Steve is outside within minutes and, together with a Eurasian-looking giant of a man, calmly shepherds us through the amassed photographers. Henry keeps his head down, Raybans shielding him from the harsh flashes from the cameras and their owner’s barbed questions, that fire at us like heat-seeking missiles. The photographers close in, and I recall a random fact from childhood science lessons: bees and dogs can smell fear. Painful memories of my own experiences with the press spring to mind and I mentally flap them away, shooing at them as if they too are wasps or bees. Now would not be a good time for that particular sting.
“Henry! Henry! Over here Henry!”
“Henry! What number is she, Henry? What’s her name?”
“Alright love? Give us a nice smile!”
“What’s your name darlin’?”
I am bundled, without ceremony, into the waiting vehicle – the same SUV from last night I think, and Henry quickly dives in next to me. Eurasian Giant dashes around to the passenger side and is barely in before Steve puts his foot down. We tear away hurriedly, but pointlessly in my opinion. We’re only going a few short streets to the market, surely they will just follow us? I’m surprised and dismayed however, when Steve drives off in the opposite direction.
“I need to get to work!”
Steve’s response is clipped and professional, “I understand Miss, but my priority is to ensure your and Henry’s safety.”
Henry takes my hand, kissing it and smiles reassuringly.
“You ok?” he whispers.
“I’m fine. Really, I am. It’ll take a lot more than a bunch of tossers with Nikons to bother me. I want to ask you about something one of them said. Will you explain it to me if you can?”
“What do you want to know?”
He looks worried, anxious and not at all his usual self possessed calm. He sits back in the soft leather seat and runs his hand through his hair. Do I really need to ask him about this? Does it really matter? Or am I just falling for the trap so effectively set by the paps and their intrusive probing?
“One of those idiots back there asked you something about a number. What did he mean? Please tell me the truth.” I marvel at my audacity. Surely he deserves the same amount of honesty from me? If it wasn’t so hideous it would be funny.
He sighs and looks at me as if sizing up my potential for crazy-lady aggression in the confined space. After what seems like forever he speaks again.
“I don’t know how they got hold of it but it’s probably going to be all over the gossip columns today. I was a bit of a big-headed idiot back when I was a kid, and one night, I made a drunken bet with a friend that when I became famous I could sleep with a hundred women in a month. Like I say, I was drunk but that in no way excuses it. I was young, a lot younger than I am now, I’d just had my first taste of success and I had a monstrous ego. I’m not proud of it and I never thought anyone would take it seriously. It was just a juvenile bet with a mate and I deeply regret it. I’ve never thought of women in that way – well not since I grew up, and I’m not the kind of man who likes to make notches in his bedpost. It’s pretty grim, I know, and I only have myself to blame. I just hope our good friends in the press tire of it quickly, although I don’t hold any high expectation of that actually happening. Please don’t second guess yourself about this Jea. This is not about you. It’s about me and my arrogance and stupidity.”
There he goes with another of those soul-baring speeches again. What do I say to this? Yes, it’s distasteful and immature, but it’s not really the scariest skeleton he could have hiding in his closet is it?
“But if you were just a kid? Surely no-one is going to be interested in what you said or did back then?” I know this isn’t true. I know that the fandom will go into overload at this, like a child with allergies on an E number high.
“You really think they will report it that way? Goodness no. It will be “Superman Henry in Hundred Women Claim” that kind of thing. I dread to think about the headlines, but the damage is done and I can only hope that it doesn’t upset too many people.”
By “too many people” I take it he means Warner Brothers and I understand his concern. Superman, the morally perfect, uber strong upholder of traditional values, is everything to him right now and this incident from his past could snatch it all away. I have a moment of clarity where I realise with a deep sadness that I have to end this. I can’t bring myself to sully him any further. He needs to maintain his image and preserve what he can of it from any scandal. My presence is not going to aid him. I force myself to do it before my heart can convince my head otherwise.
“Henry. Thank you for telling me. I don’t think we should see each other anymore. I’m not built for all this. I’m sorry.” I wave my hand in a gesture to indicate the craziness that surrounds him.
I hear my voice crack as I finish what I’m saying and I can’t bear to look into his eyes. I’m lost with the thought that I might never see him again and I know that if I do look at him, I will surely drown this time. I take one last gulp of air before I go under and ask Steve to stop the car. The moment he does, I bolt, fleeing from my heart and from Henry. I run as if I’m running to an abusive lover, or like a child to a cruel parent. The tears no comfort, yet flowing with abandon, the steady stream surging directly and surely into the ocean of my demise – a sea the exact colour of his eyes.
I run blindly for several minutes; the Camden streets multiplied tenfold by my tears, a hideously beautiful kaleidoscope of blurred colour and pattern. The pain in my chest and side matched by the torture pumping viciously through my veins by my breaking heart. I don’t stop running, and even though I’m aware of the curious stares of passers-by, I’m immune to them. Cut off from the world, isolated in despair, I’m lost and a pathetic, needy part of me wants to go back and let him tell me it will be ok, let him hold me again and kiss me, as he makes it all go away. I shake my head in an attempt to get a hold on myself. I pull up outside a newsagent, panting hard, and spy the tabloids in their rack. On autopilot, I take a copy of The Star and quickly thumb through the assorted scantily clad glamour models, idle gossip and celebrity news. There, on page thirteen, is a picture of Henry, one I recognise to have been taken at the premiere last month. Another photo is a still from Man of Steel. In both he looks extraordinary, yet untouchable, and as I brush my fingers over the dotty newsprint pixels that make up his impossibly handsome face, I feel the itchy burn of tears again. I have seen that face for real; not five minutes ago was I looking into those eyes and seeing my own reflected back at me and now I’ve closed my eyes on him, turned my back and walked away. Well, ran away to be precise, and now I’m standing outside this damn shop, holding this damn newspaper as if it somehow validates my actions.
I realise I should pay for the paper before the shop owner starts to panic. I know that I must look a mess sniffling into a copy of the Daily Star like a lovesick teenager, but I don’t much care. I hand over the money disinterestedly and glance at the article again, this time taking in the thirty-two type headline. It’s as bad as Henry predicted. Quickly scanning the story, I gather that the whole sex-with-a-hundred-women-bet-thing has indeed come out and so, apparently, have at least two of these women. I’m surprised at the sharp stab of jealousy I feel, but I’m not shocked at all by my rising anger. Poor Henry, I think, they’ve really done a hatchet job on that clean-cut image of his, painting him as the stereotypical Hollywood playboy. A ladies man with a reputation for loving and leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him. I don’t believe it for a minute but reading the story, I know I’ve done the right thing. I hope he can overcome this and I know that without me he at least stands a chance. If I’d stayed, I would have tarred him with my brush, blackening his good character further and only adding to the hype. He doesn’t need my shadows. He belongs in the light. I walk slower now, sure of my decision and even though my heart is still twisting painfully, I know I have to carry on and try to forget him. Head higher, I make for work, my heart and soul lying homeless, tattered and ragged in the gutter.
My day passes in a blur of pain, torture, angst and my vain attempts to remain professional and calm for my customers. One of my potential clients is a young royal and I am desperate to design a dress for a real princess. I’m pretty sure I’ve blown my chance though; I’m distracted and withdrawn, and even the lace and tulle filled promise of an opportunity as important as this, isn’t sufficient to keep my mind and heart from Henry. He’s called numerous times – too many to count – and left texts and messages on my voicemail aplenty. I’ve turned my phone off. I simply can’t deal with him and my feelings right now. I need to make a clean break if I’m going to have any chance of surviving him, so, like a surgeon surveying a patient’s x-ray, I aim for detached and clinical.
By the time I get home, I’m a mess. I feel like I’ve been on the spin cycle on a washing machine, emotionally wrung-out and borderline bi-polar. I’ve tried to not think of him. Of his sexy smile that starts in his eyes, soft and sensual at the same time, the life and passion of him and his hot and sweet lovemaking. I’ve tried to remain stoic but a horrific moment after my noon appointment left, when I collapsed in a tearful, anguished heap on the floor – crumpling like one my dresses when it slips from it’s hanger – tells me that my attempts were useless. I love him and I’ve left him. It’s as simple as that.
I can’t face the bedroom, the unmade bed taunting me with yawning empty loss and even though I’m desperate to shower the day away, I’m afraid of the memories that we made there last night. The seemingly lustful ghosts laughing at me and my folly. I ache for him; his voice, his touch and can feel myself recoil from the gaping yearning wound it has left in my heart. The tears spill hot and fast down my cheeks again and I do the only thing I can and call Stacey.
Several glasses of Chenin Blanc and a box of tissues later, I’m an exhausted, sad drunk; sobbing tearlessly into my pillow in Stacey’s spare room. I stare up at the ceiling, wondering if I’ve made the right decision. Stacey has vehemently spent the last four hours convincing me that I have. She knows this industry inside out – like a whore’s dirty knickers she calls it – there are no real secrets and eventually every single stain is exposed for all and sundry to see. The collective dirty laundry of celebrity is washed in public whether they like it or not. Stacey knows I’m not built for her world; Henry’s world, but I was a happy tourist for the briefest of stays and now I feel like I’ve entered the country illegally and my visa has been rebuked.
“Fuck it, Jea,” Stacey had said earlier, “fuck it all. You’ll be ok. I’ll fucking see to it. I know it seems really shitty right now and I wish I could make it all go away but you’re stronger than this. You’re not a publicity sponge like some of the fucking arseholes I meet ever day and I love you for it. I don’t know anything about Henry apart from what you’ve told me and what I’ve read, but from the few brief meetings I’ve had with him he seems really fucking genuine. I don’t meet many like that. Maybe if you’d explained things to him? I don’t know, but what I do know is that he is seriously into you. If he’s really looking for a connection he will understand and if he doesn’t, then fuck him too!”
I close my eyes as the agony of that truth hits me.
“I already did, Stace,” I whisper into the dark, “and look where it got me..”
The following week is nightmarish for me. I get up, shower, dress and work. I avoid my emails and messages and only answer my phone if I know who the caller is. I don’t enjoy being rude to Henry this way but I have to shut myself down like this. It’s the only way I know I can survive leaving him. I know he’s hurt and I hate myself for it but I can’t be with him, so I don’t want to think about him.
Since the “bet” story broke five days ago, three more of Henry’s alledged previous lovers have sold their tales. None of them seem to have had anything but a superficial encounter with him, if indeed they are kissing and telling the truth. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, have any bearing on my decision to walk away, but I have to admit to feeling a tad jealous each time a new ex spills her guts. As much as I try not to think of him, I can’t help remember little things like the way he laughed or his post-coital contented humming. I blanche at the pain of that particular memory: “Only Girl In The World” indeed!
The only reason I’m aware of these further revelations in the continued expose of Henry’s private life, is because the harsh spotlight of unsolicited celebrity is now focused on me. Seeing myself immortalised alongside Henry in newsprint black and white, and sharing column inches with the loose-lipped former lovers was something of a nasty shock but not a complete surprise. The accompanying photo one of many taken on Wednesday night, when we were ambushed outside my flat. Thankfully, the press haven’t figured out who I am yet, and are referring to me as a “Mystery Brunette”, but I’m sure it will only be a matter of time before they do. With a little luck, this story will be yesterday’s news by then.
As well as the calls and messages, Henry has sent flowers. A lot of flowers. So much so that the shop looks more like a florist than a bridal boutique, and each bloom invokes bittersweet memories of pretty posies, summer meadows and lazy, sunlight filled kisses. I know it’s hypocritical but I can’t throw them away. It would be like none of it ever happened and that needy part of me is desperate to cling on to something. I feel like I’ve taken a wild and crazy leap off a cliff face into a breath-taking and ultimately precarious void, only to find that part way though my free fall, I didn’t pack my parachute, just as I’d previously feared. I’ve somehow managed to grasp onto an overhanging shrub and am dangling dangerously, the wood splintering and sliding through my fingers, as surely as my time with Henry is slipping away from me. I feel like I’m drowning in days and even though I know it wouldn’t change the outcome, I’d do anything to relive the last few weeks.
Stacey and Craig know that I am pining for him but they understand my reasons for breaking it off, although I suspect Craig thinks I’m crazy for having done so. Craig is lucky that he sees the world in black and white, thick or thin, and pretty much whether he would shag you or not. He is happily married to his partner Liam of nine years but he window shops often. He and Liam have a healthy appreciation for their relationship and even though neither of them ever really cheat, they are open and honest about any “feelings” they may have for other men. Stacey, on the other hand, is single and determinedly so. She is happy and independent and enjoys the occasional fling but is very much married to her job. Out of the three of us, I was the one who had the closest thing to the perfection; and I lost it and I know that it’s because of these two amazing friends that I’m here today. I honestly don’t know where I would be without them.
Right now, I am dancing to the club remix of Happy and, even though I’m blind drunk, the irony is not lost on me. Craig, intent on ensuring that I have a good time, has dragged me out tonight to celebrate my news. The Princess-to-be has requested my services as her dress designer and the wedding date is set for next summer! Contrary to my belief that I’d blown the appointment earlier in the week, she apparently loves my ideas and loves me! I have been sworn to absolute secrecy and suppose that having divulged this information to both Craig and Stacey, I’m probably guilty of treason or something. I know I should be over the moon about this coup, as this promises to be the wedding of the century, but I’m distracted and uninspired. As an antidote to my moping I’ve decided that drink is the way to go and have successfully consumed the best part of the top shelf. I stand, swaying dazedly in time to the music, watching the room spin and dip around me, the faces of my friends duplicated and blurred like I’m in some surreal Arthouse movie about triplets. I listen to Pharrel’s bright and bouncy lyrics telling me just how happy he is and bolt for the loo, tears flooding to my eyes, and Stacey’s worried call following on my heels. I grab a handful of tissue and try to focus on repairing the damage this latest bout of waterworks has caused. I exit the bathroom and make my way directly to the bar and order another shot – and then another and another. Maybe I can just drink my troubles away, I think sadly, as bittersweet memories of Henry gradually entwine with Gary and Bettie, and soon I’m so drunk I can barely remember what I’m sad about.
I need fresh air and make my way past the heaving throng of gyrating bodies to the exit. The coolness colliding with my face is like a balm and in my stupor, I decide to walk home; completely forgetting that I’m currently staying with Stacey and only vaguely concerned that I’ve left something inside. I check my pockets for purse and keys and satisfied that I have everything I arrived with – apart from my dignity, I stumble and trip the few short blocks through the Camden night. Turning the corner into my street, I’m assaulted by a crazy sense of Deja Vu; the night suddenly on fire with flashing and shouting. I’m confused and bedazzled by the bright lights and don’t realise until it’s too late that I’ve walked into the melee of photographers again. My addled brain screams at me in panic and confusion, and a smaller voice inside my head reminds me of why they are here – I’m shocked at their persistence even now, almost a week later. As recognition slowly dawns, I put my hands up to shield myself from their intrusive lenses and harshly barked questions. The white flashes persistent and scarily blinding in their intensity. I feel like bug on a microscope, imprisoned by a pin-point of light. I’m yelling incoherent insults and warnings and scream as one of them tries to grab my arm. I twist around and bring my other arm up simultaneously, my fist closing involuntarily and just before I can connect with my assailant’s face, someone is holding me back. Someone strong. Someone I love.
Henry drags me away from the photographers and swoops me into his arms. I hear him shouting and I’m barely aware of being deposited on a soft seat before passing out.