‘Every time I see you, Mr Woodcock, you look a little taller.’
Unaccustomed to displays of diplomacy or flattery, and still learning to acquire the habit of booking restaurant tables, Bernard smiled shyly at Sergio’s greeting. Back in England, his expectations had been distinctly lower. But while he still clung self-consciously to the convention of making the best of himself in introductions – shoulders back, chest out, stomach in as far as nature will permit – perhaps he really had changed beyond the simple additions of fresh air and sunshine.
He was certainly a little slimmer since leaving London, and Grace’s skill in choosing his retirement wardrobe visually shaved off many of the remaining surplus pounds that Gibraltar’s endless flights of steps had not yet defeated. He knew that her eye for flattering cuts, for lightweight cotton trousers and untucked short-sleeved shirts – one even in silk, an unimaginable indulgence – had seasoned an old-fashioned English gentleman with a pinch of sophisticated señor. But taller?
He’d sometimes caught himself wondering if gravity grew weaker as one travelled south. His shoulders felt less heavy, his tread a little lighter: there were fewer creases in his well-worn birthday suit. And there were moments when he felt lightheaded, even a little giddy: moments that felt more like excitement than something to give a physician pause. The body he’d treated for so long like a briefcase, a sturdy vessel for portering his life between A and B, now felt more like something he truly inhabited.
Bernard was not ungrateful for this turn of events, no matter how unexpected. Although he’d long avoided surprises in much the way that one might reject an unfamiliar vegetable – celeriac, perhaps, or heritage purple carrots – he’d belatedly discovered a taste for them. Not least the occasional reminder that others might find him charming rather than merely polite. Might even take delight in repeating his company.
‘Yes, Mr Woodcock, a table for seven as a private event,’ the maitre d’hotel confirmed with a further smile. ‘We are familiar with the annual requirements and will make all the necessary calls, please do not worry yourself. It will be a pleasure, as ever, to see you,’ Sergio reassured him before Bernard turned to make his way back across Plaza de la Iglesia, silently telling himself how ungrateful he was to hate Grace’s birthdays.
Although nothing pleased him more than pampering her, he’d spent her previous birthday alone in his old Crouch End flat while she’d met up with old friends in Spain. ‘A long-standing commitment, and one you wouldn’t enjoy,’ she’d told him as she kissed him goodbye at the airport, looking into eyes that he knew showed his sadness. The apparently unavoidable requirement to invite these older acquaintances to this year’s celebrations – and to share the evening with one of them in particular – only reminded him that he was her second husband.
Second best, he sometimes said, hoping his words sounded jovial and self-deprecating. Despite the warmth in her refutations, his self-assessment had always been rather cooler. In solitary moments, he prayed that his love would be strong enough to anchor them together, but he could never quite stop worrying that something so light and precious might be suddenly swept away like an autumn leaf on a cold gust.
On quieter days like today, Sergio often came outside with departing customers, passing on nuggets of local culture as he took a cigarette break. Los Barrios, he explained as he gestured to the town square while Bernard fumbled for his car keys, had been founded in the eighteenth century by Spaniards exiled from Gibraltar. ‘The locals might speak a little English nowadays, out of courtesy, but Cadiz is most adamantly Spain, Mr Woodcock.’
Bernard nodded appreciatively as he opened the car door and drew Grace’s present from his pocket – a leaping dolphin on a fine chain, made by a local silversmith and presented in a tiny velvet box – before he stowed it in the glove compartment. Lifting his birdwatching binoculars from the passenger seat while Sergio continued his history lesson, he watched windsurfers skidding across the water far below and followed the indolent flap of a distant white stork.
Bernard wondered why the bird was flying solo, only half-listening as Sergio explained that, in Catholic symbolism, storks represent vigilance and caring. Bernard’s nominal Protestantism offered him no such comforting allegory. For all its elegance, his previous thoughts on the species had focused more on roof damage and fish poaching.
For many years, acquaintances and kindly regular customers had offered Bernard fond counsel about life passing him by, although in truth he knew that he’d chosen to watch it slowly glide past. And while this unworldly ignorance had not always been bliss, it had provided an unexpected route to it. After a lifetime spent either selling rare ornithological books in his alleyway shop off St Martin’s Lane or savouring the silence of the twitchers’ hides at Rutland Water, eyes trained on the hope of rarer sightings amongst the mallards, it still shocked him to know that birdwatching had proved his salvation.
Three years ago, the tinkling of the old-fashioned bell on his bookshop door had announced her arrival. She had been looking for something to help her identify the birds that perched in her bougainvillea-wrapped fig tree or paused their migrations on her Mediterranean balcony. He’d shown her colour plates of Barbary Partridges, Egyptian Vultures and Eleanora’s Falcon, turning the pages as excitedly as a teenage boy with an encyclopaedia of warplanes as she pointed to species that she’d seen pecking at the saucers of seeds she’d scattered around her courtyard.
He’d had no sense that her wide-brimmed fedora was a defence: not from the afternoon autumn sun, but against public recognition in the Theatreland streets. Even the name on her credit card – not the one she’d worn more famously, but still far from unknown – had not provided enlightenment. She’d later joked with him that if she’d worn a feather in her hatband, he might at least have recognised the plumage.
Over the subsequent lunch that she insisted on buying, she’d confessed how delighted she’d been to meet a man whose request – impeccably gracious, she added – had been for her signature rather than her autograph. She’d also suggested they might continue her avian education over further lunches before she too flew south for the winter, and proffered him a business card with her telephone number.
The Giselle Foundation, it read, and she noticed his querulous look. ‘A charitable foundation, supporting the bereaved. I’m not a counsellor or a therapist, but I like to do something for those whose lives have taken a tumble,’ she’d said. He could still remember how he’d hoped she hadn’t counted him among them.
While subsequent lunches and park walks proved that he had the greater knowledge of Iberia’s migratory birds, however stumble-tongued his expression, her experience with the human species outweighed his by a substantial margin. Under her subtle orchestration, their courtship was conducted at a pace that suited a beginner in late middle age, their encounters choreographed to avoid the spins and heel lifts of romantic dalliance that might scare a novice from the dance floor. Step by careful step, they shared an Indian summer of late-blooming youth, happy to enjoy the glorious fleeting colours of the season.
Bernard was thankful Grace so rarely wanted to talk of her past: convinced his own memoir would be wholly uncompelling, he was relieved that she had little taste for nostalgia. At her insistence, he avoided watching her films, mindful of her description. ‘They have plenty of wildlife, in their fashion, but not perhaps a kind you would find attractive,’ she said.
Indeed, Bernard’s understanding of some elements of human nature had hitherto been rooted more in observation than participation, and it would be several months before he first woke beside her, wondering if she heard as he whispered into his pillow.
‘Thank you,’ he purred. ‘Thank you so much.’
Selling the bookshop and taking his retirement had given Bernard a new life, albeit started late, and a new bank balance too. He’d been ashamed of his comparative poverty, no matter how often she’d reassured him.
‘Didn’t I tell you that second-hand treasures are just as valuable?’ she’d told him, after he’d handed the keys to the happy purchaser. ‘And now you can marry me without once having to think you might be the lesser partner,’ she’d added, blushing just a little.
It was an unusual proposal, but he was delighted to accept. Indeed, he was still enchanted several weeks later as he stood outside the HM Government of Gibraltar Civil Status and Registration Office, blinking into the Mediterranean sunshine. That afternoon they wandered through Old Town hand in hand, confetti stuck to the suntan lotion on their arms, giggling like schoolchildren at the street sign for Baca’s Passage. Even as a teenager, Bernard had never felt so young.
Gibraltar both delighted and baffled him. For all the Union Jacks painted on the treads of flights of steps, its trumpeted Britishness never rang entirely true: Andalusian townhouses bore English names, pub menus offered gambas al pil alongside fish and chips, and Moroccans read The Daily Telegraph under café canopies as they ate calentita. A pretty British bangle spun from stolen Spanish silver, melted down to obscure its original hallmark, even its very name was a corruption from the Arabic. Under its skin of defiant patriotism, Gibraltar’s culture was as much a hothouse hybrid as some of the flowers in Alameda Gardens, where Grace had tried politely to explain the symbolism of Molly Bloom’s statue, the relevance of James Joyce and Ulysses.
A citadel city since outrun by history, its military memorials and mercantile monstrosities were a peculiar stew of bastion and retreat. Swanky bars for swanky bankers rubbed shoulders with shabby pubs where the clock still ticked but the calendar had frozen many years ago. If some of its nuances were hidden in full view, others were less immediately obvious. Deep inside the limestone of the Rock, its northern face acned with old canons that still pointed towards Spain, Grace had shown him a hidden city built for an invasion that never came. A telephone exchange and a power station, the mildewed bedframes of a never-used hospital, and a general’s dining room where a chandelier grow longer each year as stalactites groped down through its crystals.
Bernard and Grace mostly kept their distance from the lobster-tanned ex-pats and the cruise-ship visitors that swept through Main Street in a daily tide to fill their rucksacks with tax-free perfumes and electronics. As they walked among them one day, she had told him as if apropos of nothing that Gibraltar had been home to the last recorded Neanderthals in Europe. His coughing laughter nearly choked him.
Their local lives went on quietly among fragments of abandoned pasts, taking daily walks past the rusting foundations of gun placements lurking in the gorse above tiny sandy bays or along through the moss-lined paths between the sailors’ graves in Trafalgar Cemetery. They socialised mostly with her local friends from the Foundation: men and women with olive skins and Spanish surnames who chatted in the local vernacular under the parasols on her sun terrace. Their Llanito banter as meaningful to Bernard as Greek, but Grace joined in unhesitatingly. His English rose, it transpired, was a hybrid, her Gibraltarian mother’s genes living on in her tongue if not in her pale, blond beauty.
On mornings when they didn’t pour over the shelves of handpicked gems of relocated shop-stock that now lined her living room walls, they would often take the cable car to the top of the nature reserve and scan the skies for specimens. He would point excitedly, noting a Rock Dove or a Yellowhammer in his pocket notebook while she reached for her camera.
On days when the Levanter cloud clothed Upper Town in fog and mystery, they would ride the bus to Catalan Bay and gaze eastwards towards nothing but the Alboran Sea. Afterwards she would run him a bath and wash the sea salt from his thinning hair. The first time he enjoyed this simple luxury, she told him how much she loved his face.
‘A noble high forehead,’ she said, and he’d winced at the flattery.
‘It’s a widow’s peak, and I curse it. And why do they call it that? Surely it should be a widower’s peak?’
‘I’ve no idea, my love,’ she told him, her fingers sweeping the falling lather away from his eyes. ‘But I hope you’ll never have to find out.’
Aware that she had slipped from beneath the covers, Bernard began to stir. Through the open door onto the balcony, he could hear ardent handclaps and a complicated rhythm of clicking metal heel caps. Pulling on his dressing gown, he could see Grace standing on the balcony. He reached into his bedside drawer and pocketed the jeweller’s box he’d concealed the night before.
As he reached the window, he could see a little girl in a flamenco dress dancing on the roof terrace of a house farther down the hill while her mother clapped out the beat in the shade of the chimney stack. Grace stood in the morning sun in her long white nightdress watching them, first stamping her foot in time and then joining in with the girl’s steps. As he stood behind her, delicately lifting the pendant from its box and fastening it round her neck, Bernard could feel her hips moving against his thighs as she picked up the rhythm.
‘Happy birthday, my darling,’ he said, his lips swooping to kiss the nape of her neck.
‘Oh Bernard, you lovely man,’ she said, nestling back against him more firmly. ‘Are you not going to join in with us?’
At first he resisted, muttering that he was English, that he couldn’t possibly, until Grace’s smile and the young girl’s happy laughter melted his reticence. He had rarely danced, and even then only under the dimmest of lighting – certainly nothing as revealing as daylight. Even insistent aunts at family weddings had always been politely declined. But as he kicked off his slippers and felt the warmth of the sun on the tiles beneath his feet, he told himself under a breath he could barely hold that this must be what living meant.
Grace started to swish the hems of her nightdress in time with her steps, the little silver dolphin skipping in the folds of silk at her neck as if it rode a cresting wave.
‘Use the tails of your dressing gown,’ she told him, her words turning to laughter as he felt the blush rise in his cheeks.
‘Just at this particular moment,’ he mumbled shyly, holding the fabric together in front of him, ‘that might be a little unfortunate.’
Here on the Rock, he noticed Grace wore her hats only at concerts in St Michael’s Cave, mindful of the constant drip of water down through the limestone, or for her solo visits to church on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t to demonstrate her faith, she insisted, or to show off her fancy millinery: the priest allowed her to collect for the Foundation after service, and a bigger hat encouraged greater generosity. People hated to leave it looking half-filled.
She seemed to live a simple life here, unbothered by unsolicited intrusions. Walking Gibraltar’s streets without her erstwhile signature beauty spot, her hair now a natural white, she smiled when people said how much she looked like Felicity Rose and told them amiably that they were mistaken. Tonight, Bernard knew, would afford no demure excuses. Tonight her old life would intrude, her one concession to a past she seemed otherwise so disinclined to visit.
He had tried to insist on driving, but she was adamant: she couldn’t allow him to meet the others for the first time if he’d have to remain sober. She’d spoken to Sergio, and his brother would drive them to the coast after dinner and bring them home by boat. As their taxi drew up in a now twilit Los Barrios, Bernard gazed across the chequer-pattern stones of the town square and wondered quite what metaphorical chess games he would have to navigate as the night unfolded.
Recognisable from magazine photographs, Hal – Grace’s first husband –had already arrived with a female companion. They had abandoned their cava glasses on an outside table while they played hopscotch across the marble slabs. Without an art editor’s magic brush, two decades of Marbella life had left Hal’s face as worn and distressed as his leather blouson. ‘Always Hal, never Harry,’ Grace had warned him. ‘Too English, too parochial’. Bernard presumed that the woman must be Stella, Hal’s second wife. She certainly looked more mature than the women who usually accompanied him while he grinned for paparazzi. Dressed entirely in black, she skipped and hopped like an elderly crow.
Bernard’s presence passed unnoticed until the driver opened the passenger door and Grace stepped into the evening air, the hem of her long white dress floating on the hilltop breeze. It was a film’s star arrival, a triumphant reprise, and Bernard caught himself joining the others’ impromptu applause.
As Grace greeted Stella with a warm hug, a booming voice announced the arrival of Gavin, Hal’s brother. Grace had explained that he was a wealthy architect, and his body language as he strode forward had the flexibility and charm of the brutalist constructions she’d shown Bernard online. Clinging to his arm was a woman whose over-cosmeticized bosom made Bernard think of scoops of vanilla ice-cream carefully piled in a sundae glass one size too small to wholly contain them. Wavering across the square on her stiletto heels, she quivered in her bodice like a trembling dessert carried by a nervous waiter.
Hal threw open his arms in greeting as she teetered towards him. ‘Letitia, darling,’ he cried. ‘Magnificent tits!’ His voice was so loud that a woman climbing the steps into Iglesia San Isidro Labrador turned to stare in surprise.
‘Oh, thank you, gorgeous. They’re new – Gav bought ‘em for me.’ She wiggled suggestively, her movements threatening her dress’s structural integrity. ‘Aren’t they just fabulous?’
Bernard shuffled from foot to foot, silently doubting that Letitia knew the etymology of her chosen adjective and recalling how Grace often talked so dismissively of her own previous life. ‘If all the screen showed us was real life, who would ever pay to watch?’ she would say, persuaded by experience that reality and cinema shared little common ground.
Sensing a hand on his elbow, Bernard turned to see a tiny olive-skinned man with a face as tucked and darted as his white linen suit. Even after decades working a stone’s throw from Soho, he was the gayest thing that Bernard had ever seen.
‘My name is Evaristo,’ the man said, grinning as far as his face would allow and extending a hand that Bernard wondered if he was supposed to shake or kiss. ‘You must be Bernard,’ he said, casting an over-dramatic glance towards the woman still frozen in surprise on the church steps. ‘And you must need a drink. Why don’t we take the party inside?’
For all his superficial artifice, the thoughtfulness of his smile seemed unexpectedly genuine.
As Evaristo led the group inside, Bernard marvelled as much at Sergio’s labours as he did at the sanity of whoever’s instructions had guided them. Hollywood had come to Los Barrios, the floor of the main dining room cleared but for a large round table, its seven places set with sparkling glasses, silver cutlery and the restaurant’s finest plates. A scattering of purple rose petals lay underfoot and sickly-sweet scented candles flickered in the breeze. Local authenticity had been swept aside: the room’s arched windows and dark rosewood furniture were now draped in lacy pastel flounces. It was a PR man’s gauche exoticism, but less enchanting to Bernard’s eye than Grace’s favourite backstreet Old Town café where, served smilingly by a man who sailed back to Tangier each weekend, they regularly ate tagine and chips and drank milky tea from enamelled mugs under a portrait of the Queen.
Sergio motioned to Bernard and Grace to wait while the others were seated, discreetly explaining that there would be no need for Bernard to produce his credit card this evening.
‘Mr Hal has paid in full. A roll of used 50 Euro notes,’ he muttered dismissively. ‘I saw it being passed to him by the other… gentleman.’
Sergio’s delivery of the pause was worthy of many of the assembled party’s acting acquaintances. He waved toward a trolley laden with ice-buckets, each with a still-corked champagne bottle inside.
‘And he believes that champagne goes with everything. Except, perhaps, decorum.’
Grace stage-whispered in Bernard’s left ear. ‘Hal is Spanish now, and Spain wants Gibraltar back. She’ll never concede, but you know what they say about Spanish men.’
In Bernard’s right ear, Sergio’s deeper voice murmured a right of reply.
‘Mr Woodcock, being Spanish is in the blood, not the passport. A man he may be, but I would never call him señor. Now please, both of you, follow me.’
As Sergio led them to their places, seating Grace next to Gavin and Bernard next to Evaristo, Hal felt obliged to speak.
‘I’m sorry, my dear, I tried to make it boy girl boy girl. Like proper parties. But, well… ’
Evaristo waved him to be quiet.
‘Well, I’m always happy to be a girl,’ he said, flourishing his napkin and draping it demurely over his wasp-sized lap. ‘If it helps.’
No one, Bernard noticed, presumed to comment.
Although Bernard had agreed the evening’s menu in advance, Hal had clearly intervened. Although he must know well enough that Grace preferred salmon, he had decreed that the occasion demanded extravagance. A lobster tail was duly placed in front of each diner, an arsenal of medical-looking implements arranged alongside. Bernard followed his wife’s unspoken demonstration as he tussled with the creature’s recalcitrant carapace, and offered no comment as Letitia slowly filled her cleavage with shards of shell until Sergio proffered a second napkin as a bib.
Bernard nodded appreciatively each time Evaristo refilled his glass, watching how Grace hovered a hand over her own to resist Gavin’s generosity. As the evening passed, he grew ever gladder that he was paying for it only with his time. He was among people from another dimension, as if abducted by wealthy if vulgar aliens.
Inauthentic even in Malaga, they still gamely acted the part of bright young things. Beyond ostentatious displays of passion with Letitia and gulping mouthfuls from his glass, Gavin’s concrete features offered little to the evening. Letitia contributed a stream of malapropisms, shrieks and squeals, a provincial pantomime rendition of a Jacobean bawd. And Hal seemed determined to embarrass everybody, boastfully recalling their afternoon in the Bay of Gibraltar in a hired speedboat.
‘Sun out, tops off and riding the waves,’ he said, gesturing towards his wife. ‘Your boobs were flapping in the wind like a beagle’s ears, weren’t they darling,’ he roared, and Bernard watched Stella smile through pursed lips like a mother whose child is too far out of reach to slap.
As the others mercifully made no attempt to draw either man into their chatter, Bernard focused on making conversation with Evaristo. Under the latter’s tautly stretched skin, he discovered an educated man whose wit and charm, whether innate or carefully curated, lent a flicker of warmth to a room that was cooling as rapidly as the evening. While he’d complimented Grace on her newly acquired dress – ‘As beautiful as anything I ever made for you, my dear’ – his gossip, gently parenthesised with caveats, never came at the expense of anyone present. ‘Strictly between you and me,’ he would begin, or ‘You mustn’t tell a soul, but…’ And so Bernard learned the secrets of men and women he knew only from cinema posters. Struggles with bulimia or comfort eating, catastrophic halitosis, or a prickly princess whose Technicolor off-screen vocabulary was deployed whenever Evaristo’s pins pierced more than fabric. ‘An accident, of course, darling,’ Evaristo coyly giggled.
As their desserts arrived, towering and bejewelled as Regency wigs, Bernard’s new acquaintance grew momentarily more serious. ‘Don’t worry, I don’t want to read your fortune or any of those silly things you will have the good sense to not believe in,’ he said, ‘but would you show me your hands.’
Bernard held out his palms for inspection. Fleshy, warm and doughy, he’d never thought them his finest feature although he’d always kept them well: gloves on cold days at the lakeside, barrier creams during windy London winters.
‘As far as I know, Mr Woodcock, only three men have ever touched Grace. They are all in this room. And I am one of them.’ Ernesto obviously caught the surprise on Bernard’s face. ‘To ensure the finest fit on a bodice or a bustier, a certain proximity is required,’ he said with a smile that threatened to become a giggle before his brows tightened.
‘Or to hold her while she cried into my shoulder, although it was an honour to be so trusted.’
He ran a fingertip across Bernard’s unfurled hand as lightly as a feather duster. ‘You can’t polish alabaster with sandpaper, Bernard: It must be buffed with a soft cloth and a forgiving touch. But I can see that she is in good hands: I approve.’
As Sergio cleared the dessert plates and handed round a box of Cuban cigars, Evaristo plucked out two and placed one in his top pocket.
‘Bernard,’ he said softly, ‘you are obviously too wise for such a disgraceful habit. And it is my job to make people – and moments – beautiful.’
He cast his eyes around the table.
‘Let me pick these dandelions from your hair, as it were.’
He led the others out into the square to smoke, clutching their brandy glasses as they swayed on contact with the cooler air. When Grace was summoned to the kitchen by Sergio, whispering about a final surprise, Bernard was left with only Stella for company. He tried not to sigh audibly.
‘I heard Evaristo just now,’ she said, ‘and you have my apologies too. You don’t deserve their company. You see, like Evaristo, I am also a misfit tonight. He is here because she loves him, as we all do, and because she recognises someone who has sometimes been treated badly by men. As I’m sure you can imagine.’
Her phrasing suggested further explanation would not be forthcoming.
‘And I am here… out of diplomacy. And to make sure Hal doesn’t misbehave or stray too far.’ This time, her tone advised that the wealth of experience in question was her own. ‘I’m also sorry that we’ve had such little opportunity to talk.’
She flourished a breadstick between her fingers like a cigarette holder as she spoke, and caught Bernard’s eye following its wayward motion.
‘Oh, I used to indulge,’ she said, glancing outside to the puffs of cigar smoke that rose across the square, ‘but any marriage has only so much room for bad habits. Not a problem one would imagine we share.’
‘But let me start on a lighter note,’ she added, pulling her phone from her tiny black clutch bag, no doubt concealed to accommodate Grace’s one strict rule for the evening. ‘The images will stay with us long enough,’ she had written in her invitations, ‘and therefore I request that there be no photographs.’
‘I understand you’re just the man to tell me something that’s been bothering me,’ Stella said, turning her phone to show Bernard a photograph of a bird. ‘Perhaps you can identify this for me? It perches on our roof, and Hal tells me it must be my spirit animal. Silly man.’
Bernard hesitated, wondering if he should use the Latin name but equally sure that Phalacrocorax aristotelis would hardly be a helpful answer.
‘The bird is – please forgive the vulgarity – a Common European Shag.’
Stella’s breadstick danced in her fingers as her croaking laugh engulfed her.
‘Priceless,’ she told him as she recomposed herself. ‘Although not quite accurate. I grew up in Australia – quite the migration, wouldn’t you say? And I think a Common European Shag would appeal more to my husband than to me. His appetite for women is as big as mine, after all.’
Bernard felt the stem of his brandy glass tremble between his fingers, and he lowered it carefully to the table.
‘Oh my, too much information far too soon: forgive me. You’re every bit as English as she said – all good manners and discretion. But the truth is that Hal and I only married to give each other respectable cover. After the whole disgrace thing.’
Wishing he had taken another gulp from a glass he now daren’t pick up again, Bernard felt his forehead ruche.
‘Oh you dear man, you really don’t know, do you? What actually happened, I mean? That lovely girl has simply told you that they parted. No animosity, just a change of heart. Oh, if only.’
Bernard took courage and a deep sip. His free hand wrestled in his lap, tangling his napkin in knots.
‘Please, tell me this won’t change how I feel about her,’ he said.
‘Perhaps, a little. But believe me, only for the better.’
Stella paused, waving her breadstick as if she might imminently magic a comforting bouquet from her sleeve or a dove from her clutch bag.
‘Bernard, sweetness – let me properly introduce the storyteller before the tale, if I may?’ She waited for his assenting nod. ‘For twenty years, I was a showbiz lawyer. Contracts, disputes, payments… the usual. And the less usual, of course. Threatening newspaper editors who intended to print. Out of court settlements that kept misdemeanours purely private. If I know where the bodies are buried, Bernard, that’s generally because I was the one who insisted on the gagging orders in the gravediggers’ contracts.’
She paused again and took a sip of her own brandy.
‘So, let me begin. Grace – or Felicity, as she was then – was a rising star. Young, pretty and true to either of her names. A fine actress too, although the world mostly just noticed those turquoise eyes. Hal, naturally, seduced her. Not quite the casting couch, I believe: more the casting country cottage. And in due course, a glitzy wedding with a marquee and a band and hatfuls of confetti. More Ealing than Hollywood, but lavish for all that. She was happy, and he was satisfied. For a while. And then, of course, he carried on seducing. Just not her. Do excuse me…’
She paused for a dramatic cough that Bernard was sure she used to cover a discreet dabbing at her eyes.
‘Grace could never live in sin, but her husband remained a frequent visitor. Hal’s eyes have never roved without his hands for company, as it were. If Grace knew, she bore it with her usual dignity. But there was another girl – well, there were several, Hal’s plotlines have always been predictable – but there was one in particular. Giselle, she was called.’
Stella noticed Bernard’s reaction.
‘You recognise the name, of course, from your wife’s Foundation. Giselle was what we used to call a starlet... Also young, also pretty. More intelligent than most men would ever dream, of course, but desperate for attention. And hungry for the fame she was silly enough to think Hal might give her. But fame was not, sadly, what he was giving her when Grace came home one day and caught them together.’
She motioned to Bernard’s glass and, seeing it was empty, passed him her own.
‘You should take more brandy now, my dear. This particular scene does not end well. Giselle panicked. And in her panic, she must have forgotten that the bedroom balcony was on the second floor, not the first. She ran from the bed and jumped.’
Bernard found himself once more carefully lowering a glass to the table.
‘I assume she was badly hurt.’
‘Very badly, I’m afraid. She landed on the bollards along the quayside at Ragged Staff Wharf and split her skull open. Hal fled, naturally, while Grace ran down four flights of stairs and held the poor girl’s hand while she lay dying. That woman has never been anything but kind… but you know that, of course. Apparently the ambulance men said that she kept repeating the same thing, over and over. ‘How dare he? Make both of us feel second best.’’
Several seconds slowly passed before Bernard could speak.
‘And you? How did…’ He wasn’t even sure what he wanted to ask.
‘Well, I was Hal’s lawyer, so obviously he ran to me. And I did what I was paid to do and kept it out of the papers. But that wasn’t my only price. I made sure that Grace got the quayside apartment – which she immediately sold to buy that lovely townhouse – plus all Hal’s earnings from her films and a no-questions divorce. That’s how she bankrolls her charity.’
Bernard took another sip of her brandy while she continued.
‘And meanwhile, if the gossip columnists were going to be distracted, Hal needed a new wife. I wasn’t allowed one of those back then, of course, but I could marry him. That way both of us could avoid at least some of the questions we didn’t want to answer. I’m what he’s settled for, as a barrister or an accountant might say.’
She paused, gathering her face into an oddly resigned smile.
‘And he’s an old dog now. He doesn’t learn new tricks, but – thank heavens – he’s losing the stamina for the old ones.’
Bernard sat silently, staring in disbelief.
‘Oh Bernard, please don’t think badly of her now. She wasn’t the villain. Young and naïve, perhaps, but those things pass – trust me. And there are no more surprises, I promise. At least not about her. I’m still a showbiz lawyer, darling: a veritable reservoir of secrets. If I spilled them all, I’d flood half of Cadiz.’
Bernard was still wrestling to understand.
‘But tonight? All this? Why does she do it?’
‘It’s part of the settlement. The whole terrible incident happened the day after her birthday. Hal, too wrapped up in his own diversions, had not remembered. Had not remembered even to be present, let alone to bring one. And a birthday party is hardly something you can casually reschedule after a mortuary visit, is it?’
As Stella’s breadstick waved in the air like a bulrush in the wind, Bernard sensed that she was enjoying telling this part of the tale.
‘So, she asked for a lavish meal once a year, on her birthday, and he has to pay. Whether he has to borrow the money or not.’
She tapped the side of her nose with the remains of her grissini.
‘And, perhaps, to remind herself of what she had managed to escape.’
If Stella had had more to reveal, now was not to be the time. Grace reappeared from the kitchen, apologising for the delay as she walked to the doorway and ushered the others back inside.
‘Seats everyone, please. I have one last surprise for you all.’
Liqueurs poured and napkins repositioned, they sat in silent anticipation as Sergio appeared, pushing a large, ornately carved rosewood trolley bearing a vast copper-domed serving dish.
‘You will have noticed my new love of birdwatching,’ Grace announced, ‘but you might not remember me mentioning how much I loved peacocks as a little girl. And you will definitely not know that our charming maître d' is an expert not just in patisserie but in spun sugar.’
As the lights were dimmed, she pulled away the cover and Sergio lit a spray of sparklers that showered a richly ornamented, edible peacock with their effervescent flashes. As the oohs and aahs echoed round the room, she picked up a large knife and held its blade across the bird’s throat.
‘Hal, darling. I think you should have the first piece.’
Sergio bid them farewell at the quayside in Algeciras, kissing each of them of both cheeks before they stepped aboard the boat. ‘Rafa,’ he bid his brother, ‘some music for my guests.’ He gestured to the cloudless night sky. ‘Something to accompany the starlight.’
As they steered away from the shore and glided through the darkness towards the looming profile of the Rock, Nat King Cole’s piano accompanied each wave-top skip. Grace asked Rafa to take them to Marina Bay.
‘A longer walk, but a beautiful night for strolling,’ she said, taking Bernard’s hand. She plainly felt no need to see Ragged Staff Wharf again, no matter that its waterside bollards were so much closer to her new home.
As they stood hand in hand in silence, Bernard watched the tiny silver dolphin on her neck-chain dance against the gathers of her shawl while its whistling and clicking siblings bobbed and leapt in the boat’s wake.
‘So… ’ said Grace, taking a pause before she continued. ‘You know all my secrets now. I knew Stella would tell you – I wouldn’t have left you together in the restaurant if I didn’t realise that. I hope you don’t think badly of me.’
Bernard felt her fingers tighten around his own as she spoke. ‘How could I, you sweet woman?’ he told her, as she lowered her head against his chest. ‘I only love you all the more.’
He thought of all the moments in their time together when minor shames had been revealed and accepted without censure. Her contact lenses and occasional eczema, his bunion and the section of false teeth that were his lasting memento of an icy lakeside afternoon. Their mutual recognition that a flawed beauty was no disgrace.
She was quiet for a while, and he hoped her silence signalled reassurance.
‘And I know yours too,’ she said softly, her fingers gently prodding his chest. ‘Although you’re mistaken.’
Bernard held his breath, wondering what fresh revelation the night would yet bring.
‘You always think I see you as second best,’ she said. ‘It’s not true, Bernard. You can see that now, can’t you? You always leave out one important little word. Not second best. Second and best. So very much the best.’
As the boat bore on, they stood together, watching the lazy wingbeats of a pair of storks, silhouetted against the moon.
‘I never knew storks flew at night,’ she murmured. ‘Or in pairs.’
Bernard wrapped his arm around her shoulder, protective as a sheltering wing.
‘Sometimes, my love, even storks are lucky.’