Bartleberry returned to the table and spread his napkin over his thigh. His date looked unimpressed.
“Where do you keep disappearing to?” she asked. “Your food will be cold.”
“I’m sorry.” Bartleberry refilled her glass with wine. “The men’s bathroom.”
“But that’s twice in half an hour. Are you ill? Do we need to take a rain check?”
“I’m fine!” He smiled to reassure her. “How’s the fish?”
“It’s good. Want to try it?” She held out her fork. A disconcerted look replaced Bartleberry’s smile. He got to his feet.
“Two minutes,” he pulled an apologetic face and darted to the men’s room for a third time.
His date sighed. She put her fork down and summoned the waiter.
Bartleberry came back, looking a little dishevelled, in time to see the waiter helping his date into her coat.
“No! Helen, please, wait. Let me explain.” He slipped the waiter a fiver. The waiter withdrew, smirking.
Helen sat heavily and crossed her arms. “One minute,” she conceded.
Bartleberry sat. “Listen, I have to be straight with you. My name is not Martin Davies. It’s—something else. And whenever someone says my real name nine times in a mirror, I have to go and murder them. It’s the rules of my existence.”
Helen frowned. “So, all those times at the cinema when you miss the middle of the film? That time at my parents’ when you just walked out?”
Bartleberry nodded. “I was out murdering teenagers. I’m sorry.”
Helen shook her head. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“It just never seemed the right moment. Except it’s been happening more frequently recently. They’ve made a new film about me, so all the kids are daring each other to summon me. And so I have to go and kill them. It’s playing havoc with my work life too. I was just about to strike a deal with an important client but I had to excuse myself. When I came back, he’d stormed out. This is costing me money. And it’s causing resentment from you. I can see that. But I can’t stop. It’s my curse, Helen, and you either accept it or move on.”
Bartleberry hung his head and waited for her response.
Helen’s eyes were brimming. She reached across and wiped a tiny speck of blood from Bartleberry’s cheek with her thumb.
Bartleberry sprang up.
“Again?” Helen wailed. “I thought we were having a moment.”
“I’ll be right back,” said Bartleberry, striding towards the mirror in the men’s room. “Someone’s just read this story out loud and said my name nine times.”