn't want to come to soon – after the wine and cognac I wasn't at all sure about a repeat performance. Unlike the first time, she called out every time she lost control. As much as I was caught up by all this is, I did wonder what had made all the difference. Was it having to

wait almost three weeks, or something else? Did she feel she had to make amends for the lost weekend or – a sudden thought – that my dashing off to Zurich was a sign I was losing interest after all. Who knows? After a while she disengaged, rolled over on to her back and after just a few seconds jumped up and started pacing around the room.

'I do hope, Barbara, we're not going to get a second instalment of "courtly love".' She stood still and turned round to look at me.

'It's odd – you manage to satisfy me one time after another, but somehow I'm still tense in my mind and I have to have a break.' I decided not to say anything. She came over to the bed and pulled me firmly but not at all roughly to my feet, and kissed me slowly on the lips. This seemed almost bizarre to me and I wondered if she was really behaving naturally. Was this all part of the way the she thought lovers had to behave?

'Barbara, why don't we go back to bed – we have much more scope there.'

'Don't you think it's rather nice to have some variety?'

I said exactly what I thought. 'The emotional charge I get with you in bed is all the variety I need.' She looked at me without much expression and then did lead me back to bed. We continued to make love some time, but somehow the magic had gone out of it for me. I rarely get angry in any kind of situation but I was irritated and yes, rather despondent. Were her feelings for me a lot less than mine for her in spite of all the climactic cries?

So, James, this is Barbara. Well, she's certainly worth waiting for.' Never one for hiding his feelings, Peter gave her a big kiss full on the lips. Barbara obviously didn't mind this at all and seemed to be almost exhilarated as he helped her off with her coat. Peter, an old friend of mine from college days, was giving a birthday party and had given me strict instructions to bring 'my latest'. His obvious admiration for Barbara became almost offensive – to me, not to her – once she was revealed in a new silky dress, like a sheath with a long long waistline and a high, well-shaped bosom. To forestall another demonstration of his duty as a host I guided Barbara out of the hallway. Around twenty other guests were already in the living room, and the noise level went down two or three decibels as we entered. All men's eyes were on Barbara – most of the women were looking at her too, but with a clear lack of enthusiasm. I found this all mildly embarrassing, but not Barbara: she was in her element.'

'Hi! I'm Jean. I'm Peter's partner so you can say I'm your hostess.' In contrast to most of Peter's past girlfriends and partners – many of whom had been actresses or models – Jean was almost plain and well below average height but I immediately took to her. The self-confident but unobtrusive way she greeted us, even shaking hands, reminded me somehow of a Dickens heroine, in spite of her being dressed down in the modern manner, with jeans and T-shirt – both accentuating her voluptuous figure.

'Hallo, Jean. This is Barbara and I'm James. Peter and I go back a long way.'

'So you know all his other women.' Grinning, she turned to Barbara. 'Your dress is really stunning. I've given up on dresses and frocks myself – they make me look like a sack of potatoes.' She laughed in such a pleasant way I had to laugh with her. Barbara smiled – but only just. Surely she didn't think that Jean was winding her up.

I felt I had to say something. 'Barbara helps several boutique owners in Central London to maintain the high

standard of living I'm sure they've worked hard for.' Jean laughed again. It was clear to me this was not directed in any way against Barbara. But the way Barbara stiffened next to me indicated it wasn't at all clear to her.

'I do feel it's worth making the effort. And James told me it was quite a special occasion this evening.'

I think anybody with normal human feelings would have felt sorry at the way Jean obviously took this to heart. She realised her compliment on Barbara's dress had been taken as a hidden criticism, and was obviously concerned to put things right. 'We're going to have a toast in a couple of minutes. Let me get you both some champagne.' And she went off.

'Barbara! What's up with you? Jean's obviously a very pleasant and friendly woman – trying to be welcoming. Why did you have to put her down like that?'

'Perhaps she is. But I've known so many women who were friendly to my face only to run me down behind my back. And what's this "I'm Peter's partner" Why can't she say he's her partner. Apart from that, she looks almost scruffy. And she's supposed to be the hostess.'

Some other friends of mine came up, the women all in party dresses, and the introductions and ensuing chit-chat went better this time. I began to relax: I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt – especially when I'm falling in love with them.

We left around midnight although the party was still very much still in full swing. This was her idea and as I drove her home I could sense she wasn't in a very good mood. I decided to wait until she spoke, which she soon did.

'Frankly, James, I was rather disappointed by all your friends.'

I struggled to keep calm. 'Disappointed? What were you expecting?'

'Nothing specific but I did expect some kind of amusing and well-informed conversation. After all, from what you say, most of them are reasonably well-educated. I didn't see much sign of that this evening. And the women – they could have been lifted from a party fifty years ago. They all seemed to see their role in life in attracting and pleasing men. What kind of attitude is that?'

'Barbara, it was a party – not a debate at the Oxford Union or wherever.' I decided to take my foot of the soft pedal. 'And frankly, it's very difficult for any man to be witty and intelligent if the woman in front of him looks as if she'd just swallowed half a pint of vinegar.'

'So it was my fault after all. And that Jean woman, who made such a big impression on you – and presumably on Peter too – how can she let herself go like that. She can't be much over thirty.'

'What do you mean, "let herself go"? If you're talking about her figure, that's the way she's made. Hour-glass figures might have gone out of fashion with women, but not necessarily with men.' I said this more or less as a joke, but Barbara's sense of humour had obviously taken leave of absence for the evening.

'Ah, so I'm too thin for you. What should I do? – Go on a diet of potatoes, pasta and beer the next two months?'

'No, of course not. You have a marvellous figure, Barbara. But that doesn't mean other types of figure can't be attractive as well.' I felt I was being both fair and supremely rational, and making a pretty good attempt to pour oil on troubled waters. Big mistake!

'This is getting worse every minute. Now you're

patronising me. I just can't believe it. Thank God this is my street already. Please let me out, James. I've really had enough for one evening.' I drew up just outside her flat, and before I had a chance to get out of the car she'd opened her door, jumped out and vanished into the building.

After Barbara's performance at the party and afterwards I was depressed in a way I wouldn't have thought possible. It took me well over a week before I could even think about whether there was any kind of future for us. And she didn't ring me either. And then, one of those coincidences that do in fact happen. I was walking along the street on my way back to work after at lunchtime, when I saw her coming out of the entrance of an office block. She wasn't looking very happy, and I had the feeling she'd been to see a doctor – I knew there were several doctors' surgeries in the building and perhaps it was her clothes too, as ever a reliable indication not only of the time of year but also of the occasion. All right, in the circumstances perhaps a rather unworthy thought.

'Barbara, this is a surprise, but you do look glum. Nothing wrong I hope.' As soon as she saw me she brightened up.

'You're looking very smart, James. This is the first time I've seen you in a business suit. Formal attire is obviously right for you.' She brushed something from my lapel. 'Let's go and have a cup of coffee somewhere. I need a lot of cheering up.'

'So what was the visit to the doctor all about?'

'Nothing really serious, James. But it's all rather a nuisance.' I gave her an encouraging look.

'I've had problems with my back since I was at school, and although I do special exercises every morning, 365 days a year, I do get pretty severe back-ache now and again.'

'That must be terrible. Did you have it at the party?' I said this without thinking.

One of her famous smiles. 'No, that was just everyday me without back-ache. I'm sorry about that. I have to warn you that I often have bouts of anti-social behaviour.'

'Did you ask your doctor if there are any exercises for that?' We both laughed, but then she looked rather solemn.

'Don't give up on me, James. You're very . . . Why don't you invite me to dinner at your flat for a change?'

I did just that and, as it was a Friday evening, she spent the whole weekend with me in the flat. It was like a highly-concentrated honeymoon. As always of course, one dispute after another on all kind of topics – but never with any kind of rancour, and always a big smile from Barbara whenever she thought she'd scored a major point. We must have set a record for love-making sessions in sixty hours for thirty somethings. And several weeks afterwards our relationship seemed to get more intense and more rewarding. Never any kind of quarrels; however we didn't go to any parties in that time. I began to entertain serious thoughts about suggesting we moved in together in to a larger flat – or even get married.

'Quick, dinner's ready – and so am I!' In her tiny hallway she hardly gave me time to take in her appearance, but the few seconds were enough to see that world class was being redefined once again. She was encased in a sheath – but much more breathtaking than at the party – of a shimmering material which was a rich dark red, or black, depending on which angle you looked at it. She pushed me down in to a

chair at her small dining table and told me to eat the avocado waiting for me. Five minutes later she had bought everything in from the kitchen – potatoes and vegetables in serving dishes and the impressive steak on a metal spiked dish. The opened burgundy had already been on the table when I arrived. Carving the meat with a skill I would probably never have, she looked more relaxed and, yes, happier than I'd ever seen her.

'This is my first ever attempt at a Chateaubriand. I was in the mood and I think it's going to be a success.' And it was. She must have bought the meat at a specialist butchers: almost bloody in the centre it was extremely tender and the béarnaise sauce brought out the subtle flavour perfectly. And every sip of wine – gulping it down would really have been almost criminal – made me realise that Barbara had not only spent a lot of time in planning the meal but also spent a considerable part of her average weekly earnings. Surely this was the final confirmation that our relationship did mean a lot to her. Was this the evening to pop at least some kind of question?

Some time later we were enjoying once more the famous cognac. 'Should this remind me of my first visit, Barbara?'

'Absolutely,' she replied, smiling and nodding. 'Oh no, who can that be?' It was the telephone. 'Just a second, James. I'll tell them off for ringing this time in the evening, whoever they are.' But within five seconds of her picking up the receiver, and before she even said a word, I knew our time together was drawing to an end.

'Twenty pages by four o'clock tomorrow? Well, yes, I could just about manage it, but I shall really have to charge thirty-five per cent on top – after all you know as well as I do that the terminology is absolute hell.' Putting the phone down, she looked at me as if she'd suddenly remembered I was there. A brief smile. 'Sorry, James, that's the way things are. I shall have to start work straightaway.'

Trying hard at keep my voice under control, 'Barbara, have you never heard of the word "priority"? This evening was going to be something special, and surely it has been up till now.'

'You know how it is. It's part of the job – and part of my life. I can't just say no.'

'Barbara, there's something important I want to discuss with you this evening.' I still hadn't quite given up. 'Can't you ring back to tell whoever it is that this evening at least you are just not available.'

She scowled, in less than a second all of her vivacity had disappeared. Even the way she stood there and looked at me had changed: no longer the straight-backed, slim and confident fashion model. She looked at me as if I were threatening her and eventually spoke. 'No I can't! Why should I? We can talk any evening.'

It was as if the hour and a half we had been dining together had never taken place. Apart from the new translation assignment nothing was of the slightest importance. With every second I was getting more and more depressed but perhaps one more attempt.

'Barbara, is it really impossible for you to see that sometimes work has to take second place?'

At last something seemed to get through, but after a few seconds she shook her head. 'How do I know how long it's going to last between us?' She stood up and went over to the laptop on her desk. Perhaps the text to be translated had already arrived. She hardly noticed I was still there. After kissing her on the cheek I went out to the hallway, picked up my coat and let myself out.