The Public Beach

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The American sat sweating on the Abu Dhabi public beach, wondering how long he could stay out for. To his left a group of Pakistani guys swam in long shorts or thin cotton salwars. They had a picnic, talked loudly and were having a good time. To his right was an Iraqi family. Two large women sat in long swimsuits beneath wide parasols. They chatted continually, occasionally shouting to the only man in their group who played with a gaggle of young children in the water. He would throw himself over, generating great splashes as he disappeared beneath the surface. The children would approach, giggling and nervous, and then shriek and flee as he burst from the water, arms wide and growling like a great sea bear.

The American swam out to sea and lay on his back, enjoying the cityscape horizon which stretched along the length of the beach. From the water he watched a woman arrive. She was young and seductive and swayed her hips to a place in the sand close to his berth where she laid out her towel. Seeing this, he casually made his way back to the shore, ducking under the water to enjoy its coolness and letting his imagination play with the fantasy of a possible union: women generally preferred the family beach, which charged a fee and was off limits to the single male. The Iraqi man continued to play with the children, without seeming to tire or lose excitement. He smiled at the American, as he passed, raising his eyes as two boys each grabbed hold of a leg in an attempt to topple him in the water. He had also noticed the woman, a feeling registered by a tug of lust as she removed her sarong to reveal a leopard print bikini underneath, followed by a quick check to make sure that his wife and sister had not noticed. On seeing that they were facing the opposite direction to the woman he dived back into the water to continue his game with the children, occasionally checking the swaying of a leg or the peak of a breast where she lay in the sand.

The American lay on his towel and watched the woman from behind his sunglasses, trying to decide if she was Latin or Lebanese and how he might initiate some sort of interaction with her. He sat up on his elbows as she waded into the sea imagining the feeling of her grinding against his crotch as the swaying of her hips in the sand made her round ass roll.

The Pakistani guys noticed her too. Three of them were playing with a tennis ball in the water and began to tease their friend who was nearest to her, angling the ball to try and bring him and the woman together. He remonstrated loudly at their game but eventually the ball landed with a smack in the water beside her head. To their surprise, she picked it up and threw it to the man nearest her, who caught it, embarrassed, and flung it hard at one of his friends. A flurry of excitement passed between the men – what could this mean? One asked. She could be a film star she’s so beautiful, another suggested. She’s probably just a prostitute a third replied – otherwise why would she be on the public beach? If she is a prostitute she’d be too expensive for us, somebody else replied and they all laughed nervously, all except the embarrassed man who had already left the water in disgust.

The Iraqi man’s passive vigil was interrupted when his wife and sister noticed the woman going into the water: it was disgusting, they told him, for a woman to wear a bikini at a public beach where there were so many young men around, she was probably Lebanese. He had agreed with them wholeheartedly, commenting that she was too young to be out without her father or brother and suggesting that he keep an eye on her to make sure that she was OK.
The American lay back and closed his eyes, then rolled over onto his front to hide his erection. When he opened them the woman was sitting on her towel again, her long black hair fanned out across her back.

The Pakistanis were all aflutter, continuing to joke like nervous teenagers about the fact that she had thrown the ball to their friend. They started throwing the ball at him, mimicking a woman’s throw, but he eventually lost patience, caught the ball and flung it out to sea. Although it was too far out to be retrieved, another was found, which one of them threw over the man’s head, so that it landed near the woman’s foot.

The woman looked across at them as they goaded him into retrieving the ball, noticing their excitement and knowing that it was probably her who had caused it but not inclined to move. This was, after all, a public beach. Why should she have to pay to use it just because she was a woman? If she went to the family beach she would be stared at by other women’s husbands, or chatted up by some fat businessman with his three kids, which was no different and just because they were Pakistani didn’t make any difference either. Her friends and family in Abu Dhabi seemed to somehow think this was worse, but really, on a public beach, it was no different to Colombia, where men would come right up to her on the beach with lewd suggestions. And what did they know anyway, they spent their time between the embassy, the mall and the beach club. Everything they knew was based on expat gossip behind high, expensive walls.

Eventually the embarrassed man gave in to his friends and walked over to pick up the ball, dropping his eyes low and not looking at her. He wagged an agitated finger in the face of the thrower and placed the ball in his pocket. Another ball appeared and was again lobbed over the embarrassed man’s head by one of his friends. It landed in the same spot, by the woman’s foot. Remonstrations began as the thrower implored the man to again collect the ball but to the amazement of the group the woman picked it up and threw it back to him. Their chatter rose a pitch as the thrower took the ball and waved it in the embarrassed man’s face: it was a sign, he reasoned. She had thrown it to him twice – not to anyone else. Why would she do that? The embarrassed man wanted no part in the game and ignored the thrower, moving away to sit at the edge of the group with his back to the woman. In his mind the whole scene was shameful. The prostitute was shameful, the ball game was shameful, the conversations were shameful.

The American took this as his opportunity to engage the woman in conversation. He wandered over to where she lay, the Pakistani’s watching him intently to see what he would do. He was surprised when she told him in an aggressive and frustrated tone that she was perfectly aware of the family beach and that it was offensive for him to even suggest that she move there. He tried to think of something funny to say in order to save the situation but nothing came, so he wandered back to his towel to think about whether or not she was worth pursuing further as the Pakistani’s again chatted over the scene – unsure how to read what had just happened.

A moment later the ball arrived again, this time landing right beside her and rolling along until it rested against her waist. She looked across to the group. They all looked back in anticipation, except the embarrassed man, who wanted no part of it. She held up her palm in what she considered a universal gesture to stop and then wagged her finger for emphasis, but the group all turned away, embarrassed by her directness, chattering and laughing amongst themselves. This was getting annoying, they were like a group of children. In a bid to shut them up she picked up the ball and put it into her bag before lying back down again.

There was a long pause as the thrower again led the group in discussion: what could this mean, the ball in her bag? Was it a sign of something? Did it mean she was available? How should they respond? Out of balls, and not knowing how else to continue the communication, the thrower tried to get the ball back from the embarrassed man’s pocket, but the man wouldn’t give it to him. Eventually the embarrassed man took up his clothes and walked off up the beach, remonstrating furiously with the ball thrower when he tried to follow him. He wanted no part of the situation, it would only bring trouble. Trouble, and shame. The thrower then noticed that the ball in the sea had drifted in. He waded out to get it, holding the bottom of his kameez around his waist, his salwar becoming wet up to his knees. Moments later the ball was lobbed up and landed on the towel between the woman’s legs. A whole world of commotion erupted from the group as she sat up and looked at the ball.

It was at this point that the Iraqi man decided to get involved, striding up the beach from his family, with the two women stood behind, urging him with flicks of their wrists. He started by instructing the woman to go to the other beach for families. When she refused he assumed that she was ignorant of her situation and tried to imply it by asking her if she had any idea what the Pakistani men might do to her. The woman, in a sarcastic tone, asked him to explain what they might do but the nuance was lost on him and he considered it ignorance that had triggered her question. She was young, and foreign – from who knows where – and it wasn’t the sort of thing you could explain to a woman if she didn’t understand already. He tutted and looked away at the men and then shook his head. “Hey,” he shouted, moving towards them. They all moved back, gathering in a group behind the thrower. “Hey.” He wagged his finger in the thrower’s face and shouted at him to go home, pointing back towards the city.
The woman followed him, shocked by the sudden outburst. She pulled his shoulder, raising her finger in his face in the same gesture that he had used, and told him that he couldn’t make them leave, it wasn’t up to him. The thrower’s eyes jumped between the Iraqi’s outstretched finger and the woman’s bikini.

To the Iraqi she was no longer a thing of lust. She was a crazy woman. Crazy and stupid. She knew nothing. He turned back to the group and repeated himself. Some of them had already bundled their things into their bags but the thrower stood strong looking back silently and not moving.

The woman again told the Iraqi man to leave them alone. He turned but before he could speak another voice shouted from the edge of the beach. Two police officers in khaki uniforms strolled casually across the sand. The woman shook her head and walked over to her towel, wrapping a sarong around herself and taking out her phone. One of the policemen pointed at the American as he neared the group and ushered him across with the wave of an open palm. They were in their twenties, with neat uniforms, close shaves and a strong kick of cologne. The American walked over thinking this could be another opportunity to show the woman he wasn’t the prick she had clearly thought he was. The officers smiled at him and asked if he spoke Arabic. As he didn’t they instructed the assembled group that the conversation would be in English and asked what the problem was.

The Iraqi immediately jumped in, explaining that the Pakistanis had been making problems for the woman. The officer raised his eyebrows and nodded then told the woman that she should go to the family beach. He drew an imaginary line in the air between her and the entrance further up the seafront. This beach, he explained, was no good for women. When she refused, and tried to explain that there had been no problems, with anybody, and that the Iraqi man was mistaken, the officer was momentarily confused. He addressed his companion briefly in Arabic before repeating himself, more slowly, and again drawing the imaginary line from where they stood to the family breach, adding that this beach was no good for bikinis, something he hoped would make the situation clear. She huffed as if to protest but changed her mind and turned away.

The American and the Iraqi were dismissed with passive ease before the officer turned to the Pakistanis and asked to see their ID cards. They rummaged in their things to present them in line, familiar with the routine. The woman seeing this returned, worried that things had got so out of hand and gone so wrong so easily. She again tried to explain to the officer that there had been no problems.

The officer nodded and sighed in frustration, letting out a huff of air and not listening. He agreed, that there was no problem and that she should go to the family beach, no problem. He pointed again and then looked away, taking the card of the man nearest to him and pretending to pay it attention.

The woman collected her things. Before she left she took the tennis ball out of her bag, walked over to the thrower, who was being addressed by the policeman in a broken mix of Arabic and English, and gave him the ball. She thanked him and apologised, but he barely noticed. He was waiting on the police officer’s every word, straining to understand and to agree, where he should, or disagree, where he shouldn’t. The Policeman considered, as he asked the men why they had attacked the woman, if he should bring them to the station and file a report. He had nothing else to do, but it was a lot of paperwork and probably not worth the trouble. And the woman really had been very stupid, wearing a bikini on the public beach, what could she expect?

The American followed the woman away from the beach, still hoping to strike up something like a conversation, maybe find out where she was from, where she worked. Can you believe that? He asked her – it was fucked up; lucky the police arrived in time. She didn’t look at him. She wanted to scream but the police were too close and she didn’t want to end up in trouble, Columbian was only one rung up the ladder from Pakistani and well below American. She hailed a cab and jumped in, leaving him stood on the pavement in his board shorts.




Cuckoo

Time came up. Out of the ground like lava. Nothing I saw changed any of my opinions about things and the only opinion I had was that nothing actually mattered. Although, I didn’t live that way and you might not have known it to look at me. Things bothered me, like people being rude or my milk not being hot enough in my coffee or the way I looked in the mirror. And then there was the clock. An old cuckoo clock on the wall that had belonged to my grandmother and which I sat across from pondering this impossible dullness. The clock was made of walnut and in perfect working order. It was shaped like a hut with a slanting roof and a carved bird on the crest. The body and roof were covered in ivy, carved out of the walnut. It made it seem forgotten, away somewhere in a wood, perhaps in a Grimm fairy tale. The clock face, not besmirched by the ivy, was smooth and so perfectly round it was like a whirlpool. It had carved bone hands that told the time, and there was a cuckoo of course. It was set on a long white wall that ran the length of my living room, right in the middle on its own with nothing to drown it anywhere else on the wall. At one end of the room was a long window looking out onto the park, which at that time of year was bleak and full of frost and dead looking trees; but in the spring it was filled with blossom and in the summer it was filled with life. Any of these ways, it didn’t matter. They were all the same really. Everything was all the same, whether you were in Timbuktu or Wall Mart or the corner of a cupboard at the back of your room or the International Space Station or anywhere, it didn’t matter.

And my grandmother, she never really liked the clock. She used to go on about how much she hated it and how annoying and distracting it was every time it would strike the hour and the little bird with its beak in permanent chorus would cuckoo: out and in; out and in, like a weary soldier on parade or a low paid shift worker doing the rounds. My grandmother only kept it because her mother had given it to her and so somehow she felt obliged, like it was a reminder of the woman she never quite liked in the way she wanted to but loved all the same. And I didn’t like it either. It was an ugly thing really. Oh, it was fine if you were into Cuckoo clocks and knew what you were looking for. But that wasn’t me, or my grandmother or my mother, who refused to home the thing when my grandmother died. And so I took it on as my burden, although I did love my grandmother, in many ways I loved her more than my mother because of her sense of responsibility and of right and wrong, which were things that I could never fully understand. And the clock seemed so hopeless, so ugly and unnecessary. It had none of the finesse that I felt obliged to look for in life; none of the subtle qualities of knowing observation that were supposed to give life meaning. It just cuckooed the hour like a lame excuse for a grandfather clock or church bells or the news on the radio and it was a poor imitation of nature. Poor and unnecessary. Much like my grandmother had been. Much like everything was. And the problem with all this, in a way, was how easy it was to cope with the idea – that nothing actually mattered and that filling my apartment with a noise I hated and dedicating the largest wall I had to its exhibit was no different to doing anything else.

Except of course it was because every so often I’d come home from work and walk in the door and the clock would cuckoo and for the briefest of moments, less than a second, I’d be an eight year old girl at my grandmother’s house on Christmas eve or some other joyous childhood day and the linking of synapses would be like time travel, like forgetting all of the dullness and being young and innocent and filled with wonder. For less than a second, although I wished it would last longer. I wished, as I sat staring at it and waiting for it to crow, that it could just take me there to where it once was, and to where it still appeared to be.




My Personal Cult – The Y-Tuesday Poetry Club

Book Club member Rhuar Dean invites us inside his personal cult, the Y-Tuesday Poetry Club. In keeping with Mr Penumbra’s secret societyLitro Book Club members are telling us about their personal cults. To get your account of a strange society published on Litro Online, email us at [email protected].

I arrive at the Three Kings pub in Clerkenwell tenderised by the wind of a London winter. I tie up my bike on a lamppost and push through the glowing door to the warmth and busy chatter inside. I take my gloves off as I work my way to the bar and order a pint of Timmy T’s – my favourite. I take a first gulp and look round at the pub. Young, stylish people mingle confidently with bursts of laughter erupting here and there. But, of course, poets don’t belong down here. I watch somebody I know enter the pub and shuffle through the crowd to the door at the back, which is flanked on one side by a chalkboard pronouncing: Poetry Upstairs.

London is littered with poetry nights. They spring up in the strangest of places: woods, markets, cafes and, my favourites, those semi-secretive upstairs rooms. Here the poets gather, often awkwardly, as names are taken down for the open-mic. At most events most people read.

Poetry itself is a strange thing – equally lauded and reviled. Perhaps, in some ways, it is the hardest art form to like and the one most susceptible to pretence.

I follow up the backstairs to a small candlelit room with sofas, a duke box and cupcakes. I am greeted by the delicately wonderful compares, Burgess the Rhymer and Ceri May, both also fine poets. They know I’m reading. Somebody strikes up a number on the duke box. I salute the regulars and find myself engaged in a conversation about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It’s not hard, it just happens. I eat my first cupcake and ask, who’s the ghost today? Richard Feynman I’m told. I’m ignorant. He’s a physicist, not a poet. But, as I later hear, he was good with words as well as quantum electrodynamics.

The ghost is a Y-Tuesday tradition, sometimes put together by the hosts, sometimes by a wayward poet eager to share the teachings of the obscure. There have been some obvious ghosts: Dylan Thomas; Robert Frost; Louis MacNeice; Sylvia Plath … and some less obvious ones: The Earl of Rochester; Sei Shōnagon; Diane di Prima and Saint Hildegard von Bingen. Quotes from the ghost are selected from an envelope by punters in between acts and read to the room.

I’ve been to plenty of nights in London dominated by plenty of different types of wordsmith: the slam, the a capella rap, the rhyming comedians, the awkward tell-your-soul traditionalists. I’ve seen people shout at the audience for talking, cry at the mic, mumble into their jumpers and sing songs dedicated to Princes Diana and the downfall of the European Union. Y-Tuesday feels like a mix of the best bits, without too much hype. It’s part poetry reading, part friendly get together, part educational gathering, part self-help group, part drunken silliness.There are inner demons in abundance alongside inner comedians and the occasional folky number. The intimacy is something fundamentally positive, even when the room is so full that people are craning their necks around the door.

The poetry begins and as the evening progresses I hear tales of murder, incest, snooker, thermodynamics, sea life, trains, ADHD, Newport Pagnell, sci fi and Jazz. Underpinning it all is a dose of unfiltered humanity, sometimes getting as close to the bone as words can get. By the time the night finishes and I am merry on ale, I find myself glowing with a certain, specific happiness. One that wonders at the unique. One that I find hard to muster in other places. It’s a happiness that questions what the hell it is others get from this because it feels so very personal that it is hard to sense it through someone else’s synapses.

The cycle home is cold and the next day a little groggy, but some order in the universe is realigned for this protagonist. I suppose that is why I would call it My Personal Cult.

Y-Tuesday London is currently on hiatus pending a decision as to how to take it forward. It’s organisers hope to return with something special soon. Y-Tuesday’s sister ship Y-Aarhus continues to run in Aarhus, Denmark.
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Dinner for Two

A fall from grace in three courses.

Graham took his wallet from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. A bulge of twenty pound notes stuck out of the top. He placed it on the table in front of him, letting his hand rest on it for a moment before slowly withdrawing. Andy looked on, cocking his head to one side and creasing his forehead.

“I only wanted some change mate, what’s all this about?” He felt like a child again, called on by the teacher to answer a question he hadn’t even heard.

[private]The waitress came over. “Excuse me sir, I’ve asked you before not to bother our customers. Can you move on please.”

Graham held up his hand to stop her, offering the chair opposite with an open palm. Andy’s gut told him to say no but he pulled away the chair and sat down. The waitress paused before nodding her acceptance.

“I’ll get another set of cutlery and glasses,” she said as she returned into the restaurant. Graham picked up the menu and calmly browsed the options, feeling a stirring hunger. He took a deep, absent sip of his beer and decided to have steak, letting the memory of Malbec and red meat wash through his mouth. He took another long sip of his beer and the waitress returned, setting the table for Andy. “Here is your menu. I presume you are paying?” She turned to Graham. He nodded but didn’t look up from the menu. “And would you like a drink?” she asked Andy. A fizz of excitement pushed at the back of his eyes.

“I’ll have a beer, same as him. Please.”

“I’ll have another as well.” Graham looked up with a serious frown. “And a bottle of the 2008 Catena Alta.”

“Certainly.” The waitress took the wine list and left.

“So what’s your name?” Andy asked, but Graham had returned to the menu, weighing up whether to go for the shrimp causita or scallop tiradito for his starter, and if he was hungry enough to eat both. The waitress returned with the beers and the wine, which she opened and set on the table. Graham drained the bottle he had been drinking and handed it to the waitress.

“Are you ready to order sir?”

“Yes, I’ll have the scallops followed by Churrasco de Lomo, rare.”

“And you sir?” She turned to Andy who began to stutter and fiddle with the edges of his menu. “Um, I’ll, I’ll have what he’s having.” He set the menu on the table like a hot coal.

“And how would you like your steak?”

Steak, Andy thought to himself. Thank God. It was years since he’d had steak. “Well done please.” He nodded to the waitress, reaching forwards and handing the menu back to her.

Graham took up his fresh beer and sat back, looking across at his companion. Andy did the same holding it up between them. “Cheers,” he said and Graham smiled, holding up his beer in return and taking a sip.

“I haven’t had a steak in years,” Andy said nervously. “This place is pretty flash hey?” He looked around him at the other tables. It wasn’t busy, but those eating were well dressed city types, much like Graham. “You eat here a lot, you do?” Graham nodded his head. “I bet it’s expensive.” Graham shrugged his shoulders. Andy took a deep swig of his beer. It was cold and delicious. He wondered how he’d made it this far in the day without a drink. “So what do you do?” he asked. Graham didn’t reply.

The silence continued for a minute or two and Andy felt a desperate urge to get up and run away. He fiddled with one of the buttons on his khaki shirt and, becoming conscious of his bare chest, he put down his beer and did up the buttons to just below his collar. As he did this he nudged the packet of tobacco in his top pocket and an urge to smoke rushed into him like an orgasm. “U-uh, c-can I smoke?” he asked.

Graham nodded, taking out a packet of Marlboro Reds and tapping one out from the bottom and picking it out with his lips in a practiced motion. He offered them across the table using the same gesture. Andy took one. Even though he was desperate to smoke one of his own, he felt obliged. He turned down Graham’s lighter when it was offered. It felt like a small victory.

“I’ve not always been like this y’know.” Andy drew hard on his cigarette, his long fingers fidgeting with it as he held the drag in his lungs. Graham had sat back with his beer in one hand and cigarette in the other.

“No. I had a job. A family. A life even. I used to be a carpenter. Yes. I-I made bespoke kitchen units and things like that. Sometimes I even made banisters or ornamental doors. Good with my hands I was, see?” Andy held up an open palm to show Graham the calluses that still formed hard at the base of his fingers. Graham listened casually, leaning forwards to put out his half-smoked cigarette and taking another sip of his beer.

“Yes,” Andy continued. “I-I used to do all sorts of things. I cycled and I used to go on holiday sometimes, to Spain with the family. Y-y’know – package type things. Cheap. But-um-phew, it was hot.” He wiped his hand across his brow as though taking the sweat, drew a deep breath of clean air and followed it quickly with a long tug of his cigarette. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It was hot.” He forced the cigarette smoke from his nose. “So hot,” he nodded, looking away.

He drew himself back and looked up at Graham who met his eyes with too much ease. “I mean we used to go to the beach and you couldn’t even walk on the sand.” Andy launched back into his story to avoid the dreaded silence. “I don’t mean that it was a little bit hot or uncomfortable. I mean the sand would actually burn you if you stood on it without moving. Actually burn,” he accentuated his point by touching the tip of his cigarette to the sky. For a moment he felt like a preacher and a rush of emotions clouded his eyes. Graham looked on but Andy quickly grounded himself.

“Yes but I suppose you’re a, you’re a, a, a City type. I mean a banker or a lawyer or something. I mean you, you look very smart that’s all.” Graham didn’t respond. “Hmm,” Andy craned his neck around behind him, pulling himself up in his seat and then he very quickly sat back down, feeling inappropriate. The waitress arrived with the starters.

Andy eyed the scallops suspiciously as Graham asked the waitress for another round of beers. “Would you like me to pour the wine sir?” she asked.

“No, not with these,” he replied dismissively.

The scent of lemon zest rose up from the small rectangular plates set in front of them. Three neatly seared scallops aligned themselves in the middle with a small green cilantro leaf and a red dot of chilli paste, like a clown’s nose, at its centre. The smell of the scallops weighed in below the lemon and Andy heard the sounds of his children playing beside the sea. The sun beat down on his face and his wife smiled across at him. He thought he might cry but the waitress returned and set down a fresh beer. Graham looked up at him for a moment before placing the first of his scallops in his mouth and creasing his face in appreciation.

Andy took up his fork and set it carefully into the centre of his first scallop, piercing the chilli nose and lifting it from the plate. His hand vibrated gently as he closed his mouth around it and paused for a moment with his fork still in place, before sliding it out and committing to the gesture. He feared his own memories and the longing that came with them.

“We used to eat a lot of seafood,” he continued as he chewed down on a mouthful of melancholy. “Yes, well, when I say we I mean I, really. My wife, she was a bit fussy about food and didn’t really like fish. But, um, she liked scallops though. She couldn’t stand things like prawns, unless they were already peeled and didn’t have their heads on. She hated having anything on her plate with eyes, anything that looked like it might once have been alive.” Graham was already chewing on his last scallop, washing it down with beer. Andy lifted his second more confidently.

“And the kids only ever wanted burgers and chips or pizza. But that was OK because they’d be outside a lot, y’know. Getting lots of exercise,” he laughed gently to himself. “They didn’t stop from morning to night – they’d be swimming or running up and down the beach or building sandcastles. It was great. You could just let them get on with it and relax.” He skewered his third scallop, wiping it around his plate to collect some of the juice and chewing on it hungrily. The saltiness aroused his lust for beer. The waitress came over to take their plates within seconds of him setting his fork back down.

“Great service here,” Andy commented once she had left the table, taking another sip of beer and sitting back. The flavours of the scallops had given him a voracious hunger. He buttered some bread and washed it down with more beer.  “Do you know that in the Costa Del Sol they still have bull fighting? Can you believe it, in this day and age, they still allow it? It’s disgusting.” He sat back and folded his arms, taking stock of Graham who nodded from his shoulders and picked up the bottle of wine to inspect the label. “Yes. I went, y’know. My wife wouldn’t go but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Well, let me tell you,” Andy felt himself getting worked up. “It was disgusting.” Graham chuckled lightly but did not look up from the wine and Andy settled back down.

“Did you know that Spain used to be run by the Arabs? Hey? Did you know that? I mean – how many of the ignorant fuckers in this city do you reckon would even have a clue about that?” Graham poured himself a glass of wine and then offered the same to Andy, who accepted. He watched as Graham swirled it in the glass and then stuck his nose in, taking a loud and confident sniff before delicately sipping and drawing his breath in through his teeth. Graham’s expression suggested that he was pleased and he immediately took a much larger mouthful, leaning forwards and topping up his glass with more. Andy looked across at his wine but selected his beer.

“Have you ever been to South America?” Andy asked. Graham nodded and smiled but didn’t say anything. “I’ve always wanted to travel more. I always used to say to my kids that one day we’d all go travelling together, y’know, pack up and head off for a couple of years. South America, Australia, Africa – wherever we fancied. Just go on a big long adventure and forget about all the things like work and responsibility.” Andy took another long drink of his beer, finishing the bottle and taking up his wine. “I suppose,” he spoke into the oversized glass, taking a swig of the Malbec. “I suppose, that’s where it all started to go wrong really. When things started to fall apart. Not in a big way, not quite then. But in a smaller way. The first cracks started to form. You see, it’s when you start looking too far ahead and aiming too high, y’know? That’s when things really can start to go wrong. When you get ideas above your station and think that maybe you can achieve things but you can’t.” He finished his glass of wine and Graham leant forwards and replenished it. “Thank you,” Andy looked up at him as he topped up his own glass. “It’s nice wine,” Graham nodded as he sat back and took another sip.

“My motto now is different, you see? Now I tell people that they’ve got to act within their means and within their ability. It’s no good blindly believing that you can do something when you can’t. It’s no good dragging everybody else down with you when things start to go wrong and instead of stopping and saying: ‘Hold on, this is not working. Best take stock and see if we can’t work it out as it is.’ Instead of doing that, you go on hoping and borrowing and lying and not telling the people closest to you, even your own wife, just how bad things have got, see? It’s an easy spiral to get into if you’re not careful. And oh yes, there’s plenty of people out there who’ll claim that they can help you. Claim that they can help you to maintain your aspirations and keep you shooting for those bloody stars. But when you’re at their door, you’ve had it.” He looked up at Graham who was sat listening intently.

“I don’t mean the banks, you understand? I don’t mean them – they’d never claim to be able to help anybody anyway. There’s other people and other things you can turn to that’ll claim to help you on your way but they don’t. They just trap you,” he whipped the phrase. “And once they’ve got you, you’ll be damned if there’s anybody that can make them let go,” Andy stared into his wine with eyes of regret, the smell of it wafted up all around him.

“That’s when things start to go wrong,” he muttered. “At the very beginning. That’s when it went wrong. For me.” He sat back in his chair and allowed the emotion to cloud his senses. He was shaken from his stupor by the clink of his plate as it was set in front of him with the smell of burnt flesh. His stomach cramped at the sight of its size and his appetite dissipated. All he could think about was drinking more of the wine.

Graham dived into his food as soon as it was on the table, sawing off a large corner of bloody steak and mopping up a load of creamy gratin. He closed his eyes as he chewed, revelling in the tingling sensation across his tongue as the flavours mingled in his mouth. He washed it off with the strong, heady Malbec, returning to his plate to repeat the process.

Andy took up his cutlery. The steak was so big that he didn’t know where to begin. There was no way he could fit so much food into his stomach. He cut off a slither of the meat and placed it in his mouth. It was sweet and tender. The juices tickled his tongue and he found that it was no effort to chew. He took another slice, and then a third, revelling in the decadence of the situation. He took a gulp of his wine.  “I’ve never had steak as good as this,” he said through a mouthful. “Never have, and I don’t suppose I’m ever likely to again. There’s no way I’ll get through this whole thing in one go. It’ll keep me going for a couple of days I reckon,” he chucked to himself. Graham had already made good progress through his meat. His plate was a wash of cream, blood and chimichurri sauce.

“There used to be a burger place near us. An American thing, a chain y’know, but a nice place. It felt like you were in some diner over in the States. We used to take the kids there sometimes, for birthdays and on special occasions. The burgers were great but they did steak as well. Sometimes I had a steak there – as a treat. Well, I thought they were pretty bloody good but this,” he pointed at the slab of meat in front of him with his fork. “This is in a different league altogether.” He took up another cut of the meat and stared at it on his fork.

“We went there when I was expanding my business. I won a series of contracts to do the carpentry of some new local developments – houses. Nice houses though, they wanted all sorts: balustrades, handrails, even a couple of bespoke ornamental doors. I couldn’t believe it – I mean I’d done plenty of one-off projects here and there and built up a good little business, but this was so much more. I had to bring people in, skilled people, to work on it. I had to get credit from the bank and from the suppliers in order to cope with the size of the order. But the problem was, it wasn’t enough.” He held the meat in front of him, rotating it on the fork.

“I started to see the potential for big money, I mean way more money than I was making at the time. So I found the extra finance that I needed locally. Y’know, through the informal market. Through someone who knew someone who knew someone else. That way I could get in the materials and pay the people to start working on them. For the first couple of months it was great, I really felt like I was getting somewhere. Suddenly I had a whole workshop of people to organise and everyone was following my orders, implementing my plan. We went out to celebrate, like I said, and I had one of those big t-bone steaks with a side of fries and my wife and I even had a glass of champagne. That was the one and only time I’d ever ordered champagne in a restaurant.” Graham had worked further through his steak but Andy had slowed down with all the talking, occasionally slithering off small pieces of meat, but spending most of the time gazing down at the food without really seeing it.

“You know what the worst thing about it was?” He shook his head at his meal, tapping the steak with his fork. “The worst thing about it was that she warned me. She was cautious, said I shouldn’t be borrowing so much money. Said I should take some financial advice and be careful with the number of people I was taking on. But I was blinded by the opportunity and unable to see the risks. It unravelled pretty damn quick,” he nodded agreement to himself. “So damn quick.”

“The company running the development went bust. Someone came in but they didn’t want to pay the agreed prices for the work, said they had no obligation to take on the contracts. They kept going on about having bought the assets but not the liabilities, that if we weren’t prepared to accept new terms then we would have to deal with the administrators. But the figures didn’t add up and I knew they didn’t. They made all sorts of changes to costing, spec and timing. Everything just became too much and I couldn’t keep track.”

“Then, one day, I gave up. I didn’t go to work that day or the day after, or the day after that. She tried shouting and pleading and talking me up but I was done. I couldn’t face it anymore. I couldn’t even go to the supermarket without feeling panic. I felt like a cripple, like I was paralysed. Then the debt and the angry contractors and the bank – the whole lot of them all at once, baying for me. But it was the money lenders who were the worst. The private lot. The people who knew someone who knew me. They got to her as well, making all kinds of threats.” Andy slumped forwards, staring into his wine.

“I couldn’t blame her for leaving, I couldn’t,” he mumbled. “She was protecting the kids, I knew that.  I had become poison. I could see it, it was like watching my own life from the outside and being unable to change it. On the day that she left I didn’t even get out of bed.”

He looked up at Graham with watery eyes. “But that’s not the worst of it.” Andy emptied his glass and held it in front of him with both hands. Graham looked back, chewing on steak and nodded, reaching over to pour out the last of the wine.

“I didn’t try to follow them or contact them. I disappeared for a while, into myself,” Andy spoke, holing the wine in his lap. He no longer ate his steak.

“I came through it, y’know, in the end. I went bankrupt and I lost my business and I got into a bit of trouble with people. But in the end I came through it. I stopped doing the carpentry and took an office job. It was easy work. There was no pressure. I got help too, from the state, with my mental health. I mean, I was depressed. When they first helped me I was suicidal but I managed to get over that, to get stronger. Time went by, it’s amazing how it does, and then two years had passed. Two years and I hadn’t tried to contact them. I’d heard nothing, no word from my wife, no requests for money, nothing.” He leant forwards as if to make another attempt on the steak but the size of it pushed him back down into his seat and he took comfort in the wine. Graham had finished his meat and was working his way through the last of the gratin.

“And then, one day, I woke up and I felt ready. I was back on my feet again. I’d never moved out y’know, I’d managed to keep up with the rent, above all else. I’d not changed a thing. The whole house was the same way it’d been since the day they left. I knew they’d moved out of London, because an old friend of mine had told me, and it wasn’t hard to locate them. So I bought some nice presents for Mark and Amy and an even nicer gift for my wife. I scrubbed myself down and dressed up so that I looked really smart. I felt like I was going on my first date all over again. Like I was off to ask her father for her hand in marriage, real butterflies.”

“Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I’d done it again, got ideas above my station, you see? Tried to achieve something that was beyond me. Your horizons get smaller after something like that happens. The world shrinks you. You become weaker, more insignificant than you were before. You end up diminished.” He finished his wine and the waitress arrived.

“Everything OK sir?” she asked Andy.

“Yes, sorry, I couldn’t eat it all, it was too big. Is it OK if I get it to take away, in a doggy bag?”

“I’m sure we can do that for you,” she smiled. He felt her compassion wash over him.

“Thank you,” he smiled.

“Would you like dessert sir?” the waitress had turned to Graham.

He shook his head. “No, but I’ll have a whisky.” He drew in his breath as he pondered his options. “A Laphroaig, double. No ice. No water. Thank you.”

“Can I have one?” Andy asked.

Graham nodded to the waitress and she left with the plates. He sat back, swirling the last of his wine in his glass and bringing it to his nose to take another long, hard sniff. Andy’s hand fidgeted nervously, keen to search out another drink.

“Of course, there was another man,” he blurted out and then drew in his breath and silenced himself. Even now, so long after, he found it hard to admit.

“He was there when I went round. I didn’t go in. I could see them from the street. It was a nice house. Nicer than our house. Tidier. She always complained that I wasn’t tidy enough.” Andy’s hands worked their way up around the back of his neck, nervously massaging. “She always said that,” he nodded to himself. “Yes, she did. She always said it. Not tidy enough. Always,” he puffed his cheek and blew the air out of his lungs, closing his eyes tight.

“That’s when I flipped. It’s a man thing, you can’t take it. Seeing someone else with your woman, with your children. I waited. I waited all through the night. I watched the lights going off. I watched the kids going to bed. I watched the two of them sitting on the sofa in front of the TV like husband and wife. And I let myself think all sorts of things. I let myself imagine them together, fucking. I imagined her moaning for him. And d’you know the worst thing, it turned me on. I got,” he searched for the right words, looking down at his crotch. “I got hard when I thought about it,” he whispered loudly across the table.

The waitress arrived. “Everything alright gentlemen?” she asked as she set the whiskies down on the table. Graham nodded.

“Fine, thank you,” Andy sat back and looked away until she had left. Graham picked up his whisky and took a deep swig, sucking on his lips afterwards and taking out his cigarettes. Andy thought about his tobacco but he was too nervous to try and roll a cigarette, too tense. Graham didn’t offer and he didn’t know how to ask, so he sipped the whisky. The flavour was deep, musky, like smoke.

“They went to bed and the house went dark but I stayed there all night, imagining,” he couldn’t stop now. He couldn’t shut himself up. “I cried and I got angry and I cried again and I slept a bit. It was cold when I woke up. Early in the morning. The dawn was just beginning to show. But the lights in the house were already on. I don’t know what he did, plumber or builder or something like that but he was up early. I watched him through the window as he leant against the kitchen counter and drank his tea. He was a big guy, well built, strong. He left and drove off whilst the rest of the street was still asleep.”

“I should’ve driven off then. That was the end, it was over. I should’ve just left but I didn’t. I told myself that I wanted to see my children, that’s what I said. But I knew it wasn’t true, even then, as I approached the door. I knew what I was doing, where I was going, who it was that I wanted to see. The door was just on the Yale lock and those things are so easy to open. I used to make doors y’know, as a carpenter, so I know how they work,” Andy’s voice rose a notch as though it might lift above the inevitability that he felt.

“Inside it smelt like home. It smelt of all the things I knew. I thought she’d be pleased to see me, by the time I’d made it up the stairs and to the doorway to her room. In that time, I’d convinced myself that she’d come back to me. Only, I suppose I didn’t look my best, after a night of crying in the car. And when I called her name and she opened her eyes to look up at me I could see that she was afraid of me, her own husband. And she pulled up the duvet to cover herself. She always slept naked, I knew that. It hurt, it cut me right here,” he tapped his chest with his fingers. He looked down at his lap and crunched his face, closing his eyes tight to try and fight back the tears that had begun. He breathed heavily through his nose and rubbed his forehead with his free hand. Graham looked around nervously, for the first time conscious of the tables around them.

Andy drew in a long breath, clenching his fist in front of his mouth. “She didn’t fight much. She didn’t shout or scream. And you know why, of course? I knew why,” he nodded. “Even then, as I was holding her beneath me. A mother always protects her children. What would they think if they’d been woken up? If they’d come in and seen me doing that to her? She cried, the whole time. I could feel her shaking, sobbing. I could taste her tears in my mouth. She never. She never said a thing. I left and she never said a thing.”

Graham sat up awkwardly. He took another swig and finished his drink. Andy sat with an elbow on his knee and his head in his hand, facing the ground. In his other hand he held his whisky.

“I’m just heading to the toilet,” Graham’s words were lost in his throat as he stood up and left the table. He didn’t come back. A short while later the waitress arrived with a paper bag and Andy’s steak wrapped up in foil.

“Your friend has paid and left,” she said. “Are you OK?”

Andy didn’t move. She placed her hand on his shoulder but he shrugged it off like a petulant child. “I’ll just leave this here for now and come back again in a bit to make sure you’re alright.” He opened his eyes and watched as she returned to the restaurant.[/private]