|It was only when his lawyer got a court order against the lady that Rami began to feel easy again. That mammy munckin of a woman who’d been harassing him around the place this last fortnight; there when he came to the office, there when he left. Untold calls, culminating in her muttering dark threats to his receptionist yesterday about how she was gonna get her man or her boys or something to see to Rami, and him deciding to take serious action.|
Well he’d put paid to her now. No more loitering and no more calls. Rami sighed with relief and turned to the McDonalds takeout on his desk with new gusto. Littl;e bitch!, he chomped resentfully, she’d almost been putting him off his food. And Rami was a man who loved his food..
Rami locked up, belched a little smellily – he could taste the gherkin in it – and made his way, with just the odd nervous look around, to his ride. .Moments later, he was easing his new BMW convetible into the mild evening’s town-bound traffic. It had been a bit greedy, possibly, that quarterpounder when he had a dinner engagement already. No matter. He’d make space for both. He always could.
Life, mad munchkins apart, aside, was doing pretty fine by young entrepreneur Rami. ”I’ve had a little bit of success,” he’d casually mention, if he thought you didn’t know. Wheeling, dealing, frequent tax-deductible lunch-meetings, his work suited his nature well. London-bred of comfortablish immigrant stock, race had been of no interest to him until, when his customary mediocrity had had him facing his latest falling off the corporate ladder, it occured to him he might be able to sue his then employers for discrimination. He hadn’t gone through with the plan in the end, it not being his style to make enemies of powerful people, but the fat figures a lawyer had talked about had vividly alerted Rami to the concept of race and money. And as Britain’ s Race industry had blossomed, so had he. He’d set up on his own and begun firing off proposals to image-conscious companies and government agencies for funds for inner city business initiatives and conferences. And when the monies flooded in, Rami minimised performance and maximised profit. He was the King of the grant-winners, the Sultan of the so-called symposium. He’d had a bit of success, oh yes, yes, yes.
And now he wasn’t even having to approach people – benefactors were coming to him.Like this businessman tonight. Some foreign-sounding geezer had called in the morning to wish Rami luck in his upcoming third annual People of Colour Awards. The now-televised, sponsors-delighting POCAS were the jewel in Ramii’s portfolio, and the man had said that his people were most interested in investing in its future. Could Rami join him for some dinner tonight at his hotel, the Royal London? Now Rami knew of the Royal London – very swanky, and he wasn’t even thinking with his business head when he instantly agreed. He loved it all, but posh nosh was the best.
He slowed to change lanes as he approached the hotel forecourt, and nearly got bashed by an Audi full of blackheads impatiently overtaking on the wrong side. ‘Typical!’ he growled as they sped away. Now if they only served food as quickly as they drove cars, there might be a happening black restaurant scene.
He should have said as much to that munchkin that first time she turned up, he reflected as he stepped into the Royal London’s well-appointed lobby and took a pew. Instead he had been relatively patient with her.
He’d bounded down only too readily that first time when his receptionist had said there was a chef, a ladychef, no less, there to see him. Rami had had visions of some leggy Cordon Bleu-trained cutie – it would be the girl of his dreams – only to be confronted by a wizened ebony pixie with a headscarf, a nasty bag lady’s coat and a limp. She had burnt his ears about how he should have a category for chefs in his awards, and that there were plenty of good black chefs out there, and this would raise their profile and blah. As she spoke she’d chewed incessantly on something that left black stains on her tongue.
Rami had yawned. All these losers who imagined he was running some kind of community service! He was running a TV show, for God’s sake. To keep the TV boys and his sponsors on side, to get the newspapers interested, he needed stars, simple. Was she a potential New Britain poster-girl? Were black cuisines setting the West End alight? He didn’t think so.
“What restaurant d’you work at,” he’d tested her.
She’d spat out what proved to be some shelly black-eyed nut into her hand and kneaded it, actions that had Rami thinking how he’d never eat a meal from this woman, “I do my own thing, really. Mainly in Deptford.”
Deptford! That benighted corner. Said it all.
“Plenty of good people like my food,” she’d added, slipping the nut back in her mouth and contemplating him strangely.
Well, good for them! He’d hurried her to the door, taken her details and then immediately thrown them away.
And that, unfortunately, hadn’t been that.
“Mr Rami, I presume.” His host’s manner was genial, polished, and his handshake firm. “So glad you could make it.”
The pair walked through the lobby, down a soft-carpetted corridor, to the restaurant. A tuxedoed pianist tinkled away, and exotically scented flowers in crystal vases decorated the little section they were swiftly seated in. The waiters seemed most attentive, Rami was gratified to see. Perhaps his host was a regular here.
“I hear you’re going great guns,” said his host.
“I’ve had a bit of success,” Rami confirmed.
“So tell me. All your many projects – is there an, an underlying philosophy, an ethic, so to speak, that you bring to them?”
Oh dear, thought Rami , the guy was one of those ethical types. He might have to soft-soap him with some ‘community’ spiel. But not now. Right now, he was peckish.
“Food first,” Rami grunted, picking up the menu, “then ethics.”
“Quite,” his host chuckled and held his gaze.“Quite.”
Under ‘Starters’ ran an orthodox range of selections – your pates de fois gras and your prawn cocktails – but the card for the main course bore only the solitary listing: ‘Chef’s Special’.
“The Special?” his host leant forward enthusiastically. “Oh, I can recommend it most highly. The kitchen here does this quite superb Soul food.You know it?”
Rami shook his head.
“The term was coined, I believe, by the slaves,” his host bowed his head a moment, “upon their arrival in the Americas, to describe food that came straight from the heart. In those days they had to make do with any scraps from the fields they could find, and they’d stir and season these bits until they’d found a way to make it all remind them of better memories. Oh don’t be alarmed, “ the man added quickly, for Rami was frowning – this sounded like poor man’s grub to him, “the ingredients have moved on a bit since then. But there is still no official recipe. Each chef brings their own heart, as it were, to the dish. Here, the je ne sais quoi is in the spices. Spicy, magic – mmwahh!” he kissed his fingertips.
“You mean to say,” Rami gestured astoundedly around him, “that everyone here is eating the same thing?”
“Kind of, but it tastes different to everyone. No two palettes, no two souls, are the same, are they?” his host turned to the waiter.
“So I am given to understand, Sir.” the waiter replied, cocking an impassive eye at Rami.
Rami was still underwhelmed by the prospect, but what could he do? He ordered all six starters, to cover himself as best he could, plus the Special.
He asked for them all to be brought together, as he liked his digestive juices to be fully briefed, and was pleasantly intrigued to find, when all the dishes arrived, that he could not tell one course from the other, so full of surprises was everything. Some dishes, or rather elements therein, he recognised from his order, or dinners past, but there was plenty of stuff that he didn’t. Never mind, they all tasted distinctively, spicily, saucily succulent and he mixed and matched with relish.
“Did I lie?” asked his host.
Rami shook his head and grinned. He was fast developing a strong fondness for this African. He would be bringing his dates and his top sponsors here from now on, no question. This “soul food” was the best kept secret in town.
The only thing, and it was only as he gulped down a long cooling draught of lager that he properly began noticing it, was this aftertaste. Or an afterheat, to be more accurate: a temperature that was coming from the pits of his stomach,then spreading to all points of his bodily compass.It was odd. Normally, with spicy food,he would feel it only on his temples.But his temples felt dry enough. He could feel the heat coming, though. Now in his chest. Soon it would be at his throat; then his forehead and his fingers…
“Are you alright?” asked his host.
Rami muttered something about feeling hot and gratefully accepted his host’s request for the chef’s special iced tea. But all the tea and beer and water that he drank, and all the shirt buttons he undid, did not help. He only felt hotter. The heat had reached his extremities, and then split two ways. Through his pores, so that his skin felt covered in a horribly slick,tropical ooze, and back inside, further scalding the same routes.
His host though, like the others at the tables around them, chewed and chatted easily on, seemingly feeling no ill effect. And Rami too, so loathe was he, even now, to give up on this dinner, and still hoping for the antidote that would allow him full return, could not restrain himself from the odd mouthful. He took a big slurp of some cold broth, thick with bits, that he had left until now and almost gagged at the unexpected bitterness of it. Eeurgh! He spat out a vile-tasting nut in disgust and reached for his water. The brown nut – something familiar about it – spun on the plate in front of him before coming to rest, a The shell had opened a little down its middle. Inside was a white fleshy material and in its middle, staring up, a beady black eye.
Rami spilled his glass and his body jerked forward in shock. It was the munchkin nut. The munchkin eye!
“Mmmm!” his host sighed, leaning back. “So good. That was just too fine.” He reached into his pocket, brought out a couple of nuts, and tossed them into his mouth. “The only meal I’ve had that comes even close was in…yes, I think it was Deptford.”
And the man cackled. And his tongue was as black as tar.
Palpitating, Rami gawped wide-eyed at him, and at the waiter, arriving to dab Rami’s front. Then he barged the waiter aside and he ran.
But running, very shortly, proved imposible. As with the heat, so now with the food, spreading, up and across, dragging him down so he could only totter. Diners looked up at the sound of a trouser-belt snapping to see a worryingly overweight figure, drenched in sweat, clutching his tummy and casting anxious looks behind, staggering past them.
Rami collapsed groaning by the restaurant entrance. What was happening? His body – he’d put on five stone in fifty yards. All the food he’d had that day, that week, felt reconstituted inside. The quarterpounder was back in its bun, the fois gras was tissue in his brain, and herbs and spices were sluicing all over. And the heat – Jesus! it was as hot as hell in there! Oven-hot. Like someone was cooking him.
“Voodoo stew! Voodoo stew!” he moaned, using sheer survival instincts to clamber up. For his host had wiped his mouth with a serviette and was now strolling his way.
Leaning on the corridor wall for support, Rami dived through the first door he came to. He was hoping for the rest rooms or a path to the exit, but found himself inside a giant banqueting hall, with yet more diners, eating. As he panted his way past,it seemed to him that some of these people were dimly familiar, but it wasn’t until he was a good way across that he could finally put memories to faces.
Wasn’t that the busker, who had so begged Rami to play at the POCAS last year to show the world his skills, and the photographer, who’d organised that boycott of POCAS 1 because of the lack of visual arts, up ahead? In every room he stumbled through in this maze of a hotel it was the same: cutting-edge comics, too slangy for crossover appeal, abstract sculptors, too elusive for the TV age, local heros, ghetto secrets, all the ones whose POCA submissions had met with a fat red cross, they were all here, enjoying voodoo stew, wrinkling their noses at the puddles that trailed him and sniggering at his ever-expanding girth.
Finally, Rami found a passage with a ‘Rest Rooms’ sign and, crawling now, propelling himself forward on his now mighty stomach like a beached walrus, he struggled down it. The noise and smells of a kitchen were wafting down from a turning to his right, and he took a peek as he passed it. There, beyond the open doors, marshalling operations with various white-hatted assistants in attendance, stood a certain ebony pixie with a red scarf on her head.
The shock was great but by this stage, not as great as it might have been, and certainly less than the terror which so inspired Rami he made the last few metres to his refuge in record walrus time, only to find an attendant with a folder now barring his way. If Rami had been standing he would have strangled him.
“Did you enjoy your meal, Sir?”
“What!” Rami croaked.
“If you did, Sir,” the attendant leant down and handed him a piece of paper, “can I ask you to sign here. Otherwise, could you fill out this other form explaining what you didn’t like?”
Rami looked anguishedly down the corridor. He thought he could hear two pairs of feet, approaching, one with a long drag to its beat, as if its owner had a limp. He turned back, signed on the line, and hauled himself through the door.
He took the first cubicle, locked it, tore off his clothes, and sat on the toilet. He was so full, so hot, he thought if he could just expel this stuff he might be alright again.
He heard the opening of the rest-room door and two pairs of feet a moment later. Rami whimpered and cowered where he sat, his heart beating and jumping so hard he thought it wouild leap through his head. And whether it was this, in fact, that happened, as the knocking on the door intensified, or whether the meal that was roasting in him, now cooked , demanded to be born, or whether it was simply a freak of nature, we may never know for certain. The two witnesses said all they saw was a flash of light and then the sound of a thunderous explosion. And when the staff broke down the door of the cubicle, all that remained of Rami was the Chef’s Special, and bits of burger and gherkin, spattered on the walls.
The third People of Colour Awards was a somewhat muted affair. Its new benefactor spoke movingly of this tragic loss they all shared. He said that not many people knew, but dear departed Rami was a man who had loved his food just as he loved his people, and how fitting then, that his last act had been to establish a trust to provide grants for ‘ethnic’ chefs. The benefactor returned to his seat to a standing ovation. Beside him,a small lady smiled, and spat a black-eyed nut into her hand.
© Diran Adebayo 2000
He’s in a rush. And a mood. Annoyed with himself, and with all these people clogging up the escalators at Leicester Square. You know, the idiots and the tourists standing on the wrong side, just all the people.
And thinking, ‘I can’t believe this. First date, and I’m late.’
Out in the evening air, and only his agitation prevents a full-on attack of the grumps. There’s the usual confusion about which way to head because both sides of the Charing Cross Road look the same to him. Always have. A late–twenties Londoner and he’s still not got to grips with this west end thing.
Everything just blends: a blending heave of sidestreets and shoppers and euros and Americans and lagered provincials down for their capital city crack; leisurely hordes, most all non-Londoners, all impeding his way. He looks both ways, then remembers that the side with the downward slope takes you to Trafalgar. He turns and, grumpier still, starts uphill.
Force marching a foot or so in the road, the better to avoid human traffic, he’s greeted by some new sights amongst the old. First, a black guy, seriously worse for wear, who reels into him off the kerb. ‘Sorry, mate!’ says the brother, before stumbling back to his white boys, and he’s surprised to hear a London accent rather than country tones. Surprised too by the apology, which found him with a scowl in place.
Wow! he smiles to himself. That’s the first time, maybe in his life, he’s seen one of his kind properly pissed in public. Not holding it down. For shame! And Londoner too. He’ll know the blacks to know better. No excuses.
Further on, and there are more instances of unorthodox black behaviour: a black-and-white-couple, the black lady’s arm elegantly, continentally, linked around his, on a stroll, stopping by the odd venue or store window, promenading. A pack of young women on a night out, a mixed bunch, all grouped around a bar table, a few clothes bags at their side. Happy with themselves; glugging bacardi breezers and enjoying the booming economy. Not posh-black or those slightly freaky soho types, just regular, neighbourhood-looking girls, being mainstream. Sort-of…post-black.
He wonders why he’s not so happy for them; not smiling encouragingly at these Post-blacks. He wanted that too, he couldn’t deny… To…to break free from the restrictive codes of black-brit dom. Hunh. Wasn’t that what he’d been doing, student bar-crawling in the first place? Trying to find a black girl at a good, old, university: some quality, new-breed black girl who was spending her socially formative years in the company of natives and might therefore have a looser, ‘whiter’, vibe…
What had brought him here, on a Saturday to Leicester Square.
A writer by profession and bohemian by heart, he’d been finding the black circles he mixed in more and more stifling, Like this houseparty the other day. There were various guys there he knew from various other dos and, as usual, they nodded to each other and said, ‘Alright. how’s it going?’ then nodded once more then stood by one another a little while, each with a bottle of Becks, and that was pretty much it. Everyone stands and looks quite good, and holds it down and sway coolly to the odd tune, but no-one actually talks. No incidents, no deep chats, no real flirting; no-one gets embarassingly-happy, gets anything big or different out of it. No…secrets to be found there. True, he didn’t want people banging into you , and vomiting by your feet or something, as happened at many white dos, but he could do with a little more looseness. Huh. The big lie about us, he thinks, is that we’re wild.
At SOAS bar I met him. My college is Birkbeck, down the road, but I used to go to the SOAS one ‘cos they’ve got a pool table and he saw me playing pool, beating these guys. I think he liked that! Anyway, after, I was sat down, headphones on – I didn’t hang out with the pool posse or anything, just played – and I was reading when this guy wanders over and stops by me. I didn’t take him in too closely. He looked a bit trendy – you know, zip-up top, one of those beanie hats – and trendies don’t normally do me. I’m just a maths chick from the country.
He all but snatches this book from me, and starts flipping through it, firing me these questions: Simultaneous, quadratic equations, “what are they for?” It was nice, you know, his little science queries. Most arty types think they’re so superior, that their stuff is so much more interesting, it gets on my tits.
He mentioned quite a bit of black stuff as well. It didn’t surprise me – up here, I’d noticed, blacks talk about black stuff a lot. Normally… well normally it’s dreary but he was quite funny with it. Like this rant about how most black students weren’t studying anything serious. If anything it was all these mickey-mouse mixy-mixy modular courses: ‘media an’ this,’ and ‘crap an’ communication studies’, and everyone wanted to be some silly TV presenter and it was so nice to meet someone doing a proper subject.
And I remember priming myself then not to say ‘half-caste’ or ‘coloured’, words that have got me into moments up here. So I must have quite liked him already.
I gave him my number. I didn’t think he’d call.
Something …spirited and particular about her. Walkman on in a bar! Maths and classical music. Indifferent too. The way she was beating those stoners at pool. They were nattering, trying to banter, and she was acknowledging just enough, unconcealed unconcern on her face, the same wider unconcern that she carried with her in her busy movements around the table, a similar indifference in the eyes that looked through the boy who was looking at her.
He had been beguiled by this indifference. He had seen Africa, the Africa of his family, and his yearnings, in the style of this light-skinned girl: like the plainly-dressed waitresses at Madame Suya’s in Dalston as they stood by the tables; or the looks on young women in London or Lagos sashaying down the street with a languid, stately, posterior-pouting sway of the hips, knowing, seeing but not seeing you.
You weren’t sure she liked you. He liked that. Didn’t say much, after he’d approached. Just stared most of the time, then burst in with something odd.
Her look too. An unstyled wildness to the hair, big Ibo cheeks, hint of chinie about the eyes. ‘Where are you from?’ he’d asked her. “It’s a long story,”she’d replied, ‘Another time.’ And when he’d pressed, she’d smiled shyly?? and laughed, ‘the future.’
He sees the little left he is looking for, Hunt Court, and turns into it, passing another mixed couple. The black girl gives him the merest glance; unimpressed, indifferent. He knows that look – you got it often from black folk in groups or couples like that in arty Shoreditch, his sometime stomping ground. The look said that they did not associate, could not imagine having such a modern, free, time with people like you. Maybe that’s the problem, he decides, as he runs the last few yards: sometimes, it seems, he fears, that in this post-black future, black on black won’t be happening.
He’d said to meet in the World Music section in Virgin Records near Leicester Square, which was nice and quiet, but by the time he came, 20 minutes late, I’d wandered up to the Classical Floor , so it was a little smart of him to find me.
He was more elegantly dressed this time – pleated black trousers, suede green jacket, only he looked as if he’d looked better a bit before. His forehead was beading with sweat. From running, I imagined. He kept on dabbing it with this manky tissue, leaving little white flecks behind. Maybe if I’d looked away he would have done it properly.
It was rush-rush to Rupert Street round the corner for the cinema. The film – that was mad! ‘Spanking the Monkey’, this offbeat, non-Hollywood production. Canadian, I think. It was about this teenage guy with issues who spent most of his time either wanking or having sex with his mum, maybe it was his stepmother. He glanced round the odd time to ask if it was alright, if I was enjoying it. I nodded.
He glanced other times as well, I noticed.
He seemed quite embarassed after:’Ah, Lordy! They said in the ‘paper it was a – not a “black comedy”, I know what that means – but, you know, a black indie drama or something. I thought it was gonna have Afros!’
He wanted to take me next to this bar he was a member of on Charing Cross Road. The bar had a late licence which was why he was a member. It was nothing much, he said, just a pub really, but the vibe was nice; actors an’ comedians an’ such frequented it.
Only we, he, couldn’t find it. Rupert Street to Charing Cross Road is about 600 yards if you do it right. Do it wrong, and fifteen minutes are gone and you’re still walking. I did make a suggestion at one point but he didn’t take it. He kept apologising, saying we’d be there in a minute. He was sweating again.
I was fine. I thought it quite funny, him being a Londoner.
I think it was then I first thought, tissue flecks back on his forehead, eyes screwing at street signs, ‘You’re quite dizzy, aren’t you?’. Maybe not those words exactly, but that was my thought.
We ended up somehow on Maiden Lane by Covent Garden. He stood strong again. He knew this top bar here, ‘The Spot’; said we should try that instead.
It had this big glass frontage, and this black bouncer, then another one we passed to reach a second bar inside. I was happy there from the off, not for the stylish decor or stylish people, but for the cocktails.they were drinking. I’m a cocktail fiend, only you don’t get much chance to indulge on a student’s debts and I knew he would ask and get me one – I hadn’t dipped in my pocket since we’d met.
He was reaching down to his when the barman set down our chemical colours, turned and walked away. A puzzled brow at me, then at the crowd thickening around us, then a beam:
“It’s a do! Some Celebo do! You know who that is?’
He looked a teeny bit familiar; a boxer or footballer. But the main guy, whose do it was, I definitely recognised. He was upstairs, in the dancing-room we drifted up to. He played for Arsenal or Man United, one of those. Scored their goals. He had a smoking jacket on, his hair in cornrows, and a busty blondie beside him. There were a lot of blondes, a lot of light-skinned girls. In thigh-split dresses and clingy things and glossy hair – it was serious high- maintenance in there. But most of them didn’t properly look classy. They looked a bit like the girls you could see back home when they put their Friday night faces on. So even though it was this upscale place, and this famous guy’s birthday party, I didn’t feel intimidated.
We clinked glasses and I felt clever and naughty, part of a little Zombie conspiracy. Zombies – rum and liqueurs, that’s my favourite. He tried one too, one among all these other glasses on the go. Mad! – he had, like, three or four at any one time, a Zombie, a brandy, a Baileys, and some tea, and he’d go from one to the other, cold then hot then cold again, sip, slurp. And none of them ever finished.
I was glad for these little things, the drinks and the dizzy things. I think otherwise he might have been too …you know, trendy for me. But these made him better, softer. Soft-toned, baby’s dimples. Soft, I was thinking. Quite a sweetboy.
A guest walks past them who looks like Denzel Washington. He asks her if she thinks Denzel Aashington is sexy. ‘No’, she shakes her head. ‘ He’s like a stone. ‘A stone!’ ‘Yeah. Not…alive to me. Like a nice picture. A stone.’.
He smiles quizzically at her: this…funny girl who’s brought him luck tonight; who was cool as he faffed about on the street before. Who says things like Denzel Washington is a stone.
We made most of our important discoveries that night.; how I was adopted; how we both liked chess Oh, he told me why he’d laughed when I’d said we could meet Saturday. He said he couldn’t believe I’d allowed Saturday, that he hadn’t been given a first date Saturday since his Stone Age. Most of the girls he knew, even if they checked for you, they’d allow a first date midweek lunch, or else a drink after work.
Maybe third or fourth you’d get a weekend rendezvous.
‘You don’t play games. It’s good,’ he grinned.
And other stuff, for sure, but I don’t recall so much of it ‘cos I was pretty giddy by the time we left, with the drink and the hormones of it all.. I felt fine when we were sat inside but then outside – whoosh! Little Miss Mashed, that was me.
We nearly got a cab back – there were those illegal ones outside. But I feared another change in atmosphere – the staleness and motion of a car, and it might be all off. So we walked. It wasn’t so far, and I’m pretty brisk, even at the pissed of times.
He says he asked, ’So what kind of guys d’you
like?’ and I exclaimed, “Headfucks!” or “Guys who can headfuck. Like
chess, like maths is a headfuck!” And he started something concerned
about how it must have been tough, growing up mixed in the sticks, ‘til I
burst in, “I like ‘coloured’ Why not ‘coloured? Like a palette. We’re
the colours, they’re not!’
And I threw my arms, he said at the lights from a store window. I
probably had the cocktails in mind too.
I don’t recall, only the sight of him, stopped, some paces behind, by a shop, looking at me this way he does when he exclaims my name sometimes, this intrigued, indulgent look, and me, peacefully tingly, deep feeling he doesn’t mind how I’m different.
For one moment, as she bounds in front of him, he has an echo of the drunkard before, but this time he doesn’t mind. Her boyish, busy walk reminds him of someone from ‘Buffy’, one of those kick-ass slayers, and he christens her Miss P; Miss P for pool and her kind-of punky, undomesticated vibe. A bit backward, bit rustic maybe, on certain issues, but that would be sorted, down the line.
It feels right that they dated first in Leicester Square, in this in-between land that neither of them owned, this anything-goes square mile that was neither country nor neighbourhood, this irritating turf that has finally come through for him… Oh Miss P, Miss P, he beams at her, I’m gonna have a sweet post-black time with you.
© Diran Adebayo 2005
Everything you’re told is true, he scribbles and hovers, hazy, dog-tired, as two beads of sweat plop onto his scrawl and spread. He wipes and sighs and returns to the front door. It’s maybe a bit sad, but it isn’t bad, it just is.
He uses some final energy to haul his bags in properly
and scoop up the last few weeks’ mail, before flopping onto the sofa.
Peace at last!
He is happy, that instant, to at least have rescued something from the last hours’ wreckage; to know something now quite definitely at his relatively young age. If you are to be the King of Writing, Dizzy, you must be the King of Wisdom first.
He props himself and casts a slightly nervous glance down to the gardens below then the square out front. One householder and his dog, pretty much. He knows that peace can’t truly last ’til he has gone out, got some necessities, and that he should do it soon, before the whole full-on-ness of a Saturday kicked in. He is new – well, kinda new here, and meet-and-greets await but he’d rather not get sucked into something new, some new-neighbourly bonding excess, today, when his wits are few.
Or, worse, something old.
You’re a suckable one, Dizzy. You had a sign about that too yesterday, didn’t you?
Urgh! He shouldn’t even be here. He was supposed to be in Amsterdam about now, taking part in a panel discussion. He’d been finishing off a residency in Italy and the plan was that he would get a train from Pisa to Rome and fly straight there. Shouldabeen straight, but he’d been sucked – extended goodbyes with his fellows, the maids, the gardener at the guesthouse so that, after traffic delays, he’d only just made the last possible train, there to be thwarted by the toughest of ticket ladies and an Italian cards-only machine.
He’d reeled. All the shouldabeen thoroughly-missed flights, and always he’d come through. To be denied when he was on time, when he hadn’t been naughty, he hadn’t been slack, he’d just been a little lengthily-nice. It didn’t fit. He’d always felt someways protected; that there was help, a plan for him out there, and he couldn’t see how this fitted.
And such a sweet trip ’til then. All three requirements, the things that make him feel he’s properly been to a place, met: something mad, something sex and someone’s house. The mad – well he thinks that was covered that night he’d, accidentally, near burnt down the joint. And two and three had come courtesy of an older lady, this divorcee he’d met at a fine restaurant in Siena.
The owner, sat with his table, had introduced them.
‘Scrittori?’ she’d smiled. ‘Bel-lis-si-mo!’
He’d been minded not to go there, actually. He did not find her so physically attractive. But as he’d leaned to kiss her goodbye that night, outside her home, he’d seen a real…hope, need in her. And, yes, it had been a while for him too, a hold. They’d lain and he’d wondered why there seemed so rarely charity in this area, amongst humans.
He could have done with her, or just some chatty somebody, last night. Instead he had spent it bootlessly seeking refuge. Status in Siena, and shit straightforward; padding around in Pisa, like some needy new arrival, and no-one wanted to know.
And so it was that he’d reached his wisdom on the night. Adjudged that this, above other contenders, was the message he was supposed to be hearing: it’s all true. Money or status gets you laid, guys had said to him, and it was true. Challenge planes enough times and you will lose. That’s why it’s called Probability – you were taught it, weren’t you? And if you burn enough houses, get into enough scrapes, you will surely die. You may have a protection plan, Dizzy, but even these obey the laws of the universe.
A bit banal, a bit predictable. Very old school, very Newtonian. But true.
He reaches for his pad, adds ‘Science Rules’ underneath, and underlines, then gathers up his mail. There will be a third. After Status and Planes, a third to assure him that he’s heard it right, and that his life remained an indulged one. Always a third. Three is his lucky number.
The letters are mainly official ones – correspondence from a couple of committees he sits on (just as dull as you suspected, were told. Is this the sign? Should he resign?) – but eventually one that is different, that has been hand-delivered. No name, just ‘No 7’ and, inside, a plain, black-on-white invitation.
Shock is too strong, but there was that proper winded feeling you get when you hear that someone you know, and imagine hale enough, has died. Well, that sure explains it, why he hasn’t seen him.
He wonders how, but the invitation only has the sparse details of the ceremony, and a small, grainy, photo and he peers at the old, leathery face as if it will tell him something.
Mister A! Huh. Bad Mister A… The one who first gave him an inkling, about Everything.
He’d see him from this same window eyrie, back in college days, when he came big brother – big, genteel-living brother-visiting, before his brother upped and rented it out, finally to him. Dizzy fancied he knew his role in the Square and its arc – the trusty retainer figure who’s at your service, but ends up with half the secrets, the immovable fixture – and would observe his moments with the home-owning residents, looking for clues to where he was on the curve, and whether there was dignity in it, and the latest trends in class and foreignness.
So when he went outside for his smokes, with a book and an emergency pen in tow, enjoying the quiet you got at this woody end of the gardens, away from the children’s play area down the bottom, and this other intruded, with his pruning and, could be, prying, Dizzy didn’t mind. He was ready, keen to put more flesh on the bone. Only he couldn’t see the route in, initially. He wasn’t big on botany; more a Maths and physics man.
Cats had kicked them off. He’d been aware of a particular cat on his stays, a ginger cat. The McCullers’ Square favourite, he presumed. But then, more recently, there had been another, rougher, cat lording it, black with white bits; or perhaps both still around, but only this latter seen then suddenly the first had reappeared, only more bloated and less chilled than of yore so that it was, quite possibly, a third, and, beyond this, the sounds of mewling and snarling too.
The short of it was that there definitely seemed to have been ructions in the cat world and when he proceeded to his spot one afternoon to find Mr Antonapoulos with gnarly arm crooked around a bruised-up ginger, he’d taken the chance of getting to the bottom of them.
Mr Antonapoulos had explained, in his someway broken fashion, that there were indeed two principals. Buster, the incumbent, and Poopy. Buster had taken ill and Mrs So-and-So had got him to the vets, only for Poopy to seize the moment and stake his claim across all Buster’s sweet spots. Buster had tried to fight back, but been worsted and now both Buster and Mrs Such-and-Such were off their food.
Wow, he’d said, it’s quite hardcore, the cat/ animal world, only for Mr Antonapoulos to frown and become his most animated yet. He’d muttered something about birds. How you would see two together, tending each other. That it wasn’t about savage or kind; that these were the wrong words, our words. We though we could stop it, change it. They wanted him to cut, cut, prune.
“Back home, we just let -” he’d thrown out his arms. “They are longer than us. This, you call honeysuckle, it knows one day you don’t prune and it will escape. The fox knows one day you leave the hen place open.’
Dizzy didn’t know if this was profound or not, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He’d taken out his pen and scribbled.
And, after, cat updates, and broader. But always, Dizzy noticed, within certain confines. He’d share some home country parallel or memory, but they never quite slid into his story: some light on why or when he came, some old flame or family. And what he did say about his origins was different every time.
He’d see Dizzy noting stuff down (“What’s the name of that town again? Karas? Keras?…. “) but seemed oblivious. Never commented. Some times he wouldn’t comment, talk, at all. He’d grunt and avoid your gaze. On such days you could normally whiff some liquor on his breath and, when you did catch it, you’d see melancholic red pools in puffy eyes. This is a man, Dizzy began to think, where something isn’t right. You don’t hold the secrets, you have one.
One day, one late summer day, Mr Antonapoulos had come to the woods. He could smell it strongly that day, but, unusually, Mr A seemed quite chirpy with it. Smirky.
“It was my birthday yesterday.” Dizzy had said.
Mr Antonapoulos had nodded. ‘You get present?’
“No!” he’d laughed. “Just the drink-up with the folks. Ginger nuts, peanuts and woodpecker cider. The same every year from when we were kids.”
“You want Retsina? I have some.”
He’d mentioned Retsina before. Some rich, red wine, sounded like. Sounded good. And always good to get into a home.
“Sure,” he’d replied.
Lots of keys, he remembers. First, he dropped off some bits in the shed. Click. Then led the way to his door. Jangle, click, click. Then another, opened and shut, ’til finally the end of the hall. Jangle, click and he’s inside a dark, cramped little cubby-hole, stacked half-ceiling high with books, papers, manuscripts.
He spies a barrel at the back and steps towards it.
God, all these books, Dizzy was thinking. You see me with my reading and my scribbling and you never said anything.
He starts turning round, to face his host, to find Mr Antonapoulos in full spring upon him. The thud of him knocks Dizzy back half off his feet as Antonapoulos grips him in the tightest of arm-pinioning bear hugs and slobbers, ferociously, stinkingly, just crazily, all over his face.
You see the futures, the probabilities, very quickly. Within a split Dizzy understands that he is very possibly in deep trouble. He cannot believe the strength of this old man. Something seemed to have given him the strength of ten. He can see that he is stronger, and that he will have to rely on this frenzied man’s cooperation to get out of there intact. And how likely is that when he’s locked the door and knows you know him.
He doesn’t remember exactly what he said. He remembers his tone was level, reasonable, and, shortly, Mr Antonapoulos’ grip slackened, and the man slumped into a chair. Dizzy moved as far away as he could, to the table by the door, pushing an open notebook away to make space.
“Please,” said Mr Antonapoulos, “don’t say. I lose – ” and he’d gestured around him.
Dizzy had looked at him, his hand on his brow.
“No,” he’d said, “I won’t.”
Mr Antonapoulos had got up, unlocked the door, stepped out, but Dizzy, for cool’s sake, perhaps, or reassurance’s, lingered for a moment. His eye was drawn to the notebook; to those neat, handwritten pages. It looked like poetry, Greek and English chunks running adjacent:
“The red mouths of black men are silkier than the mouths of white men,”, he reads, “Softer, more terrifying, more tender and deeper.
More like the mouths of calves from Keras, which die in innocence before they’re slaughtered.”*
His first thought: This is really quite good. His second – but I really better get out of here.
It was more a joke thing, that first time. A nerve-settler as he walked around the block after, playing though the sequence of events. The Retsina-play, like candy to a kid. Tch! He’d shaken his head. “Like your Mommy said, “Don’t talk to strangers!”
That was the end of their tête-à-têtes. We they’d passed each other after, they hadn’t acknowledged, although sometimes he’d felt Mr Antonapoulos’ gaze on his back, even thought he’d received curious looks from a couple of the other residents.
It’s not that he was so upset about it. He knew that this was the kind of move, the kind of nasty, drink-fuelled pass that many men made. It was just that most of the time other men don’t have to see it. He guessed, though, too that he’d probably done it before, and since, and maybe worse, and maybe younger.
As his own literary career had started, Mr Antonapoulos had become this bizarre, vaguely-guilty pain in his side. When he was on stage, or heard a poet reading, he’d felt like shouting: We’re frauds! The real King of Writing is out there, in McCullers Square … He’d thought the odd time that perhaps he should call on Mr Antonapoulos – get him an agent. What was assault, when you’re royal?
Dizzy places the invitation by his computer. He is not overly surprised to discover, when he does step out finally, that it was a fire that had done for Mr Antonapoulos. These cosmic linkages are bread and butter messages for us.
An hour later, heavy chicken in his belly, alarm clock near, Dizzy slips in and out. A bad dream to begin with – a group of them in an old tower, then the old poet pointing, “I see fire! I see fire! The spirits of the servants,” and all four in a bed, one by one rolling over …
Are you my three, Mr A? And what would that be, precisely? Was I too late, Mr A? What rule did you? The unknown king? Other loneliness too?
I hear, saw, sex is the strongest. It always outs. Did you out anew? To the wrong, tough crew? Was it dog eat dog, Mr A? Or a bird that flew? What rule for you?
Slipping in, slipping out.
Outside, Dizzy’s dimly aware of rain, and the sound of a doorbell and boxes and bottles and excited voices and, further out in the gardens, more shouts and commands. Sounds like something.
He feels a lightening inside, despite the weather. The gardens, the Square, sound fresh to him suddenly. Virgin territory waiting to be explored, charmed, made his.
He doesn’t know if he remembered to set his alarm for the ceremony. Means to lean over, but slipping, slipping out.
© Diran Adebayo 2006
* Poetry © Tomaz Salamun