A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It was a warm spring evening, and I was sitting at my usual table at Aux Plaques-Chauffantes de Jean-Marie, waiting for my date. Well, I say my date; it was actually an ex of mine from Uni, Alexander MacPhail, Laird of Somewhere Unpronounceable and teller of awful jokes. You see, Mummy—who was actually in the country, for once—had sent me a poisonous little invitation to her latest gathering, addressed to the Hon Ticky Dogge-Hare and Guest, with “and Guest” underlined three times in bright red ink. And I couldn’t think of anyone better to invite than Alex, who was warm and witty and wonderful and who got on Mummy’s nerves. Thankfully he was free, and agreed to hop on an early train (or series of trains: his place really is very remote) so we’d have plenty of time to catch up and plot survival strategies. And eat, of course; Mummy’s gatherings never featured actual food.
I’d brought along the book I was reading, Fiona Walker’s The Love Letter, which has a terrifically complicated plot with lashings of intrigue, secret identities, art theft, hidden tunnels, you name it. And of course darling Alex was a good half-hour late as always, so I got really sucked in and was hurtling towards the final chapter when he arrived. I was so terribly absorbed that I didn’t even notice until I heard his plummy Edinburgh voice bellow “Ticky!”, and I jumped about a mile and almost spilled champagne down my cleavage. Alex strode over to my table, cutting a swathe through the other diners, and lifted me off my feet in a bone-crushing bear hug.
“Alexander MacPhail,” I said, as soon as I could breathe again, “you’re wearing a velvet jacket!”
“Er, well,” he said, looking a little self-conscious, “the lassie in the shop said it suited me, so…” It did—Alex always had rather the look of another age about him, one of the few really rugged men who could wear a cravat—but I was relieved that he’d opted for a crisp dove-grey shirt underneath rather than embracing the full Austin Powers.
“Anyway,” he continued, holding me at arm’s length and studying me, “my jacket is a modern classic. Unlike that collection of shiny rags you’re sporting.”
“I’ll have you know this is the bleeding edge of couture.”
“Aye, right. But at least my Italian granny would have loved your shoes,” he said, nodding at my red patent Varas.
The conversational buzz of the restaurant returned to normal as Alex righted my chair and settled me in it, although I noticed a few nosy bastards turning to have a gawp at this big, handsome Scotsman who ravaged innocent blondes in restaurants. Retrieving my napkin from several feet away, he handed it to me with a flourish and burrowed under the neighbouring table to locate my book.
“Hell’s teeth, woman,” he said when he emerged, turning the fat novel in his hands, “what on earth are you reading?”
“Fiona Walker. It’s quite good, actually, although I never liked her earlier stuff; always thought it was sort of sub-Jilly. But I came across this one and it seemed different to the others, so I decided to give it a try. Sometimes you come back to an author later and find their work has changed so much, it’s like reading something else entirely. That’s happened to me a few times now; I’ve learned never to write anyone off.” Alex grunted and flipped the book over to read from the back cover.
“‘When Allegra North parted from first love Francis after a decade together, she poured all her regret into a letter,’” he announced in his velvety baritone. “‘He didn’t reply. A year later, her job brings her back to the beautiful Devon coast where their romance blossomed and she hopes that they can start a new chapter.’ Bloody pablum,” he declared, flinging the book onto the table and almost upsetting my champagne flute again. “I mean, look at the cover. The woman’s trying to walk a dog, fine, but does she really have to be wearing a daft-looking dress and carrying a basket of flowers? And trying to keep her hat on at the same time? If ever there was an indication of a truly fatuous book—”
“To be fair, it’s hardly your kind of book to start with.” I’d never known Alex to read anything but Horse and Rider and the sports pages, which might explain his Third in Theology, of all things. “But I’m really enjoying it.” Alex raised a skeptical sort of eyebrow. “Well, I say enjoying it,” I admitted. “It’s more that I feel compelled to finish it. I need to find out what happens.”
“So is it…” Alex snatched the book up again, “‘a wonderfully warm comedy of mistaken identities, new loves and old flames’? Could I see a menu, please, sweetheart?” he called out to a passing waitress.
“Well, no. Or not for me, anyway. It’s quite funny and very addictive, but everyone in it seems a bit unpleasant, so I’m not sure ‘wonderfully warm’ really hits the spot. Oh, except for the reclusive author at the centre of the whole thing; I’m wildly in love with him, of course.”
Alex harrumphed and buried his nose in the menu.
“Now, you know what I mean,” I said. “His character keeps me reading even when I’m past caring about the heroine, her annoying sister or her awful ex. Gordon Lapis is easily the most interesting, sympathetic character in the book, for all that he’s cranky and a bit weird; from the first time you meet him, you’re hooked, and you simply have to find out his story. I really do think the whole thing’s terribly well constructed; even though I don’t like most of the characters, I have to keep reading until it’s done.” And, in fact, I was itching to open the book again. I hoped Alex would go for a pee or something so I could get a few more pages in. Or perhaps I could make a visit myself, and stash the book in my oversized handbag.
“You make it sound like eating a whole tube of Pringles,” he snorted.
“It is a bit like that, actually.”
“Why, does it give you indigestion?”
I gave that comment the ignoring it deserved. “It’s not the most enthralling chicklit novel I ever read, but it’s very moreish, and that’s rather a skill of its own, don’t you think? Liking characters is such a subjective thing, like getting on with people; but if you really get drawn into the plot, it doesn’t matter.”
“If you say so, Ticky my sweet. Look, what are you going to have?”
This really was a difficult question. Every time I came to this place, I was faced with the same dilemma: lobster ravioli or confit de canard? Both were utterly divine, and ordering one—however satisfactory—always left me with a vague regret for the other. “Lobster ravioli,” I finally said, after some soul-searching.
“I thought I might have the duck confit,” said Alex lightly, “but I can never finish one of those, so I hope you’ll help me out with it.”
“Oh, Alex,” I sighed, “you always were my favourite ex.” Oops, I thought as I blushed into my drink, I didn’t mean to say that out loud; internal monologue type of thing, you know. Alex grinned and summoned the waitress to take our order.
“Right,” he said, “down to business. How can I best irritate the living shit out of your dear mamma this evening?”
“Just be yourself, dear Alex,” I said. “Just be yourself.”
Ticky read The Love Letter in paperback (Sphere, 2012, ISBN: 978-0751547894)