It was Mel’s 50th birthday, and five of us were off to Whitstable for oysters, champagne and a dip in the sea. Apart from it was pouring with rain, so the dip seemed unlikely. I met the others at St Pancras, yesterday’s Daily Mail tucked under my arm. On the train I showed them the review of my book which had filled me with joy. They frowned down at it.
‘Page 62?’ said Baz. ‘Does anyone ever read that far?’
‘It’s not very long,’ said Morag. She measured it with her finger and thumb.
Two other novels had been reviewed in the same box. ‘It’s the longest of the three,’ I pointed out. ‘And also you need to count the graphic.’
‘The graphic?’ Morag peered at the collage in the middle of the box. The others had lost interest and were comparing jawlines.
‘Yes! Look! South London!’ I pointed at the high rise block.
‘How do you know that’s south London? It could be anywhere.’ Morag peered even closer. ‘I’m sorry but I think it’s meant to be Tokyo. One of the other novels must be set in Tokyo.’
‘Neither of the other novels is set in Tokyo,’ I snapped.
‘But yours is, is it?’ asked Uma, letting go of her jaw skin and dipping back in. ’Wow. I didn’t realise it was set in Tokyo.’
‘So why is there a picture of Tokyo?’
‘Whatever.’ I leaned back and looked out of the window at dismal Kent.
‘It’s a very nice review,’ said Baz, patting my hand.
In Whitstable it wasn’t raining and there was a sliver of blue between two clouds. We poured into a vintage dress shop, and Morag, the only one of us with a proper hourglass figure, poured herself into a red and white polka dot dress. It looked amazing but it was bare peas. While she hummed and haaed I popped over the road into Harbour Books and asked if they had my book. ‘Computer says no,’ said the bookseller, having tapped on her keyboard for a while. I produced my Daily Mail and shoved the review under her nose. ‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘OK, I’ll ask my boss if we can get one in.’
Wheelers in Whitstable is bit pokey, but we had the best table, directly under the big skylight. We drank champagne and talked noisily, about cheap facelifts, and old lovers, and worst enemies; and Amber Rudd. I kept catching the eye of the distinguished-looking man sitting at the next table – and suddenly realised that he was Julian Barnes.
It was definitely him. Those elegant temples, that beaky nose, those clever green eyes. He was with two companions, a man and a woman, both facing him, so I could only see the backs of their heads. Julian, far taller then them, was giving them maybe a tenth of his attention. The rest was on us – or, more precisely, on me. I became more and more eloquent, swigging wine between each gem of wit, rewarded now and then by an approving nod from Julian. I started talking about my book, and what it was like being a debut author, and it didn’t matter that my friends weren’t listening, because Julian was agog. I absolutely knew that he couldn’t wait to read my novel. That he would walk straight into Harbour Books after the meal, and be most disappointed to find they didn’t have it.
We were getting very raucous. Then Baz said, ‘Look, there are other people in this restaurant, you know. Can we all pipe down a bit?’
‘Do you think they mind?’ Uma looked over her shoulder, and met Julian’s gaze. ‘Oh! Sorry, are we being too loud?’
‘Not a problem,’ he said, in a dry, authorish way. Once he’d stopped looking, I leant forward.
‘Do you know who he is?’ I whispered.
‘What? Who?’ All four of my friends craned their necks.
‘Stop it! Shut up! It’s Julian Barnes,’ I hissed.
‘It is not Julian Barnes,’ said Morag, looking again. ‘It’s nothing like him.’ She asked for the bill.
‘It could be,’ said Mel, who’d been studying him. She got out her phone and googled him, and held the photo up. They all peered at the photo and then at the actual Julian Barnes, who had dipped his head, clearly bothered by the barefaced stares. Mortified, I paid my share of the bill, and went to the loo, planning how to get Julian on his own: leave with my friends, then dash back, saying I’d forgotten my umbrella; re-establish rapport, tell him the title of my book; exchange contact details.
When I returned, Morag was standing over Julian. ‘My friend thinks you’re Julian Barnes,’ she said. ‘But you’re not, are you?’
‘Who’s Julian Barnes?’ asked Julian, pokerfaced.
‘You see,’ said Morag, to me. Julian’s lips twitched.
We left the restaurant and set off for the beach. ‘Oh wait, I’ve forgotten my umbrella,’ I said.
‘No you haven’t,’ said Baz. ‘You didn’t have an umbrella. You are not going back to harass that poor man.’
They dragged me to the beach. It was raining again but I strode off towards the water, flinging off my clothes. Julian Barnes would be along any minute, and when he saw me ploughing through the icy water he would be even more admiring, and would dawdle, waiting for me to emerge.
‘Tamsin, we’re going back to London!’ shouted Uma. ‘It’s bloody freezing! Come on!’