‘You’re just in time,’ said Patrick, kissing Julia through her scratchy black veil.
‘You mean late as usual.’
‘No; just in time. We’re about to kick off, if that’s the phrase I’m looking for.’
‘It’s not,’ she said, with that short husky laugh that always got to him.
The last time they had seen each other was in the French hotel where their affair had ended. Despite their communicating rooms, they could think of nothing to say to each other. Sitting through long meals, under the vault of an artificial sky, painted with faint clouds and garlands of tumbling roses, they stared at a flight of steps that led down to the slapping keels of a private harbour, ropes creaking against bollards, bollards rusting into stone quays; everything longing to leave.
‘Now that you’re not with Mary, you don’t need me. I was…structural.’
The single word was perhaps too bare and could only be outstripped by silence. She had stood up and walked away without further comment. A gull launched itself from the soiled balustrade and clapped its way out to sea with a piercing cry. He had wanted to call her back, but the impulse died in the thick carpet lengthening between them.
Looking at him now, the freshly bereaved son, Julia decided she felt utterly detached from Patrick, apart from wanting him to find her irresistible.
‘I haven’t seen you for such a long time,’ said Patrick, looking down at Julia’s lips, red under the black net of her veil. He remained inconveniently attracted to almost all the women he had ever been to bed with, even when he had a strong aversion to a revival on all other grounds.
‘A year and a half,’ said Julia. ‘Is it true that you’ve given up drinking? It must be hard just now.’
‘Not at all: a crisis demands a hero. The ambush comes when things are going well, or so I’m told.’
‘If you can’t speak personally about things going well, they haven’t changed that much.’
‘They have changed, but my speech patterns may take a while to catch up.’
‘I can’t wait.’
‘If there’s an opportunity for irony…’
‘You’ll take it.’
‘It’s the hardest addiction of all,’ said Patrick. ‘Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.’
‘Don’t!’ said Julia, ‘I’m having enough trouble wearing nicotine patches and still smoking at the same time. Don’t take away my irony,’ she pleaded, clasping him histrionically, ‘leave me with a little sarcasm.’
‘Sarcasm doesn’t count. It only means one thing: contempt.’
‘You always were a quality freak,’ said Julia. ‘Some of us like sarcasm.’
Edward St. Aubyn, At Last (The Patrick Melrose Novels, #5), 2012.