David slid his credit card into the cash machine, wiped
the sweat from his forehead and entered his security code.
With a fanfare of beeps, two
hundred pounds flicked into the dispenser. He bundled the notes into his wallet
and took out his phone. Voicemail might spare him having to speak directly. But
he was answered on the third ring.
said without enthusiasm.
a woman replied flatly.
Im working late
again. I doubt Ill be home until midnight.
If youre in the
office, how can I hear traffic?
David checked over his
shoulder. A double decker bus roared up the road in front of him.
Ive popped out for a breather. My computer was giving me
The voice paused. He could
hear an old man squawking in the background as he waited for a reply.
Dont rush back.
Im watching a quiz show. Being married to an Englishman has made me quite
the intellectual, the voice said.
Tell me who wins when
I get back, David replied and hung up. He wondered if Bottylicious was
also lying. They could both avoid eye contact in the morning.
David typed his password
into his phone and unlocked his Internet search pages. He tapped on the screen
to request a map. An icon of a person walking glowed blue in the corner. If he
chose the fastest route, he would arrive in twenty minutes. David breathed in
and clenched his stomach flat. Sitting at computers had made him chubby and
walking would be his weekly exercise.
On the street leading out of
the city, he passed commuters rushing home with their phones glued to their
ears. They would be shocked if they knew his plan. As a precaution, he typed an
imaginary email while he was walking. If spotted, he could claim the pressures
of work had distracted him from finding the train station.
Twenty minutes. He quickened
his pace, hoping he could arrive in seventeen.
Perspiring with more sweat,
he arrived at the address circled on his screen. A neon sign fizzed in pink
above the entrance, half the letters shorted out so that all he could read was
tease. Outside the entrance, a man wearing a bomber jacket and
covered in tattoos was checking his phone.
David hesitated. The risks
were considerable. He could bump into his colleagues, neighbours or possibly
his nephew, who had just turned eighteen. If discovered he would be named and
shamed. He would lose his job and ruin his marriage, all for the sake of a
Im dead already, he
decided and headed for the door.
The doorman blocked his path
and held out his palm. Five pounds.
David took a ten pound note
from his wallet. The doorman counted out three pound coins laboriously and
fished in his bomber jacket for the other two.
Keep the change,
David said, edging closer to the door. Outside, he could be spotted.
You will be a good
customer. The doorman didnt budge. To avoid
misunderstandings, let me tell you the rules.
David nodded impatiently. He
should have given a larger tip.
It is customary to
show your appreciation to the performers, the doorman said.
One-to-ones cost forty pounds. VIP costs two hundred pounds for the
David felt his wallet
through his suit. Do you take credit cards?
The doormans face
remained impassive. We can give you cash behind the bar.
arrangement, David replied, hoping to elicit a smile. He did not want to
take further risks of discovery with a return trip to the cashpoint.
doorman held the door open, half a smile raised on cue.
Inside, David waited for his
eyes to adjust to the gloom. A bar ran the width of the wall to his right.
Books were stacked on spotlit shelves and plush red carpeting lined the floor.
A roped-off gangway to his left led to a spiral staircase. At the back of the
room a curtain rippled as customers hurried through.
He tensed his feet, ready
for an emergency exit while he scanned the other customers for anyone who might
recognise him. They studied books, avoiding his gaze. He was safe in mutual
I happened to be
passing by and found myself accidentally opening the door, he said to the
bartender, trying to sound offhand.
The bartender looked up from
a book. David could see the outlines of churches on its pages.
preference? the bartender asked.
Something for a
novice. David had no idea.
bartender replied. Everyone has a first time. I have just the surprise
for you. He winked and gave David a book from the first shelf.
Interaction at last, David
congratulated himself. His trembling fingers dropped the book on the carpet and
he excused himself while he picked it up. Fumbling with the cover, he opened
the first chapter. Cartoons filled the pages. David peered at the caption
bubbles. The book was explaining maths equations but he had left school thirty
years ago and remembered little.
Excellent. Im a
connoisseur, he said.
We aim to
please, the bartender replied, his palm held out.
David gave him a ten pound
note, keen to demonstrate that he was a fast learner for tipping.
The books open around him
rustled in unison. David looked up expectantly. A woman walked down the spiral
staircase, wearing a university gown and a mortar board. She hooked the rope on
the gangway to a worn clasp on the wall.
The other customers lowered
their books but the woman headed straight for him. He clutched the book to his
chest, afraid he was about to have a heart attack.
You must be the
cleverest man Ive met. Maths is so complicated, the woman purred at
him without looking at the book.
When I was a child I
was supposed to be gifted. Now I spend all day staring at computers. My brain
has fallen out, David blushed.
Shy intellectuals are
so alluring. Im called Puzzles. She offered a cheek for a
My name is Erick with
a k. Im Swedish. We believe in the value of intellect. David lent
forward. Her skin tasted of lemons.
We have a performer
from Stockholm if you would prefer a one-to-one without translation,
David flapped the book
rapidly. I prefer the extra stimulation of having to think in two
Tell me, Erick.
Whos your favourite Swedish novelist? Puzzles asked, edging
Lets stick to
maths. Reading novels is so yesterday.
Puzzles swished her gown.
Were getting on so well already that we should go to the back
Youll have to educate me. Im out of
Puzzles brushed her mortar
board aside and whispered in his ear. Youll have the most
stimulating five minutes of your life.
Forty pounds is a lot
Puzzles purred in his
earlobes. I dont get customer complaints.
David hoped his sweat was
not becoming a torrent. Ive been working hard, if you are forcing
me to surrender.
You deserve a treat.
Opportunities to stimulate ourselves are so hard to come by.
as well as intelligent. If only my wife was the same, he
I sympathise totally.
You can talk to me about anything in a one-to-one.
David shuffled backwards on
the carpet. Im not like the others. I love my wife but we have
become so distant. We look at screens all day and never talk to each other at
Erick is so unlucky.
Seventy pounds and I can offer you a double. Puzzles traced his steps on
the carpet like a tango.
Deal, he said
quickly, afraid she might lose interest.
Puzzles beckoned with the
tip of her gown to the curtain crossing the back of the room. David followed,
his book clasped over his suit like a talisman.
She removed her mortar board
and held it out to David. Paperwork is so disagreeable, she
David opened his wallet and
placed seventy pounds inside the mortarboard.
Puzzles removed the notes,
slid them into an invisible pocket underneath her gown and opened the curtain.
David peeked his head
through. Customers were sitting at round tables with performers at their sides
and speaking intently to each other in low tones. A clock face on the wall was
marked with a line every five minutes.
Puzzles glided straight to
an empty table and pulled out two chairs. Lets get intellectual, my
mysterious Swedish gentleman, she said.
David sat down, their knees
touching under the table. Puzzles opened his book at this first
We can begin by
calculating the area of a triangle, she said.
David watched as she traced
her fingertips across the cartoons. He forgot about their knees touching; in
his mind he was floating on a cloud.
Your brain power is
way larger than other customers, Puzzles continued, poised to open
another page. How about we graduate to a circle?
exaggerate my capabilities. I was thinking of a sphere.
Puzzles flicked through the
book and opened a page at the back. David wobbled his head, releasing a bead of
sweat onto the table. I havent felt so alive since before I got
He listened eagerly as
Puzzles showed him a cartoon hovering over a green and blue model of the Earth.
Bottylicious had no idea what she was missing.
The clock on the wall behind
the tables buzzed softly.
Puzzles closed the book with a soft thud of escaping air.
My brain hurts,
Erick needs a fitness
regime to get into proper genius shape. How about going to the next
level? Puzzles guided him out of his chair and towards the
I dont think
Im important enough.
Puzzles took him by his arm
towards the roped-off staircase. Nonsense, Erick. Upstairs you find how
to be the complete intellectual, unplugged from everything except the power of
Id feel too
shy, David said, his legs shaking.
Nobody takes the
ultimate step alone. Youd have your performer to help you, Puzzles
David opened his wallet and
counted the remaining notes, then returned the wallet to his suit.
Ill have to think. This is all too overwhelming.
Puzzles dropped her hand
from his arm. Dont be overwhelmed for too long. A clever man
follows his fantasies. Foolish men are too weak to pursue
With a whiff of lemons, she
waved goodbye and walked across the room to talk to another customer.
David turned his back and
resumed his study of the cartoons with renewed concentration. When he saw
Puzzles guiding a customer behind the curtain, he tore a page from his book. As
he inspected the tear, he noticed that the page opposite had already been
repaired with sellotape.
A man with thinning grey
hair, moonshaped glasses and a threadbare cardigan shuffled towards him. David
resumed his studies.
Dont let looks
deceive you, the man squawked. I can give you the best braintease
of your life. Im called Einstein for a reason.
Fabrizio from Italy and am busy deciphering a five line equation. David
waved his book in the air.
Einstein removed his
glasses. His eyes were red-rimmed as he squinted at David. Thats a
book for schoolboys. You want to grow up and learn about relativity.
I can look that up on
the Internet. Let me show you. David reached for his phone.
Computers give you
facts but cant tell you secrets. Einstein beckoned David closer to
David gave a backwards
glance at the curtain. I know all about secrets.
Not this one.
Ill tell you for fifteen pounds. Its the bargain of the
I never pay under or
over the asking price, David replied.
Puzzles reappeared from the
curtain in deep conversation with her customer. David returned his phone to his
pocket. On second thoughts, do you give change? he asked, fishing
out a twenty-pound note.
David ignored Puzzles as she
swished past him. Performers had to learn their place.
In the back room, he sat
opposite Einstein and folded his arms. Lets get to the chase, he
said. Ive read the conspiracy bloggers online. The secret of
relativity is aliens. They wouldnt have built the Pyramids unless they
could travel faster than light. Nobody would have bothered with the journey
Einstein polished his
glasses with the corner of his cardigan. Thats the explanation
sheep give. Youve wasted thirty seconds.
Just as well I got a
discount, David replied, longing for spheres.
Einstein balanced his
glasses on his nose. The secret of relativity is a paradox. The theory is
absolute because it has no exceptions.
I want my money back.
Word play underwhelms me, David harrumped.
The clock on the wall
buzzed. Einstein stayed put in his chair. For twenty pounds more I can
tell you about fusion energy.
Another time when
Im richer, David got up and pushed his chair against the
You mean never. I
cant understand customers, Einstein squawked. You all dream
of being clever but cant accept the consequences. We ask questions
because were never satisfied with the answers.
More word play.
Your loss. Duty calls
for my more curious customers. Einstein gathered his cardigan and
shuffled past the roped off gangway up the stairs.
David shrugged and loitered
while the barman rearranged books on the shelves.
Want to graduate to
philosophy? the barman asked.
Im ready for
anything that gives me hope, David replied. He scanned the room for any
sign of the mortar board and gown.
Wed hate to see
you leave so early out of frustration. The barman gave him a replacement
David checked the first
page. The meaning of life is gardening. How suburban, he
Propping himself against the
bar, he pretended to read the book. On the second page, the edge of his vision
was filled by a mortar board growing larger. His heart raced with
Erick. I thought you
were upset with me. Puzzles twirled her gown in contrition.
I was busy
We should celebrate
your brain power. I have just the solution. Puzzles nodded at the
A card reader appeared in
front of David on the bar. He slipped in his card and keyed in his code for
four hundred pounds.
The barman handed David his
banknotes but kept two. Service charge, he said.
intellectual to argue. Take me to enlightenment, he said to
I knew youd see
sense eventually. Everybody does. Puzzles led him to the roped off
gangway. Upstairs we can plot out an entire doctoral thesis. Philosophy
guides are trivial in comparison.
He glanced down at the
closed cover. How do you know what book Im
Newcomers start with
maths then continue with philosophy. Thats the way the barman likes
David shrugged and climbed
the staircase. By next month, he knew the stairs would become as familiar as a
pair of old slippers. He hopped between the steps, enjoying the comfort
At the top, bookcases lined
the walls of a room from the floor to the ceiling. Chandeliers threw glittering
specks onto pools of green, velvet armchairs. He sniffed. Some of the customers
must have been upstairs for days and had forgotten to wash.
Come on Erick.
Lets do the paperwork then get your PhD. Puzzles pointed the tip of
her gown at a free pair of armchairs.
David opened his wallet and
gave Puzzles the rest of his banknotes. Then he frowned. The chandeliers must
have been playing tricks.
His wife was sitting next to
Einstein squawking with her mouth wide open and her phone on the