On the eve of his fiftieth birthday, George’s world is pretty much a wreck. His husband of twenty years is divorcing him for a woman, a baby and a second try at life. He’s lost his job and his home, and he’s living in his brother Andrew’s spare room.
But if George has given up on himself, Drew is more optimistic. He’s hit on a daring idea for George’s fiftieth, a present he won’t soon forget.
When a handsome sex worker called Silver knocks on the hotel-room door, George tries to send him away. But Sil is persuasive and kind, and George’s inhibitions melt away to a night of unimagined pleasures. Stranger still, when daylight comes, George’s one-night-stand man-for-hire shows every sign of wanting to stay.
But these two men are from different worlds, and George is sure it’s too late for second chances. Silver’s a mystery to him, dashing and dangerous, walking the wild side of life. A trap is closing around the silver-fox escort: will George learn to trust himself in time for Silver to be saved?
I surveyed the artexed ceiling. The hotel was okay, although I’d definitely have partitioned off the balconies so people might actually use them, and I’d have put the service lifts into the core, not off in a corner annexe, saving the housekeepers endless miles of trolley-pushing trek. I was an easy guest to please. I loved hotels, even tired seventies blocks like this. Living in Melchior’s glittering world, where half a dozen students and highly strung conductors a day would rattle through our house, and storms of music and temper swept up and down the stairs at all hours, a night in a Travelodge honestly felt like a break.
I suppose I was playing at being alone. Although Jess and I had done our best, the end had come quickly, and I’d guiltily camped out in my mum and dad’s house for the month it had taken me to meet and move in with Melchior. I was living with Drew and my sister-in-law now. I’d never had a place of my own, and in my occasional Trust House Forte or Premier Inn – never anything fancier than that, not with the Service footing the bill – I played house, using up all the complimentary sachets, taking my tea mug back to bed with me in the mornings and self-consciously watching breakfast TV, an activity unheard of in our box-free Hampstead bedroom.
Somehow I’d lived half a century on Earth without experiencing loneliness. It all looked set to catch up on me now – tonight, here, in this undifferentiated cell with its bland everyman luxuries. I curled up on the bed. I’d started to drink too much in Melchior’s glittering world, so I’d made sure not to bring a bottle in my suitcase, and I knew better than to open the minibar in a place like this, twenty quid for a mouse-piss sample of unidentifiable scotch. I could get myself back down to the lounge and mix with the other delegates. I could have a shower and go to bed, but for the love of God, it was only nine PM, the Edgware skies still wide and alight with sunset.
Shit. This was how it felt to have nothing. A freefall panic entered my guts. I lost a sense of Andrew at home with Vicky and the kids, of my friends, of my mum and dad rocking out their healthy eighties in Bognor Regis. What if all these people – even Melchior, Sabrina and unborn mini-Mel – had vanished, and I’d never see or touch any of them again?
Looking back, I think I had some kind of panic attack. I’d been pushing aside the impact of divorce for so long that I’d started to think it would never hit, like one of those near-Earth objects in the New Scientist, hurtling by us in a cosmic game of pool. My ongoing failure to read the solicitor’s papers was a shield, stretching across my hemisphere, ready to burn up all incoming horrors to ash.
But it hadn’t fucking worked. My lungs had gone shallow. I tried to curl up, then in shame at the significance of that I lurched out of the bed and stood up, gasping, the room’s four walls beginning a blurry retreat.
Somebody knocked at the door. I jolted as if whoever it was had rapped his knuckles off my head, but my chest unlocked and I got a breath. All right. Fine. Quarter past nine at night, only two-point-seven-five hours of my birthday left, but Drew was forgiven. I imagined him at the family dining table, smacking himself on the brow in dismay when he remembered. Shit! It’s George’s sodding birthday! And Vicky, horrified too but more concerned about the kids: Michael! Language!
Forgive him? At this rate I’d jump into his arms – if I could get to the door. The walls were still running away from me. I made a charge at the one straight ahead and caught up. Took a last-second pause to pull myself together and yanked the door wide.
A stranger confronted me. Through glittering fog, I made out that he was six foot tall, with a beautiful cap of salt-and-pepper hair. That his eyes were brown, and their warm, flirtatious challenge changed as I watched to concern. I further noted that he was carrying chrysanthemums – favourites of mine, although Melchior dismissed them as common, grandmother’s greenhouse – and that he was, far and away, the most beautiful guy I had ever clapped eyes on.
But he wasn’t my brother. Disappointment seared me. “Sorry,” I managed. “You’ve got the wrong room.”
“No, I haven’t. Not if you’re George Fenchurch.”
Even his voice was delicious. He sounded like a BBC newsreader who’d spent a lot of time in the north, long enough for his vowels to broaden and an ordinary, absolute charm to suffuse his every word. “I am,” I said, my own voice scoured and raw. “Who the hell are you?”
He put the chrysanthemums into one arm and held out an identity card in a slim leather sheath. A name I couldn’t take in, a photo that just barely did him justice. Across the top, Silver Fox Escort Services. “I’m your birthday present,” he said. “From your brother Andrew.”