In the melancholy gloom of a darkening February afternoon, Miss Underscore and Rochester are sitting at a table overlooking the thundering, pewter sea. They are in The Grotto. Rochester looks dejected and shrunken: a little boy swamped in his father's funeral overcoat. He sighs deeply and sips his gin, his sad eyes, brimming with the nobility and pathos of an overworked pit pony, stare vaguely towards the grey horizon.
Miss U: (reassuringly) I am quite sure it is nothing to be embarrassed about. It must happen to men of the male gender all the time, tank top or no tank top.
Rochester: Aye, but it doesn't happen to me. Not usually. Not EVER.
Miss U: It was the unusual situation. I mean, you were put off your stroke. Neither of us were expecting to be in this position. I didn't mind, really.
Rochester: I blame you for this actually. I blame you. I am not sure it is fair to expect me to perform under such fraught conditions. I fancy having another crack at it, like. What do you think? Can we go back, let the dog see the rabbit?
Miss U: No. Let it go. Maybe you should just relax, Rochester. You are on your holidays, after all. Have another gin and we'll talk about something else.
Rochester: (head in hands) I can't get it out of my mind though. Maybe I was nervous. I'd skipped lunch; my blood sugar was low. I've just had a packet of pork scratchings all day.
Miss U: Maybe you should have worn the cufflinks.
Rochester: (furiously, banging the table) You were the one who told me cufflinks were not necessary, that they might be a hindrance!
Miss U: (briskly) Don't get your dander up, Rochester. . . You know, if anything I would have thought the feint lesbian ambiance would have had you firing on all cylinders. Did it put you off, me there watching?
Rochester: Nope. (brightening) I quite liked that! Or I thought I did. (shaking his head) Fucking hell! FUCKING HELL!
Miss U: Oh dear. I don't quite know what to say. Performance issues probably trouble us all in our riper years. These days, I can't make it through an episode of Midsumer Murders without nodding off. I even have to take several restorative 'sit downs' when whipping cream for brandy snaps.
Rochester: Fuck: has it come to this? It makes me think of death. This is the beginning of the end, Underscore. Sat here, North Sea in front of us. Dusk falling. The desolation of it is overwhelming. Failure. Impotence. Indignity. Death.
Miss U: (sniggering) For the love of God, PERSPECTVE Rochester! There is no need to rhapsodise so mournfully, like some gone-to-seed Byronic brute. You failed to sell a plastic door to a lesbian. That is all. Noir turned you down. And, I can't say I am surprised, really. Your sales patter was very . . . lacklustre. I was expecting more. . . unctuousness. You sprawled on her sofa, rolled a fag, thrust a tatty catalogue at the lass and quoted £1500 without even getting your tape measure out. Oh - and then, when you sensed it had all gone tits up, you asked her to describe her first lesbian experience. Has that approach really won you South West Salesman of the Year three years running?
Rochester: To be fair, she didn't get the full treatment flower. I didn't unleash 'Don'. Not with you there too. That would have been a bit seedy. I can't pretend I'm not gutted though. I quite liked Noir mind. It was good to finally meet her. I think she found me quite charismatic, like. She was warming to me, I could tell. She is 100% lezza though. 100 cunting percent. (frowning as he rolls a cigarette) I don't say this lightly, but I doubt even I could cure her.
Miss U: I thought you said lesbians didn't exist. They were mythical creatures: like unicorns and elves.
Rochester: (sighing and putting down his gin) It's very technical and scientific. There is a continuum. At one end there's the likes of you (he waves an imperious paw in Miss Underscore's direction) : brogues from the Virginia Woolf collection at Clarks, tortoiseshell reading glasses, National Trust membership card. . .
Miss U: But I am not a lesbian. . . and they're Helena Bonham Carter collection brogues actually.
Rochester: . . .at the other end is Noir: a fully committed lezza who is immune to my swarthy, bearded charms. (obscurely) I could bore you with the science of it all: chromosomes, pheromones, genes, nature vs nurture, etc etc etc . . . but I'm not in the mood. Not after this afternoon's humiliation. For once, I think we should talk about something other than lesbianism.
Miss U: Well, maybe it's just as well you kept Don in his box. There is nothing more alarming than a virile window vendor on the loose. I may have never looked at you the same way again. Here, this will cheer you up, I have got you a present.
Miss Underscore rummages through her handbag and passes Rochester a paperback.
Rochester: Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle. OK. This is the bird who Larkin liked, yeah?
Miss U: I have two copies of all of her books. I know you haven't read a book since The Road, five years ago. This will be a very different experience, I'll warn you now. Not so much post-apocalyptic nightmare, more post-menopausal nightwear.
Rochester: Hey, I am off to the pubs round the Tyne Dock next. Meeting some blokes for pool and beer. Maybe I should take Babs in there and do a reading.
Miss U: Heavens no! Don't you dare take Miss Pym to the Tyne Dock! She needs a genteel parlour with blowsy geraniums in the windows, fine linen and porcelain tea cups.
Rochester: (squinting, reads the blurb from the back of the book). "Together yet alone, the Misses Bede occupy the central crossroads of parish life. Harriet, plump, elegant and jolly likes nothing better than to make a fuss of new curates, secure in the knowledge that Count Ricardo Bianco will propose to her again this year. Belinda, meanwhile, has harboured sober feelings of devotion towards Archdeacon Hochleave for 30 years." Sober feelings of devotion, eh? Wow. Heady stuff. I WILL read this, Underscore. Don't look at me like that, you doubt me? I will. It will give me an insight into your psyche, if nothing else. Anyway - I am doing it for Larkin. Give me a week. No, two weeks. I will report back.
Miss U: No, what you will do is Wikipedia it and bluff your way through, like you do with all my recommendations. What did you do last night, after we split up?
Rochester: Well, the entire family gathered at me ma's house for a curry. Your ex was there with his new lass, roaring drunk and making a total fuckwit of himself. He kept scrolling through his phone's ringtones, really loud and for some reason he made us all listen to Rolf Harris's Greatest Hits. He thought he was fucking hilarious. He'd brought his dog, this massive Rottweiler that kept knocking everyone over and helping itself to the naan breads. He was a right oaf. I think we both know, that of the two of us, I was always the better option for you. In so many ways, (stroking his beard) not just that I'm so much better looking. You know it's true.
Miss U: Did you tell your brother you'd spent the afternoon with me?
Rochester: Errr. No. He has no idea, after our initial fling, that we ever saw each other again, or kept in touch. It's tricky. I don't plan on mentioning it, to be honest. I don't think it would go down well.
Miss U: And how is your granny?
Rochester: Bedridden. 97. Christ. I hope I don't live that long. You can only communicate with her via a huge writing pad, cos she's deaf. But she's also almost blind, so you've got to put one word on a page and use a Magic Marker.
Miss U: Sounds like that Bob Dylan video.
Rochester: I asked her if she was OK, she'd had a fall the previous week trying to get out of bed,(miming writing the words) ARE YOU OK? She just smiled vacantly and nodded. I asked her again. ARE YOU REALLY OK? She just smiled and nodded again. ARE YOU SURE, GRANNY? I held her hand and suddenly, her eyes just flooded with tears, flooded with tears. Cunting hell, Underscore. Cunting hell. I didn't know what to do.
Miss U: Oh dear.
Rochester: I haven't mentioned it yet, but I'm going home tomorrow.
Miss U: I thought you were here for a whole week of high jinks and villainy. Why are you going so soon? You've just got here!
Rochester: Family stuff. I have to get back. . . I've seen more of you than anyone else this visit, you know. I'm glad you finally agreed to meet up with me. It was daft of you to keep saying no. I mean, I know why you did. But still . . .
They look at each other.
Miss U: (babbling nervously) I'm cooking scallops for tea. With chorizo possibly, if I've got it. Maybe corned beef, if I haven't. Can I substitute corned beef for chorizo, do you think? I got the scallops from M&S. They were diver caught, but I think, given the price, they were actually caught by mermaids. I'd better get going, Rochester. (puts on jacket and scarf and stands up) Then I've got to tidy the kitchen. My new dishwasher is coming tomorrow. I got a Neff one. I've never heard of them before, but surely John Lewis doesn't sell crap. . .
Rochester: (wryly) Alright pet, come on then. Let's go.
Rochester heads out, hands burrowed deep in overcoat pockets. Miss Underscore follows, shaking her head at her own unbridled lunacy.
They travel in an agonising silence in the lift from the seafront bar to the headland. They walk, still in silence to their cars, parked on the cliffs above the North Sea. The wind rages. Rochester opens his boot and casually throws in Some Tame Gazelle in the back.
Rochester: Thanks for that, anyway.
Miss U: Don't chuck Miss Pym in the boot of your car, you lout! Have some respect!
Rochester: She won't be in there long. I'm taking her to the pub next, remember.
Miss U: No, you won't. I know you. She's going to languish next to your spare-tyre for months, years, gently decomposing. You travelling salesmen, you are renowned for the body parts you keep in the boots of your cars. Serial killers, the lot of you. Haven't you see Prime Suspect, Crimewatch? It's always a travelling salesman or man in a white van. Poor Barbara. She deserves better.
Rochester: (taking something from the boot of his car) Hey look at these pet; I've got reading glasses! You like a man in glasses, don't you? You've told me that before. I got them from a bloke in a pub. (he puts them on) What do you think?
Miss U: Dear God! Who was the bloke, Truman Capote? They are rather camp, Rochester. I imagine if George Michael appeared on Newsnight to talk about the decline in the blouson leather jacket industry, he would sport glasses like those.
Rochester: You're a cunt, Underscore. They were free. They give me a certain gravitas when filling out my credit agreements. It's a look.
Miss U: Its a look alright. It's the look of a 1950s gay, Hillman Imp driving district nurse called Jeremy.
Rochester: You really are a total fucking cunt! Aye. I'm going to have to get some proper ones, aren't I? Get an eye test and everything. I need them for the small-print on the window contracts. Middle-age, eh?
Miss U: Middle-ege doesn't bother me, Rochester. There's something quite cosy about it, I think. Being young, there's too much pressure to be happy. Anyway, the thing about middle age is, eventually, we'll all grow out of it.
Rochester: That's fucking profound.
Miss U: Not really. Doris Day said it originally. (shivering) It's cold.
Rochester: Howay pet, give us a hug.
Rochester and Miss Underscore hug gingerly. The hug, with the inevitability of night following day, soon melts into a longer, more languid and sultry kiss. Miss Underscore pulls away, bewildered.
Rochester: Listen, shall I come over later, we can have a drink and spend the night together? What do you think, Miss Underscore?
Miss U: (with a hint of feigned outrage) What? No. No, Rochester. No! We can't.
Flustered, Miss Underscore turns brusquely on her Helena Bonham Carter heels, and scuttles to her car.