'Three?' Rob said, adjusting his body on the chair to work his fingers into the pocket of his jeans and draw out the squashed packets of Rizlas and Golden Virginia in preparation for the finciky process of making one of his roll-ups. '(I have to be Imogen for the moment, seeing as she's not here. Want one of these? No? You really have to smoke, Daniel, if you want to be a proper student.) Three. That's very restrained of you.'
'Yes, well,' I said, 'I'm... choosy.' Never in all the times I had fielded that question had I come up with a remark like that; it could only have been the three pints. I looked defiantly at Rob, but he had his head down over the table and was rearranging individual strands of tobacco. It wasn't clear for a while whether or not he had heard me.
'Hm,' he said finally, holding the finished cigarette up to the light as if to see whether it was transparent. 'And were they worth it?'
'These three women you put so much deliberation into. I hope they were worth it? Were the relationships satisfying?'
'Um.' There was something stuck in the back of my throat that felt like an unfinished hiccup. I couldn't swallow it again, and was concentrating most of my forces on trying to make it emerge in a controlled and discreet way. 'I think I need to eat, Rob. It's almost two o'clock, and I'm not used to drinking so much at lunchtime.'
'Why this obsession with eating all the time? All right, how about some peanuts?'
'I was thinking more of lunch.'
'I can get lunch back home,' Rob said. 'All right, let me finish my cigarette, and we'll go somewhere. I want to hear abut the three women.'
In between struggling with the hiccup, I was trying to make my mind move in a straight line, but it kept doubling back on itself. It's just language, I kept thinking; if I had slept with a thousand women, like, I don't know, Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias, Frank Sinatra - they're all musicians, aren't they? Is there something about music and sex? Like Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias... Who is Julio Iglesias, anyway? I'm pretty sure he isn't cool, and not a name I ought to be dropping even if he has slept with a thousand women. Is it always exactly a thousand, I wonder, or do they not count after the first thousand? It must be so frustrating to get to, say, nine hundred and ninety-nine, and then you can't manage the thousandth for some reason, they all start saying no for some reason. A different level of frustrating, of course. Eric Clapton... Pull yourself together, Daniel. Even if I had slept with a thousand women, I would have no way of conveying that experience to Rob because it's only language, whatever I say is only language, signifiers without signifieds, because the women aren't here, he can't see them or talk to them, they would just be names, words, language, there's no way of what's the word? No way of reality testing. He doesn't know, I can make up anything I like, because it's only words. As far as words are concerned I am Julio Iglesias. Or three one-thousandths of Julio Iglesias which is a nice conservative, normal thing to be. Only don't mention the name because he isn't cool. Three one-thousandths of, erm, Eric...
'Are you all right, Daniel?' Rob said. 'You look a bit pale. Perhaps you do need to eat, come to think of it. We can go to that veggie place, Wholesomeness.'
'I'm OK. I've just got a bit of, of the hiccups.'
He looked at me, puzzled. 'Are you sure? I haven't actually noticed you hiccuping.'
'It's just one hiccup,' I told him, 'and it won't move. It's stuck in my throat.'
He nodded wisely. 'Oh, one of those. Come on, Daniel. We'll go to Wholesomeness and you can tell me about your lovers.'