by John Saul
As Enrique reminded me once the actors had left the stage, life can indeed imitate art. A Hospital in the Wilds, which the local dramatic society performed, focused on a nurse called Josephine and a patient, Ben. The wilds referred not to a remote location—after all, how could such an institution be remote—but to the state of mind of young Ben. He soon fell for Josephine—sizzling with love Ben called it when, spotlit, he put his feelings into words. How I long for her shifts to begin, he told us. For her to check my chart. For her to appear, standing easily and firmly, at the foot of my bed. The actor playing Josephine performed this stance as she remained to one side, in the half-dark, mimicking his words. I sensed our limbs adjusting to the sight; our chairs creaked. I glimpsed Enrique watching intently as Ben gazed theatrically above our heads, into that mysterious space where the feelings of love and desire reside. Out of the half-dark Josephine stepped up beside him. Buzzing with the electricity of love, he queried her over his pulse rate: could it be accurate with her fingers on his wrist? Throughout the second act he made similar feints at intimacy—calling to her pretending to have fallen out of bed in the night, or telling her of her cameo appearances in his dreams—all of which she very professionally quelled and repelled. Just before the play ends and he walks off, musing, after being discharged, she tells him her duty of care stops at the hospital gates. Too needy, he was not the sort of man she would ever take up with.
Over supper—where else but at Salva’s, our favoured haunt—Enrique told me of the bizarre echo to the play: years ago he had met someone also called Josephine—or rather, close enough, Josefina—not a nurse but someone with her same hard temperament. What was more, this Josefina also dismissed him for being in her eyes too needy. El desperado, she had called him as saucepans flew: desperate for affection. But—Enrique said to me—she spoke without conviction. Even the word gives the game away, he declared with that so-innocent look (how familiar that raising of his eyebrows, I see now as I recollect this, see his moony round face)—I ask you, desperado. Does it not sound almost affectionate, almost tender?
Desperado, needy: both words entered my notes. Needy wasn’t Rick either (mostly I call Enrique Rick). He ignored the note-taking and drank his cloudy cherry drink. Having eaten all the goat’s cheese he took the last of the ciabatta and was busily finishing off the sundried tomatoes. We both like sundried tomatoes.
Notes? I wrote many things. At the time—time of snowdrops and longer days, blue skies occasionally above Staveley Gardens—I wrote every day, upstairs at the little table with the glass top. I was gathering information to assemble the perfect profile, the perfect strategy for Rick to find the love of his life.
At first I showed Celia my notes. She barely knows him.
I see, she said. Celia manages to tell me her feelings without many words. Words get in the way, is her attitude.
I had him down first as forty-something, single. Uxbridge, maisonette. Business tendencies and overweight. Motorbike notoriety. Hot-tub business, failed. Indian moccasin business, failed. Money from somewhere.
Needy, him? Look, he said, I’m a giver, not a taker. I donate freely (not exactly freely, but he studies charities as keenly as traders do the stock market). I offer to loan you my bike, he continued—in an intonation hinting he was starting a list. I looked the length of Salva’s for the waiter and the bill: a new face to us—Heinz, said the card pinned to his shirt, where was he—there, disappearing into the kitchen, dishes staggered up his arm. And where was Paolo, why wasn’t Paolo on tonight? Meanwhile Enrique, expansive as ever, had moved on to talk about his friends, then his mother in Valencia. You see when Josefina, he began—the rest of the thought was lost, coinciding with an almighty crash from the kitchen. Me Enrique, needy? he said with the spread arms of a goalkeeper inviting a penalty. Who pitched in to help people move? Who advised them on tax matters, gratis? He fixed his own motorbike. Did his own plumbing. I sneaked down a last note behind my wine glass: R likes a list.
I try to get Celia to be verbal. See what, what do you see? She replied: what’s it all about? I laid out to her the bare bones of what I was up to, at the little table with the glass top. That, she commented, is friendship gone wild.
To come up with the perfect profile, so Enrique might seem a match for whoever he sought, I soon had a dossier on him (or might have, for what exactly was a dossier?): age forty-plus, in fact forty-nine, Rick forty-nine! The chest of a singer, he’s been told—says he’s been told. Not short of ideas. Big leather gloves. Him? said Celia at my shoulder, ideas? She touched the screen. Greying, she added, he has a few grey hairs in his ponytail.
Relying on memory and the odd note I recorded entire conversations. The Iberian discussion was one, so-called as it kept returning, as it had tonight. I fancied the dating description of him beginning Iberian seeks.
—You do look Iberian, Rick.
Old coffee grains were being banged from their holders. He poured us both water.
—You mean dark hair and so on. Do I?
He got out from the soft Salva bench to seek a quiet place with a mirror. I watched him go, noting: Rick, quick on the uptake, slow to move. Prefers yoga to working out; does neither.
He came back, annoyed.
—I don’t. Hair and height don’t mean Iberian, it’s not nearly enough.
—So there is an Iberian look?
—Ridiculous. Have you ordered? I know, I know, you’re pulling my leg. Well don’t. Are you having the antipasto? What is there to grin about?
—Remember, when we went out with that crowd, I forget her name … she had a reputation for trying something on everybody’s plates, getting on everybody’s nerves.
—Patricia! Always wanting something off everybody’s. So we decided—you decided … decided we’d let her order first … when she said steak frites I said steak frites.
—Danny said steak frites, then I said steak frites.
—Spoiled it for her. It was mean though. Glad it wasn’t my idea.
—No. Even if you are needy, you aren’t mean.
But the coincidence, isn’t it extraordinary? said Enrique unfolding his serviette. I agreed. Josephine in Hospital and before that the real-life Josefina—her I could piece together from the snippets he told me.
—Fina Josefina. Now I just think of her as the Dumper.
—Well it’s all ominous, isn’t it?
We let the word sink in. If a word could penetrate our minds and bodies, the table, the plush red upholstery, this word would.
It’s extraordinary, Enrique repeated as he looked closely at one of the flat coffee spoons Salva’s goes in for: a line in the play was almost exactly the words she—the Dumper—had used: I want a big man. A big man. What the hell is a big man?
Still peering at his spoon, Enrique now wondered if he could take these parallels further. Quite how and when art would anticipate life he had no idea, it wasn’t a science, wasn’t yet a science, he said. He was a long way from, say, predicting the result of a horse race. That might be possible one day. But something extraordinary was going on and it was worth investigating. Had I read the little programme? Did I realise Hospital had been written years ago, before he met his Josefina? Art before life, he said producing a toothpick from somewhere. Look, he said, what if he and I wrote a play ourselves, where things worked out fabulously for the main male character? Might it not increase the chances his life would take a similar, positive turn? What did I think?
I hesitated, partly as I was lagging behind in the conversation. Was Enrique needy to want to always to sit on the bench side of the table, next to his helmet and his gloves and gear? I watched him carefully circle his cup, scooping froth. When did needing become needy? Everyone needed something. At this point I realised I had something in my mouth. A tiny fish bone. Elusive. Curses. As Enrique scooped at the bottom of his cup, my tongue checked and checked. Glancing across I caught my friend in mid-suck, was this something to do with neediness, with childhood, with Valencia, something about the child.
—It’s in the manufacture, he said suddenly. These spoons are made from two parts. That’s why it’s tarnished here, see.
He gave me a toothpick. He had left a white daub above his mouth. I signalled the place above my own lips.
—So, he said removing it, back to business: shall we tell the future? Play God? Hell no, he added immediately, slipping lower on our favourite Salva’s bench, the red false-leather making pock! sounds. Heinz the waiter came. He balanced our dirty dishes (mine dirty, Rick’s wiped clean) on one arm.
—Where’s Paolo tonight? I asked.
—He’s sick. I’m covering.
—Something he ate?
—Not ill-sick. Pining.
—Pining, said Enrique, that’s the word, Heinz. Pining. That whole play was about pining.
He slipped some inches lower.
—I hope you die, she said.
—Josefina. I hope you die in a Spanish darkness. Las mujeres. I give and give to them, and they wish me dead.
Despite his ride in the dark back to Uxbridge, Enrique accepted the offer of an amaretto on the house.
—OK, he said. What if we write this script, something? Would you do it? I’m tied for time, caught up in this business thing. Furniture.
It was getting serious, I told Celia later. A plan was in the air. It was a good place to make a plan, Salva’s. The space, the high ceiling. The racks of wine, the waiters forever drying glasses.
Was this—a whim, a long shot—worth a plan? Worth the work, the time?
Rick thought so. Crazy as it was, this new twist to the idea of helping him find a happy match—at that very moment I found the little fish bone—caused in me a dizzy swirl. A happy swirl: the bliss of taking on more writing. I lost myself in the lights—one of the beauties of Salva’s is the lights, the bright lights overhead and tea lights on the tables which multiply and sparkle in the giant mirrors; for the briefest moment I got lost in them, ridiculously, as if they were stars come down to earth; I closed my eyes, I could sense kaleidoscopic lights inside my eyelids.
—Are you all right? said Enrique. Well?
—Then we’ll do it. You’ll do it.
We slo-moed a high five. The eyebrows went up again, checking with me.
—It’ll still be my idea. I’d just be delegating.
—Yes, I said. It’ll feel strange. Like engineering something.
—Don’t think so much. Write like you’re in a town you don’t know and you’re walking along. You’ll be just walking along.
He looked around, hoping—angling—for another glass of amaretto. Paolo would have been straight there.
—OK, I’ll try. What shall I call her?
—Whatever. Sprinkle lots of names. See who turns up. One’ll work out.
I drank up. Yes—names, like spices, for sprinkling. Holly, Marian, Chas. Gemma, Rufus. Sue, Leonie.
—I will. Walk along, on the road. Be a Kerouac, on the road.
—Kerouac … some hippy?
—And since I wasn’t Ben, Ben as in the play, said Enrique, I needn’t be Enrique. When it’s done, we’ll wait and see what happens.
Along came Heinz with the amarettos.
I wrote many things after that evening at Salva’s. As I just alluded to, I was reading about Jack Kerouac at the time. He favoured a freewheeling style which enabled him to say many things. He could say for instance that heavy rain made him feel there were ships in the next room, something which was conceivable at Staveley Gardens too, with the Thames nearby. On a rising tide a small flotilla could be imagined. I lay awake listening for it, under Kerouac’s heavy darkness hanging with stars. Beside me Celia slept as always, her back turned.
To quote more accurately, Kerouac’s streets could be loaded with darkness, the sky blue and hanging with stars above old hotel roofs—little of which features here in Chiswick but, as I’m coming to shortly, this free approach is the only one that may shake everything up and be of use to my good friend Enrique. If on the way to helping him to his goal of a happy future (I’m coming to that, reaching towards it) anything is possible, if boats climb the stairs on a rising tide, if Celia gives a crow tea in the morning, goldfish are downstairs watching TV, so much the better. Jack’s my man.
I asked Heinz for the bill.
—I’m getting ideas. But shaky. I mean, Rick, where do I start, where do I go with it? What’s going to drive this?
There was a gentleness in the way his eyebrows lifted.
—The drive, Rick, the motor, propelling it. What do you want?
—Clothes or brain?
—Both—as long as I get to shine.
At the word shine the counter glass and the silvery coffee machines doubled their gleams. Through the big plate windows I saw, under a street light, the motorbike of my friend Enrique. The egg-yolk of the fuel tank shone.
—Rick. Enrique. To do this I need freedom. The keys to the highway.
—Don’t we all. My sister wanted them and she’s still in Valencia.
I had a brief—Rick had said—a brief. First a dossier, now a brief. I was to create a situation where a man loved a woman and a woman a man. This would be art, which Rick would then imitate. How I had no idea. I took out the dossier. Selected a virgin notebook. Licked my pencil. I checked my tongue in the mirror. I decided against the pencil. I would go straight to the laptop. I would begin anywhere. On the road, on the move. I would have a woman on the move, moving. I began to type.
Rebel the horse was on a lorry with the sofa.
Rebel the horse was on a lorry with the sofa and the piano and the cooking paraphernalia. Holly drove. Her marriage to Ash behind her, she wondered why
Celia is back from shopping
why why ever she’d ventured into this part of the country. Her arms ached from being at the wheel since dawn. In her mirror she saw Rebel thrusting his nose into the wind. So valiant an animal. A motorbike had been following them for miles.
Holly had to move on. She might always move on. Once she could do something she dropped it. Learn a skill, leave it. Everything was a challenge, but only a challenge. Learn it and leave it. Even the man she learned to be with. That sweet man, married and divorced, sweet man Ash.
I wrote many things and kept Celia mostly in the dark. She knew I was on a quest to find, guide, shape a piece of Enrique’s future, and I left it at that. I retired upstairs and closed the door. That way there was no danger she would jest at me as the local answer to Tolstoy. This is no reflection on Celia, or on Chiswick, where Tolstoy is still among a small number of bearded Russians to be reckoned with. Celia, who cuts hair for money, tells me one of her customers was recently in raptures over War and Peace, inducing Celia to down her scissors and upload it to her Kindle. Now she in turn is in ecstasy over hussars, blood-soaked earth and air hanging with dust. I would never compete. The skirmishes outside the window between blue tits and a pair of dunnocks were the closest I would come to the battle manoeuvres and slaughter of Austerlitz.
Against this domestic background I was to beam myself across the Atlantic to the USA. It had wide open spaces, plenty of room to do that sprinkling of names. Rick, or whatever name he came to have, had no need to hole up Uxbridge-way. At first I tried imagining him jogging in Central Park, New York. He wouldn’t do it. He was far away, walking towards the Hudson River. He fell in step with, well, Leonie. This was before I put him on his motorbike following the horse called Rebel in a truck driven by the Holly woman. Leonie pointed out to him how the basketball hoops and wire fencing made the neighbourhood like the site of West Side Story. However, the streets Rick and Leonie walked down every night were empty of gangs and on the lower East Side.
I enlarged on my ideas to Enrique.
—I can make you a big man if you want. Take you out of your comfort zone.
Heinz finally brought the bill, and vanished.
—Is this bill right? I knew I should have had the emiliana.
Heinz returned, asking if all was well.
—My friend was just suggesting I extend myself, said Enrique. I am to be taken out of my zone, comfort zone.
—Comfort zone, yes, said Heinz. I trust you were in it this evening.
—Certainly, we said in chorus.
—You see our detritus—said Enrique opening his arms to the table, pleased at using this odd word—and you, your comfort, do you like it here?
—I do. I wasn’t sure waiting on tables would be my thing. I could be doing more. But I like it—
I pushed across to him the folder with the bill and the money.
—it is good to get out outside your comfort zone. You know the exchange between Polonius and his wife—
My eyes met Enrique’s.
—where she says to Polonius—
—That’s not a bit I know, said Rick.
—she says: Why don’t you trust the scribes? He says: Because they do not work outside the libraries.
—Would you like toothpicks?
—We have some, said Enrique. Here. And keep the change.
Heinz strode purposefully to the till. I turned to Enrique.
—Well what do you make of that? Our new waiter?
—Hard to follow. Needs deciphering.
—But charming. And you see how risky our idea is: don’t trust a scribe.
—Because they do not work outside the libraries.
—I won’t be in a library.
I pocketed my notes.
—I’ll have you involved with people everywhere. Keep walking, as in my brief.
—You went off-brief long ago. But whatever. Keep going. But nothing with Spanish, it’s too much for people. A foreign word and they’re in a coma. Just hearing about Polonius was enough for me. And who the hell is Polonius?
—A small man. Not for you.
—Keep him out of it. And no scuba diving. Try something quiet. Making sandwiches. I could be the quietly cool boss of a sandwich empire.
I met Enrique for a flat white in the afternoon.
—I can’t stay. I’ve met someone. She calls herself Bo. I know, that isn’t a name. Not a name name.
—Bo? This is moving fast.
—Got to go.
I wrote many things. Sat at the glass top, in front of the photos of when Celia was little. And not so little. In a holiday picture I kept returning to she was standing on a rock not much bigger than a pumpkin. But looking very desirable. That didn’t help me write. I tried to keep her out of it, out of everything.
On the lower East Side Rick and Leonie had the keys to a furniture warehouse. It held furniture that was refurbished and rented—to executives on courses, diplomats on a three-year term. The store room with their mattress was the size of a house. Sometimes Rick and Leonie morphed into Ash and Holly. They made love with one eye on the clock. They had to be dressed and ready, before the workers arrived.
Back at Salva’s again, Enrique looked with pleasure at the tagliata di manzo—sliced chargrilled rump steak with rocket and parmesan, rosemary potatoes and tarragon mayonnaise—a dish intended to be shared.
—Potatoes with rosemary, he said adjusting his serviette on his lap: very Italian.
Too late. I let him talk me into ordering it. I forgot how keen Enrique was on those potatoes.
—So where are all these names? I’m not stupid. I do gather—I’ve gathered all along—it’s Leonie I have to look out for, no, Holly. Holly. Leonie, I don’t know, I’m not sure about those fanciful ways.
—How’s it going with Bo? Maybe you don’t need my creations.
—I need the real name you’re working with. After Josephine and Josefina.
—I do have a name. Come closer, I’ll whisper it.
I pushed the dish aside, made a path across the table.
—Wait, said Enrique. Why whisper it?
—I was joking. I don’t know her name, how could I? Do you? How come you’ve got all the potato?
—I thought I did the inquisitions. As your Iberian friend.
—Forget it. But your mouth’s open. While you’re eating.
—Only a friend would tell you.
—Mm. Friend. Potato. Mm. If we only had telepathy. If we had telepathy we wouldn’t be talking.
The crows in the trees at Staveley Gardens were forever grouping and plotting. Plotting what? What about that plot of my own? Why did I not pass on more to Celia? Celia was about to leave for the health club. Off to the dacha, she’d say. Wednesdays was the double bill of stretch followed by an hour of zumba. Something Enrique could do with.
I was tempted to tell her of the lower East Side part, the warehouse with the French chairs and dressers and Japanese partitions, she’d like that, Celia’d ignore the mattress and go over to the great windows, look past the grime and upwards, gazing up for stars like a child. If Leonie was like Celia she would be chaste all night and on top of the situation in the morning when the workers in their overalls shuffled in with their tins of glue and lacquer and few words of English. They’re from Puerto Rico, Brazil, I was imagining saying to Celia. Who are? she’d say. I was on the point of calling her to say something but I heard her close the door and unfold that collapsible bike of hers and be on her way, confident Prince Andrei would invite her to dance, leaving me to get on with it.
I turned to Kerouac. Kerouac wrote a whole page about frying an early morning egg. Taking my list of names I went downstairs to fry one. Holly, Marian, Chas. I put bread in the toaster. There had been Ben Rick, maybe there was Ash Rick. Or a bigger man, Chas.
I had the egg cooked. I bolted it down. Like Kerouac, who had a train to catch, I had to get on. Back upstairs to the main task I went, to set down the latest developments with Holly. There was burning. Very Kerouac. The world on fire, no. The toast, burning in yet another kitchen tragedy.
Enrique was having the sea bass. As it too came with rosemary potatoes—the steak frites shenanigans were fresh in my mind—I took the opportunity to order it as well, thinking my potatoes would be safe.
He was in a good mood. He had even seen, recognised Celia that afternoon—from far away, across a floor in H&M, trying on a Russian ushanka hat.
We chinked glasses. The bass arrived. It’s a cliché, he said, but I do think fish and white wine go together.
—Like a kind of environmental link?
He was too occupied to reply, emptying his glass already, grinding pepper and pouring water.
—like brothers or sisters who sing together? Like the Everly Brothers, for instance.
—The what brothers?
—You know, said Enrique refilling his glass with wine, I’m eating too much. I should have stopped at the verdura fritta.
Heinz appeared, asking if everything was all right.
—Thanks, Heinz. Fine.
—The place is almost empty, I said. Where is everyone tonight?
—I know the scribes will be in the libraries, said Enrique.
—Not at this time, said Heinz.
—Where’s Paolo? I asked.
—Paolo is sick still. My shift is almost over too. Will you be having dessert? Coffee? I’ll make sure you’re looked after.
I glanced at Enrique.
—Do big men have coffee?
I told my friend not to worry on one count: he was a big man. I had a plan. Over dessert I would convey the gist of a boardroom scene I had in mind.
It was a big moment for Chas. The firm was his business. It had taken him years to build Shawfield and Johnson into what it was.
So it would come to this, having to sack staff. But his father had ceaselessly imprinted on him that he should be ready. Everything would help—even that shock of blond hair, which he still had (shock was the word, a pleasant shock, a wouldn’t-you-like-to-relate-to-me shock). His eyes he was less sure about; there was steel in that blue. But his shock helped. Even so he had never guessed it would come to this. To think he was the boy who had impregnated in him the notion of cooperation, discussion, rational talk, civility. Who believed authority, true authority, had little to do with barking orders, raising voices.
Barely a week ago, in this very boardroom—the day before the figures became available—he had turned to them all with his story of how his headlights had caught a rabbit, which turned out to be a hare, and how he held it hoping it might still live, and all present listened so attentively, so pleased, pleased at him, pleased at the conviviality of their workplace. Now he sensed doom, doom at what was to come. Doom was infusing the room, as if the blinds were down. Going around his head was the line of music that had been playing as he stopped the car and found the hare, lying still in the grass. It was not the words, it was the feeling. A yearning, yearning for something. For appreciation, love? It was like a void, a tugging. He felt this yearning now.
He told them he had set down the hare where he thought it safe, and left it. That set them murmuring. It would be a different murmuring today, there would be no tender stories. Guards would be up everywhere.
He had the big table moved to one end and assembled the whole staff in the room. Having pointed on the flip chart to the facts, the march of progress and the slide into decline, he waited until all was still, then told them by name who was being fired. Contracts would be honoured but not extended. He thanked them. Vipers, they attacked. Beside the flip chart he had to turn his back. He would not leave. To the end, when the last person took to the stairs, the last light was turned out, he would be strong. He was Charles Jonathan Shawfield. CJ. CJ was a big man.
—A fat lot of use having me fire people. What point is there in simply being big. You do realise I have to meet someone. Is this all you’ve come up with?
—So what happened to Bo?
—Sort of drifted away. I let her. Little things can put you off. A phrase. A mole. I don’t see her any more. Can you pass those over? And the olives.
I wrote many things, back in Staveley Gardens. Would Rebel survive the trip?
Holly coaxed the horse down a ramp and left him tied to the big tree but as the pink was fading from the sky she moved him to the little barn where she could sleep nearby in the loft and if necessary she could say soothing words to him in the night.
She was too exhausted to sleep. As she lay awake, hands behind her head, she thought of Ashley. He would have been a good person to have around just now. He had a great touch. Did he still think of her, occasionally?
—I’ve decided, he’d turn and say to her, we should give local children rides on Rebel.
—Yes, she’d say in the dark which was darker than that other darkness, in that other plot, in those nights of youth on the East Side in New York. Here she had lost her way to end up at this hacienda, left over from the days of an abandoned silver mine. What a room, medieval hall of a room. The re-upholstered chairs. Louis quinze. The cold. The great windows.
In the morning Rebel was gone. Rebel ran away and was never found. Not by Holly, that is. He could have been anywhere. Out looking, she met Andy, Andy-Rick. He said Rebel could be anywhere between
there goes the phone
anywhere between Flagstaff and Cucamonga.
Well, in the middle of telling Rick about Holly and Rebel, well if it wasn’t Paolo. Looking grim, Paolo had come back, but with a dog. This caused an immediate row and both were thrown out, Paolo grabbing a box of stollen cake on his way out.
—I had a cat once, said Enrique. It got lost, like Rebel. But look, I’m not comfortable about Arizona. Why Arizona? Why America? I’m not obsessed with Americans. They’re hardly five per cent of the world.
—It’s a good place for a horse.
—I don’t want a horse either. Or Andy. Andy. How could you?
—Are you saying Ben is better?
—And don’t be moving to California, either. Kissing someone in the middle of a vineyard, like your Kerouac. What did you say? Showing his bigness by cracking walnuts, eating walnuts, walking on a steel rail. No. I’m a business person, can’t you make me the big man in the boardroom?
I read many things, not only Kerouac. I wrote that Holly has many appealing sides, certainly enough to be a promising candidate for a future life with Enrique, I mean Chas, Chas who is becoming quite a big shot—since he fired the trade unionists there’s been talk all over the social media, a full-page spread of print on his life—Holly took the call outside by a pond, now transposed to the grounds of the business where Chas worked, the pond which had been dry all summer. As she listened she walked in a circle on the stone surround, one step at a time, the heel of the next foot touching the toe of the other. The phone still at her ear, she halted to perform a yoga Tree. She held the tree beside the urns, discussing meeting Chas for a private therapy session.
Holly yearned for a man with experience. If she wanted anyone she wanted … an adventurer. Someone to go with, somewhere new, without sand, without the winds, the black wind, the red wind, wind that blew red dust into everything, the wind that rolled and rolled. There’d been enough treks, enough sand, enough storms.
Now if he had a fortune, a whisky still … would happily skin a squirrel … spread joy … but what use were fantasies? If she wanted anyone … it would be someone who could relax too; who as well as splitting logs with his axe, or careering around the Nurburgring, would enjoy a crossword over a cup of tea on a Sunday morning.
Chas? She was astonished Chas had found a way to call her from Cairo, and costing next to nothing. She barely remembered him. A blond shock of hair, that she remembered. Tall. Said he could make curtains. They had made jokes about curtains: the word curtains, the phrases it found its way into. The first session can be long distance, Chas was saying on the phone, we should Skype. Or it’s curtains? said Holly back. Cairo, said Chas, Cairo. These Arab cities. The line started to break up. Civilisation .. flying .. doldrums .. love .. join .. why not fly out .. Saturday .. uh .. eh uh.
—Today I’m going for it: the giant penne, the giardiniera. Don’t you wish you could speak Italian? You’d know better what you were in for. The cooking, the dressings. You could get better food.
—Not necessarily. Ah Heinz. Thank you Heinz, we don’t need the menu.
—My Iberian friend knows it by heart.
—I’m not Iberian. Not the way you say it. But the wine list?
—Lunchtime? What happened to cloudy cherry?
There was no bike through the windows.
—I didn’t come on it. I’m meeting someone later.
—Who? Who? Thank you, Heinz. The Arneis is quite light, as wines go. Si? We met at a traffic light, by the big sports shop.
—Holly? What Holly?
—Does it matter? I’m nervous.
—Don’t worry. As long as she smiles.
—She does do that.
—The rest is up to you. Enrique my friend, it’ll go well. I’m sure.
—I’m sure. All you’ve got to do is shine.
John Saul is making the contribution from England to Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2018 and had work in Best British Short Stories 2016 (Salt Publishing). His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and in four collections, three published by Salt. He recently became a member of the European Literature Network. John lives in London. A website with more information is at www.johnsaul.co.uk