It wasn't long before I got a reply from Philomena and was duly obliged to make excuses to my wife about having to go down to London for a couple of days, to attend to some outstanding business with my dealer.  As it happens, I would have had to make a trip down to London shortly in any case, since I wanted to arrange for an exhibition of my latest canvases in one of the more avant-garde galleries there.  So I was partly telling the truth to Susan when I informed her of my impending departure and did what I had to, in order to dissuade her from accompanying me.  Of course, I knew Susan well enough, by now, to realize that she wouldn't begrudge me a little additional sex on the side, if I could get it.  But one can never be too explicit or open about such matters with women, since it automatically offends their sexual vanity, making them assume you think greater satisfaction can be found elsewhere, in someone else's bed…. Which fact might be true, though they will never admit that another woman could give you more satisfaction than themselves.  Not Susan, at any rate!

     But if getting away from Norfolk for a while wasn't too difficult, then finding somewhere suitable to stay in London certainly was, since I needed a hotel not too far from Philomena's Finchley address.  Eventually I tracked one down, but not before I had exasperated myself in the process, namely because I can never abide a noisy front room, and was obliged to turn down at least four unsuitable offers.  The fifth, however, was in a small hotel in Muswell Hill, where I gratefully deposited the meagre contents of my zipper bag on the single bed of the only available rear room, which happened to be on the first floor, and prepared myself to meet Philomena, having already telephoned her and informed her of my arrival.  We had agreed to meet in a café round the corner from the hotel, to have lunch together, and then, assuming things were developing reasonably well, to return to her flat, which would be empty, since her husband was at work and therefore several miles away.  That would give me plenty of time, I figured, to grow better acquainted with her.

     I cannot pretend, however, that my return to north London was the unequivocal pleasure I had perversely imagined it would be, after almost two years' absence.  Rather, I was saddened by the memories of my previous life to which it gave rise, and hastened, in consequence, to seek what consolation I could in Philomena's company.  She entered the café ten minutes late, just as I was beginning to fear that she might have changed her mind and backed down at the last moment.  At first I didn't recognize her, but automatically responded to her recognition of me which, considering we hadn't laid eyes on each other for several years, was remarkably prompt.  I stood up, blushing perceptibly, like a schoolboy at the awkward age, and somewhat self-consciously shook hands with her, taking what comfort I could from the fact that embarrassment at this meeting wasn't solely confined to myself.  I scarcely knew what to say to her, so bewildered had I become with the sudden, poignant recognition of her outstanding beauty.  There were so few women in the world, especially this part of it, who could be described as outstandingly beautiful ... that it was both a shock and a strain to be actually meeting one, to have her sit before one at table and scan the menu for a suitable dish.  I could only marvel that her beauty had ripened with age.  For now, in her late twenties, she was even more attractive than she had been at twenty-three or twenty-four.  Admittedly, the same features were still there - the eyes still bright blue, the nose gracefully aquiline, the mouth delicately sensuous, the brow high and smooth, the cheeks firm, the chin unobtrusively angular, the hair fine, long, and black (though today pinned-up in a neat little bun), the nape slender, the ears exquisitely small and flat, the shoulders gently curved, the hands ever so finely chiselled, and so on - but they appeared, whether because of my relative unfamiliarity with them after so long or, indeed, because they had slightly changed in the meantime, to belong to another person, superior in quality to the Philomena I had once known.  Doubtless my imagination was partly responsible for this impression, but it was with some difficulty that I ceased to stare at her, like a star-struck adolescent, and ordered the lunch she had requested, which I unthinkingly also requested for myself.

     "So," she said, as the waitress went about her business, "this is the author of Petula Reed, is it?"  There was a characteristically mischievous sparkle in her eyes and a faintly reproachful tone to her voice, which had the effect of precipitating me into a fresh wave of embarrassment.

     "I hope you weren't offended by the fact that Petula came to a bad end in 'Crossed-Purpose'," I nervously responded.

     "Well, I wasn't exactly elated by it, Jason," declared Philomena with characteristic frankness.  "You seem to have given all the best roles to Susan."

     My discomfiture mounted with this reference to the novel's leading female character, who bore the same name as my wife, although she had been derived from a different source - one known only too well to Philomena.  "Yes," I admitted, "I was rather more biased in Rachel's, I mean, Susan's favour in those days."

     "And now?" Philomena asked, that mischievous sparkle in her eyes again.

     I gently shook my head.  "One falls in-and-out of love," I confessed, still feeling on edge.  "As one gets older one realizes that love isn't necessarily the chief criterion by which to evaluate another person's suitability to oneself.  One looks to other criteria - for instance, intellectual companionship, temperamental affinity, cultural predilections, professional status, ethnic suitability, and so on.  But, as a youth, it's the heart that governs the head, not vice versa."

     Philomena smiled sympathetically.  "So you're anxious not to fall in love again, is that it?"

     At which point our lunches were served, thereby saving me from further embarrassment.  For I would almost certainly have answered her point-blank in the affirmative.  As it was, we ate our respective portions of roast chicken mostly in silence, although Philomena, who was evidently less hungry, persisted in forcing a degree of conversation upon me.  In this way I learnt that Rachel, the young woman from whom the character of Susan had been drawn, was still friendly with Philomena and that, occasionally, the two of them would exchange visits.  I also learnt that Rachel was married with two children, and that Philomena herself had one, though he was away at boarding school, like, I decided to tell her, my wife's children.  She was of course surprised to learn that my wife's name was also Susan.

     "And you're not in love with her?" she boldly asked, as we reached the end of our meals almost simultaneously.

     "No," I replied.  "Nor was I ever, to any appreciable extent.  It was simply a marriage of convenience, because I desperately needed some company after moving away from London.  I suppose my first and greatest love was Rachel, who rather blunted the prospect of my ever falling deeply in love with anyone else.... Not that I particularly mind now, since, as one gets older, love becomes less passionate, in any case."

     Philomena offered me a tipped cigarette, which I uncharacteristically accepted, if only for her sake.  I despised cigarettes, but couldn't very well expect her to smoke cigars instead.  The fact that she had once, with what seemed like bohemian insouciance, rolled her own cigarettes was surprising enough to me, though it had largely been connected, I suspect, with the rather straitened circumstances of being a student.  Nowadays, however, she could afford to buy cigarettes, since she made a fairly tidy little sum as an author, freelance journalist, and part-time bookbinder.  In fact, bookbinding was, it seemed to me, the kind of occupation especially suited to a spiritually-inclined young woman like her, because it suggested a step up from crochet or knitting.  Not clothing for apparent purposes, but pages for essential ones.... I could understand Philomena's bias there.

     We smoked in silence awhile, and then Philomena asked me whether I enjoyed living in Norfolk, which struck me as a strange question to ask after her previous one.

     "Well, I prefer it to London," I replied.  "After all the years of solitude here, I'm sure I'd even prefer Hell, provided one wasn't alone there."

     "How many years, exactly, were you alone?"

     "Over nine."

     Philomena raised her brows and opened her mouth slightly in sympathetic horror, whilst I blushed to be reminded of it.  Blushed, too, for fear of being overheard by the other people in the café - no doubt, Londoners every damn one of them!  "Yes, I suffered a serious depression in consequence, the effects of which are still with me.  I could never have become resigned or acclimatized to an environment at such a far remove from my provincial conditioning and ancestral background.  I was always something of an outsider, isolated from my rightful environment.  Anyway, I hoped, in moving out of London, that I'd be able to go from one environmental extreme to another and so speed-up my recovery."

     "And did you?"

     "No, not quite.  Admittedly, my current environment signifies a step in the right direction.  But, as far as its negligible effects on my depression are concerned, not a sufficiently radical step, I'm afraid.  I wanted, if possible, to live in the country, but I only succeeded in living in a fairly residential suburb of Norwich.  There's still too much concrete, glass, and steel around for comfort."

     Philomena smiled faintly, and I thought I could detect a spark of relief in her eyes, like she needed to hear all this.  Was she withholding some important information or knowledge from me, I wondered?

     We ordered coffees, smoked another cigarette together, and then paid up and left.  I had imagined the journey to her Finchley flat would be conducted by bus or, possibly, taxi, but, to my gratified surprise, found myself stepping into a little Citroen 2cv6 which Philomena had parked nearby.

     "Do you like them?" she asked, referring to Citroens in general.

     "Hmm, I guess so," I replied, yanking the rather tight seat-belt into place and casting an interested glance over the dashboard panel.   "Once a freak, always a freak, don't you think?"

     "In some cases, Jason," she admitted, smiling ironically as we drove away.