"What sort of a lover was he?" asked Jennifer Crowe, staring intently at Sharon.

     "Not a particularly imaginative one," the latter confessed after a moment's due deliberation, her left hand stroking the corresponding arm of the green armchair in which she sat, compliments of Jennifer's hospitality.  "He tended to be a bit too self-conscious for my liking.  Didn't really let himself go enough.  It's as if he were afraid of making a poor impression on me all the time."

     "You mean he was always on his guard?" Jennifer conjectured.

     "Yeah, but then most men usually are, especially when they haven't known you that long," Sharon confirmed.  "No, there was something else about him which worried me, something I hadn't encountered in men before.  It was a kind of distrust of people which carried over into his sex life and prevented him from properly expressing or revealing himself.  I think he was afraid that I might have been secretly deriding him behind his back."

     "And were you?" Jennifer asked.

     "No more than he deserved!" Sharon averred, while gazing through the window of her colleague's lounge at the two beech trees outside.  "His chief problem, the way I saw it, was premature ejaculation."

     "No small problem!" declared Jennifer, lighting herself a mild cigarette with the aid of a blue plastic lighter.  It was a habit of hers to smoke indoors rather than outdoors.  "And what did he do to compensate you for it?" she asked.

     "Not enough, I'm afraid," Sharon sighed.  "In fact, I got the distinct impression that, before he met me, he hadn't had a girlfriend of any description for quite some time.  Unfortunately, he couldn't be induced to tell me anything much about his previous sex life.  But from what I was able to gather, it can't have been particularly intensive."

     "Poor bloke!" guffawed Jennifer, exhaling tobacco smoke in Sharon's general direction.  "Did he indulge in oral with you?"

     "Yes, but not very enthusiastically, I'm afraid.  Never for longer than five minutes at a time."

     "Could be he preferred his imagination to your body, then," Jennifer conjectured.  "Writers are often like that - you know, sort of imaginative bums who remain content to fantasize and don't even have the sense to buy an instamatic camera or a camcorder in order to put their fantasies into practice."

     Sharon saw fit to giggle at James Kelly's expense.  "I don't honestly know," she said.  "But one thing I do know is that he had another woman besides me."

     "Oh, how did you find out about that, then?" asked Jennifer, smiling.

     It wasn't an easy question to answer in one breath, but Sharon made an indirect attempt at doing so by asking Jennifer whether she remembered her lending him that eighteenth-century costume from the theatre wardrobe the previous month, "You know, the one he imagined - God knows why - would grant him a Mephistophelean credibility?"

     Jennifer nodded by way of a positive response.

     "Well, you'll never believe it but ..." Sharon hesitated a moment to contain a burst of laughter which was threatening to rise to the surface at her verbal expense ...

     "Go on!" urged Jennifer impatiently.

     "... when I got the costume back from him the day after the ball, guess what I found in one of its pockets?"

     Jennifer had no idea and said so.

     "A white G-string!" exclaimed Sharon almost hysterically.

     "You're kidding!"

     "No, seriously, that's exactly what I found there," said Sharon, calming down again.  "He must have forgotten about it or something."

     "Oh, how stupid!"  It was evident that Jennifer enjoyed hearing this as much as her friend and colleague enjoyed telling it.

     "Yes, that's just what I thought," Sharon rejoined.  "But he'd apparently had so much to drink, the previous night, that he overslept the next day.  For he'd only just woken up when I called on him at 2.00pm,  and evidently hadn't got around to remembering about the G-string, let alone removing it in good time."

     "How odd!" exclaimed Jennifer, who hesitated a moment before conjecturing: "And so you took the costume back home with you and presumably discovered the item in question later on?"

     "Yes, that very evening in fact.  But he must have remembered it was there either then or during the following day.  For when I next called on him, a day or two later, his first reaction was one of acute embarrassment, and his subsequent behaviour certainly suggested that something was bothering him.  He must have been secretly hoping that I hadn't investigated the coat pockets, since he made no confession or attempt at explanation.  Still, he managed to act the innocent fairly well in spite of his uneasiness.  In fact, so well that I could almost have recommended him for the acting profession!"

     "Don't say that!" protested Jennifer ironically.  Then, having quickly inhaled and exhaled some more tobacco, she asked: "So what became of the ill-fated G-string?"

     "First of all I mended it, since it was torn in two places, and then I tried it on for size."

     "Really?" Jennifer seemed quite surprised.  "And did it fit?"

     "Yes, perfectly.  Besides, I wanted to see how I'd look in it."

     "And how exactly did you look?"

     "Like someone I thought would appeal to James!"

     Jennifer's body was convulsed with sardonic laughter.  "I see," she said at length.  "And did it?"

     "Unfortunately I didn't really get a chance to find out," Sharon confessed.  "For the next time we saw each other, which was the following Thursday afternoon, he had a friend with him, a guy named Stephen Jacobs, who completely distracted his attention from my body by keeping us talking for over three hours.  Finally, when I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he offered to drive me to the theatre in his car."

     "He what?"

     "The guy evidently imagined he'd be doing James a favour by saving him the necessity of escorting me to the nearest bus-stop."

     "And had James intended to do any such thing?"

     "Of course not, but that's really quite beside-the-point," Sharon declared.  "Anyway, this friend, who also describes himself as a writer, drove me to the theatre by half-seven.  Then, realizing he had nothing else to do, he decided that he'd like to see the play.  Well, not particularly being in a position to refuse him, I managed to get him free admission.  However, before we parted company, he decided he wanted to see me again after the performance to discuss the possibility of having one of his own plays performed by our company at some future date.  Since it was half-eleven when he next saw me, he offered to drive me home and, being tired, I accepted.  On the way, he talked about this play he'd mentioned, which he claimed would be a money-spinner, and also began talking about James, saying complimentary things about him both as a person and as a writer.  Becoming interested in finding out more about him in this way, I invited Stephen into my flat and plied him with questions concerning James' background, habits, work, and so on - you know, all the sorts of things I probably wouldn't have succeeded in getting from him personally.  Well, we became so involved in conversation that the next time I looked at the clock it had gone 1.00am.  A minute or two later Stephen decided he wanted to use the loo, so I directed him to it.  Whilst he was having a pee, I found myself wondering what he would be like as a lover, whether he'd be better than James.  For, in spite of some misgivings, I couldn't help noticing how good-looking and well-built Stephen was.  Then I heard him flush the loo, and when he returned to the room again ... my goodness, he was completely nude!"

     "Oh really?"  Jennifer's face assumed an appearance of delighted expectancy.  "So what happened next?"

     "He advanced towards me with a lecherous smile on his lips and, before I could do or say anything, dragged me to the bed and began to vigorously kiss and fondle me."

     "I see," said Jennifer with a slight show of relief, her expectations having been partially vindicated.  "And did he suffer from premature ejaculation, too?"

     "On the contrary, the only thing he seemed to suffer from, after he'd had his lustful way with me, was a surfeit of sex," Sharon replied.  "I hadn't been so thoroughly screwed in years - in fact, not since I was seventeen.  There was scarcely a position in the Karma Sutra that he didn't know, though he preferred to stuff it in arsewise on account of the fact that I'd been wearing a dress, the autocratic bastard, and before he was through with me, I must have had about twenty orgasms."

     "Don't boast so, Sharon, you're making me quite envious!" exclaimed Jennifer, as she set about extinguishing the smouldering embers of her cigarette in the ash stand which stood equidistantly between the circle of armchairs in the middle of the lounge.  "So what happened the following day?"

     "Stephen said he wanted to see me again at the earliest convenient opportunity, so I said to him: 'What about James?', and he asked me whether he was a better and more knowledgeable lover than James.  Naturally, I said 'Yes, you are', and added that I'd be only too glad to see him again ... except for the fact that I didn't want to upset James, who professed to being in love with me.  He said he didn't want to upset him either, because they'd been fairly close friends for several years and had always trusted and confided in each other, but that he would have no alternative but to advance his relationship with me if it promised to bring us closer together, to our mutual benefit.  In this he of course had my sympathy, though I didn't stress the fact, since I had no idea how I could possibly break with James after he'd been so kind to me.  Besides, I hadn't known him more than a few weeks and hoped his love-making would improve with time, bearing in mind how shy and reserved he generally is.  But Stephen wasn't satisfied with a compromise.  He wanted me for himself, with no secrets and no restrictions on when and where we should meet."

     "Quite understandably," Jennifer opined.  "Few men can tolerate sharing a woman with someone else for any length of time."

     "Well, while Stephen was making his intentions clear to me," resumed Sharon, blushing slightly, "I remembered about the G-string and mentioned it to him, telling him how and where I'd found it and why I was wearing it on the day he met me.  All of a sudden his face lit-up with pleasure at the prospect of exposing James' relationship to its original owner.  For he felt certain that an affair was still going on and that, by skilful manoeuvring on his part, he could bring it to light and lay a trap for James which would give me a credible excuse to sever ties with him on that account.  The problem was how to induce him to talk about this other woman without arousing his suspicions that a trap was being laid, and this was something Stephen thought he could solve with the aid of the G-string.  By producing it in James' presence and stressing the fact that it had been found in the tail-coat pocket of the costume he wore to the fancy-dress ball, Stephen would have a pretext for inducing him to talk about its previous owner.  Of course, he'd have to pretend that I had given it to him at the theatre.  But that needn't imply he was going to tell me all about what he'd learnt afterwards.  On the contrary, the information gleaned in this way would be strictly between friends - a joke at the lady's expense which Stephen was keen to share, having been entrusted by me with the unenviable task of returning the said item to James in consequence of feminine delicacy, or some such ruse, on my part.

     "However, in addition to finding out as much as he could about James' clandestine affair," she went on, after a pause, "he intended to draw him into revealing when the woman was likely to next visit his flat, so that, with the requisite information, I'd be able to turn up while she was there and catch them red-handed, so to speak.  Then I'd have a sufficiently cogent pretext for breaking with him over his double-dealing, and thereby put my seal to a relationship with Stephen instead."

     "How ingenious!" enthused Jennifer, smiling.  "But you couldn't have know for sure that he actually did have another woman at the time?"

     "No, how true!" admitted Sharon.  "After all, someone could have slipped the G-string into his pocket as a practical joke, which might have led us to assume that he hadn't removed it by the time I arrived at his flat, the following day, simply because he had no idea it was there.  But the fact that he looked so embarrassed and seemed so uneasy, when I next saw him, suggested this wasn't the most likely case.

     "Anyway, to return to the gist of my story," Sharon went on, "we supposed he had another woman, and when Stephen did actually visit him with the G-string the following Monday, over a week after its discovery, our supposition turned out to be correct.  Not only did he boast of having gone to bed with someone by name of Paloma Searle at the fancy-dress ball, but he also boasted that, since then, she'd written to him on at least three separate occasions, informing him how much she loved him and requesting to see him again at the earliest convenient opportunity.  He told Stephen that, although he was more in love with me, he wasn't averse to 'a little extra pussy on the side', as he crudely put it, since this Paloma person apparently provided him with the chance to experiment with sexual techniques he'd have felt ashamed to try out on me!  He also informed Stephen that she was the half-Latin wife of a wealthy director of some arts magazine who had influential connections in the publishing world, and whose friendship he accordingly wished to retain.  Paradoxically, he felt that he could only do this by satisfying the woman's demands since, if he refused her, he feared she would turn her husband against him - an eventuality he was only too keen to avoid!  So, in a spirit of ironic resignation, he had arranged for Paloma to visit him the Wednesday afternoon of the same week.  Now as I usually visited him on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, he not unreasonably considered the Wednesday a safe enough time to entertain her."

     "I see," sighed Jennifer.  "So, presumably, you were able to turn up when she was there?"

     "Yeah, though he'd taken the precaution, the crafty sod, of hiding her in his sitting room before unlocking the door to me!" chuckled Sharon maliciously.  "However, I had little difficulty discerning items of female clothing scattered across the floor the other side of his bed, and in less than a minute, with more concrete evidence of his two-timing behind me, I was heading back downstairs again, ostensibly furious at having caught him red-handed with another woman.  Of course, he tried to stop me, to reason with me, to excuse himself, etc., but I had absolutely no intention of listening to him, and, after following me to within a couple of yards of the front door of the block in nothing but his dressing gown, he gave up the pursuit and returned shamefacedly, I should imagine, to this Paloma creature."

     "What was she like?" asked Jennifer, slightly shifting position in her armchair.

     Sharon hesitated a moment in order to establish, in her mind's eye, the picture she had briefly acquired of Paloma, before replying: "Rather attractive actually, though I must confess to not having looked at her for very long.  Anyway, when James opened the door to me he was somewhat flushed, not merely embarrassed but breathless, too.  Since he was wearing a woollen dressing-gown and revealing a pair of hairy legs from the knees down, it occurred to him to pretend to having just had a bath.  Knowing this to be a blatant lie, however, I pushed past him and immediately discovered that the sheet on his bed was all damp and creased-up, the way sheets tend to be after people have been bouncing around on them for any length of time.  And when I went across to the far side of the bed I discovered some items of woman's clothing sticking out from under it, where they'd evidently been hurriedly and rather incompetently hidden when the doorbell rang.  Seeing me pick up a pale-blue slip and matching panties, he advanced towards me with the brightest blush I'd even seen on any man's face and stammered something about clothes he'd bought for me the day before.  Not paying any notice to this bullshit, I quickly made for the door to his sitting room, the 'study' as he pompously calls it, and when I opened it ... what did I discover there but this Paloma bitch, who blushed violently and endeavoured to cover her naked breasts with her hands.  She was wearing nothing but a pair of dark-blue stockings and ... the white G-string!"

     Jennifer was convulsed with sardonic laughter, which temporarily prevented her from inquiring of Sharon how Paloma came to take possession of her G-string again, though inquire she eventually did.

     "Evidently by finding it lying around when she was pushed into the room by her panic-stricken lover, who must have left it there after Stephen had returned it to him the previous Monday," Sharon conjectured.

     "Well, at least she wasn't entirely naked," said Jennifer, who then lit herself another mild cigarette.  "So what happened next?"

     "I threw the slip and panties in my hand at the compromised bitch and slammed the door shut on her!" revealed Sharon excitedly.  "Then I headed for the door and bade James a curt farewell!"

     "I see.  And then he followed you downstairs?"

     "To no avail.  But I'd give anything to know what he said to this Paloma creature after he returned to her.  He hardly mentioned her in the pathetic letter he subsequently sent me, begging me to forgive him and telling me how much he was still in love with me, etc."

     "And did you reply?"

     "You bet I did!  I made it perfectly clear to him that I had no desire to see him again so long as he retained sexual relations with his G-string woman.  And ..."

     A sharp buzz on the doorbell interrupted her at this point and, as Jennifer went to answer it, Sharon declared that it was probably Stephen Jacobs, as arranged.

     "Well, hello!" cried Jennifer, admitting the tall figure in question to her flat.  "We've just been talking about you, actually."

     "Oh, really?" said Jacobs by way of a vaguely surprised response.  Then, catching sight of Sharon, who had advanced towards him, he embraced her with a tight hug and a loose kiss. "I hope you haven't been saying anything nasty about me," he joked as, pressing her body against himself, he stared down into Sharon's upturned eyes with a faintly mocking expression on his handsome face.

     "Of course not!" she said, returning him an innocent smile.  "We've only been saying nasty things about James Kelly.  By the way, how is he?"  She led Stephen to the armchair she had just vacated and, when he was comfortably seated, unthinkingly sat herself down on his lap.

     "He wasn't in a very happy frame-of-mind when I saw him this morning," revealed Jacobs, putting his arm round her waist.  "Which isn't altogether surprising really."  He paused to stare into Sharon's inquisitive eyes a moment, before adding: "Are you really interested in hearing what went on between us?"

     "Only insofar as it concerns you," replied Sharon.  "You didn't tell him about us, I hope."

     "No, I could hardly do that!  But he was suspicious all the same."

     "Oh, in what way?"

     "He thought it rather odd that you should have appeared at his flat when you did, a couple of days after I'd returned that damn G-string to him and inquired about its original owner," Jacobs felt obliged to confess.  "He said he couldn't help linking my visit to yours, the latter tying-up with information he'd divulged to me regarding Paloma.  Naturally, I didn't wish to admit anything, so I simply told him that he was imagining things.  But his suspicions persisted nonetheless, and by the time I left, little under an hour later, I got the distinct impression that our friendship was over.  He didn't even offer to loan me one of his books - a thing he almost invariably did in the past.  And when I returned the Huxley book he'd lent me the previous month, he didn't even bother to discuss it with me; merely asked whether I'd enjoyed it and straightaway returned it to the shelf.  Naturally, I made some eulogistic comments about it, in spite of not having liked any of its contents very much, but that didn't appear to interest him, either.  For he quickly changed the subject to you again, telling me how much he loved you and how he couldn't bear the thought of losing you."

     Sharon's face turned pale with these words, but she made an effort to conceal her anxiety by asking Stephen whether James Kelly's suspicions might not have been aroused by his second visit, which had come a mere week after the first?  After all, Stephen had already made it perfectly clear to her that he didn't visit James more than once a month, and, since the latter didn't call on him more regularly either, the two friends only saw each other bi-monthly, as a rule.

     "No, I can't see why that should be the case," answered Jacobs thoughtfully.  "For when I returned the G-string, last Monday, I informed him that I'd forgotten to bring the Huxley book but would make a point of returning it the following week.  So he was expecting me today.  Still, it's quite possible this more recent visit didn't have anything like the effect I'd hoped it would.  For I felt fairly certain that, providing I kept a fairly straight face and didn't look particularly guilty, it would establish my ignorance of the affair in his eyes.  But the way things turned out, I can only conclude my face wasn't as innocent-looking as I'd hoped."

     "Never mind," whispered Sharon, taking his head in her arms and kissing him on the brow.  "Now that you've returned the book and faced the music, as it were, you know exactly where you stand with him."

     "I'm not so sure," said Jacobs doubtfully.  "You see, if I break with him altogether, he'll know for certain that I'm involved with you and simply haven't got the guts to visit him.  But if I don't break with him, I'll have to go through the torture of continually deceiving him, which, considering we were close friends, doesn't exactly appeal to me.  Admittedly, we wouldn't have to see each other more often than in the past.  But, even so, it would bother me.... Had he actually accused me of taking you away from him, it might have been better for both of us.  But since I didn't confess to anything, we're still supposed to be friends.  So I'm in a rather unenviable position!"

     "You could always break with him on the grounds that his attitude towards you wasn't exactly what one would call friendly," suggested Jennifer, entering the debate at length.  "After all, what's the point of having an unfriendly friend?"

     "No, there's no reason for me to expect a man who has just lost a woman of Sharon's quality to be particularly happy," responded Jacobs for the benefit of his hostess.  "Besides, what kind of friend would I be to break with him as soon as his company became oppressive.  Anyway, the past three years haven't been entirely pleasurable where his friendship was concerned, I can tell you!  There were plenty of times when I could have backed out before.  But partly because I didn't have other friends of his intelligence, and partly because I didn't have the courage to reject his invitations, I continued to brave his company.... Our talk rarely centred on anything but philosophy, by the way, for which he has a special aptitude.  Now as a thinker he's undoubtedly profound, even at times revolutionary and world-shattering.  But as a friend ... no, I'd long ago given up the idea of expecting too much from his friendship, for which, for reasons best known to himself that I haven't dared to inquire into, he has only a modest talent.  He lives in a world of thought, not people."

     Stephen Jacobs reached inside his jacket pocket for his customary French cigarettes, for which Jennifer, though declining the invitation to smoke any herself, quickly procured a lighter.  Sharon found the fumes somewhat disagreeable and coughed a number of times, in spite of having made every effort to avoid showing signs of being inconvenienced.  Privately she loathed the smell of these cigarettes which Stephen was in the habit of puffing, as though to puff himself up to some sophisticated international stature, even though he rationed himself to no more than ten a day.  Their relationship would have been more agreeable to her had he not smoked at all!  But considering he was such an accomplished lover, it seemed to her that she was in some measure compensated for this inconvenience by his physical prowess.  Now James, on the other hand, didn't smoke at all, there had never been any risk of tobacco contamination from him.  But, for all his abstemious virtue, born as much from a fear of provoking facial boils, so he had told her, as from moral conviction, he wasn't exactly the best of lovers.  He was really somewhat perfunctory, and his premature ejaculation certainly hadn't been the answer to her coital prayers!  Somehow the dream partner she secretly craved, the man who was able to combine good habits with good loving, always remained a dream, an elusive ideal which was unlikely to materialize in reality, since reality was usually a combination of contradictory and often antipathetic elements, whereas her dream almost invariably focused on the pleasant aspects of life at the expense of its unpleasant or negative ones.  There would always be some drawbacks with the men in her life, and, in all probability, they would sooner or later discover certain drawbacks with her.  Thus she had no real option, she felt, but to brave the dreadful fumes without complaint.  Later, when their relationship had deepened, she thought there just might be a chance of getting Stephen to smoke a milder brand or even to give up smoking altogether.  Yes, if he cared enough for her and perhaps for a child he might subsequently wish them to have, there would be a chance of inducing him to break the habit and come clean, as it were, for both their sakes.  Meanwhile, she would have to be patient and resign herself to dating a smoker, to please him as much as possible, to make him feel wanted.  Otherwise she might quickly find herself back to square-one again, with or without James.

     "I don't know about you two, but I could use a coffee," admitted Jennifer, getting up from her chair.

     "Yeah, I could use a drink too," seconded Jacobs, as he peered up at her through the smoke-screen of several vigorous exhalations.  "Two sugars, please."

     "Ditto for me," Sharon requested without thinking.  For, of course, Jennifer knew all about her preferences by now.

     Seizing the opportunity of the latter's temporary departure into the kitchen to say a few personal things to Sharon, Stephen Jacobs confessed to finding the combination of her low-cut vest and prominent brassiere highly seductive.

     "I trust you're going to behave yourself while my friend is getting our coffees," commented Sharon, before offering him a sly smile which appeared to contradict herself.

     "I'm afraid not," he smiled in turn.  "You really oughtn't to sit on my lap in such seductive clothing in another person's flat.  You're a constant spur to my baser urges."  He slid his left hand two-thirds of the way up her right thigh and gently squeezed its flesh.  "Would Jenny object to me squeezing your leg?" he asked, his gaze focusing on the newly exposed part of the thigh in question.

     "She might do," replied Sharon, who was prepared to treat this question lightly.

     "And would she object if she caught me caressing your backside?" he ventured, becoming bolder.

     "Most probably," she smiled.  "But you mustn't allow yourself to get caught doing anything which would cause her to become really jealous, otherwise she might pour our coffees over our heads when she returns."

     "So you're going to restrain me, I take it?" chuckled Jacobs.

     "If I have to."

     "I must confess to finding you highly tantalizing," he admitted, as he withdrew his wandering hand from the edge of her quivering backside and returned the rim of her pale-green miniskirt to its former, less immodest position.

     "You've left your cigarette smouldering in the ash stand," Sharon informed him.

     "That's because I had more pressing concerns on my mind,' he ironically rejoined.  "However, you won't have any excuses when you're alone with me later-on this evening."

     "Won't I?"

     "No."  He stubbed out the remains of his cigarette, before adding: "I won't permit you any!"

     Sharon showed him a wry smile.

     "Two coffees coming up," declared Jennifer, returning to the room with a large blue mug in each hand.  "I hope they're not too strong."

     "I could drink it at any strength," said Sharon, getting up from her lover's lap to receive her mug.

     "Me, too," confessed Jacobs, who immediately put the rim of the remaining mugful of coffee to his nostrils to savour its aroma.  "When I'm thirsty I can drink virtually anything, even a glass of stout," he added.

     There was a short silence while Jennifer Crowe briefly went back to the kitchen for her own mug.  When she reappeared, Sharon elected to say: "I suppose we'd better leave for the theatre as soon as we've drunk this.  Provided there isn't too much traffic congestion, we should get there by seven-thirty."  Then turning to Jacobs, who had become aware that it was now 7.00pm, she said: "I hope you won't mind watching the same play again tonight."

     "Actually I'd rather just drop you off at the theatre and then pick you up afterwards, if you don't mind, considering that I'm somewhat behind with my literary commitments at present, and would be glad of a little extra time to myself for once."

     "Suit yourself," said Sharon, whose face barely concealed her disappointment.  "But don't forget to pick me up at the right time afterwards."

     "Slender chance of my forgetting to do that!" he averred.



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