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]