My head tilts back. ‘Of course I can. I am a qualified secretary.’
‘What was I supposed to think? Jay told me you signed the contract without reading it and this is the second time you’ve ordered the same as me and you hardly touched your food the last time. Why?’
I decide to be honest. ‘I don’t know which utensil to use to eat what.’
He is so surprised, he leans back in his seat, and regards me quietly. Not taking his eyes off me, he raises a hand slightly. Immediately, a waiter comes to his side. ‘The lady would like to see the menu again, please. And hold the earlier order.’
‘Of course, sir.’
Blake carries on watching me until the waiter returns with the menu.
‘Would you like a moment with it?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I know what I want. I’d like the mock turtle soup to start and the poached salmon.’
When he is gone, Blake says, ‘With utensils always start with the ones that are furthest out from the plate and work your way in. I will help you.’
‘So what have you done today?’
‘Well, I got taken off the books for er…inappropriate behavior so I went off in search of another temporary agency.’
He frowns. ‘I don’t want you to work for the duration of our contract.’
‘Because I want you to be available to me day and night. I might want to have you at three in the morning or between meetings in the afternoon,’ he explains brutally, and I feel the most surprising sexual thrill clench at my lower belly. I want to be available to this man day and night!
‘It should be no problem for you.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Don’t you live on an estate where nobody works and everybody just scrounges off the state?’
I shake my head in wonder. ‘Wow, that’s one sweeping generalization you’ve just made there!’
‘Why, is it not true?’
‘While I was a child growing up my teachers and the governmental offices where my mother had to go for her weekly handouts, in subtle and unsubtle ways, tried to force into me the opinion you have just expressed. That we were parasites.’
I look him in the eye.
‘But I always knew there was something inherently wrong about any train of thinking that could so conveniently dismiss all the unemployed and dependent population as parasites. And yet we did seem to be living off others. Then one day I learned the true nature of the parasite and it changed my life.’
He raises an eyebrow. Arrogant sod!
I smile. It does not reach my eyes. ‘I learned that a successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. As such it must be the ruling class in every capitalist society that is the real parasite.’
‘How is my kind a parasite to yours?’ he scoffs.
I take a sip of the wonderful wine that he has paid for. ‘How much tax did your family pay last year?’
He leans back and regards me without flinching. ‘We paid what was legally due.’
Now it is my turn to scoff. ‘Let me guess. Almost nothing.’
He shrugs. ‘There is nothing wrong with legitimate tax avoidance schemes. I don’t see how we are being parasitical, because we won’t let the government take what is hard won and rightfully ours, and pass it onto the bone lazy masses who don’t want to work and expect others to fund their lifestyles. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the system in this country is mad. Girls have babies when they are teenagers so the government will set them up in a flat and pay them a stipend for the rest of their lives. Crazy.’
I shake my head slowly. ‘Do you really believe what you are saying?’
‘Of course. Do you think teenage girls getting pregnant to secure a home for life is right?’
Our food arrives. It looks more like a work of art than food. I reach for the rounded spoon that has been placed furthest away and Blake nods.
He picks up his knife and fork. ‘I’m kind of waiting for your reply.’
‘No, I don’t, but we are not talking about badly educated teenagers from troubled homes who think that getting pregnant is the best way out of grinding poverty for them. The teenage pregnancies are a result of a system that has marginalized and refused a good education to the poorest sections of society. They are not parasites. They are desperate people who have been trained to think that that is the best they can get out of life. But your lot….’
‘We actually keep the country going, creating jobs—’
‘Sure, in China and other Third World countries. Slave labor jobs. Besides, you’re a banker. You don’t create anything.’
He shifts in his chair. ‘Hang on, let me get this right; my family is parasitical for not paying astronomical taxes, and your lot are not parasites even though you don’t work a day in your lives and live entirely on government handouts.’
‘Have you ever thought that people can be poor by design. When a child is born on the estate, he is already doomed to repeat his father’s life. He will bear that same angry, helpless attitude of his father and never amount to much. In school he will be taught only to be a good worker. And if he has even a bone of rebellion in him he will refuse and become a scrounger. My mother was educated in a different country and she was from the middle class so she taught me middle class values. Work, earn money, pay your own way.’
‘So why do you work only part-time?’
‘I do that because my mother is often sick and I am her primary carer.’
‘What’s wrong with your mother?’
‘She will make it,’ I say forcefully.
He nods slowly. ‘Are you a Muslim?’
I sit back and watch Blake while our plates are cleared away. The hard planes of his face have been softened. There is a mad desire in me to reach out and stroke his face. ‘No, my mother is a devout Christian. I am an agnostic. So far no God has impressed me as benign and truly interested in the welfare of humans.’
‘Main course,’ announces the waiter, and plates are lowered onto the table.
My salmon is encased in a tiny square parcel made of liquorice gel, and looks almost too beautiful to eat. I lift the fish knife and cut it open. Inside, the fish is perfectly cooked. I slip a tiny morsel pass my lips, and am surprised by how delicate and silky it is on my tongue.