by Martin David Edwards
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.
Bottylicious, he said without enthusiasm.
Chicken nugget, 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 headaches.
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 thrill.
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 hour.
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.
A perfect 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.
Enjoy. The 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 embarrassment.
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.
Whats your preference? the bartender asked.
Something for a novice. David had no idea.
Relax, the 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 kiss.
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, Puzzles pouted.
David flapped the book rapidly. I prefer the extra stimulation of having to think in two languages.
Tell me, Erick. Whos your favourite Swedish novelist? Puzzles asked, edging closer.
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 room.
David gulped. Youll have to educate me. Im out of practice.
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 of money.
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.
Youre perceptive as well as intelligent. If only my wife was the same, he sighed.
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 night.
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 said.
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 page.
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?
Lets not 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 online.
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.
Times up. Puzzles closed the book with a soft thud of escaping air.
My brain hurts, David groaned.
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 curtain.
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 your mind.
Id feel too shy, David said, his legs shaking.
Nobody takes the ultimate step alone. Youd have your performer to help you, Puzzles purred.
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 them.
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.
Delighted. Im 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 him.
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 century.
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 otherwise.
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 table.
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 book.
David checked the first page. The meaning of life is gardening. How suburban, he declared.
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 anticipation.
Erick. I thought you were upset with me. Puzzles twirled her gown in contrition.
I was busy intellectualising.
We should celebrate your brain power. I have just the solution. Puzzles nodded at the barman.
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.
Im too intellectual to argue. Take me to enlightenment, he said to Puzzles.
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 reading?
Newcomers start with maths then continue with philosophy. Thats the way the barman likes it.
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 already.
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.
Bottylicious, he mouthed silently.
His wife was sitting next to Einstein squawking with her mouth wide open and her phone on the table.
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