'It's undeniably crap,' Rob said, looking down at his plate, which supported a canvassy pancake rolled round a filling that was mostly chunks of carrot. 'That is a given. And all right, I admit it, I'd rather be eating a steak. But you don't eat steak in Helmston, do you?'
'What do you mean? Of course you do. They have every kind of restaurant you can think of.' I took a sip of my beer, only a half this time, much to Rob's disgust.
'You can get it, Daniel, I grant you that, but you don't eat it. It's just for the tourists, along with the fake Indian and the fake Chinese and the fake Italian, and the fake, God knows, Mongolian or Romanian or what have you. Even you don't eat steak, and you're hardly a typical Helmstonian - I believe that's the word - hardly a typical Helmstonian, are you?'
'I don't know what you mean.' Somewhere in the exhausting climb up Gosling Rise between the Shakespeare's Head and Wholesomeness, my hiccup had disappeared and been replaced by an all-over burning sensation that was either a symptom of a dangerous illness or a sort of exhilarating rage. I no longer cared about having to explain my sex-life to Rob; I would lie or tell him to mind his own business - it didn't matter which. Who was he, anyway? An overweight, married, part-time market researcher, from Kent of all places. 'I'm not a tourist, I live here.'
Rob leaned forward across the table. 'You don't come from here, though, do you? Nobody really comes from here, I've noticed that.'
I shook my head. 'You talk some utter, I mean some unmitigated...'
'What's that you're eating?' He gestured at my plate.
'It seems to be mostly peanuts.'
'See, you could have had peanuts at the pub, and I wouldn't have had to suffer the carrot pancake. Anyway - ' he took a long gulp of his beer as a sign that he was changing the subject - 'you were going to tell about your lovers. I just have so much to learn.' Rob's habitually ironic mode of speaking cancelled itself out, I decided. Coming from anyone else, the way he had said that last phrase would have been insulting, but there was something innocent about Rob's irony.
'I don't really have any,' I said. Or rather it was said for me - I seemed to have reached that stage.'
'Yes, well, I can see that. But you have had, the three women you mentioned.'
'They weren't really - it was nothing much. I mean I don't think I'm very good at... relationships.'
Rob nodded, weightily. 'Understood, Daniel. Who is? Not me, anyway.'
I wondered for a moment if I found that reassuring. There were degrees of not being good, just as there were degrees of frustration, the nine-hundred and ninety-ninth degree and the rest. But, to be honest, I wasn't even on the chart yet. 'You? But you're married.'
He gave a sigh, or was it a laugh? 'I know. Embarrassing, isn't it? You want to see a picture? I might as well do the whole bourgeois thing.'
She was tall with a Mediterranean tan, high cheekbones, and long dark hair, holding the baby awkwardly at shoulder-height as though she wasn't sure what to do with it, with her. Beautiful? Yes, probably. The main thing I thought, though was that she seemed grown-up. I wasn't sure why that should surprise me - Rob was hardly a child, after all. Come to think of it, the baby looked exactly like him, minus the beard and earring, a small plump-faced Rob in a pink tracksuit of the kind they favoured for babies these days. 'What did I do? Rob said, shaking his head. 'What did I do?' I waited for the end of the question, but there didn't seem to be one.