I was standing in the rain outside Watford. The bus stop looked abandoned, its flimsy roof a pathetic fig leaf to my nakedness. There was a parcel in my bag, but I tried not to think about it too much. Every ten seconds I checked the phone, which flash-lit the muddy surroundings in abrupt, two-second flickers. The cab driver had looked bored, his sleep-angry silence defying my possible questions. It took me one wretched hour to dig the bus stop out of the dark and the pouring rain. I checked the time. It was half past midnight, which meant that they were late. Which meant that there was still a chance they wouldn’t show up at all.
At some point three or four hours ago, at the party, the big man with the big breath started to get closer. At first he was only a ghost, a bleak apparition, though his transparent body was already clad in a spotless black suit awe-striking every woman on his way, and his invisible fingers were already stroking an obese Havana cigar. As of 9pm, I had no idea who the big man was and that he even existed. But why not state the obvious. The inevitable. The bound to happen.
As for myself, I couldn’t even awe-strike Nicole. At the moment and much to my painless headache (the expensive red wine was making me feel drowsy), she was conversing – because that’s the word – with the latest newcomers, Serge and Denise. Denise, the bloody nuisance. Serge, not so much. The guy had an interesting sense of humour and a peculiar way of dressing. I liked that. So far, his only defect was his name. I mean, could you believe these people? It was not enough that a well-off Midland family gave their children French names, one of their daughters also chose to put special demands on the guys she was dating. Which is where we come to Serge. Serge was in fact Sergey, a 20-year-old Google wizard from St. Petersburg who had declined six or seven grants to study at Princeton. And now Sergey became Serge, handily, and now Serge was conversing – because that’s the word – with two girlfriends. His and mine.
In the meantime, I could hear the out-of-tune choir of random conversations backed by distant, uneven rolls of classical music. The room was a huge bright whale that threatened to swallow you or at least lick you to death. It all resembled that infernal restaurant scene from Master and Margarita. And on top of that, somebody’s friend, son or brother was talking to me about the Breaking Bad finale. Socially alert, I agreed and I disagreed, I nodded and I shook my head – but I wasn’t following. I must have been the only person in the world who wasn’t crazy about the show. Evidently somebody’s friend, son or brother couldn’t see that possibility. Jesse, Todd, Walt – who cared. I thought the whole thing was murky and unfunny. Presently, I had far too many real problems to care about abstract ones, but dumb politeness grounded me to the floor. Floor that was covered with a red Persian carpet that was dry soaking my feet and making me feel like a slug. I wanted to cut through that circle of three the way a sharp knife would, close in on Nicole, lead her out of their pointless conversation and ask: “Were you or were you not?” But I had to wonder just how sharp I was after standing for so long drinking free wine and listening to other people’s bullshit.
Still, I needed the answer. I needed Nicole. Because soon after the party had begun I suddenly realised that earlier that day, in her sister’s bedroom, we might have made a terrible mistake. This thought was unbearable.
When I couldn’t take it any longer and told the hapless fan “I’m sorry, but I prefer Walking Dead” (not true, but I rather liked the rhyme), Nicole was no longer there. Serge and Denise were alone now, Denise striving to balance her glass of champagne and Serge red with excitement. I wondered if all Russian people were this good at telling ridiculously long anecdotes. The way Serge articulated them, the way he used gestures and rolled out the punchlines like very special presents he knew you would like – it was priceless. You wouldn’t think an impromptu rendering of a variation on a dull Russian-Englishman-American joke could work, but it did. And the more preposterous it sounded, the more obscene and inappropriate – the bigger laughs it got. As I approached the two of them, Denise was actually bended over, her long red hair almost touching the floor, and I thought that in the end it may not have been the brain or the looks. It might have been the way this guy made her laugh. The self-styled French girl fell for bawdy Russian humour passed over through the rather funny sounding English. You couldn’t make that up. So, so unlike Denise.
“Oh hey, I thought I saw Nicole here a minute ago”, I said.
“Hello, Kevin”, said Serge.
We shook hands.
“Ke-vin”, said Denise, shakily, trying to recover from laughter. For all her mannerisms, even Denise had enough sense not to stress the last syllable. “She went to ladies’ room”.
Ladies’ room. It was so Denise. That said, I’d been in the house since morning, helping Nicole with the flowers and with the alcohol, and this time Denise could actually have a point.
“Ah okay”, I said. I didn’t want to mention the fact that I had to talk to Nicole. There could be questions, and Denise would surely overpower me. Like she always did, even that one time when she went to see the quarter-final game we went on to lose in a spectacular fashion. “By the way, how was that launching thing?”
“She was bored”, said Serge.
“A little”, admitted Denise. She smirked into the glass and then chuckled. A joke belch. Against Nicole’s modest smiles, Denise was all provocative scream. She was pretty, too. The kind of girl a guy like Serge had to hang on to, but equally you had wonder if he could survive the job.
“Personally, I don’t like tablets”, I said. “I’m old-fashioned. I use the keyboard”.
Denise was examining her glass.
“Well”, said Serge. “My sister is like that. Rada. She isn’t on Facebook”. Rada. Well, that ‘r’ was ruthless, but his grammar was good. And Serge was nice, maybe too nice. Not least because of his overwhelming accent as well as the elegant green tie (arguably the only thing that matched Denise’s dress) and the oversized checkered suit that made him look a little buffoonish.
Side note: the big man with the big breath must have gotten a little closer by this point, but what did I know. Did I know he was looking for me? Did I know his only clue was a photo provided by Nicole’s parents? Did I know he had something to offer me? No, I didn’t know that. As a matter of fact I knew very little – and remembered even less.
I wondered who started it. This might become relevant when the fingers are pointed, best doctors are contacted and Denise says she always knew it would end like this. So how did it start? Well, at some point I mentioned the house had so many rooms that a couple of them must have been empty for years. Nicole said yes, do you wanna look? I did, but imagining beat reality, and it turned out to be rather disappointing. The rooms smelled cold and dusty, horror story background with no edge or imagination, something even a homeless ghost would snub. “Nobody needs them”, said Nicole, “so they’ve been like this for as long as I can remember”. I told her my mother would make them livable in no time and immediately regretted saying that. It could send a wrong message. But Nicole was fine. Sometimes it seemed like she was carrying a bucket of sweetness in her hands and was afraid to spill one tiny drop. In my most naïve mood I entertained the idea that she was Cinderella to her evil sister. “Well, Denise’s bedroom is around here, and it’s livable. Let’s have a look?” said Nicole. To which I again replied yes, let’s do that.
Then she closed the door and began undressing.
So the question was: who started it?
It was Serge. Denise was gone now, and Serge and I were two unlikely strangers thrown into a small corner by a big party.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I thought you said something”, said Serge.
I wished to God I hadn’t, but in a way I needed a listener. Besides, our few interactions with Serge had been awkward at best, and it seemed unfair. Yes, geographical backgrounds were quite different. Yes, he knew even less about cricket than I did about programming. Yes, my clothes were tight and his were loose-fitting. But beneath all that – there seemed to be much in common. After all, we dated two sisters and it rarely gets more brotherly than that.
“No, I was just thinking aloud…” I wanted to push a little, make it sound like an ordinary guy talk: “Serge, I’m going to be direct with you. Can I?”
“Sure”, he said.
“Is it serious? I mean you and Denise?”
“Well, I don’t know”, he said, still jovial but already on guard. “Is it serious between you and Nicole?”
“I don’t know”, I said. “Hard to say. But imagine this: having kids with Denise”.
That was extremely forward, but I was desperate. Suddenly all the wine was gone from my head, and it was back to normal red blood cells coursing through my brain, my veins and, quite possibly, my tongue.
“No”, said Serge. “I don’t want no kids with Denise”.
Ha, I thought. Was that perfect grammar? But I knew the rules of a guy talk, so I said:
“Same here”. And then asked: “But imagine if something like this did happen?”
“Pardon me?” said Serge.
I closed my eyes and shook the empty wine glass as a way of saying “forget about it, move on”. Pardon me. When you hear ’pardon me’ said with a strong accent, with such exaggerated force, with such fake confidence, you know you must be somewhere in London. Which we were.
“Do you hear how loud it is?” I asked, bored by the talk, by the big lights and willing to get away. “I mean here, at the party? If you stop and listen for a second – it’s like all hell broke loose”.
Then I left Serge behind and went looking for Nicole. Nicole who began to undress the moment the door was shut and I saw the raw, pink-coloured bed flattened across the whole room. I began to undress as well. All was done in silence, the kind I wouldn’t even dream of breaking off with a dull question. A strange thought entered my mind the moment we crashed onto the small girlish things, like lipstick-smelling notebooks and fluffy teddy bears, scattered all over the bed. That was all rather adorable, but weren’t we supposed to get rid of those things beforehand? Really, we were like neighbours in that Raymond Carver story, and all through those brief five minutes, by turns passionate and beastly, I wasn’t doing it with Nicole. I kept my eyes closed and I couldn’t imagine her face. I couldn’t even imagine her voice as she moaned (for the first time ever). But by the end of it, I of course knew we would never come close to that experience again.
And now I had to ask her: “Were you or were you not?” Only she wasn’t there to answer.
“Nicole! Finally. Can you please stop for a second?”
“Oh Kevin – sorry, I can’t talk right now. Parents really need me at the moment”.
And so she escaped, again. I began to wonder whether she was doing that on purpose – running around, avoiding me? Maybe all that sweetness was gone now that she realised the mistake? Because I was responsible, because I dragged her to that bedroom (well, unless she had it all planned, which I doubted) and never even bothered with the dull question that had to be asked.
There are parties where you cannot be alone, and at long last – the big man with the big breath was upon me. You could actually say, the big man was all over me. His breath was as intrusive as the smell of a lumbago-stricken and rarely-seen grandmother who so wants to kiss you. It blinded you and left little chance to see anything else that was going on around. I couldn’t even see the big man’s head, so the voice, that thick Italian English from an old Scorsese film, floated out of a cloud of smoke. First thing I saw was the fat Havana cigar pointed directly at me in a non-aggressive, very old-fashioned way.
“Kevin?” He asked. “Am I right? I knew your father”.
Everybody seemed so forward that night. He went on:
“I’m Mr. Levene. A friend of the family”.
I saw his burly hand, which I shook, then I saw his face. The big man had the ever-comfortable face of a fulfilled businessman. It was a big, disproportionately big face on a stiff neck. The face smiled, clearly it had no idea what it was like – to feel ill at ease in somebody else’s company. I did though, now better than ever.
“I never really knew my father”, I said.
It’s a party, so I thought I might as well talk and not question anything. I pricked my ears: it was not Mozart, they now switched to pop music. This was that moment from the old radio when the DJ goes home and they put it all on random.
“I know”, said Mr. Levene, and then exhaled the dense Cuban smoke all over my face. Cuban cigar, Italian accent, it was so fascinating I almost didn’t mind. “He was a great man, believe me. I mean, don’t let them tell you otherwise”.
“Okay”, I said, a little confused.
“Kevin, aren’t you a sportsman?”
“No”, I said. “I mean, not really. I’m into other things. I’m into art. Literary research. I do play cricket though, semi-professionally”.
“Into art, huh? Well”, he said, “you look like a sportsman. You have a great build. What are you, a batsman?”
We talked about the latest Twenty20 for a while, but I could see there was something behind that complacency that was bothering him and would soon start bothering me. I only hoped he wasn’t a wealthy queer looking for a hot batsman for the night. Mention of my father was a fluke, and it was all about me being a sportsman, me having a great build?..
But then I knew.
“Kevin, do you need money?”
When someone wearing an impeccable black suit like that asks you this question, there is always some lingering hope that he will now open his wallet and empty it for you. But I was thinking about Nicole, what happened today in the pink bedroom and how Nicole’s parents would react if they learned about my father or that my mother was currently doing two jobs. That I wasn’t even planning to have a car just yet, never mind begin a new life. That I simply wasn’t the son-in-law they had envisioned. Particularly if my fears came true, Nicole was not and we really fucked it up on Denise’s bed today in the morning.
And so I said:
“Well, who doesn’t?”
So this is how it happened that a few hours later I changed Kew Gardens for the murky outskirts of Watford (Mr. Levene had paid the cab fare) and was standing at a desolate bus stop waiting for two mysterious, dark-haired guys my age. They would be riding one black motorcycle, they wouldn’t talk a lot. Movie stuff. I would have to get a parcel from them: money. Mr. Levene hadn’t mentioned the sum, only that some of it would soon be mine. “Two of them?” I asked. He said he could normally trust the people he was dealing with, but in case I had anyone in mind… I said I did. As for the parcel in my bag, I would of course have to give it to them the moment I got hold of theirs. Well, again – movie stuff, which is why it seemed so unreal: Mr. Levene, my father, this bus stop, the black motorcycle. Back at the party Mr. Levene didn’t tell me what was in the other parcel, one that was presently inside my bag. But I could guess. My mother never really said why or how my father died, but I thought I could guess that one too.
Later that night I asked Serge if he could come with me. He said he couldn’t, because of Denise. Then I mentioned the money and Serge began asking questions. Fuck it, I thought.
As for Nicole, I managed to get a few glimpses of her throughout the party, but that was as far as it got.
Presently, I couldn’t even reach her on the phone. I called Denise and she said Nicole was about to go to bed. Denise sounded aggressive, even more than ever. She did mention, though, that Nicole would probably call some time later. So now I kept checking my phone every ten seconds.
Nicole did call in the end, catching that sickening moment when the motorcycle’s engine began to die down 20 feet away from where I was standing.
“Sorry, Kevin, you wanted to talk with me?”
“Yeah, Nicole. It’s… nothing. Actually, it’s about the bedroom. Denise’s bedroom, today. Were you… I mean, I know it’s a terrible question, but were you on the pill?”
Nicole laughed, unfunnily. “Yes, Kevin, of course I was”.
Was it because she said that or did she really sound so adorable? Almost as adorable as she looked the day I first saw her, listening to that lunatic in Hyde Park, smiling timidly and trying to protest? With her neat short hair and her red sneakers?.. “My God, Kevin, you must be six feet ten” were her words later that day.
There were indeed two of them, guys my age, and they were approaching. Their pace was menacing, excessive. Despite the rain and the dark, I could already size them up. Mr. Levene would have called them ‘sportsmen’.
“Kevin?” said Nicole, the phone dropped onto the wet, muddy pavement, her voice fading away. “Kevin? Are you there?..”
But I probably wasn’t.