The first fiction I wrote was the result of a dream. I was sitting in a restaurant eating a delectable Afghan meal, with those amazing sauces they use. My eyes fell on a striking, dark-eyed man at the table across from me. I was a regular there, and so was he. But I usually went alone, whereas he had a different woman every time I saw him…
After the dream, I had to write it down. I wrote because I needed to learn the identity of this mysterious man, and whether my dream self might get to know him better… Whenever I explained to friends that I had to write in order to “find out” what would happen, they were puzzled. I’m still not sure what wellsprings gave rise to this conversation, fragments of which occurred in the dream:
“American, are you?” he said. “Why do you come here so often, and what shall I call you?”
He was surprisingly direct for an Englishman, almost rude, she thought, but answered calmly, “My name is Laura, and I come here because I like the food. I’ve been eating here every Friday.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied. “You usually come alone. That lanky bloke with the glasses, is he your boyfriend?” She paused, and then said smiling, “I don’t see that it’s any business of yours, but no, he is not my boyfriend.”
“Live around here, I suppose?”
Instead of answering the question, she said, “May I ask your name, and why you come here so often?” With so many different women, it was on the tip of her tongue to add, but she didn’t. He put out his hand and said, “James Whelan. I work near here. At the London Herald.”
Grasping his hand, she gave it a firm squeeze and a shake, trying to ignore how warm it felt. So he was a journalist after all. That made sense; probably some of the people he brought here were those he worked with. The red-haired woman in the pantsuit, definitely, and the man. But she was not so certain about the others. “A journalist. That explains why you ask a lot of direct questions,” she said. “I can’t make anything of your accent. Are you a London native?”
She finished her glass of wine and he quickly poured her some of the GSM. “Oh no, Ireland, though I don’t have much Irish left in my speech. Belfast. I’ve not lived there for many years.” He frowned slightly as he said this, causing two little lines to deepen between his brows. She wondered whether he’d been affected by the Troubles. If he was in his fifties, he would have been a young man during some of the worst days in the seventies. It might be a sensitive subject.
Babur arrived with their food, deposited it, and left, still radiating disapproval. Whelan looked after him, grinning, and then turned to her. “I believe our mutual friend Babur is concerned for your virtue.”
“He needn’t be,” she replied lightly, sounding more confident than she felt, and trying to hold his gaze. She realized that his eyes were hazel, mostly brown but with a slight tint of green.
“I’m wounded,” he responded in the same tone, adding, “Am I as unattractive as all that? I must be getting old.” Rascal, she thought. You know very well how good looking you are.
“No, it’s just that… you seem to be well supplied with female friends already. Adding another one could dangerously tax the strength of a man your age.”
He chuckled and raised his glass. “I see. You’re really twisting the knife now.”
“Well, then, let’s say instead that when I’m sleeping with a man, I like to have his full attention.” “You’ve certainly got mine now,” he said, sitting up straighter and then leaning toward her with an exaggerated leer.
She felt her cheeks burning. How could I have said something so crude? she thought, and then: my face must be bright red. After a few moments, he slowly said, “Did you know that when you blush, the color travels all the way down your neck?” His gaze slid down to her chest and back up to her face. She was wearing a silky brown top with a deep v-neck, and a simple strand of faceted, colorless crystal beads. It was true; once she had looked in the mirror after a particularly trying faculty meeting, only to see that there were blotches of pink on her neck and chest.
Now she only shook her head, speechless. “Have some water,” he said then. She took a drink of the water, then set it down. “Sorry. I’m not used to flirtatious conversations with men. I spend most of my time with books, but I can see I’ve been missing out on a great deal.”
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I teach English at a university in Pennsylvania.”
“Pennsylvania? I’ve been to Philadelphia, once. And New York City, of course.” As they ate, they talked about travel and Americans visiting Britain, and the British and Irish visiting America, and his acquaintances at the New York Times and the Daily News, and she felt the flames on her face and chest begin to recede. He asked about the reason for her visit.
“I’m here on a research leave. I study the libraries of British writers. Right now, I’m trying to gather information on eighteenth-century authors.”
“Ah, that explains it. I thought you looked a bit like a librarian. A couple of times, you wore a white blouse with a cardigan. Put me in mind of the librarian in my grammar school.”
So he had noticed her. She set this aside to ponder later, and replied coolly, “Yes, I brought only my dowdiest clothing on this trip. Dressing like a librarian tends to prevent unwanted advances from strange men. Usually, that is.”
He smiled. “Ah, but your strategy is all wrong,” he said, and leaned forward conspiratorially. “A naughty librarian is like catmint for men in London.”
She laughed at the absurdity of the exchange, but also with the pleasure of it. Here she was, conducting a flirtation with a virtual stranger. This had to be very tame stuff by some people’s standards, but to her it was exciting. He was exciting, she corrected herself. She couldn’t imagine having this conversation with any other man she knew.
“And the librarian in your grammar school. Was she naughty?”
Since I wrote the first chapters of London Broil, virtually everything else I’ve produced has grown from the kernel of a dream. I wonder if it works this way for other writers?