Mike, James and John review a calamitous August when the clouds of autocracy began to gather over a dis-United Kingdom
Mike, James and John had been missing in action somewhere in the world for over a month, leading me to wonder just how my Cape Town room survived, structurally or financially, without its usual props. The length of their absence did not bode well for their return after an August of national discontent because there was an awful lot of griping and grumbling to catch up on. And when it came to griping and grumbling, these three were past masters.
“Eh up, lads,” Mike, first and foremost amongst the aforementioned virtuosos, greeted his two friends in those dulcet northern tones we all know and sometimes love, as they sauntered into the bar a mere one minute and thirty-three seconds after his own arrival. “Welcome home, as the clouds of autocracy gather over the dis-United Kingdom.” The latter utterance seemed to pave the way for an Obama-esque speech which, knowing Mike, was unlikely to be short in duration, although I temporarily concerned myself more with trying to reconcile the idea of a Barack Obama oration with a gruff Lancastrian accent. “Where to begin?”
“I’m not sure I want to begin at all,” murmured John, echoing my own sentiments to a certain extent, as we were well aware what Mike had in store for us. “I’ve had it all up to here,” he added, indicating a place about a foot over his head. Both he and I knew this semi-plea was futile in the presence of Mike, a man who enjoyed a moan even though it often left him feeling physically sick. It was one of those perverse wonders of social interactional conversation.
It seemed Mike had not even heard the request, however, as he took a sip of his first beer of the evening and considered his launching pad. This was clearly not an easy task with so much to choose from.
John attempted to derail him before he started. “Bad start to the season,” he said with an intonation which left me unsure as to whether this was a statement or a question.
“Humph.” I considered this to be a suitable enough response on its own in the circumstances, but, as it came from Mike, waited for the inevitable elaboration. “Four games in and it’s already City versus Liverpool for the title and forget the rest,” he muttered as unhappily as would any other Manchester United supporter in the present era of alternative north-west domination. “At least in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have had the decency to make uncertain starts to the season to give the others some short-term hope.”
As he was in the presence of a group of fellow, like-minded United supporters not accustomed to seeing their much-disliked neighbours in the ascendancy, this represented an end to a temporary and rather distasteful diversion.
James gave in to a further inevitable and decided, somewhat needlessly, to prompt his volatile friend, although he accompanied the question with a nervous, half-hearted laugh designed to disarm. “So, are you still a loyal Tory after this month?”
“Absolutely not!” declared Mike forcibly. “After fifty-odd years, one month of that buffoon, Trump-clone named Johnson has proven to be the final straw. He’s managed to turn loyalty into shame. He’s like Gellert Grindelwald, lying that what he is doing is for ‘the greater good’, but when the ‘good’ only serves the interests of the minority, in other words, if you’ll forgive the Harry Potter analogy, the wizards, while riding roughshod over the vast majority, aka the Muggles.”
“I’m not sure even the fictional Grindelwald could lie to the same extent as the real-life Johnson, but otherwise, you’re forgiven,” James said consolingly.
“I mean, whatever happened to the much-vaunted ‘broad church’ of the Conservative party?” Mike continued, obviously not waiting for an answer. “What’s left within one day of the end of the summer recess is the European Reform Group, the sheep who follow them and Brexit party entryists. And the short-term future seems to include a laughably-termed ‘non-aggression pact’ with what I used to call, and still believe to be the Farridge Losers’ Party.”
“And then there’s the recumbent Rees-Mogg…,” John began, as if trying to run through the agenda of hopelessness as quickly as possible.
“Oh, don’t get me started!” exclaimed Mike, even though it was already too late. “He can lie where he wants and lie about what he wants; he only ever does or believes what suits him. His words are worthless, no matter where he dictates the commas should be put!” The last clause at least managed to raise a laugh among the assembled English language purists, although in terms of volume and length, it was decidedly lukewarm. “And what do we have now? A prime minister who wants call a general election where Brexit will be the only real issue, and yet refuses to call a People’s Vote in which Brexit would obviously be the only issue but where it might actually produce a definitive result. It’s ridiculous! He accuses the opposition of cowardice in not wanting to face the electorate, but he won’t call a second referendum which would give the self-same electorate a real say on the real problem of the day and might actually provide a clear, worthwhile answer!”
“He just isn’t interested in what people think or say unless it’s what he wants to hear, though,” added James, while Mike drew breath and lubricated his vocal cords. “When he decided to prorogue parliament, that verb no one had heard of until last month, there were so many protests and over a million signatures against it within twenty-four hours; I mean, only a complete arse could ignore that as completely as he did!”
“Unfortunately,” interrupted John, “that’s what we’ve got as a PM.”
“And then you have his shameless flock,” Mike resumed, “the people who so recently declared that suspending parliament would be an abuse of democracy and who now sit in Johnson’s inner circle with thoughts of nothing other than their careers. These people are hypocritical beyond contempt – their change of mind is so brazenly in their own self-interest and their attitude screams be damned to Britain. Job or country – I always knew what those cowards would choose – and choose they have. I mean, we always suspected Dominic Raab had screws loose based on his leadership campaign, but the overt hypocrisy of people like Baby-Face Gove and Doormat Hancock beggars belief!” John looked mildly affronted at Mike’s use of his catchphrase but decided to remain mute. “Not really a shock, but shocking nonetheless.”
“And all the while,” interrupted James, who was in an unusually vociferous mood, “he tries to buy people’s support by promising huge amounts of funding using money which seems to have been sourced from a magician’s hat. Why should we actually believe all the promises of new cash for education and the NHS that Bojo is making? He’s never done anything but tell porkies and this latest batch are just sweeteners to get Brexit and then to be conveniently forgotten.”
The torrent of complaint was far from streamlined, as you may have noticed, so please forgive the randomness and occasional lack of coherence in the dialogue. Mike decided to move on to his latest pet dislike (and, over a relatively short period of history, there were enough of these to fill a substantial zoo). “Is Dominic Cummings the Steve Bannon of the UK or what – the most hated and subversive non-elected national control freak around?” James and John opened their mouths to either answer or make a contribution, but that was as far as they got. “He certainly seems to have adopted the Arron Banks mantle in the UK – and that took some doing! I presume both Banks and Cummings attended the Steve Bannon Alt-Right School of How to Undermine People and Win Undeserved and Unwanted Influence.” I assumed he hadn’t come up with this rather ridiculous name on the spot, but had instead dedicated some prior thought to it, a supposition endorsed by what followed. “Known in some circles as ‘ARSE-HUPWUUI’, or ‘ARSE-Poohi’, or just ‘The School of Plain Shit’.”
“It’s hard to believe that in a democracy, which was once the envy of the world, one unelected, anarchic fascist can wield so much power,” said John. “Beggars belief indeed!”
“I watched a documentary recently about the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany and some of the characters reminded me so much of Farridge, Banks, Cummings, Johnson, Bannon, the Trump, etcetera, it really made me fear for democracy in the western world,” Mike went on. “And Putin is just sitting on the side-lines, rubbing his hands in glee, watching his opponents tearing themselves apart and shredding liberal democracy, while he doesn’t even have to lift a pseudo-commi finger.”
“And while allowing him to meddle in Ukraine and Syria with little restraint because the west is too preoccupied with itself,” proffered James.
“He isn’t alone either,” said John. “Netanyahu is taking advantage of the distractions to bomb the Beqaa in Lebanon again.”
Mike’s response was to do a fair impression of an angry Rottweiler. After he’d finished his prolonged growling, he noted the lack of news coverage of the incidents his friends had referred to with little short of disdain and the solitary word, “Typical”.
John decided to change tack slightly with what initially sounded like an attempt at humour. “What’s the difference between the alt-right Conservatives and the Brexit party?”
“Is that the start of a joke?” asked Mike. “More like the end of one! Just as it’s the end of the Conservative party, in terms of principles, if not name.” He took a sip of ale before resuming. “He wasn’t the best PM ever, but John Major, along with Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, should be at the forefront of British politics now, rather than the alt-right fringe who are scuppering democracy. On the one hand, you’ve got the grandees of the Tory party, the real Conservatives, like Heseltine, Major and Clarke, who are spouting so much common sense, and on the other hand, you’ve got the wankers like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, who are too cowardly to join the party they really belong to, namely the Brexit party, probably because they realise they would have to be led by that simpering fool, Farridge, so instead drag the Tory party so far to the right, it will become as unelectable as it is increasingly despicable.” Another sip of beer and a sharp intake of breath followed, although these did not combine well, resulting in some spluttering. Even this couldn’t stop the tirade, however. “And guess which twat congratulated Johnson by tweet, saying how impossible it would be for anyone to win a vote of no confidence against him because he is doing such a great job?”
“Hmmm, let me think…, maybe the Trump,” suggested James, “the one who is so deluded he actually thinks he’s doing a great job himself?”
“Good guess,” Mike said, disingenuous in his praise, as the conjecture could have been made by a two-year-old.
“Not to worry,” I said, vainly trying to offer a modicum of comfort. “People will eventually realise they’ve backed the wrong donkey in Johnson.”
“What on earth still persuades parents to spend money on stupidly expensive education when it seems to produce an excessive proportion of dickheads like Rees-Mogg and Johnson?” Mike knew there was, yet again, no answer forthcoming, or at least not one of a concise and logical nature, so filled the brief silence with an elongated sigh. “The whole thing just makes me want to close my eyes and think of Lebanon.”
“I thought it was supposed to be ‘shut your eyes and think of England’?” remarked John.
“So it is, but England, along with the rest of the UK, is so bad at the moment due to all this Brexit no-deal crap, I’d rather think of somewhere else, thank you very much. And Lebanon seems to be a relatively sane choice.” He drained his glass and gestured, unusually wordlessly, for another round, before continuing in a voice laced with sadness. “I was a Tory supporter for fifty years but the way the party turned on and ridiculed, first of all, the leaders of the other parties for coming together and trying to save our country and guarantee democracy, and then their own members who voted in the interests of their constituents, made me completely sick and ashamed I was ever a voter. And suspending parliament is a disgrace – Johnson is an autocratic prime minister who is a shameful and shameless embarrassment to the UK, having the gall to represent us unelected and without any kind of mandate on the international stage.”
“One aim of Brexit already seems to have been achieved before it’s even happened,” commented James, although this was far from being of any consolation. “More EU citizens are leaving the country and fewer arriving.”
“Well, seriously,” Mike retorted, “who is going to want to come to a country known for racial hatred – and that’s what Britain is already on the road to, thanks to you-know-what.”
“The worst thing is,” John said, thoughtfully, “is that we’re becoming immune to the craziness, numb to all the hypocrisy and madness. Farage, Johnson and the Trump can say what they want, lie as much as they want and deny obvious truth and reality, and the silent majority just think, ‘Oh, there he goes again’ and let it go as though it was some kind of harmless joke made by an irrelevant clown, rather than something which is undermining everything we have fought for over decades, and even western democracy itself.”
Mike looked impressed and clearly wished he had produced such a straightforward and concise utterance.
“If there can be more than one ‘worst thing’,” said James, taking over the baton, “it’s the preparation for no-deal. Billions of pounds thrown away on something needless, to say nothing of the stupid advertising campaign warning everyone to ‘get ready’ for it, and all sorts of emergency aid being mooted. I hear there are plans for truckloads of food and medicines to be flown into the UK on cargo planes. I mean to say, if a sitcom writer produced something like this, it would be rejected as being too far-fetched!”
“Isn’t this what happens when a natural disaster strikes a third world country?” asked Mike. “It isn’t supposed to occur when self-inflicted damage hits a first world nation!” Much nodding, and drinking, ensued before Mike resumed in his best orator’s voice. “Never in the field of political endeavour has so much been fucked up by so few.” It was difficult to argue, so silence followed whilst second winds were sought.
It didn’t take Mike long to find his. “And yet another ‘worst thing’ in this is Trump acting like a benign shepherd with his promise of a big trade deal, which Congress will never ratify because of the effect of no-deal on the Irish peace process, when in fact all he is hoping for is to drive us over the edge of a cliff into an abyss of misery which he can then take advantage of.”
“Sounds like what happened in Far from the Madding Crowd,” intervened James, provoking bemused looks from the company. “You know, the novice sheepdog that gets carried away and drives the entire flock over a cliff into the sea?” His friends remained lost and decided the contribution was best ignored.
“It’s amazing the lies Brexiters come out with,” Mike resumed. “They even make liars out of themselves, getting tied up in never-ending knots. Dominic Raab, for example, waffles on about how a no-deal Brexit was always a given possibility when there is clear visual and documentary evidence to prove the complete opposite! Oh, what a tangled web they weave, when first they practise to deceive.” He allowed the assembly to digest the slightly amended proverb before developing his argument (otherwise known as rambling) further.
“The Americans know the UK will be in no position to negotiate and desperate for anything we can get. It was so humiliating to hear Raab gushing after a recent visit to the US; what was it he said, ‘It was amazing to hear an American president talk about our country in such warm terms’? What does he expect to hear from a second-hand car salesman with a death-trap to sell? Talk about gullible.
“And all the time, Johnson and his bully-boy-in-chief, Cummings, are doing everything they can to make sure the blame for no-deal is laid at every door but theirs! Seriously, what extremist idiots would want to drag their country through the mire for what increasingly obviously is no gain whatsoever…? Britain is – or was – a liberal democracy…” At this point, even Mike, perhaps realising he was in danger of repeating the same phrases and arguments over and over, ran out of words.
Something stirred in John’s memory. “I read a report in The Guardian last month and it occurred to me there was something wrong with it. It went on about the Trump ‘rowing with fellow G7 leaders over his demand that Russia be readmitted to the group, rejecting arguments that it should remain an association of liberal democracies’. It seemed to imply the Trump and Johnson run liberal democracies.” Although far from funny, this did raise a few ironic laughs. These quickly faded.
James briefly took over the reins. “Why does the Trump want to buy Greenland when he might very soon get the United Kingdom for free? I saw that on Facebook last month and it struck me as one of those comments which was half-joke, half-scary reality.”
“The funniest part was when he threw his toys out of the pram again and cancelled a state visit to Denmark when they said they weren’t interested in selling!” said Mike. “He actually had the rank stupidity to say no-one treats the United States like that!”
“And changing subject a little,” continued John, with something akin to a gathering storm, “he blamed some of the recent racist mass shootings in his own country on immigration. I don’t want to keep on saying ‘beggars belief’, but the man does. If he wants to blame someone, I’m sure he has more than one mirror to look into.”
“So true,” agreed Mike emphatically. “Another twenty-nine victims of gun crime, some possibly the result of the president’s own racial rhetoric; the ‘man’ has sunk so low, he doesn’t even know when he passed rock bottom. And still he criticises the mayor of London for doing a ‘bad, bad’ job on crime. It’s all so, so sad.”
Silence took its turn in the bar once again, as the three friends drank beer and pondered a new direction. However, when conversation resumed, so did the topic.
“The Trump is so desperate for Brexit to happen so he can get his grubby little hands all over Britain,” said Mike. “Surely that fact alone is enough to set alarm bells ringing and make everyone see what a bad idea it is. And some news reports say the arm-twisting has already started. ‘No trade deal if you tax the tech giants’ or ‘no trade deal if you don’t help us against China’.”
“And then there’s climate change,” piped up John, a little randomly. “There was a G7 meeting on one of the most important issues in the world today, and the Trump couldn’t even be bothered to show up, presumably preferring to chat with his billionaire friends who are the ones making money from destroying the environment and whom he relies on for funding his 2020 campaign.” Evidence for this was not offered, but those present did not doubt the probable truth behind the accusation.
“Which do you think is the Trump’s real agenda?” asked James. “’Make America great again’, ‘make America white again’ or ‘make America hate again’?”
“Any or all of the above,” responded Mike promptly. “And then there are his proteges, like Bolsonaro, with what appears to be the wilful destruction of the Amazon for his own personal ends – pro-business and anti-environment. Where on earth have all these nutters come from and why all in the same period of history? Trump, Johnson, Farage, minor player though he is, Bolsonaro, Duterte …? Things have come to a pretty pass when you look at Johnson and Trump and it actually crosses your mind that Kim Jong-un is a half-decent leader.” There was a range of raised eyebrows around the bar at this latest suggestion. “OK, I’m joking.” A further pause. “I think…”
John resolved a change of topic really was the order of the minute. “It was a shame England couldn’t regain the Ashes, but the third Test made the whole summer of sport worthwhile somehow, don’t you think?”
The ploy failed. “Agreed,” said Mike. “I was just waiting for Rees-Mogg or some other Brexit wanker to claim it as proof we don’t need the EU. I was amazed when he managed to avoid further ridicule by remaining quiet this time, after his World Cup howler.”
“OK, you’ve made your point,” said James. “You clearly are a Tory no more.”
“Well, there’s nothing really Conservative with a capital ‘C’ about the current government, is there?” Mike replied. “They’re just the Brexit party in all but name with some lessons learned from the Stalinist purges. Cummings pulls the strings and Johnson threatens: ‘do this and you’ll be got rid of’, ‘if we think you’ve done that, you’ll be got rid of’, etcetera. By the time of the next election, the Conservatives will in fact be the Brexit Party with a complete absence of true Tories. Unless Article 50 is revoked, as the centrist parties want, this nightmare will go on for ever. Even a no-deal won’t be a clean break; it will just be the beginning of the next, even longer phase. Most of us who voted Remain won’t live long enough to have even the slightest chance of being proven wrong – and I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not!”
“What do you think of my new marketing slogan, lads?” I asked, determined to change at least the tone of the diatribe by displaying some newly printed T-shirts. “’Keeping Britain in Europe; keeping Europe in Britain’?”
“It sounds like the title of a political manifesto rather than something designed to sell coffee,” Mike pointed out.
“Well, it’s something of a political café, innit?”
I don’t think the Cape Town exchanges on this particular evening left anyone in any doubt on that score.
Jimez was later than expected and Jen was already swirling her Chemex with a degree of impatience when he arrived and, without a word, opened his Tesco bag-for-life, took out a few crumpled sheets of A4 and deposited them on the marble-topped table. He sat in the Biedermeier opposite Jen, as would a man on trial facing his judge and jury, and watched as Jen gingerly picked up the handwritten, slightly grease-stained pages while I edged closer to look over her shoulder with no pretence of secrecy. Was this actually artistic product?
Jen smoothed out the first title-free page and we began to read…
Anna’s drawn face expressed the length of her working day. She adjusted her attire in front of the mirror in the hallway and made sure her smile was in place before entering a room on the left of the short, nicely-carpeted corridor. The door opened soundlessly, allowing her to hear the slow, slightly strained breathing of the occupant within. That indicated some progress, she thought, as she moved over to the bed. It seemed a shame to disturb such relatively peaceful slumber, but it was, unfortunately, a necessity.
“Here we go, Mrs Carter,” she said in a quiet, cheerful voice, hoping not to startle the dozing eighty-something, who was comfortably propped up on three pillows, although sleep had made her lilt a little to her right. The old lady awoke slowly, as Anna patiently wiped away the sleep-time dribble from the right side of her chin.
“Time for your medicine,” continued Anna, kindly, sorting out an array of tablets on the bedside table. Her patient groaned audibly, clearly tired of the endless supply of medication, despite the obvious need for it. “Just the four tonight. Let me get you some water.” She took a glass over to the wash basin, rinsed it out and half-filled it with tap water. “Did your daughter visit you today?” It was a rhetorical question, because Anna had seen her and spoken to her, but she needed to keep the conversation going. Mrs Carter didn’t say anything in response but a smile played around her lips before disappearing behind the cup of tablets and the glass of water.
It took around two minutes for the four tablets to be swallowed; it clearly wasn’t a painless task, but one which had to be done. “That’s it, well done,” smiled Anna, taking the receptacles away before rearranging the bedding and removing a pillow. “Comfortable?” There seemed to be some kind of silent affirmation. “See you tomorrow, then. Good night.”
Leaving a night-light on in the corner of the room, Anna turned off the main light and silently pulled the door closed.
It was a short walk to the home she shared with two other girls, and a little further to her immediate destination, the third floor flat where her boyfriend, Dave, a freelance writer, lived. These days, freelance writing was not a profitable occupation, as censorship laws made freedom of expression considerably more difficult than in the not-too-distant past. Anna was quite happy to support Dave when she could and regularly went the extra distance to take him some ingredients so they could cook dinner together. They were not especially ambitious in the kitchen, but between them, they could produce a more than half-decent pasta with a home-made sauce.
On this particular evening, Dave was feeling more down than usual, his financial situation causing recurrent and quite noticeable mood swings. Anna, despite her job, or maybe because of it, seemed to have patience in abundance, even in the later hours of the day after sometimes working a twelve-hour shift. As a result, the shared culinary experience didn’t work on this occasion and Anna dispatched Dave to the television long before the meal was ready. Her boyfriend’s lack of appetite meant there were leftovers for the following day’s lunch, small compensation though that was.
Starting to feel tired, Anna gave Dave a quick hug and a gentle kiss on the lips before making her way home. The road used to be well-lit, but forced economies now meant only one streetlamp in three was working at any one time. Taking care to step around the piles of rubbish bags which obstructed the pavement at regular intervals, she wasted as little time as possible reaching her front door and the warm bed which awaited her.
“Not a lot happening, is there?” commented Jen.
“There’s a little bit of suspense building up,” I offered in defence of Jimez.
“Oh wait, there’s more,” said Jen, uncrumpling another sheet of paper.
As was frequently the case in Anna’s life, the following day followed its regular pattern. She often worked a six-day week, largely governed by similar routines, and no one could ever accuse her of not being a model and valuable employee and citizen. Her day ended in the same way as the previous one, by wishing Mrs Carter a good night, again receiving no audible response, but with eyes expressing silent gratitude for her efforts.
Closing the patient’s door and moving out of earshot, Anna took her mobile phone from her pocket, switched it on and pressed the icon to call Dave. While it was clear Dave was pleased to hear from her, his tone betrayed the same hopelessness as it had the previous evening.
“Do you want me to come around?” Anna asked, not wholly sure what reply she wanted to hear. She always looked forward to seeing her partner, but on this particular evening, she was especially tired. Dave, however, couldn’t hear this in her voice and immediately accepted the offer.
Little had changed on the short journey. The streetlamps were still only partially working and the rubbish hadn’t been collected. Anna let out a small scream as a startled rat, hastening from a ripped black bag to the nearest grid, crossed her path. All then seemed calm.
There was little doubt that Anna was more good-looking than many girls and even less uncertain that she was a harder worker than most people, but her blood, seen spattered across a rubbish-strewn pavement, was the same deep red colour as everyone else’s.
It was hardly the most eloquent of reactions but I knew what Jen meant. I think I had seen something like this coming, but the sudden, stark nature of it took me quite by surprise.
“Where’s the next chapter?” asked Jen, so absorbed by the storyline and genuinely curious to know what happened subsequently, she hadn’t even asked for a slice of cake. “Ah, here it is.” Given Jimez’s infamous inability to write more than one chapter, however short, the presence of a fourth was mildly astounding but also welcome.
Dave was sitting in his usual armchair, deep in shock, with a remote corner of his mind wondering if he was partially responsible. A cup of tea appeared at his side and he accepted it without word or gesture, mindlessly taking a sip and then recoiling as it burned the roof of his mouth.
“Sorry, I should’ve warned you,” said the kindly female police officer. “It’s hot.” She had arrived around ten minutes earlier, sitting a bemused and panic-stricken Dave in his chair before importing the news of the attack on Anna.
“Was anything taken?” he asked, still searching for a rationale.
“No, not that we can see” replied the officer. “Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt her?”
“Of course not! She’s one of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet.”
The policewoman paused, as if unsure whether or not to deliver the next part of her news. She decided to proceed. “There was a message, written in red marker pen, on her handbag,” she continued tentatively.
“A message? What message?”
“It said, ‘Go home’.” Dave slowly realised what this meant. By way of confirmation, the officer added, “There have been a few attacks recently, all against local woman of Eastern European origin, and we know Anna originally came from Poland.”
“But she’s been here for five years, speaks almost perfect English and is fully integrated,” protested Dave. “What’s the point?”
“We think it’s the work of an organisation which, we believe, goes under the name of the British Alt-Right Super Elite; in other words, the attack was a race-hate crime. Do you have any idea why she should have been chosen?”
“None at all,” replied Dave, still in a state of shock. “Just for not being British?” He thought for a moment. “Oh, she wrote a letter to that pompous fool, Jacob Reem-Smog recently, pleading her case to stay in England. She may have put a comma in the wrong place. And her use of apostrophes is generally abysmal.” It’s surprising how distress can sometimes produce a black sense of humour.
The officer nodded with a degree of understanding and sympathy. “She can count herself lucky on one level anyway. Better to be beaten senseless with a baseball bat than shot, and with American gun laws now becoming applicable in the UK, things could have been a lot worse.”
“This is the sort of story which would make the front pages of The Guardian, if Puppet Scarecrow allowed it to be printed.”
“Maybe one day, freedom of the press will return,” replied the officer, nervously looking around in case the walls did indeed have spying ears.
“One can but hope,” sighed Dave, raising a pair of crossed fingers. “I’ve written two pro-European books over the last two years – The Café with Five Faces – I don’t know if you’ve heard of them?” He paused, more in hope than expectation. “No, I thought not. It was almost amusing at first, in a sad sort of way, when The Scarecrow and Puppet Scarecrow ordered all copies to be burned and had their operatives scouring bookshops for it, until someone grew sufficient cojones to tell them it was only published electronically.”
“Oi, are you now writing about me?” I protested, interrupting the flow of reading. “What do you mean, my books get banned?”
“It gets worse…,” said Jen, reading ahead a little.
“So, then I got arrested for being an extreme liberal, a description which seems to contain a severe contradiction of terminology.”
The policewoman felt the need to change the subject, as though the continuation of the current one might have been considered subversive. “It’s really hot in here – do you need the window opening?”
“It makes no difference. Ever since The Scarecrow decreed so and Ambassador Farage delivered the ‘facts’, more like ‘fake news’ obviously, all his minions have denied climate change exists and have reversed all previous measures to counter it, so now it’s just too hot everywhere, indoors and out.” Dave coughed at some length, causing the officer to look at him in some concern. “How can you say climate change doesn’t exist? The evidence is everywhere, and some of the blame can be apportioned to just one person.” Dave was clearly intent on voicing his opinions, however controversial, while the representative of the authorities was wondering how to put a stop to it. “Remember when The Scarecrow decided it was a good idea to nuke hurricanes to prevent them landing in the US and then pervert the wind into carrying all the radioactive after effects across the Pond into Europe? I think he was hoping to hit France but the whole continent seems to be suffering.” He spluttered into silence, while the officer breathed a sigh of relief and made another cup of tea.
It was an hour later and the officer still stood over Dave as she would a suspect rather than the close friend of a victim. Three empty cups stood on the table as testament to her kindness. Her mobile sprang to life, sounding unusually like an old-fashioned telephone, and she answered it after one ring. The call lasted around ninety seconds and was very one-sided, but Dave guessed it was from the hospital.
“How is she? When can I go and see her?”
There was some hesitancy in the response. “The doctors say she should be fine, but, well, they’re very short of some of the medicines they need. You know, they have to be imported from America these days, not Europe, and they’re four times the price, especially with the parity between the pound and the dollar, so stocks have to be kept low. They should have them in a week. Or so.”
Dave did not find this information of much comfort. “Will she be OK till then?”
The officer looked helpless and avoided a direct answer. “You can go and see her tomorrow. She’s in Ward 101.”
“That’s a rather sinister number.”
“It’s the ward designated for non-British-borns, established under Home Office Edict number 453.”
“453?” Dave’s question, with him being something of a known-rebel, was not delivered in tones of surprise. “Priti Vacant’s been busy, hasn’t she?”
The officer ignored both interrogatives. “The Scarecrow is pushing for number 481 at the moment, by which non-whites will have to be tagged and suspicious non-whites put under a 10pm curfew, as they already are in America.”
There was a pause. “How have we come to this so quickly?” asked Dave in despair. “It’s only five years since we lived in a liberal democracy.” He knew the officer wouldn’t respond to questions of politics, so decided to ask something of a more factual, numerical nature.
“Why are there so few police looking into the attack on Anna?”
“So many have been commandeered into the army by Reem-Smog to control the pro-European rebels, although I don’t why because they aren’t the ones causing the problems. All the violence is from the alt-right groups. We were only anticipating that if they lost, but they’ve taken victory as a free rein to terrorise the non-believers and non-British-borns.”
“Someone should have told that Reem-Smog twat that when he was writing his Project Fear trilogy of fairy tales, it wasn’t his bounden duty to bring them all to fruition.” Dave realised he may have overstepped the mark again and reverted to his previous line of questioning. “I presume some of the police are looking for ‘The Disappeared’?”
“Not exactly. Under Puppet Scarecrow and Cum Dommings, people who dare stand up to them aren’t allowed, so ‘The Disappeared’ aren’t intended to reappear. There could be a second level of offence soon, though, when corporal punishment is reintroduced. There may be fewer disappearances then.” Dave had trouble believing the sense of hope with which this final sentence was delivered. “Look, we really shouldn’t be talking about such things.”
“Why, what might happen? Walls don’t really have ears, you know. We can still talk freely in private. What is anyone going to do about it?”
There was a knock at the door.
Jen looked for more and, realising that was it, looked at me. We both looked at Jimez.
“Well?” asked the author, nervously.
“I think you’ve tried to cram too much into too little space,” I opined. “All of that in just five short chapters – the shocks need to be spread out more so the suspense and the feeling of horror build. But, it’s powerful, I’ll give you that, and by your standards, it’s bloody good.”
“And quite lengthy,” added Jen, with an unsurprising touch of sarcasm.
“I thought of calling it 2020, but I thought it was too Orwellian.”
“The title doesn’t matter, mate; it’s Orwellian enough already,” I said firmly.
“Maybe the fantasy of George Orwell meets the fiction of J K Rowling?” suggested Jen.
“Are you suggesting an element of plagiarism?” asked Jimez.
“I think you might get away with calling it drawing inspiration from the work of others,” said Jen, more sympathetically.
“You need to be careful who sees work like that these days,” I warned. “Your story could be quite prophetic.”
There was a knock at the door.
The Kipper and the Boris
“Sir Kim Darroch!” The toast rang out loud and clear around Cape Town and the echoes in support of the betrayed former UK ambassador to the USA resounded from every room in my café. “A man who tells the truth!” More table banging in appreciation could be heard, some so loud I made a mental note to inspect my furniture for damage, come the close of business.
“It’s so ironic!” James said with a level of passion his wife would probably appreciate from time to time (but don’t ask me how I know that). “He tells the truth and then gets ridiculed as stupid by the most stupid president of any country the world has ever seen!”
“Imagine being termed a pompous fool by the biggest fool in world politics!” John added with a groan which exceeded the usual decibel count associated with sighs of despair.
“And then,” Mike said, having recovered from the slight choking fit induced by drinking to his own toast, “to quote a supposedly fellow Conservative MP, the ambassador was summarily ‘thrown under the bus’ by the future British prime minister, a man so in The Trump’s pocket, he daren’t support a British civil servant who is actually doing his job with the honesty, integrity and ability required!”
The collective fumes of the three men could possibly have lit a fire from a pile of damp driftwood at dusk.
Mike had, by no stretch of the imagination, finished. This would have been so completely out of character as to demand a public inquiry. “And the two-faced American twat, merely one month after being treated in a totally undeserved way by the British establishment, slags off the UK and its government for not doing exactly what he, the great modern dictator, says.” The revulsion and hatred incited by the mere mention of an American president ought, one thinks, to be shocking to Americans everywhere, but somehow seems not to be.
“And, if we have to talk Trumpton,” chipped in James, clearly finding the topic distasteful, “what about his developing policy of repatriation? Sending American congresswomen home because, as they are neither Republican nor white, they’re obviously anti-American?”
“Even Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, who isn’t the greatest fan of the four victims of the president’s abuse, called it evidence of Trump’s underlying policy to ‘make America white again’.” John’s intonation was flat with anger.
Mike, having bided his time while lubricating his vocal cords with a fine South African craft beer, indicated his wish to take a new turn with a deep intake of breath, indicative of quite a long speech in the making. “Quoting The Trump, as close I can recall, he declared it ‘so interesting to see ‘progressive’ Democrat congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world, if they even have a functioning government at all, blah, blah, blah’. I mean, three of them were born in America so Trump’s use of the word ‘inept’ to describe their ‘home’ government seems to endorse Sir Kim Darroch’s view as being 100% accurate. I see his intended accusation as the closest he’s so far come to confessing to his own incompetence!” This well-worked argument prompted considerable approval from the assembled.
“I mean,” Mike went on, as though his arguments needed further explanation or elaboration, “his rallies are increasingly like the Hitler rallies of the 1930s with crazed people chanting ‘send her back’. And all his rhetoric is just encouraging racism and hatred throughout America and beyond and no doubt endangering the lives of not only those he targets but many others besides.”
James decided to relocate the conversation to the other side of The Pond. “Apparently, in the latest twist of our laughable special relationship, he is telling us how to trade with China,” he said with some derision. “And if we don’t behave, there’ll be no post-Brexit trade deal.”
“So much for ‘taking back control’,” mocked John, “as the Brexit-backing wankers tried to sell us.”
“And the one who will be leader is so effing ridiculous, he waves a pre-packed kipper around at a conference as an example of the EU control he so wants rid of, when what he was criticising was actually a British law!” James was not amused. “Ineptitude can be funny in a television sitcom, but it doesn’t belong in national government, especially in a supposedly advanced democracy.”
“And now look where we’re at!” Mike took over the baton, increasingly scarlet-faced with rage. “Two Brexit-loving candidates to be prime minister; one of them, Jeremy Hunt says Brexit is worth companies closing and people losing their jobs and livelihoods over. Farridge, who may well become Johnson’s other puppeteer, besides Trump, I mean, says it’s worth losing the United Kingdom for. And yet nobody, nobody actually tells us what we are going to gain from it, nothing except utter mayhem! I mean, what is wrong with these people?”
“A new prime minister elected by virtually nobody,” commented James in despair. “My assessment of them: Jeremy Hunt one out of ten; Boris Johnson a big fat zero. Sums the latter up quite nicely actually.”
“Is this any way to choose a new leader?”, asked John, adopting Mike’s mantle for asking questions with such obvious answers, they were greeted with stony silence.
After a few seconds of a well-deserved drinking interlude, Mike decided to continue the one-sided debate. “Well, the Tory leadership contest is decreasingly about who can do the best job but rather who can inflict the most damage. As you said, James, it all belongs in a sitcom, seeing two men vying for a job by out-promising each other about just how bad they will be for the country.”
“The cleverest thing you can say about Johnson,” interrupted John, “is that he surrounds himself with people who realise what a prize chump he is and therefore keep him out of the public eye until most people have cast their votes. And this is the man who is likely to be representing the UK at the highest level. How did this happen?”
“And then look at some of the twits who support him,” Mike resumed. “Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to turn England’s cricket World Cup win into evidence of how little we need Europe. It was ridiculous at any level, but even more so when it was pointed out to him that the English captain is Irish, four other players were born outside the UK and two are the grandchildren of immigrants!” Sardonic laughter, bordering on pity for the afflicted, rang around the room.
“Well, the best thing you can say about Rees-Mogg is that he is the perfect fit for the dumbest, most unlikeable prat in a P G Wodehouse novel,” declared James. “I love reading Jeeves and Wooster but would hate to meet some of the idiots who frequent the Drones. And Rees-Mogg would be so at home there.”
“I reckon he stays up into the wee small hours writing fairy tales for children called ‘Project Fear’,” added Mike, to gales of genuine laughter. “Well, his ideas are so divorced from reality, they could easily be considered fairy tales, perhaps with a dark adult theme!”
More drinks were ordered as more thoughts were gathered.
“I was watching an episode of Morse the other night,” said Mike, in what seemed to be a drastic shift in focus. Briefly, as it turned out. “There was something said by Freddie Jones, latterly in Emmerdale and sadly recently deceased, which really struck a chord with me. It was about not staying quiet when it comes to witnessing people trying to cheat your country and about it being made to feel like an honour to gaze upon false dreams. Fake news apparently only truly disappoints when it is found out. And that’s why we have to be sure the lies of Johnson, Trump, Bannon, Farridge, Rees-Mogg and their ilk are found out and exposed, before it’s too late.”
Wise nodding around the bar made me somehow think of those dogs with funny faces people used to place on the rear window-shelves of cars.
“Here’s a couple of big questions.” Mike raised his pitch, as James and John readied themselves as though it was the tie-breaker in a pub quiz. “Would Theresa May actually have been a decent Prime Minister had she not been damned by Brexit? And will she really campaign for Brexit come the second referendum?”
“Question 1, we’ll never know,” replied James.
“And as for question 2,” said John, “I genuinely doubt it, I think she’s too intelligent!”
And you wonder why I think of escaping to the sanity of Lebanon.
Conkers, piercings, tattoos and bullying – a meander in Budapest with The Presence
Jimez and Jen arrived together, something of a first and an occasion which might have led the non-aware into thinking they were a couple, which they most certainly were not, despite the former’s valiant attempts. To be honest, such attempts were a thing of the distant past as Jen had long since made it clear she preferred my cake menu to the attentions of a failed bohemian who resembled a Basset Hound on a bad day. Ears excepted.
Stopping at the bar in Cape Town, presumably in a bid to get served more quickly than had they waited for me to come to them (and this was a valid viewpoint to take), they ordered a cappuccino each, another departure from routine in Jen’s case, and two slices of Eszterházy, which represented no departure of any kind whatsoever.
They headed off into Budapest, my room for arty types, whether successful or otherwise. If truth be told, of course, artistic success on the part of my customers was as prevalent as snowdrops in Siberia on Christmas Day or common sense in the Brexit party, but one lives in hope of a change of the positive variety.
I delivered their order pretty promptly by my standards and found them rambling aimlessly about this and that. Nothing new there.
“Did you know,” Jimez, so often quiet and reticent in the company of more than one, began in the style of one who was about to share common knowledge rather than say anything novel or, dare I say, bordering on the relevant, “that conkers is being banned in schools?”
“Whatever for?” Jen was pretending (I think) to be outraged by the apparent affront to her human rights implicit in this question.
“I used to have a one hundred and sixty,” I reminisced, to the combined surprise of my customers.
“You’ve lost me,” Jen commented, although whether this meant she was cut adrift in the logistics of a schoolyard game from a bygone era or, more likely, in her piece of Eszterházy was open to a little questioning.
“Every new vinegar-soaked conker starts off with a score of one,” I explained, not a hundred percent sure where I was going. Let’s face it, I haven’t played in nearly half a century. “And then if your conker beats another one, you add the score of the vanquished chestnut to that of your own…” I tailed off, acknowledging that I had little confidence in my own explanation and full confidence that Jen was so busy with her cake, she wouldn’t have noticed had I started reciting Shakespearean sonnets. I turned to Jimez, who had, I believe, been nodding along in agreement with my interpretation of the rules. “So, why is it being banned?” I queried, opting for the easy way out.
“Apparently, schools are scared of being sued if someone is hit by a low-flying chestnut,” Jimez explained.
“Humph!” Jen’s noise came at an apposite moment, indicating that perhaps she could listen and eat at the same time. “That’s the nanny state for you,” she declared. I felt bound to concur, although my surprise at her ability to multi-task when one of the tasks under scrutiny was edible rendered me temporarily speechless.
“We’re not allowed to climb trees anymore either.” Jimez added more fuel to a fire in which my mind was redirected into conjuring up images of the slightly lanky individual with no visible evidence of muscle who was seated in front of me hauling himself up a trunk. It seemed he could read my mind; either that or my poker face was not performing to the requisite level. “Not me! It was a very generic ‘we’, meaning anyone of the appropriate age range.”
“But it’s true,” said Jen, finishing her cake before Jimez had even started and casting rather longing looks at the latter’s untouched slice. “All those things we used to do when we were young, there are now laws against. I know there are increased risks in modern life but there is so much interference, it sometimes feels we’re not allowed to choose what we do. It’s an infringement against our personal freedom.”
I can’t say I was expecting such strong opinions on this matter from two childless middle-aged souls. Perhaps it was because they had no offspring to worry about, however, which made them so carefree in their attitudes to the younger generation. I was assuming Jen had no personal wish to climb a tree.
“Mind you,” Jen continued after a few moments of what might have been interpreted as careful consideration, “at least keeping them out of the trees is probably of benefit to the trees themselves.” I had wondered how long it would take before the environmentalist within reared its concerned head.
Jimez had gone quiet and appeared to have developed a sudden fixation with Jen’s nose. The object of his unwanted attention became aware of this curious display of interest and returned his gaze with a perturbed expression featuring a questioning eyebrow. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I was just thinking…”
“Do you have to?”
“It happens from time to time,” confessed the thinker. “Has that thing in your nose ever had an effect on others’ impressions of you?”
“By ‘thing’,” Jen retorted, in tones indicative of feigned displeasure, “I assume you are referring to the only bit of jewellery I wear?”
“Where I were a lad,” Jimez said, sounding like the Oldhamer he was, “such things were considered rather unseemly.”
“When you were a lad, I reckon that applied to a lass going out on her own on a Friday night,” countered Jen, although I suspected her example wasn’t as cutting as she might have wished.
“Have you got any tattoos?” Jimez was being unusually direct.
“Just the one.”
“Somewhere you’ll never see.”
Jimez decided not to despair at this putdown to any lingering romantic aspirations he had in Jen’s direction. He clearly had another argument on his mind. “But I used to find piercings, other than earrings, and tattoos really…” He tailed off, perhaps aware he was on the verge of causing offence to his would-be nearest and dearest.
“Please, do continue,” teased Jen, who could detect an awkwardness which was there to be exploited.
Jimez seemed happy, if not desperate to retreat into his shell, but he had poked his head out too far to go back without loss of credibility. “Well,” he squirmed, as if my Biedermeier chair had developed an ant infestation, “I know some people who, for example, wouldn’t employ someone with a visible tattoo or piercing.” I quite admired his ability to turn a potentially dangerous first-person argument into one of the depersonalised third.
“More fool them,” commented she of the nose ring, trying to hide her smile at the sigh of relief emanating from the other side of the marble-topped table. Jimez clearly thought he had escaped retribution for his indiscretion. “But, actually, you do have a point. Back in the nineties, I was told to take it out at work; now, no one bats an eyelid. As for tattoos, I think it depends on your job. Rock stars and footballers can be covered from head to toe in them and everyone in a certain age range thinks ‘fashionable’. See them on a cashier at the bank and even now, some people won’t like it. And I suppose that could affect their employability, however discriminatory it may seem.” She sipped her cappuccino, looking at it in mild surprise as though it wasn’t her usual afternoon beverage of choice. Which it indeed was not.
“I have to admit…” Jimez took advantage of the interlude and seemed to have a renewed outburst of bravado. “I don’t mind seeing them on other people at all, but I’ve never wanted to kiss a woman with a tongue stud, and I’d hate to get into bed with someone and find their body covered in assorted paint and metal.”
“I doubt they’d be interested in you either, love,” retorted Jen. “Each to their own, as we say. There’s someone for everyone somewhere.” She winked at me, rather mischievously. “Well, nearly everyone.”
Jimez opened his mouth as if to demand elaboration but clearly thought better of it. He looked into his own cappuccino in the vain hope of finding an answer to the woes of life and love, and then looked up again to find himself dwarfed by the arrival of a tall stranger in a Colombian cowboy hat. I assumed it was Colombian as I have an identical one, which I wear when I visit Colombia. It was a pretty safe assumption as I had met this guy once before, on which occasion we had discovered a highly unlikely shared liking for a small café by the name of Sybarita in the quaint town of Villa de Leyva, around a half-day’s bus ride north-east of Bogotá.
The new arrival shook my hand with a very firm grip and a smile, the latter of which caused him to lose the cocktail stick he had been remorselessly chewing on. If you think Bradley Cooper’s character in A Star is Born and then double some aspects of it, you might begin to get an inkling. I think ‘faded hard rocker’ would be a useful term with which to move on to a deeper level of appreciation of our latest acquaintance. On our initial meeting, a mosquito of a particularly annoying and persistent nature had temporarily forced him to remove his headgear, which was apparently there to hide a considerable lack of hair. The hair which could be seen by one and all was long, as in a quarter of the way down his back, dark to the point of being black, except where touches of grey had dared to infiltrate, and with the still noticeable remnants of burgundy highlights, which occasionally caught the light and attracted a second glance, perhaps more out of bemusement than admiration. He also sported a neckerchief, surprisingly in the place where you would expect one to be worn, in a vain attempt to look cool, presumably whilst hiding his turkey neck.
There was no doubt he had turned up in the right room. I can’t remember why he had opened up to me so much but he certainly seemed to have had more than a fair share of tears for what might have been. Having said that, some post-interaction internet research suggested he was more of a ‘never was’ than a ‘has been’. My café, or at least this corner of it, at times seems unfairly laden with characters, myself included, who fall into one of these two forlorn categories.
Seeing I was not alone, he turned to Jen and Jimez, who had been conspicuous by their silence since the newcomer had arrived. “How are you doing?” he asked in a deep, gravelly voice, offering his hand to both. “I’m The Presence.”
“What did I do?” Jimez mumbled to Jen. “What have I done to deserve a present? And if I am getting a present, why does it have to come in the form of a man with a voice like a quarry?”
In the confines of a room the size of Budapest, even a whisper is heard by all but the stone deaf. The Presence had apparently not been rendered hard of hearing by years of aural punishment and seemed a touch embarrassed by the question he had probably not been intended to hear. “If you’ll excuse me while I use your rest room a moment,” he said in an Americanesque drawl. “And could I have a bourbon on the rocks?”
Allowing a pause of around two seconds for him to, hopefully, walk out of earshot, Jen asked the obvious. “Where’s he from?”
“Bradford.” I went to see if I had anything which could be even loosely described as bourbon. I knew the rocks would be no problem.
Upon my return, the room was to be found in an uneasy state of silence. The Presence had decided not to encroach upon the hospitality of the curious strangers and had seated himself at the other table, sucking on a newly installed cocktail stick and shutting himself off from reality by pulling the brim of his hat low down over his eyes. Not low enough to expose any lack of hair at the rear, however. My two regulars were, well, curious, but as the jaw of the rocker was relentlessly working on splintering the wood in his mouth, it was safe to assume he would also be capable of hearing any gossip in the close vicinity.
“Your drink, sir,” I said over-politely, placing the glass rather loudly on the polished marble. I was left to assume the ensuing grunt was a gesture of thanks.
Jimez clearly decided there was little point in trying to develop a conversation with or about The Presence and so reverted to the random prattle which had been interrupted by his entrance. “Were you ever bullied?” he asked of anyone who was listening. I marvelled at how seamlessly he had moved through the seemingly unrelated topics of conkers, piercings, tattoos and bullying. Being of a mathematical-logical disposition, I mentally busied myself for five seconds, endeavouring to establish a link. Having failed, I looked enquiringly at Jen, hoping she might have some kind of response. She, in turn, was looking at her cappuccino, hoping there would still be some left to imbibe as a pleasant form of diversion.
Jimez, however, didn’t seem to care if anyone answered or not, as he had his own story to impart. “I was,” he began, as though happily having a conversation with the inner self. “It was nothing serious really, but I remember it being a bit of a surprise. I was always one of the oldest and tallest in whatever class I was in, although I suppose I was rather wimpish.” He looked at us, as though fishing for the non-existing compliment that we couldn’t imagine him being anything of the sort. Having accepted that such reassurance would not be forthcoming in the foreseeable, he proceeded regardless, if only to distract himself from the elephant in the room who was now snoozing on the adjacent table. I had no idea when his drink had been drunk but drunk it most certainly had been.
“I think it was in the third or fourth year,” resumed the narrator. “I was standing at the back of the school hall, minding my own business, when I suddenly got pushed by two kids from the same year, one being a supposedly innocuous bean with a double-barrelled surname from my own form. I seem to remember asking if anything was wrong, concerned perhaps that they were suffering from blurred vision, but then they started poking fun at me and pushing me around some more.”
“The beginnings of nastiness,” declared Jen. “What did you do?”
“Remember, this is a long, long time ago,” said Jimez, profoundly. “I’m not even sure bullying was an issue in those days. I just looked at them with a degree of sympathy and wandered off. They must have been really disappointed by my reaction as they decided never to bother me again.”
“Ah, the good ol’ days,” sighed Jen in the manner of a geriatric, “when such poison was relatively insignificant. If only it was so minor nowadays.” A considerable amount of head-shaking ensued, spreading from Jen to Jimez to me like an infectious ailment. We glanced over at The Presence, but he appeared immune.
“These days, it’s everywhere.” Jimez mused. “Now everyone over the age of four has a smartphone, it’s so easy to abuse anyone, anywhere, anytime, and get away with it, without anyone knowing the distress being caused.”
“And the victim just bottles it up because it all seems too silly and pointless to make a fuss about,” Jen continued. “Until ‘it all’ suddenly becomes too much and then people look to…, well, not good outcomes.” The end of the sentence wasn’t really necessary.
A sombre and reflective mood took over the room as Jimez and Jen somewhat noisily drained the foam from their already empty cups. I really was at a loss to explain why they hadn’t ordered something else. They both looked on the verge of dozing off when a loud snore from The Presence, whose presence hadn’t actually contributed much to the afternoon’s musings, brought everybody back to the real world with a cup-dropping jolt.
“Good job that was empty!” Jen restored the cup to its saucer and looked at her empty plate. “Same again, methinks.” I waited for the inevitable. “But make it a Chemex this time. With…”
“I know! Milk!” The woman will never learn.
Looking on the bright side – the loneliness of the long-distance traveller
The sun was shining again. After all the recent negativity, I appreciated the warmth, along with the near-cloudless sky, which was in such marked contrast to the grey, sombre or stormy climes of recent days (and I’m not only talking about the weather). I was taking a well-earned late morning break with a self-made cappuccino in Granada, when my mood was lifted even further by the approach of my three favourite open-air customers (no offence intended to all the others). I was even happier to see Mark leading the way with the face-lightening smile which had been so conspicuous by its complete absence on our last encounter. Matthew and Lois were back and, for a while at least, all was well again in his world as we viewed it, although I presumed the inner turmoil I had recently been exposed to lay not far beneath the surface.
Greetings exchanged and customers settled, I hastened to prepare a Chemex for two and a pot of green tea for one.
“Did you miss us, then?” Matthew was asking as I wobbled uncertainly back outside. I can make the stuff; I’m just not all that hot at carrying it.
“Don’t be daft,” Mark responded, with a slightly nervous look in my direction. I’m nothing if not discreet, when it’s the right thing to be, and this was a case in point.
“We never noticed you weren’t here,” I lied, convincingly so I thought, especially as Lois looked almost hurt. “Just joking, of course we did.” I had to pitch the answer somewhere in the middle to keep both parties happy.
“It was a little odd, though,” Mark confessed in a sudden outburst of honesty which rendered my attempt at diplomacy null and void. “I’m not used to being the one left behind with no one to go out with and everyone I know in far-flung parts of the world.” It was true the three of them travelled so much and had very few local connections other than each other, so I was pretty sure Matthew and Lois would be more than able to empathise, even if their responses might be laced with their everyday common or garden version of sarcasm.
“There’s a book in there somewhere,” said Matthew, thoughtfully.
“How about, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Friend’,” suggested Lois.
“That’s the one I was thinking of,” Matthew approved. The reaction was an uncomfortable blend of amusement with a strange kind of sadness, reflecting the discussion I had had with Mark recently in Beirut, in which the conflict between what seemed like a jet-set lifestyle and the comparative emptiness of the quiet life at home had reared its ugly head with little scope for ambiguity.
Lois used the prevailing topic and the moment of reflection to form her question for the day. “During all of your travels, when have you felt most lonely?” This required some thinking time because, for people who travel a lot, loneliness is an all too frequent friend.
“I think I’ve already told you mine,” said Matthew, rather too quickly for too much consideration to have been given. “Bandit country in northern Pakistan for one, even though I had company, and heading towards the Syrian border in Lebanon with no one other than a non-English-speaking taxi driver, but that was quite brief. I’ll leave this one to you, Mark.”
“Funny you should say that,” said the newly good-humoured one. “I can think of two occasions, although they don’t really come with particularly good stories attached.” Lois, having leaned forward in expectation of amusement or despair (the latter usually leading to equal amusement) at her friend’s exploits and expense, sat back again looking rather disappointed. “One was on the Trans-Siberian Express.”
“Oh, I was always wanted to do that!” exclaimed Lois, shifting mood to jealousy.
“So did I” concurred Mark, “and I was really glad I did it when I did back in the late nineties, although in the last two days heading towards Moscow, one did get rather sick of the sight of yet another silver birch. And the two Japanese guys I was sharing a cabin with didn’t speak much English so there weren’t many distractions other than the samovar of hot water for making excessive quantities of tea and, perhaps, an American couple in first class who had the luxury of a shower and were quite eager to let people see it on request. More of a drip in all honesty, but at least it was a private drip.”
“Your washing facilities must have been a right barrel of laughs, then” commented Matthew.
“I didn’t find them till day three,” confessed Mark, as Lois wrinkled her nose in disgust. “And even then, I stuck to the bare essentials.” Fortunately, he didn’t elaborate on what exactly these were. Some things are just too personal.
“I almost lost my Japanese ‘friends’ as well,” Mark continued. “When we arrived at the Russian border, the guards noticed their visas weren’t live until the following day. The following day was in a few hours’ time so it all seemed a bit bureaucratic and pointless, bearing in mind we were locked in a train carriage crossing from the wilderness of the Gobi Desert to the wilderness of Siberia, but it was enough to cause a short delay.”
“Did you get on with them OK?” asked Lois, dropping her formal interviewing tone.
“One of them in particular,” answered Mark. “He used to come with me for meals in the restaurant car. This might not sound like much of an expedition but it’s a very long train and I had booked early and had berth 001. The restaurant car was at the very far end of the train because it was changed according to the country we were passing through. I reckon it was close to half a mile from one end to the other but that may be a slight exaggeration. I can’t remember going while we were in China, but the Mongolian car was really quite interesting food-wise. After that, without wishing to be too derogatory towards Russian cuisine, it went a bit downhill. One can tire of chicken and mash for every meal.”
“Hardly representative,” adjudged Matthew, to which Mark nodded in agreement.
“But I think the loneliest I have ever felt was in the company of one of my best friends from years ago.”
“How can you be lonely with a best friend?” queried a bemused Lois.
“It wasn’t the feeling I’d been expecting,” admitted Mark. “We’d been working in Durban for a month and had a few days off. Faced with a choice between Johannesburg and Lesotho, we made the last-minute decision to go to the latter by car. Once away from the main highways, it was so quiet. Even while still in South Africa, we stopped in this village and it just brought to mind that phrase Richard Hannay used in the last ’39 Steps’ film – a ‘one horse dorp’. I hadn’t really thought what one was like until I went to this place.”
“What does it mean?” asked Lois.
“Apparently, it’s just an alternative way of saying a small town where nothing happens,” replied the intrepid traveller. “I had to google it,” he added, in response to a slightly raised eyebrow. “Anyway, then we crossed into Lesotho, rather unwisely ignoring any petrol stations on the way. The first night was a little surreal; we found somewhere to stay and then went for a drink. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we were the only white people in the place and the only ones drinking large quantities of Bacardi Breezers, our in-drink of the time, and consequently the focus of too much attention. I can’t say it was unwanted attention, although one older guy in particular was rather too keen to dissuade some of the younger customers, by which I mean mid-teenagers, bothering us.”
“Why? Were you considered dangerous or a malevolent influence of some kind?”
“Dunno. They were asking us loads of questions about Man United, which we happy to answer, but maybe the older guy thought they were being a nuisance.”
“It doesn’t sound very lonely so far,” remarked Matthew, recalling the initial question.
“Well, you can be lonely in a crowd,” Lois pointed out.
“True, but it really began the following day,” Mark replied. “We’d stopped in the first town in the country so we felt close to the more familiar South Africa, almost like clinging onto home, even though it wasn’t. But then we headed out into what really felt increasingly like the last place on earth. It became wilder and more beautiful by the mile and, other than a couple of guys on a pair of BMW bikes, we felt further and further from civilisation. It was a wonderful feeling, a powerful emotion, but also very unnerving. That’s why I say I felt lonely, even though my friend, Mick, was with me the whole time.”
“Wow!” Lois seemed unusually speechless. I was merely marvelling at the difference in Mark’s tone from my last conversation with him. What a difference a friend or two makes. Really.
“I’ve got to say, though,” Mark went on, “I have six photographs from my pre-digital travels enlarged and framed on my wall at home, and three of them, from a choice of well over a thousand, are from that short venture into Lesotho. I may have felt lonely and a little scared at times, especially when we seemed about to run out of petrol miles from a corner shop let alone a petrol station, but looking back on it, it was one of the best trips of my life. One of the pictures is just of miles of empty roads, more like tracks into a fairy-tale oblivion really, to show the isolation; one was a fluke, a shot of a farmer taken from a moving car on a bumpy road which others think is blurred but to me is like an impressionist painting and is possibly my favourite photograph ever; the other contender just evokes so many memories.” He paused as if suddenly lost in the Lesotho of late 2001.
“Such as?” pressed the impatient Lois.
“We’d found this hut, which turned out to be a bar. There were two rooms and a terrace, but literally, it was a shack in the middle of a field, even though it was little more than a mile above the capital, Maseru. There were a few locals sitting on the terrace drinking something, I can’t remember what. We were a little shy to ask if we could have a drink because it wasn’t initially obvious it was a bar. Anyway, this guy led us into a room which had a cooler at the back. That was it, a cooler, and bare floorboards. I can’t remember if we had beers or Bacardi Breezers; the drink just wasn’t important. We sat on the terrace, with these local guys and watched the sun go down over the hills. And that’s my pic. Beautiful to me, if meaningless to others.”
You could see and hear the emotion in the description; pure happiness with a sense of nostalgia and regret over times long gone. But that’s what fond memories are all too often about, unfortunately – knowing it happened and very unlikely ever to be repeated.
“And then we almost crashed off the Sani Pass the day after,” Mark added, awakening from the sublime and bringing the conversation, almost literally, crashing down to earth. “Mick thought it was good fun to speed in a two-wheel drive car down one of the most dangerous mountain passes in the world. He soon changed his mind after we span off on a straight stretch of ‘road’.” The final word came with air quotation marks to indicate quite clearly that ‘road’ was a very loose description. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he concluded, however contradictory his last two or three sentences might have been.
“Time for a Cruzcampo, I think,” determined Matthew, as if Mark’s trip down memory lane had induced a severe incidence of thirst. There are times when I don’t want to leave a conversation, but a customer is a customer, and three customers are just as indisputably three customers, so a barman’s duty has to be done. Besides, I was pretty certain they would still be chatting three or four minutes later and, of course, I was correct, although the topic had moved on. Or, perhaps I should say, moved back to add to a tale of yesteryear.
“For some reason, while I was travelling the other day, I recalled another brothel experience,” Matthew was saying in the quiet tones of hoped-for confidentiality. “Or at least I think it was a brothel experience.”
“Do you mean you can’t tell?” asked Lois in a voice laden with scepticism.
“Well, I just wasn’t sure because, you know me, I always look on the bright side of things.”
“Well for men like you, isn’t a brothel as bright a side as it can get?”
Matthew was affronted on a personal level, whereas Mark took offence on behalf of man.
Matthew, after a sharp intake of breath, decided not to rise to the bait. “It was on one of my first trips to Almaty. I was staying in a flat and I had been given some leaflets and tourist brochures recommending places to eat and other such stuff. One of the restaurants sounded pretty interesting and was just around the corner so I decided to go. There were no signs outside, except, I think, for one in Russian, which I didn’t understand. I decided to risk going in and, without wanting to sound too sexist, there were several very nubile young ladies literally draped all over the first room. I only wanted food – honestly – but, as a very obvious foreigner, they clearly thought I was there for other reasons. I think I asked a dumb question about what they had for dinner…”
Matthew wasn’t allowed to go any further as Lois’s imagination had gone into overdrive and she had one of her hysterical giggling fits; hysterical in the sense that she found something incredibly funny, but also in the sense that everyone at close quarters couldn’t help but laugh at her. She finally calmed down. “And which one did you have?” she managed to say.
“I think I left and went somewhere else,” said Mark in tones of mild, but clearly tolerant tones of rebuke.
“Awwww, what a shame!” Lois loved it when her friends were put in compromising positions. It made me wonder how she had any friends in the first place. She wanted more. “You didn’t tell us much about your American trip,” she prompted, hoping for more tales of embarrassment.
“All I can remember at the moment is the journey, which, to use an American term, was both a metaphorical and literal pain in the butt.”
“Well, it is quite a long way,” Mark pointed out, as if his friend was unaware of the blooming obvious.
“Imagine,” responded Matthew, as if trying to explain a complex concept to your average six-year-old, “you’ve been travelling for twenty hours from the north of England to London to the west coast of Canada. You’ve been confined for nine hours in the window seat of a jumbo jet packed full of people and their luggage. And then, in the late evening, when all you can think about is a bed, you arrive to be greeted by the labours of a one-man baggage handling team in Vancouver airport. And no matter how often the announcements apologise for the inconvenience caused, forgiveness isn’t at the forefront of one’s mind, especially when there is still another two hours by minibus before the bed actually materialises.”
“I feel for you,” said Lois, although it was clear she was trying to repress a laugh as she rubbed the base of her spine. Or the top of her butt, I couldn’t actually tell. Either way, Matthew managed to ignore her.
“Too much time on a plane can be detrimental to one’s health,” Mark added by way of more sincere consolation, or a statement of fact, depending how you looked at it.
“The other thing I remember happened on the journey back,” Matthew continued, and then hesitated as if unsure whether the looming confession was worth the trouble. He seemed to think, ‘ah well; in for a penny, in for a pound’, before continuing. As if Lois would have let him off the hook in any case. “I was watching the seatback TV and, for reasons I can’t quite remember, I started crying at a very predictable comedy film, secretly trying to dry my eyes so the six-foot six-inch macho man sitting next to me didn’t notice.”
“Awwww, you poor thing!” consoled Lois. At least, I think this is what she said; it was hard to tell as she had another giggling fit and inadvertently spat some Cruzcampo at an innocent passer-by.
“It must have been tiredness,” Matthew defended himself.
“What else could it have been, you soppy old git?” Lois, after a momentary note of sobriety while she apologised to the victim of her most recent bout of hilarity, resumed her infectious laughter which no one, not Mark, not me, and eventually not even Matthew could resist joining in, even if it wasn’t clear whether we were laughing with her or at her. It wasn’t even that funny a story, but who cared?
“How dare that man soil our soil?” Mike’s take on a certain president’s ill-informed, whirlwind tour of destruction
I had an idea that Cape Town wasn’t destined to be a room filled with joy. Things had not been going well in the worlds of Mike, James and John in recent weeks and the atmosphere was laden with despondency with some potential for anger as I looked enquiringly over the bar into the eyes of three of my most loyal customers. Gloom or otherwise, the request for three beers was delivered in accordance with my expectations and, hopefully, served in accordance with theirs. Their appetites also appeared to be in a decent state of repair and I disappeared into the kitchen to craft three manouches with zaatar designed to fill the void.
Food on the bar and with first glasses almost empty, one might reasonably have expected an upward swing in mood. What I hadn’t taken into account was that they were talking football at the end of a season in which their beloved Manchester United had spectacularly failed to deliver little other than insipid disappointment.
“Is there anything more irksome or hurtful than starting a home game at odds of 11/2 against?” Mike asked, aghast that such a nightmare scenario had ever come to pass. “Especially when you’re playing Manchester City?”
“Sure there is,” replied an equally disconsolate James. “When the odds of 11/2 against are completely justified.” You could tell Mike wanted to explode against the tone of resigned acceptance with which this message was delivered, but he probably realised he hadn’t got much of a leg to stand on and so placed his anger on temporary hold.
“It was a weird end to the season.” John decided to maintain the flow of conversation in a bid to prevent the premature release of Mike’s pent-up fury, although in doing so, sowed even more seeds of discontent. “Whoever thought we would be subjected to that previously unheard-of collocation in the language of English football, the ‘De Gea howler’? Who saw that one coming?”
“And not just once either,” commented Mike in the downtrodden voice of one who had experienced the sporting equivalent of post-traumatic stress.
“Do you think it’ll get worse before it gets better?” queried James. “I mean, our situation?”
Mike sighed, increasingly the most common non-verbal output heard in my café. “I suspect so.” James and John gave their friend some time to think as they detected a rant was on its way. This was hardly a remarkable deduction on their part as rants were part of the daily fabric of life when Mike was in the vicinity. By his standards, this was quite a sombre affair, tinged with disappointment and regret. “By the end of this season, even though there had been some great games and spectacular comebacks, in Europe in particular, I was almost bored with football.” This clearly wasn’t what James and John had been expecting and looks of genuine surprise were exchanged. “A little bit of this might be sour grapes as a Man United fan but really, I’d had enough. Money has just taken over to such an extent, even with my own team, that football just isn’t the fun it used to be. Bayern Munich, PSG, Juventus, Barcelona and Man City all won their leagues again, as I confidently predicted at the beginning of the season, even though Bayern and City were made to fight rather harder than expected. I was really pleased the English Premiership filled all four places in the two European finals, but that’s where my interest ended – I didn’t even bother looking when the finals were, let alone watch them. As for United, let’s face it, other than the first nine or ten games under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, they performed like a team playing for sixth and that’s exactly what we got, achieved by, for the most part, producing some pretty drab and mediocre football, despite having some of the very best players in world football. And when you come to think about it, finishing sixth, behind what I regret to say is the best team in Europe at the moment in Man City, and the four teams who reached the finals of the biggest two tournaments in European, if not world football, should not be seen as too much of a disgrace. And yet, for many of us, it’s a complete disaster. Especially when you consider City and Liverpool look like they’ll dominate for another two to three years at least.”
“For me, one of the most annoying things is that Guardiola and Klopp were two names high on United’s managerial wanted list in times not-too-distant past,” James noted, correctly. “We missed out on both of them and they go on to transform our two greatest rivals into the best teams in Europe.”
And with that, so ended the friends’ analysis of football at a very despairing time in their club’s evolution. There was really little else to say.
And then they moved onto politics. If one single topic could be guaranteed to send the mood into freefall, not that there were much lower depths to plunge, this was it.
“Who on earth would be prime minster?” John signalled the new subject after the delivery of three more beers. “Well, other than the thirteen or so Tories who have put their names forward to succeed Theresa May?”
“Just eleven left standing now, but you have to wonder, don’t you?” James decided to get his tuppence-worth in before Mike had time to collect his thoughts and pronounce them. “Tony Blair blew his reputation by taking Britain into a war in Iraq. David Cameron blew his reputation by caving into his cry-baby right-wing and calling a referendum no one else wanted. And Theresa May lost her reputation, and now her job, by actually believing anyone could deliver on the promises of the 2016 referendum – enough said on that one.”
“Until recently, suggestions that Johnson, Rees-Mogg or Gove could take over the leadership of the Conservatives and thereby become Prime Minister without an election seemed ludicrous,” John continued, marvelling that Mike was remaining silent for so long on such a personally emotive subject. “I couldn’t have imagined anything worse! Except perhaps Corbyn, and even he’s only equally as bad. But now it seems like Johnson is the bookies’ favourite to do so, unless common sense makes an unlikely takeover of the Tory party.”
“And unfortunately, with UKIP and Brexit party members joining the Tories just to make sure a neo-fascist is elected, the bookies are likely to be right.” Mike finally gave his verdict on the proceedings. “Rumour has it half of the parliamentary Tory party will quit if Bojo becomes leader – he represents no one other than himself and the interests of the very few. Any by and large, he can’t even manage that competently.”
“Now who does that remind you of…?” pondered James, rhetorically.
“How dare anyone let that man soil our soil?” said Mike, angrily, without bothering to give name to the president in question.
“Did you see what Trevor Noah, the US TV host, said of Johnson and the Trump?” laughed John, although anything regarding these two is scarcely a laughing matter. “’I’ve never seen two people who look like failed clones of each other!’”
“Tragic really, when you think they might be in charge of two once-great nations in the near future.” James clearly did not see the funny side.
Mike had been winding himself up slowly but finally took centre stage to say what he thought in no uncertain terms. “So, this is the week when the UK finally sank to one of the lowest points in its recent history by not only inviting the Trump but also according the moron privileges of state which should be earned through decency and respect, two words and concepts he appears not to have knowledge of. The Trump supports two of the most extreme right-wing politicians in what one might term mainstream UK politics: Nigel Farridge, who is about to be barred from the European Parliament for not declaring huge amounts of financial support received from his personal sponsor, Aaron Banks, and Boris Johnson, who has had to pay fortunes for legal advice to prevent a court appearance to face blatantly true allegations of lying on a scale few public figures could ever aspire to. Three total crooks trying to dominate transatlantic politics. Think, especially at this time, seventy-five years after the D-Day landings, of the millions who have fought and died for freedom and democracy, just to have those three try to screw it up for everyone.
“The Trump supports Brexit, regardless of the damage it will do to the UK, in fact, probably because of the damage it will do to the UK, purely in the interests of the joke policy, ‘make America great again’. He sees the UK ‘taking back control’ from the EU” (at this point the speaker laughed with a degree of irony which would have exceeded ten out of ten, were such a score possible) “as a chance for the US to transform the UK into some kind of American satellite. From the frying pan into the fire doesn’t even begin to cover it. Especially when the EU isn’t even a malevolent frying pan.”
There was silence for several long seconds while those assembled tried to frame a response, or possibly work out what the final addendum to the argument meant.
“I wonder,” James mused, “how often comedy films are portents of reality.” It seemed like a drastic change of direction, but only for a brief moment. “The film, Love Actually, made in 2003, was it, had real elements of truth; a bully of a US president treating the UK with total disrespect and complete self-interest.”
“Except, in this case,” Mike interjected angrily, “the US president in question wants to push the UK out of the EU so it becomes a weak vassal state America can toy with as it wishes, infecting us with its low quality, unhealthy produce and whatever else it fancies. And they want to trade in the NHS, even though the stupid git doesn’t know what NHS stands for! Unfortunately, we don’t have a Hugh Grant-style prime minster strong enough to stand up to him and reject his bullying shit. Relationships, if we have to have one, are two-way, not a one-way street in which the Trump declares what goes and we humbly follow!”
No one ever argues with Mike. And it isn’t out of fear. It’s because, arrogant and obnoxious though he can be (although far, far removed from the arrogance and obnoxiousness of Trump, Johnson, Farage and the like), he is invariably right. Hastily emptied glasses were banged on the bar in appreciation of his blunt, to-the-point assertions and, let’s reluctantly face it, wisdom.
“I suppose one thing you can say in favour of the Trump,” Mike began, to glasses which hit the bar in astonishment rather than approval, “possibly the only thing in fact, is that unlike Russian interference in European elections, which is inevitably subversive but also secretive, his meddling is open and blatant. And, of course, absolutely ill-informed and stupid.”
“Runs in the family apparently,” added James. “Remember Trump junior saying something along the lines of ‘Daddy told Mrs May what to do – it’s her fault for not listening’? And that was something totally farcical about suing the EU!”
“And on the subject of the Brexit debacle, the Trump has declared that it won’t be a problem at all for Ireland. Oh well, that’s alright then, isn’t it?” The utterance was drooling with richly-warranted sarcasm. Mike shook his head in disbelief to such an extent I was relieved it wasn’t attached by mere screws. “All solved in one bland sentence, after the combined minds of the UK, EU and Ireland have been unable to settle it in three years of hard negotiations. In wades an American bullshitter, totally out of his depth; he spends an hour listening to the one-sided arguments of right-wing extremists like Duncan Smith and Farridge and declares it easy. Does he listen to any opposing, more liberal-minded views which are actually based on facts and reality? Of course not! If one of his admirers or arse-lickers suggests something, that’s all he needs to know to go public and offer a solution to any problem the world faces. And, of course, he’ll make out it was his idea, at least until it goes pear-shaped, at which point some poor sod will be fired as a ‘stone cold loser’. What a political numbskull! All you had to do was look at the uncomfortable, disbelieving face of Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, who was unfortunate enough to be sitting next to him, to know what total bollocks he was talking!”
“Based on recent speeches,” John added, taking advantage of Mike’s need to breathe, “I think it’s safe to suggest that the Trump is so deluded that if he wasn’t president, he’d be sectioned.”
“Without a doubt,” agreed Mike. “If people hallucinate or fail to see what’s in front of their eyes, one has to assume there’s something wrong with them, doesn’t one? Apparently, the huge anti-Trump protests in London and the rest of the UK were fake news! Bollocks to the pictorial evidence! Blind as well as dumb!”
“The only fake news I can think of is the mythical crowd who came to greet the unwelcome sod,” James concurred.
“The only crowds I saw were the same ones present at his inauguration; vast empty spaces.”
I had refilled the drained glasses for fear of them being smashed in either appreciative banging or hurled anger and a few seconds were passed in savouring the newly poured brew.
“And who benefited most from this unwanted whirlwind?” Mike wasn’t for allowing too much time to pass unused, but he did reconsider this particular initial hypothesis. “Actually, that could be a real question. Bojo and Farridge are the ones who have got all the publicity but, given the national distaste for Trumpism, that could actually work against them. And the only really honest thing the Trump said during his visit was that everything regarding UK trade was on the table, including the NHS, and that’s the one thing I don’t think anyone in the UK will accept. Did you see May’s look of disgust when it came up at the joint press conference?”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” said James. “Otherwise, we’ll be heading down the same road to hell as the US.”
“It’s such a shame that Change UK, the great hope of British politics, seems to have suffered from cot death in terms of being a viable political party,” Mike bemoaned. “I really thought they could save us from all this crap.”
“Hear, hear!” came the choral, if rather deflated response.
“Instead of which, we now have Mr Self-Interest, Boris Johnson, saying that if the UK doesn’t leave the EU at the end of October, that will be the end of the Conservative party, while the majority of us believe that if the UK does leave the EU at the end of October, that will be the end of the UK as any kind of viable world force. And we all know where Johnson’s loyalties lie. ‘Fuck Britain, so long as I’m PM; Trump will help us.’”
It was becoming increasingly like hard work to find a room in my café where customers were actually happy. And I strongly deny this has anything to do with my produce. Mind you, this is Britain at a time when it is being torn apart and humiliated on the international stage, where there is no place to hide and anger is palpable in all walks of life. Mr Cameron, I did actually respect you as a good prime minster, but just look at the can of worms, maggots and rats you opened. Don’t even bother trying to justify this decision – you can’t.
The woes of John-Jeffrey:
Q: Are we talking past, present, future or all time?
A: All time
John-Jeffrey nearly always appears to be somewhere on the scale between tired and knackered. Had I not known he was trying to produce offspring through less than conventional means, I would probably have assumed he was overdoing it in the bedroom. That, unfortunately, is the sad and envious way in which my mind works. At least on this particular afternoon, judged by his own relatively low standards, he was suffering from a mild degree of animation, helped in no small part by the company of his sincere and earnest friend known as Robbie.
“There are some weird ways of saying ‘hello’ around the world, aren’t there?” Robbie was asking rhetorically, in the manner of one who has travelled the world and encountered such issues, while addressing someone of similar shared experiences.
“I’m sure they’re not weird to the people who say them every day,” John-Jeffrey replied, with well-reasoned logic.
“Obviously,” concurred the horn-rimmed bespectacled one. “I meant ‘weird’ to us. Like ‘cześć’ in Polish, which sounds like someone with a lisp trying to say ‘chest’.”
“Or ‘szia’ in Hungarian, which sounds like ‘see ya’, when you’re actually saying either ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ informally, an anomaly compounded by the fact they often say ‘allo’ as a means of saying ‘goodbye’.” I needed time to process this but the conversation was continuing unabated, with or without me.
“And then there’s the Russian one…”
“I know the one you mean, but I’ve never been able to say it no matter how often I’ve been drilled,” John-Jeffrey responded in tones of compliant, as though the language item had been invented with the sole aim of frustrating the poor language learner.
“Let’s see if I can get it right,” said the stronger linguist of the two. “Zdravstvuite”,” he stammered with some difficulty and not a great deal of accuracy.
“I think I’ll stick to ‘privet’,” said John-Jeffrey with a sigh.
“Or ‘allo allo’,” proffered Robbie, provoking a shared chuckle.
“Just so long as you don’t say it to a Hungarian who’ll think you’re leaving before you’ve arrived.” John-Jeffrey was amusing himself, if no one else. “What else does ‘allo ‘allo mean to you?” he continued, as the mild laughter quickly tailed away.
“A very old British sitcom about the French Resistance during the Second World War,” replied Robbie confidently.
“Actually, it’s one of my favourite cafés in Belgrade.” For some reason, John-Jeffrey seemed rather smug and, possibly out of tiredness, resumed chuckling for no obvious reason.
Robbie clearly felt the subject was in need of a change, although whether the move from the shallow depths of inanity to the height of seriousness was called for was questionable. “Any, erm, progress on the, erm, surrogacy front?” he asked hesitantly.
John-Jeffrey sipped at his second double-shot cappuccino. “Just back from another trip.” His mood seemed to change from jovial to resigned in the flick of a switch.
“Not going well?”
“Frustratingly slowly, but otherwise, no real idea. Everything seems in order but nothing seems to work.” We were left to wonder what wasn’t functioning but didn’t dare to ask. “It’s all a bit surreal at times when half the people you meet, you can’t actually communicate with due to the language barrier. I had to wait around for something like forty minutes at the airport with no one I could call and no one I could ask, and then finally, I was taken to a taxi driver who had an unnerving resemblance to Vladimir Putin and he whisked me away who knows where.” Another couple of mouthfuls of cappuccino ensued while we waited in silent expectation. “Well, actually, I did know where,” he continued, leaving us with mixed emotions, relief he was safe tinged with disappointment that a tale of international intrigue wasn’t forthcoming.
“So, you’re not preggers yet?” Robbie had a way with words.
“Nothing happens so quickly in this process,” sighed John-Jeffrey. “And I do mean nothing. It’s still unnerving, even after all my visits, to be locked in a room with other people outside knowing you’re inside watching a porno movie and trying to ejaculate into a plastic cup.” Words failed us. John-Jeffrey could have taken this as a lack of interest or a sign of distaste but decided we were, in fact, engrossed and agog. He continued in familiar tones of self-deprecation. “I produced barely a thimbleful the first time; three days later, I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the miniscule measurement of quantity. Perhaps ‘miniscule’,” he decided, with an ironic chortle, after a moment’s consideration. “Talk about a Monday morning palaver – the place was heaving with people, all of them on their mobiles doing I don’t know what, because the wi-fi was down. And the movies also depended on wi-fi, without which, you know, erm… I got so stressed waiting I was barely able to produce anything.” John-Jeffrey was nothing if not honest, almost disturbingly so.
“So, what happens next?”
“We wait and see. Wait and see.” The cappuccino was drained. John-Jeffrey looked at his watch and seemed to have an internal debate with himself before ordering another. I left, wondering if an excessive intake of caffeine affected male fertility, but decided I lacked sufficient evidence to risk a sale.
Robbie appeared to share my reservations and was saying so when I returned a few minutes later with two cappuccinos, one being a treat to myself. “I think you drink too much coffee,” he remarked, happily sipping his fourth beer of the afternoon.
John-Jeffrey raised an eyebrow of disapproval which Robbie didn’t see though the bottom of his glass. “Well, come on,” the sober one retorted, “it’s the only vice I have left! No smoking, no gambling, no drugs, no alcohol, no sex…”.
“You’ve never smoked,” Robbie pointed out patiently, as though talking to a child. “And as long as I’ve known you, you’ve never gambled and never taken any drugs unless a doctor told you to.”
“I’ve taken so many of the latter, I could almost be labelled dependent.” John-Jeffrey sighed, yet again; it seemed to come as naturally as breathing. “And as for non-prescription drugs, I tried them twice whilst on the university stage crew many years ago. As a lifetime control freak, that was twice too many.”
I was starting to wonder if my café was becoming a home for the depressed. Robbie’s train of thought appeared to be on the same rails and he decided some reminiscing might help to lighten the atmosphere.
“Do you remember that time you went to a singles’ night in Opole?” I wasn’t sure this constituted a positive change in direction, but I allowed the digression to run its dubious course.
“Ha!” The laugh was heavy with something I couldn’t quite place, but humour wasn’t it. “Well, I remember being obliged to do Chicken Tikka Masala Dave a favour after he was really helpful with some car insurance matter; and that was the favour he wanted.” John-Jeffrey gave the matter a little more thought and did start to see the funny side. “I think I was the youngest person there, a feeling I don’t think I’ve had often, if ever, since, which made me rather too popular for my liking, another feeling I don’t think I’ve had since! There was some dancing involved, and that alone is a recipe for disaster when it includes me. I have all the subtlety of an electric lawnmower with no-one in control.”
“Some things never change then,” commented Robbie unsupportively. “So, did you score?”
“It was one of those rare occasions when I did everything possible not to,” responded the former singleton. “Remember, this was my second year in the south of Poland at a time when most people of my age and beyond spoke less English than I spoke Polish so I was far more scared than interested.”
“I seem to remember you being a darn sight more interested when we ended up sharing a room in a Gdańsk youth hostel with a posse of gorgeous young girls.”
John-Jeffrey had no immediate answer to this, other than to redden a little and drink some more cappuccino. “Well,” he finally began, after solving the conundrum in his head, “there were two reasons; one, there was no danger of commitment as we were so far away from home, and two, there was no danger of them being interested. As is typical of me, and perhaps the majority of the darker sex, one’s level of interest increases in inverse proportion to that of the person or people in question.” Had I wanted sexual desire to be explained by means of a mathematical formula, John-Jeffrey would definitely have been my man.
As embarrassing John-Jeffrey a little with tales of his past exploits seemed to be a decent means of cheering him up, Robbie, so often the quiet listener rather than the active stirrer, decided to continue his merry stroll through the annals of their recent history. “What’s the first thing you think of when I say Kuala Lumpur?” he asked.
“Once I get beyond the black walls and ceilings of your staff room, obviously, then I suppose it’s karaoke,” the victim replied. He hung his head in his hands, although I discerned the shame was far more in fun than despair. I rather thought Kuala Lumpur had a lot more going for it than a darkened room and tuneless singing, but who am I to judge?
“I can’t quite remember,” prompted he with the wooden spoon, “what the song was you sang, or rather tried to sing.”
“’White Wedding’by Billy idol, as you know full well,” half-laughed, half-groaned John-Jeffrey. “It’s the one and only time, at least the one and only time I have any recollection of, that I have sung karaoke. Thankfully, it was in a private room with just five of us but even then, it would never have happened without the excessive consumption of beer and the strong belief that, you apart, I would never see the other partakers again. How wrong can one be?” More cappuccino was consumed. “One of them I never saw again, true, at least not to date, but another I did meet at two professional conferences. As for the third, I still remember walking into a school in Hamburg on the other side of the globe a mere year or so later, heading into the academic manager’s office and thinking, ‘I know you, don’t I?’ And so I did. And she is a really good singer as well, but fortunately she forgave me my failings in that department and, over the next few visits, she spent a good few evenings introducing me to the various shades of Hamburg nightlife.”
“Including the dodgy ones?”
“More bohemian than dodgy. I usually find the latter, rather inadvertently, by myself!”
Robbie ordered another beer, his fifth, which was quite some going for an afternoon, but I wasn’t going to complain when these two were my sole clientele at the given moment. By the time I came back, their recollections had returned, as was so often the case, to their beloved Poland and Eastern Europe of the 1990s. Their talk of those days was laced with so much fondness, I often wished I had been there.
“Did you ever really decide if you preferred Poland or Hungary?” Robbie was asking.
“Oh yes,” replied John-Jeffrey, with surprising certainly. “When I was in Poland, I preferred Hungary; when I was in Hungary, I preferred Poland. Easy!”
“The grass is always greener, uh?”
“Seems so, rather infuriatingly. Mind you, I always enjoyed travelling between the two; all those trips we used to make between Opole and Budapest.” He almost went misty-eyed at the memory.
“I still laugh at the Polish policeman,” reminisced Robbie.
“Oh yeah, the time we were stopped for supposedly speeding and you were going to get fined, until you gestured to him you didn’t have the steering wheel. He was so embarrassed at not noticing it was a right-hand drive car, he let us go!”
“Well, it was night-time on a poorly-lit road,” said Robbie, in defence of the Polish police force. The fifth beer was liberating his memory and loosening his tongue. “There were some scary journeys, especially when it was an overnight drive and your car was only insured for you to drive. I think there was one time when the three girls in the back seat and I were only kept awake and silenced by fear.”
“Fear of what?”
“Oh. Well, it was middle of the night and those roads through the Czech forests were irresistible for a bit of rally driving.” John-Jeffrey clearly didn’t think an apology was called for.
“And then coming back one time, it had snowed so much and you were concentrating so hard for so long…”
“Yeah, I remember. We were about ten miles from home after driving for nine hours, and I just got a little bit too confident and drove a little bit too quickly, and before I knew it, we were doing a graceful pirouette into a ditch.”
“Just how lucky were we that a friend of one of our students was passing with a tractor?”
“Hard to believe, but completely true,” concurred John-Jeffrey. “And the accident is, of course, the reason I needed help with a car insurance matter and ended up dancing with people I didn’t know at an Opole singles’ night…”
I detected some repetition was in the offing and, with a degree of wishful thinking, heard another customer in another room. I drained my own cappuccino and sneaked away.
My first time was in a Polish toilet… Confessions of a bygone era from my Budapest room
“My first time was in a Polish toilet. 13th January 1995.”
“I’m sure you’re not alone,” Jen replied, her attention inevitably distracted by the arrival of a tray of goodies borne by my good self. I, for my part, was close to dropping said tray as I had more than a little difficulty, as men often do, in carrying out two tasks at the same time: task one, namely bearing a salver of the non-silver variety with two drinks and two slices of finest Hungarian baking produce, and task two, trying to interpret the two-line dialogue I had just overheard.
Jen was only interested in assisting me with task one and seemed totally unconcerned by her friend’s behaviour in an Eastern European lavatory some twenty-four years earlier.
“That looks as good as ever,” she said, removing the cake and, after a momentary pause whilst trying to weigh the two plates, handing one slice to Jimez and keeping the slightly larger one for herself.
“Your Chemex madam,” I said, politely, “and your milk,” I added with the usual begrudging tone which accompanied the glass jug. “And your cappuccino, sir.”
“Why are you being so formal?” queried Jen, through a large mouthful of Eszterházy. The plate had barely had time to touch the table.
“No reason,” I lied and turned to leave. I gave up any pretence. “OK, what exactly were you talking about when I came in?”
Jen snorted, not a particularly pleasant sound, nor sight, when accompanied by a slice of Eszterházy, and gave me a knowing look. “You’re really scared of missing a smidgeon of gossip, aren’t you?” she teased, rather cruelly, I felt. She continued with her cake, not dawdling quite as much as she could, but clearly waiting to see how long it would take for my bubble of curiosity to burst. I merely watched, looking calm and collected on the outside while feeling like a lemon on the inside. “Oh, go on, then,” she finally conceded. “We were discussing love at first sight. Personally, I have no time for it,” she went on, by which I assumed the experience had never presented itself, “but it seems there is an exception in the room.”
Jimez had kept quiet to this point, as though he didn’t really want to discuss the happenings of a bygone era in a Polish washroom, but two sets of inquisitive eyes, once Jen had emptied her plate obviously, didn’t allow him much room for manoeuvre. And, when all was said and done, he had actually raised the subject himself and, having piqued our curiosity, telling all was now his responsibility.
“There really isn’t much to tell,” he whispered with a squirm of embarrassment. “It was in a theatre bar in small town Silesia, the only bar in the city which opened after 10pm. There was one shared washroom with a toilet and a small outer room with a washbasin. Well, after my third beer, I, you know, wanted to, erm, you know, so I went to the loo, only to find it occupied. After standing there in the outer room for a couple of minutes with legs tightly crossed, the loo door opened and there stood this blonde Polish goddess of a woman.”
There was a pause. “Is that it?” asked Jen, her voice laced with disappointment.
“Well, I was so desperate that once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I just went in and relieved myself asap,” Jimez finished tamely and a little defensively.
“Never to see her again.”
“Oh no, no, I saw her again an hour or so later, after three more beers when feeling, you know, a bit braver.”
“Sounds like a recipe for disaster,” muttered Jen.
Jimez didn’t exactly deny the possibility. “We did go out, sort of, for a while, but it was rather doomed from the outset, granted.” He sipped his cappuccino thoughtfully. “One of those things; I was besotted and she wasn’t.”
“Such is life,” Jen noted, unsympathetically.
“Was there any particular prompt for this discussion, dare I ask?” I’d already dared.
“He’s writing a chapter.” Jen explained.
“Of which book, or is it a new book?” I asked, rather fearing the answer.
“It’s just a chapter,” Jen sighed. “A stand-alone chapter.” I was a little unsure if this collocation made any sense whatsoever.
Common sense would have led me to leave the room at this point. However, common sense is something I do not have in abundance. “I thought you were writing a book about breaking up, not falling in love.”
“I was,” replied the writer. “I am, but let’s face it, you have to fall in love before you can break up.” There was, almost scarily, a touch of logic in this statement, although the less romantic side of me wanted to suggest that lots of couples broke up without ever coming close to falling in love. My mind had been read. “I just want to look at the two extremes; really falling for someone and then having one’s dreams truly shattered.” Clearly, he was only interested in the highs and lows; what came in between was apparently of little significance, even though it is the latter which dominates most relationships in reality. Jimez’s grip on reality had been questioned before, as much by himself as anyone else.
“Anything to show us yet?” asked Jen, maintaining the conversation when silence might have been the wisest course of action. Or non-action, in this case. We both had the experience of being left bereft of comment when seeing what the pen had actually put on the page.
Jimez reached down for his Sainsbury’s bag-for-life, although it was now one of the Tesco variety, suggesting he might have outlived the former. There was some bated breath while we waited for a wad of completed work to appear; instead, there was one sheet of crumpled A4. “I haven’t got very far.” The mumble was so mumbled, I was guessing a little as to its content, but prior knowledge enabled me to piece the utterance together.
Jen smoothed the page out on the polished marble table-top. There was no doubt Jimez had done it again. Or not done it, depending on whether we’re talking his audience being left speechless or him producing a full chapter.
This chapter is dedicated to all the girls I’ve loved before who have never got me in quite the same way as I have got them.
I felt eloquence was lacking somewhat but decided silence would suffice.
“I’ve got loads of ideas,” the would-be bohemian defended himself. “And they’re all based on real life. The six girls I’ve completely fallen for bigtime and…”
“And what?” Jen demanded impatiently.
“Nothing ever happened,” Jimez finished lamely. “That’s what I want to write about – why people in general, or I specifically, fall for people they shouldn’t.”
“’Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with’”, I commented, quoting from one of my favourite songs of all time.
“Exactly,” responded Jimez, with something one might almost define as enthusiasm. “Sometimes, it was just bad timing; you know, she wasn’t free or, rather more rarely, I wasn’t free. Sometimes, it was distance; none of them lived in the same country as me.”
“You love making life easy for yourself, don’t you?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” I wasn’t sure if Jimez really meant this or it was just a sad reflection on his catalogue of failure. “I only really notice love when it’s gone anyway. I mean, the toilet episode was probably infatuation rather than anything else; I only realise that I feel something like real love, whatever that is, when it’s too late. I’d love to write a song called‘I wanna know what love is’ but it’s already been done.” He had a rather unfortunate habit of having good ideas after other people had had them and actually done something about them.
“Love means different things to different people,” Jen remarked, almost deeply.
“Tell me about it,” said Jimez with more feeling than I’d heard so far that day. “I know a teacher who uses ‘Love you’ with her adult students as a form of praise rather than something like, ‘Well done’. I have a friend who’s told me more than once that she loves me, even though she has a boyfriend who she does actually love. And then there are the likes of me for whom uttering those three little words is a virtual impossibility.” He sighed in despair. “One woman’s throwaway comment is another man’s sincerity nightmare.”
“You’re certainly not alone there.” Jen and I threw away almost the same comment at the same time and exchanged looks of surprise before chuckling to cover any trace of honesty which might have accompanied the shared viewpoint.
Jimmy and Nawel chose that moment to wander in, which was probably a case of good timing, given the slightly awkward turn the conversation had been taking. The immediate impression, not for the first time (but for the second, as we had only met once before), was that Nawel was obviously far too young and far too pretty for Jimmy and, although this remained conjecture, I also suspected far too intelligent. Time would tell, but thirty years apart and a religion apart was an unlikely scenario for a bed of roses. Jimmy, however, had this smug aura, which many, if not most, would find annoying. One could easily imagine the queue of detractors waiting to say ‘I told you so’ when it all fell apart. Nevertheless, it was heartening to see two people living for the present, rather than dwelling on the past Jimez-style or panicking about the future.
Jen had hit it off with Nawel on their first meeting and was quick to engage with her again, losing no time in suggesting she try some of my cakes. Jimmy ordered a repeat of the El Salvadorian aeropress and Algerian mint tea. I left the room, curious to know if Jimmy and Jimez would find each other in my absence, or whether the nerves of the latter would prevent or curtail fluent interaction. Jimez had clearly been a little starstruck when finding out Jimmy was a television producer and presenter, although I don’t think he had realised what a part-time activity this was. I didn’t know if it was cruel, kind, or cruel to be kind to let Jimez know that Jimmy’s entire ‘success’ was limited to a handful of YouTube videos and you could find his entire back-catalogue on my rather empty YouTube channel. For the time being, I decided not to disillusion him, hoping in part, he may be inspired into some creative activity of his own, something which went beyond dedication to a stand-alone chapter.
Sone five minutes passed while I made the aeropress with the loving care and attention it merits. It’s largely a silent method of making coffee so I was able to hear the verbal noise emanating from Budapest. All of it had female tones. Clearly Jimez and Jimmy were not bonding. Mind you, Jen’s voice is capable of drowning out a passing Boeing so perhaps I shouldn’t have jumped to such a hasty conclusion.
My conclusion was on the right lines, however, as I returned to find Jimez secretly staring at Jimmy in a way which made me question his sexuality, and Jimmy not at all secretly staring at Nawel in a way which confirmed his inclinations in no uncertain terms.
“Two more slices of Eszterházy, please,” said Jen, breaking off from her conversation with Nawel, who looked a little as if she had been hit by a hurricane. Jen can be quite a forceful interlocuter when she hasn’t got a slice of cake.
Assuming the gentleman were too engaged in their admiration of others to desire any sustenance, I resumed being a yo-yo between kitchen and Budapest to cut two very equal portions of the beloved Hungarian dessert. Things hadn’t changed when I rebounded, although they did, the second the cake appeared in front of Jen.
“That looks lovely,” said Nawel, clearly relieved to receive a brief respite from Jen who, I can only imagine, had been questioning her about her lifestyle, probably with limited subtlety.
Jimmy stroked his ‘designer’ stubble and looked at Jimez with mild curiosity. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” he said, using the cake-induced silence to establish friendly relations. “Jimmy,” he said, holding out a tanned hand.
“Jimez,” came the reply, returning the greeting with a white, sun-starved hand.
“And what do you do?”
“A bit of this and that.” This reply mirrored the conversation Jen and Jimmy had had on their first meeting. “But I write a lot,” he added. “Well, a bit, anyway.” It was hardly a series of utterances to inspire belief in his audience. The information seemed to be as much as Jimmy could take. Perhaps he saw too much of himself in his semi-namesake. He was hardly a success in his own preferred sphere either. Such is life (again).
“I love the way you look,” Jen said to Nawel, having finished her second slice with what I considered to be slightly indecent haste. She had a very valid point, though. “Did you buy that stuff in England?”
“In France,” replied the victim of interrogation, struggling with a mouthful of cake she hadn’t expected to be interrupted.
“I’m surprised your culture allows you to look so trendy. I mean, I know there are beautiful women everywhere but it’s so often hidden.” I had the feeling we’d been down this path of enquiry before but clearly Jen hadn’t had her curiosity satiated.
“When we first met,” Jimmy interjected, almost to Jen’s annoyance, “she was the only female on the course who wasn’t wearing a headdress. I was quite surprised. I remember my co-tutor and I speculating as to why, but it wasn’t the right time to ask!”
I got the impression this was a conversation Nawel had had with Jimmy more than once and with acquaintances of Jimmy more times than she cared to remember. She bore the burden with fortitude. “My family is Muslim, even though they don’t refer to Islam all the time. Algeria has Islam and traditions. I follow traditions more; it’s a personal belief.”
“How do they regard him?” Jimmy looked mildly affronted at being termed ‘him’, accompanied by a derisory head-jerk in his direction.
“If ‘he’ is anything,” teased Nawel, who clearly did not like being regarded as anything other than an independent entity, “he’s a secret.”
“Ah,” came the knowing response. “British Christians not looked upon favourably?”
“No, it’s not that! I’ve even been to church with him once – just to show my support, you know. I found that rather amusing in some weird kind of way. But he’s good to make fun of in general. He just feigns indignation and flounces around like a drama queen, which makes it all the funnier.” I detected a certain lack of respect in this description, which I also found rather amusing, to say nothing of accurate! Jimmy seemed to struggling to contain himself from providing evidence of the drama queen accusation. Nawel dissolved into one of her very alluring giggling fits as her popularity in the room reached new peaks.
Jimmy could sense he was onto a loser and suspected things might get worse with further probing, unless more cake appeared. Believing even Jen might have had enough after two quickfire slices and noting that Nawel’s plate and glass were both empty, he stood up.
“Places to go, people to see,” he said in the manner of someone who was very busy and important. Jimmy, to the best of my knowledge, was neither of these things very often. Nawel also looked surprised but put up no resistance. I imagined this was something of a novelty.
“See you again, I hope,” said Jen, apparently mildly disappointed to have had the interaction cut off in its prime.
“Sure,” said Nawel. I rather hoped this was a real ‘sure’ rather than the Lebanese / Arabic ‘sure’, which seems to translate as ‘sometime, maybe never’.
For the second time in two visits, Jimmy and Nawel departed, seeming to leave more questions behind than answers, certainly in the minds of my Budapest regulars.
“Anything else?” I enquired of those left behind.
“I think I’m full,” said Jen, reclining dangerously on the Biedermeier.
Wonders never cease.
Love, loneliness and a sprinkling of British political madness – the routes to male despair
There was a pair of shoes outside Beirut, which was something of a surprise as I hadn’t seen anyone going in. They weren’t carelessly discarded, so I ruled Jo out as a possibility. And they looked more like men’s footwear in any case. Although, come to think of it, Jo did have a penchant for men’s shoes. As I hadn’t heard anyone falling over, I also decided Misha was not in the close vicinity. I opened the curtain, hoping for a new customer but expecting, with no offence intended, to see Micky. I was wrong on both counts.
I found Mark on the floor, slumped against the thick Arabic cushions, staring into some void far beyond the physical walls, possibly wondering how he’d ended up in a different ‘room’ where he was unable to see sky. He stirred, with some effort but sufficiently so to order a Chemex for two, using his weak and feeble indoor voice, the sort many men use when feeling a little under the weather and need looking after. I asked him who he was expecting.
“I was hoping you’d join me.”
“Fair enough.” I took my leave, feeling slightly concerned about his well-being and how cheerful my next cup of coffee was going to be.
I returned a few minutes later to discover a statuesque Mark. It was momentarily hard to tell if there was life on planet Beirut, but the whiff of coffee fumes roused its inhabitant into action. Well, maybe not ‘action’ exactly. Let’s keep things in perspective; everything’s relative.
I had only recently found out that Mark was divorced and the slow disintegration of his marriage had reached its private, sad but inevitable conclusion in the not too distant past. This affects people in many different ways, not that I would know from personal experience, being a lifelong commitment-phobe, but in Mark’s case, it had made him feel very lonely and isolated. Fortunately, or otherwise, his best friend was often his ex-wife, but I wasn’t really sure who was clinging onto the past more. I suspected the male half in this case. Some have tried to tell me it usually is the male half who suffers most, but as these pearls have all been born in the mouths of man, I doubt I’m getting the whole story. On the other hand, male suicide rates are three times higher than those for women so there must be a root gender-related cause somewhere. To continue arguing with myself, however, the rates of depression and attempted suicide are higher in women – it seems men are just more ‘successful’ at it, if one can actually called dying at one’s own hands a success.
I think I’m over-thinking.
Mark’s saviours, without any question, were Matthew and Lois, but they had been away for a couple of weeks and Mark had been left sitting either alone or with someone whose feelings towards him were a long way from what they had been or what might be desired. He was clearly thinking more of the former pair than the latter individual as he sipped at his filtered black coffee. “They’re a couple of sarcy bastards,” he said, quite affectionately, “but in England, those two are really all I’ve got.” He must have decided to lighten the mood briefly as he continued, “Sometimes, I wonder, if I went on A Place in the Sun, who on earth I’d take with me. If it was Matthew, everyone would think I was gay. Nowt wrong with being gay, of course, but I just don’t want people thinking I’m something I’m not. And if it was Lois, she’d spend all the time interviewing the presenter.”
I was well aware of Lois’s yearnings to be a television journalist, asking probing questions of all and sundry, and the image of her taking over someone else’s show was vivid enough to provoke a smile in both of the current interlocuters.
One smile quickly dissolved into a sigh. “I’m not sure how I ended up like this.” There isn’t much one can say in response to such a statement, so I leaned back on the cushions facing Mark, put my hands together prayer-like and supported my chin on my thumbs and my nose on my two forefingers in the manner of someone deep in thought with a profound wish to appear intelligent. I might also have looked like a shrink giving his patient time to think while charging a fortune for every second of silence.
“You know how it is,” he continued eventually, proving that the waiting technique might actually work in the process of self-discovery, if not self-help. “I’ve spent years travelling all over the world and seeing so many places at other people’s expense but without accumulating any money. Not that cash is everything; the experiences have always counted for more. At least up to now. I suppose there’ll come a time when I might start to regret the priorities I have lived by.” He paused, as if contemplating a lonely old age of poverty filled with regrets; I hoped I was wrong. “I’ve got friends in so many different countries whom I never see, and yet no one other than Matthew, Lois and the ex in England so when those two are away, I feel so lost.” I wasn’t altogether sure if he was talking to me or to himself. “And I cling on, metaphorically and literally, to an aging smartphone which rarely pings anymore.” Mark’s brow furrowed. I had never realised how far up a bald head a brow could furrow.
I was beginning to wish Mark would call a halt to his voyage of self-discovery as it was becoming a veritable hippo-like wallow in self-pity.
“I sometimes long for the days when I was verbally abused as a ‘tall white man with no hair’,” he continued, referring to a story of yesteryear from his brief time in the Philippines. “At least that was in good fun, or so I thought at the time.” The dejection was self-propelled and gathering steam, and I just wasn’t equipped to deal with it. “And then a few years later, and that’s over ten years ago, I was in the loo in a bar or a club of some kind in the centre of Hanoi, and a couple of lads were overheard by my friends referring to me as ‘some old guy’ who was occupying the bathroom, presumably when a young person’s alcohol-fuelled need was greater.” Depression was mixing with anger, a dangerous cocktail at any time of day. “And when I was in Ireland the other week, just walking down the street, I felt like I was being abused merely for being in someone’s line of sight.”
“Just tell ‘em to eff off,” I said, thinking that being verbally abused a mere three times in twenty years was something to celebrate rather than get morose over. My advice was hardly well-considered and no one in their right mind would pay a penny for it, but I didn’t want to use the ‘p’ word. Some people don’t take kindly to being termed paranoid, whatever the justification or likelihood of it being closer to the truth than they wanted to believe. I decided to change the subject. “So where exactly is Matthew?”
Mark’s plight was certainly not being helped by the fact that Matthew wasn’t there to keep him upbeat and perky, and I suddenly wondered if mention of him might not have been the best idea. There was, however, a slight upward curl visible on the mouth of my patient. “No idea, if you want an exact location. He’s away on a self-inflicted trip taking in nineteen flights in thirty days. I wouldn’t mention the term ‘carbon footprint’ when you next see him. And absolutely never mention air miles! He’s like me – travels all over and never earns so much as an upgrade, let alone a freebie.”
I wasn’t sure if this was a joke or another source of discontent. My mind half-joked with itself about getting the number for the Samaritans on his behalf, and then I saw the look in what I could see of his downcast eyes. This was ‘happy-go-lucky’ Mark, but just who knows what goes on underneath the surface of anyone? He always seemed so easy going but a constantly cheerful bunny, he most certainly was not. Mind you, who is?
“Just never tell Matthew or Lois what I’ve been rambling on about,” he implored. “This is something I’d rather keep to myself.”
“Unfortunately, mate, bottling it all up is not really the most helpful thing you can do,” I replied, wondering why I didn’t count as a person with whom he had shared, but consoling myself with the thought that this piece of advice was at last something worth the breath used to impart it.
Regrettably, it didn’t prevent the ever-decreasing circle of despair, although at least the victim changed to a broader object. “And just look at the mess we’re in as a country. What on earth does it take for 34% of the electorate to actually want to vote for that pillock Farage? I mean, what is wrong with people? It makes me want to emigrate but if Brexit goes through, I’ll probably be forced to come back and live in some fascist shithole.”
I really wanted to tell him there were enough sensible people left in the UK to prevent it from ever becoming either fascist or a shithole, let alone both, but I wasn’t 100% convinced.
“Look at the three most likely future prime ministers at the present time,” the depressed one continued. “Farage, Johnson and Corbyn. Makes you want to look for the nearest bus to throw yourself under.”
In the circumstances and context of the current conversation, this comment did not seem wise. Having given it a second thought, I realised that a genuine prospect of any one of the aforementioned trio of incompetents occupying Downing Street would be sufficient to drive the average liberal-minded and principled human into a severe bout of alcoholism at the very least, and in the case of Farage, contemplation of the local express bus timetable would begin to look like an attractive option.
I decided that giving voice to my true thoughts was inadvisable. “Suicide by means of a bus is not a good option, mate.”
“Beats hiding in one to avoid being milkshaked.” My initial reaction was to laugh but I quickly realised Mark’s comment was a sad reflection on the pathetic nature of Farage and his ilk, the like of which the majority never want to see anywhere near the seats of power.
I had exhausted my repertoire of advice, good and questionable. I was also aware I may have other customers in need of the type of service I was more capable of rendering, such as the provision of decent coffee and tea. Maybe someone else was available to talk to Mark and cheer him up, I hoped. I left Beirut in search of help. And found Anna.
“Oh shit!” I said, rather too audibly.
Anna looked a little hurt, as one would when being mildly sworn at without due cause, and I couldn’t really explain the honest reason for my outburst. She was an infrequent customer but I stand by my description of her as an overly-sincere lady who termed herself a good listener but rarely offered oral product of the useful kind. Experience suggested Mark might spiral out of control if forced to spend more than ten minutes in the company of one who might cruelly be described as a damp blanket capable of eliciting despondency where none was known to exist. She would certainly have empathy with Mark, given her own history of issues, but the two of them alone in a room the size of Beirut with no positivity to feed off did not bode well.
I came to the conclusion alcohol might be the best short-term solution and, regrettably at my own expense, took a bottle of Lebanese red into Beirut with two glasses and the hope that someone else was serving my other customers. If indeed there were any left…
That was a weird week – political life seen from the point of view of Storm Mike – this is sure to be balanced – the latest from the Cape Town room
It’s hard to imagine how one might feel walking into a café and having one’s listening devices assaulted by someone bellowing, “Over my dead body!” It might make one wish to take cover, although my Cape Town room has very little cover in which some might indeed be taken. Shutting the bellowing Mike out, or up, was evidently not going to be an easy task. It never was, but on this particular occasion, his mood seemed riled by more than one episode and he was obviously determined to unburden his thoughts on a public, some of whom, such as James and John, were suspecting, and some of whom were less so, even if they had crossed paths with the belligerent one on previous occasions.
Matthew and Mark were two of the latter group. They were, quite innocuously, doing what women usually do, rather than men, and going to the toilet in pairs, when they had their attention not so much attracted as grabbed by the scruff of the neck and hauled unceremoniously Mike-wards. Whether they wanted to know what had irked the limelight-seeker so much, or not, was an irrelevance. This had not exactly been a fully positive week for my café’s political luminary and he had no intention of making a secret of his feelings. As if he ever did.
James noted the startled response on the faces of those purely intent on relieving themselves, or whatever other polite term you care to use in such circumstances. “He was just letting us know, although I thought rather ambiguously to be honest, what he thinks about Trump visiting the UK in June,” he explained, putting the newcomers in the picture and providing context for the outburst, assuming they could see their way past his mildly sarcastic phraseology.
“No way!” reformulated Mike, who was seething so much that framing anything more substantial than a fixed phrase response seemed to be unusually beyond him.
“You can expostulate all you want,” said John, surprisingly calmly, although he did this deliberately on occasion just to wind Mike up even further, if this was actually possible in this case. “I doubt he’ll care what you think; he doesn’t care for anything other than The Self.”
“How can anyone seriously expect us to welcome that smug-faced, self-seeking, self-aggrandising, climate change-denying, racist, misogynistic moron onto the shores of the United Kingdom?” Mike finally managed to produce a longer utterance, although I couldn’t help but question his adjectival word order. I kept this thought to myself, however.
“Latest reports seem to indicate he doesn’t oppose the use of rape as a weapon of war,” said James, adding fuel to the fire. “At least, one has to assume so, as he wants to veto suggestions in the UN to the contrary.”
“And such a twat is going to be allowed to pay tribute to the millions who died in France?” Mike was incandescent.
“And have dinner with the Queen and several other notables.”
“Humph!” Mike was simmering like a pan of water which hadn’t quite reached boiling point but which might overflow if not carefully monitored. And that, we really did not want to see. Most of us didn’t, anyway. “At least, a good few people have decided to boycott the state dinner. Even Corbyn. That’s the first time he’s descended off the political fence in a while.” He took a long drink of beer, which might have been of sufficient duration for Matthew and Mark to articulate an utterance, had they not felt intimated by the volatility of Storm Mike. “He’s been sitting there so long he needs a bird feeder.”
“Like a tightrope walker frozen in time and space to make sure he doesn’t commit one way or the other,” John added to the rather strange analogy in an almost dreamlike voice.
Mark finally plucked up the courage to take the floor. “I suppose when Trump describes the Queen as a woman who has never really made a mistake, one should, for once, actually listen and take him seriously because if he is an expert in anything, it’s at making mistakes.”
“Indeed,” said Matthew supportively, if rather briefly.
I wasn’t sure if Mike had twigged the interruption from the Granada room-dwellers as he was quick to resume his own tangent, or a slightly different one of his own creation. “The Donald apparently welcomed Joe Biden’s announcement that he was running for the White House in his typical nasty-spoilt-boy-in-the-playground mode by calling him Sleepy Joe and expressing the hope he had the long-in-doubt intelligence to make it. I mean, I know our politicians indulge in slanging matches, but they’re rarely personal insults!” His collective audience of five, self included, nodded sagely. “He then said, ‘you will be dealing with people who have some very sick and demented ideas.’ For one brief moment, I actually dared to hope that this was an outburst of truth from the habitual lying bastard and he was talking about himself, but apparently, he was referring to the other Democrats in the race.”
“Beggars belief,” interjected John, a contribution which surprised no one.
“And then,” continued Mike, indicating clearly there was to be no respite, even though his train of thought seemed to have jumped a few lines, “having moved his frigging embassy to Jerusalem, he now has the fuckwittedness to recognise the occupied territory of The Golan Heights as being Israeli, once again giving the finger to the rest of the world. Wow.” The latter word was not, in any sense, delivered in tones of admiration; one detected little more than deep despair. “And guess who fawned all over him as a result?” Nobody bothered to answer as it was largely obvious, although none of those present seemed willing to admit they were clueless as to who had won the recent Israeli presidential election and therefore could not have answered with anything approaching complete certainty.
“It’s amazing how different leaders react to stuff, isn’t it?” asked Matthew, although his use of the word ‘stuff’ left his specific meaning in some doubt. In response to the odd confused frown, he elaborated. “I mean, look at the tragedy of Christchurch and the admirable response from the New Zealand Prime Minister in banning a range of firearms. That’s something Trump would never have the balls to do.”
“Or the feelings,” added James. “Although, even if he did, the wankers at the NRA would pull his strings in the opposite direction before one could say ‘massacre’.”
I may have forgotten to mention this before, but having the mental agility of a mountain goat sometimes helps to understand the wandering discourse which takes place in my café, particularly when Mike is part of the conversation.
“I’ve just come back from America,” said Matthew, in what initially seemed to represent a mood-lightening, but yet further tweak to the topic, although with his travelling anecdotes, positivity should never be taken for granted.
“I’d heard you were banned.” Mike had apparently been listening to gossip or reading my 2018 book. Hopefully the latter. I think.
“I was, kind of, but I was told if I applied for a B1 visa, I should be OK.”
“Let’s say the adjectives easy, pleasant and cheap do not come to mind,” sighed the jetsetter. “I actually applied while I was in Lebanon, which came as quite a surprise for the Lebanese working in the American Embassy. ‘Why on earth does a Brit need a visa to visit the US?’ ‘Just one of those things,’ I replied, as vaguely as possible. I had to pay $160 before I even got to the interview stage, and that was non-refundable, so it’s quite a good money-spinner. After a stream of pretty general questions, they asked me if I’d ever been to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen. Oddly enough, this quintet of ‘problem countries’ didn’t include North Korea, at least orally, so perhaps Trump’s love of Kim Jong-whichever is catching on. Anyway, after I replied ‘yes’ to Iran and Libya, I was told I couldn’t be given a visa ‘pending further investigation’.”
“Seriously, and I had almost given up hope, if hope be the right word, but eventually, I was asked to send in my passport and I got the visa. They warned me this was no guarantee of being allowed in when I actually arrived and they were quite right. As on my previous attempted visit, I was travelling from Canada, Vancouver this time, and I was stopped by the front desk at customs and taken through into the back room for interrogation.”
“That sounds scary,” commented John.
“The nightmares of Calgary, 2009, came flooding back, I can assure you,” Matthew replied.
“I bet you were wearing all black again and looking suspicious,” Mark wagered.
“Coincidentally, yes.” Matthew looked momentarily embarrassed but decided not to dwell on issues of wardrobe. “And it was fifty-fifty for quite a while before I was stamped acceptable. They seemed concerned that my visit was taking away an employment opportunity for a legal American, even though this clearly wasn’t the case, at least in my mind.” He shuddered at the recent memory. “I felt about the size of a peanut by the time I was allowed through.”
“I can imagine,” said a very sympathetic Mike.
“There is some contradiction, irony or something, I can’t quite think of the right word, in the whole story, though,” continued Matthew. “I mean, they spent so much time and effort either trying to keep me out of the country or making sure I wasn’t a problem, and yet on the very day I was innocently touring San Diego coffee shops, one of their own was taking a gun to a synagogue in the north of the same, relatively safe city.”
“We heard about that here as well,” Mike interrupted with a sad but engaged nod. “Talk about an example of getting their priorities completely wrong. They really need to refocus on sorting out their own shitty gun-owning laws before they bother themselves with preventing innocent foreigners coming in. That would be time and money well-spent,” he concluded to a round of approval.
“One of my friends said I should feel at home in ‘a former colony’, although that isn’t a term I would ever dare use with any of my American friends,” Matthew went on, “but the simple fact is I feel a darn sight more at home in Lebanon or Belarus than I do in the US of A!”
“Well, being made to feel so totally unwelcome at the border doesn’t help, does it?” asked Mark, somewhat needlessly.
“Don’t you feel you’re being just a little bit negative, maybe?” asked John, perhaps more reasonably. “I mean, after all, they did just let you in!”
“True, but don’t forget the majority of Americans actually agree with me on some points,” countered Matthew.
Had Matthew had an answer, we didn’t get to hear it, as a loud disturbance suddenly emanated from the doorway.
“Oi!” came the none too gruntled tones of Lois. “What do you two think you’re doing? I’ve been sitting out there on my own for 15 minutes! It looks like you haven’t even made it to the loo yet either.” Mark made as if to cross his legs, in the faint and ridiculous hope of earning sympathy from his abandoned companion.
“Oh sorry,” mumbled Matthew apologetically, “we got, erm, held up by, erm…” he tailed off. Had he been trying to look the innocent party he would have failed dismally.
“We were just exchanging stories about British and American politics and the like,” explained Mark.
“Of course you were,” remarked Lois, dismissively. “You were talking to these three; ergo, you were talking politics, unless you caught them in a brief footballing moment, and that would be even more depressing.”
Mike, James and John looked mildly offended. Lois couldn’t have cared less.
“Anyway, I had my own experience of that last week while you were away,” she continued. “I was on the plane to Poland and, no matter how much you won’t want to believe this, there was a group of lads wearing ‘make Britain great again’ hats in the style of DT’s ‘make America great again’. And, of course, they were abusing all the other passengers by chanting Brexit crap at them and, in general, being as totally yobbish as a British stag party after a few ales.”
“It just shows some of the type of people who support Brexit,” continued Lois. “I mean, is this what the people of Britain and America want for the future? Control by hate-filled, nationalist hooligans?”
“I’m afraid Trumpism is like a disease,” commented Mike, as one might have expected he would. “There’s a risk of it sweeping the planet like the plague. It’s time someone found an antidote and put the movement out of its misery for good.”
“The plague was carried by rats as well,” added James, to looks of general distaste, whether at the analogy or the reality wasn’t clear.
“We all thought Farridge had been dismissed into obscurity,” said Mike, “only for the fascist bastard to threaten a comeback.”
“You’re still banging that drum, I see,” said Matthew, with a smile which indicated support rather than despair. “Have you started talking to the people you know who voted Leave yet?”
“Of course not,” replied Mike, although no one really needed to ask. “To me, talking to someone who voted Leave is pretty much equivalent to talking to a member of the Flat Earth Society. I only know three people who voted that way anyway and we completely ignored each other at Christmas again, and it was they who passed on making any comment relating to a significant birthday I had last year.”
“It a two-way street, though, isn’t it?” asked James, perhaps more bravely than he intended. Mike spat on the floor without actually emitting any saliva. I took this more as an indication of frustration rather than contempt for the lack of communication from his Brexit-supporting friends and relatives, although, given his strength of feeling on the ‘B’ matter, the latter could not be discounted.
John, in a moment of inspired common sense, decided to tweak the subject. He knew that changing it altogether would alienate Mike but clearly felt some redirection was called for.
“Can someone define that increasingly misused and most annoying word in the English language – ‘robust’?” he asked. He continued with a rather bleak attempt at an impression of a certain prime minister. “As in, ‘Let me be quite clear (and possibly stable); discussions were robust as we pursued the goal of delivering on the result of the referendum’. Guess who might have said that!” The italicised words were accompanied by sarcastically visualised quotation marks.
“How many times have we heard those three words?” Mark sighed in a demonstration of shared disdain.
“Well, let’s look on the bright side, shall we?” Mike, rather surprisingly, suggested. “At the end of this week, the Lib Dems and the Greens won big in the local elections and the Tories and Labour were soundly thrashed for their tomfoolery of the past three years. The UKIP vote was apparently down 70%, the Tories by 25% and Labour by 10%, while the remain supporting Lib Dems saw a 110% rise and the Greens a scarcely believable 550%. As one of my friends said on Facebook, ‘Is this the return of sanity in the UK?’”
“Makes a change from bleeding anarchy then, doesn’t it?” said John to the former fan of the Sex Pistols.
“Let’s see what happens now with the Euro elections,” continued Mike, ignoring his friend’s attempt at what I assume was intended to be a joke. “It’s a shame the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK aren’t collaborating more. At the moment, in England rather than other parts of the UK, we have three parties, the ERG-controlled Tories, the Brexit Party and UKIP, supporting Brexit, and three parties, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK, supporting a People’s Vote and Remain, while Labour are sitting so precariously on the fence with the bloody-minded leadership balancing out 80% of the membership to such an extent nobody has a bleeding clue, let alone themselves, which way they’re going to go.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” began James, before contradicting himself, “although, actually, it probably isn’t,” leaving his audience in a state of temporary flux. “I mean, how people view the same events. The Tories lose well over a thousand local council seats, while the anti-Brexit Lib Dems gain over seven hundred; somehow or another, and God only knows how, our desperately confused Prime Minister hears the simple, and no doubt ‘clear’ message that she just has to get on and ‘deliver’ Brexit, and probably rather ‘robustly’. And Corbyn actually receives the same message, one can only assume through a lifelong hearing affliction!” James was displaying the incredulity which was normally the preserve of Mike. “On the other hand, Vince Cable, who obviously has substantially more than the half-a-brain required to participate in British politics, noted that ‘every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for stopping Brexit’.” He paused momentarily. “There’s nowt so deaf as them that will not hear,” he concluded with his own Lancastrian version of a well-known proverb, which was just about grammatically accurate, or, at least, intelligible.
I don’t think I’d ever heard James speak for such a long time. It seemed to take his listeners a moment or two to take it all in as well.
“Given Theresa May’s renowned hiding from the truth and Jeremy Corbyn’s EU-blindness and deafness, I agree with your revised opinion,” declared Mike. “Not amazing at all. I broke the habit of a lifetime and voted for the Lib Dems this time and it was quite definitely, clearly and robustly against any form of Brexit.”
“Here’s to Vince Cable and common sense,” proclaimed John, and then, realising everyone’s glasses were empty, turned to me for help. The Granada group, Lois included, continued on their way to the solitary bathroom. I hoped at least two of them could hold it in a few moments longer.
Tales of unrequited love – it’s no good crying over spilt Algerian mint tea – the latest from the Beirut room
Jo was standing at the bar in Cape Town salivating as would a Bloodhound on a rare hot summer’s day. I was perspiring over the saj in my kitchen of not-so-generous proportions, preparing her late lunch, or early dinner, of manouche with spinach, cheese and muhammara, a hot pepper dip which has almost as many different written forms as does the word manouche.
Taking her board (in lieu of a plate) of rolled and sliced gluten-free product, along with a delicately balanced glass of Algerian mint tea, made to her usual fifty-fifty specifications, she headed off towards the curtain which shielded Beirut from the main bar area, kicking off her shoes long before she got there, as if setting a deliberate trap for Misha, should he happen to drop in. Once in the room, one could audibly hear the sighs as she sat down and relaxed on the cushions, quickly followed by a loud, “Oh shit!”.
Rolling my eyes to the ceiling and then back again before Jo had a chance to see my despairing expression, I picked up a box of tissues, reaching the curtain just as the room’s incumbent let out a plaintive wail of “Chaelli!”. I opened the curtain so quickly that the remnants of the mint tea she had managed to salvage from the first accident to her left were sent reeling by a shocked arm to her right.
“Your service is too quick sometimes,” she complained.
“You wet my carpet too often,” I replied, not intending to sound quite so rude. “I like to be prepared.” Jo, fortunately, saw the funny side and helped me lay out the paper towels around her so it looked like she was lying on a damp sheet.
“Blimey, have you wet the bed?” came the normally reticent tones which belonged to Micky, Jo’s regular room-mate and confidante-in-chief. This time, I saw the funny side; Jo didn’t. I left them to the soaked tissues and petty squabbles, returning five minutes later with a refilled glass of mint tea and a pot of Yunnan Green.
“I’d intended asking for an ibrik,” Micky said testily. This was stretching the bounds of credibility as the said whinger had made no secret of his distaste for my Lebanese coffee when he had willingly submitted to an experimental jug the year before. “But you can leave the pot, no worries!” As if I was worried…
Micky poured himself a cup of tea and looked expectantly at Jo, who, suspecting she was supposed to initiate a conversation, looked at the ceiling, or maybe through to the heavens, in search of a modicum of inspiration. “So, what’s new?” she finally asked, bound by the conventions of polite society to say something, even though the question was liable to open the proverbial can of earthworms.
“Funny you should ask,” responded the recumbent Micky, although neither party was actually laughing. “I’ve been chatting to Chiara again.”
“You mean virtually groping the poor signorina,” muttered Jo, although the words were as audible as they were critical. “Persistence can become very annoying, you know.”
“And you’d know, would you?” retorted Micky with an unusually rapid display of wicked wit. He winked to quell the look of stunned shock which had become momentarily ingrained on his friend’s face, even though one might argue the retaliatory comment was more than deserved.
“Bloomin’ cheek!” I suppose Jo could have said a lot worse, but she did seem a trifle lost for words, an event which, in itself, is worthy of a line of text.
“We have a very flirtatious relationship,” said Micky, although his tone was laced more with aspiration than factual reality.
“You mean you flirt and she rejects.” Jo had found her tongue again after a predictably short break and made sure it was quickly honed and restored to its regular sharpness.
I think that made it two-one in Jo’s favour and, had my back permitted, I would have slid down onto the floor to spectate on what might happen next. Such an eventuality was rendered impossible by the heavy water bottle I’d carried incorrectly in the morning, and by the arrival of Misha who, as forecast, tripped over Jo’s discarded footwear and shoved me heavily in the lower back at he struggled to right himself. I, the innocent party, was the one who winced in the greatest pain.
“Sorry, Kal,” apologised the shaded one. “I needn’t ask whose shoes those are, I suppose,” he growled at Jo, whose smirk did indeed suggest an act of premediated subterfuge.
“And a very good day to thee an’ all,” smiled Micky in an excessively welcoming manner, no doubt pleased to have someone with whom to share Jo’s verbal abuse. Misha was a fairly easy target, even by Micky’s own low standards.
“Bottle of Ksara Cab Sauv, if you please, Kal,” said Misha, settling himself back on the cushion facing the pestilent curtain, which he regarded with some distaste as it, rather too regularly for his liking, took the edge off the laid-back and positive impression he would prefer his entrance to make.
“With pleasure,” I responded, exiting with far more aplomb than Misha was likely to after nought point seven-five litres of Lebanese red.
Upon my return with the requested bottle, a solitary glass and a corkscrew, Jo was about to unleash her wooden spoon once more.
“We were just talking about Chiara,” she stirred.
“Is this another one of his online fantasies,” asked Misha, stifling a yawn and looking at Micky with a mixture of sympathy and pained tolerance.
“Oh no, no, no, it’s the same one,” responded she who liked causing trouble.
“Gee, thanks,” mumbled her victim, beginning to wonder if his mobile might ring and offer a means of escape.
“So, what’s the current situ?” Misha seemed to be making an effort to contribute, despite his obvious lack of genuine interest.
“He claims he’s been chatting to her again,” said Jo, as if Micky might have gone around the houses to restart the anecdote. She, at least, seemed anxious to hear the latest developments.
“That’s exciting.” Misha was far more interested in his freshly uncorked wine and, to be honest, who could blame him? “Can’t you just get a real person?”
The question had been asked before and probably would be again.
“I had a traumatic experience when I was younger,” said Micky by way of explanation. “Well, when I was thirty, anyway.”
“Traumatic?” Misha sounded a little more engaged in the exchange. “When you were thirty, smartphones didn’t exist so I presume this relates to a real-life member of the female human race.” Maybe Micky was older than I thought but this seemed like a dodgy calculation to me with a consequently unsound conclusion.
“And probably pre-Rebecca,” added Jo, to which Micky briefly nodded and then reddened and Misha looked lost. “Never mind,” she said to the latter. “You don’t want to know.” This was a guaranteed way of ensuring Misha did want to know, but his curiosity was nipped in the bud as Micky decided to talk his way out of a potentially awkward corner.
“It happened in a pub,” he began and then hesitated.
“Doesn’t it always?” Jo seemed determined to keep the conversation flowing, wishing she had never verbalised the Rebecca episode which had fleetingly come to mind.
“I was standing with this girl I knew quite well and had been seeing very innocently for a while,” he continued. Misha’s interest level dropped on the word ‘innocent’ as a stone might descend into the sea from the White Cliffs of Dover. Before you express wonder, I have no idea what brought that analogy into my head. “And then suddenly, I found myself draped around her snogging her face off.” I detected exaggeration but the lack of evidence prevented me from raising a challenge. Jo and Misha looked 50% intrigued and 75% queasy, and please don’t question my mathematics. I’m tired of hearing people saying ‘one million per cent’ on reality TV shows when it is impossible to be anything more than one hundred per cent. My mind growled at itself as the thought passed across it.
“I thought you labelled this as ‘traumatic’ for you,” commented Jo. “I would say the trauma belonged on the other side.” This was, perhaps, a little unkind, as the recipient of Micky’s presumably tongue-filled affections was unknown.
“You have a point,” confessed the conferrer of surprise snogs. “She looked at me and said, ‘What have I done to deserve that?’ in a way which led me to think she was quite pleased.” There was a pause, which no one interrupted as we all felt a punchline was imminent. And three people in this case were not wrong. “Five minutes later, she threw up in the bog.”
There was no sympathy in the air, no attempt to disguise the amusement. Even the narrator, after turning a very nauseous shade of pink, decided there was no point being affronted by such a distant memory and let out a forced half-laugh.
“I wouldn’t show off too much about it,” adjudged Misha, the first by some distance to return to normality as Jo was convulsed for an artificial period of time.
“So,” declared Micky, deciding he should be firm and cross rather than amused at this reaction to his traumatic experience, “since then, I’ve been very shy about kissing anyone. It’s much safer to send kissing emojis online.”
“But so much more boring.” Misha despaired.
“And this is what you’re doing with Chiara?” questioned Jo. “Sending kisses by drawings and never seeing the poor lass?” She thought again. “The lucky lass,” she amended.
“Makes no difference,” lamented Micky. “She likes me well enough but I dream of the day she writes to me without being prompted first. I’m still always the first to write and, if I don’t, nothing comes the other way.”
“And you really haven’t got the message yet?” Jo seemed infuriated. “It’s obvious she doesn’t want to lead you on. She’s doing you a favour really; if she isn’t interested in being more than friends, it’s better if you find someone who is.”
The advice was difficult to argue with. This didn’t stop Micky, who seemed determined to shake off the wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose image I had painted him with the previous year. “But she’s gorgeous,” he protested. And then couldn’t think of anything else to say, probably without embarrassing himself with references to unrequited love, and so stopped.
“And you’re not,” said Jo, rather cruelly. “You’re lovely, inside, but look in the mirror.”
Micky took out his phone and took a selfie to help him remember what he looked like. The familiar hangdog expression stared back at him from his screen, although how much of this was natural and how much Jo-induced was hard to calculate.
“Come on, luv,” Jo said, almost affectionately. “I’m only joking.” Neither Micky nor I knew quite which comment to believe. Jo, however, had decided she had tortured Micky enough and turned her malicious ‘sense of humour’ onto the unsuspecting one facing the curtain. The prospect was enough to drive a man to drink but as Misha had already consumed half a bottle, he had no place to go. I could no longer watch in case it became my turn sooner than expected. Some mysterious source told me the saj in the kitchen was in need of a good old clean and so I took my silent leave, hoping not to hear any more squeals or tears from behind the Lebanese drapes.
Does Mike have any vitriol left to give? More debate and inanity from the Cape Town room
“Blimey!” pronounced Mike, almost throwing himself against the bar in Cape Town, as one might after a hard day at the office. “Who knows what will happen next?”
I suspect the broadcaster of uncertainly expected more of a response, or, at least, a question enquiring as to what the hell he was on about. Instead, silence. James and John had arrived five minutes earlier and seemed bewitched by my new pride and joy, aka a bar-top coffee roaster, which was currently doing its work on a small batch of Honduran beans. After a grimace of slight annoyance, Mike’s eye was also caught by the hypnotic movement inside the glass drum. I would have been quite flattered by the interest, had they actually bought anything. I coughed politely, wondering what anyone passing through would think of four grown men being so captivated by a piece of not-so-modern technology, however on-trend it might be in my establishment.
“Here’s some I made earlier,” I further hinted, sounding like a children’s television presenter from my childhood years. I waved a bag of freshly roasted beans under the assembled noses. The reaction was akin to wafting smelling salts under the nostrils of a fainted one.
“Oh wow!” exclaimed James and John together. “I think that demands an experiment,” continued James, now performing solo.
“What do you recommend, Kal?” asked Mike, with an equal dose of enthusiasm, indicated by a paradiddle on the bar.
“Well, you could have your usual V60, but I’d give a Chemex a go, if I were you,” I suggested.
“Whatever; you decide.” I love obliging customers.
The trio’s eyes moved from the roasting machine to the coffee scales, timer, electric gooseneck kettle and Chemex glass which I assembled on the bar. I ground some of the beans and weighed out the requisite quantity of coffee, shaking it with tender loving care into a filter paper specially designed for the Chemex method. I was getting slightly nervous at the attention I was being paid as I waited for the water to reach the desired ninety-four degrees.
“Care to look somewhere else?” I asked, half-jokingly.
“No,” said John, although Mike did look away as I poured a small amount of hot water onto the grounds.
“Blooming,” I explained.
“Blooming what?” asked James.
I assumed this was ignorance rather than wit. “This process is called blooming.”
“Ah.” James reddened slightly but it soon passed as he and his two friends appreciated the aromas being produced.
As I continued pouring the water into the wide top of the glass, making sure every ground was contributing to the final product, Mike nudged his friends in the ribs, provoking an exaggerated wince from James, and jerked his head towards the bar’s only other customer, a middle-aged male who was leaning against a wine barrel reading The Guardian, while absent-mindedly picking his nose and flicking bogeys under the table.
“You all do that,” commented Jo, who was on her way to Beirut without bothering to order anything. She stopped to join the audience observing the poor, oblivious stranger as he mechanically wiped his finger around the lower zip area of his jeans. “The things you men scratch in public never cease to amaze me,” she sighed. “I’m not even interested in men, so if I notice, think what a turn off it might be to women who do give a toss,” she added threateningly. “And you’re all in denial over it.” Having made her point in her typically blunt manner, she continued on her merry way.
“As if,” said James, hurriedly putting his hands in his jacket pockets and turning back to the bar. His friends huffed and puffed a little, proving Jo to be accurate in at least part of her analysis, and hastily did likewise.
“So, erm, is it ready yet?” asked John, saying anything to cover his potential embarrassment.
“Patience is a virtue,” I pointed out. It seemed more polite than saying ‘no’.
My timer soon brought the wait to an end so I removed the filter paper, gave the glass a swirl and poured three cups of delicious smelling coffee. “You might want to let it cool a little,” I opined.
Patience, however, did not seem to be a virtue of those present and slightly burned tongues were an inevitable consequence.
Mike decided to rewind the clock to his entrance. “Blimey! Who knows what will happen next?”
This time, James and John played along. “What might you be talking about?” asked the former in tones of fake sincerity.
“The damned Brexit,” came the expected response. “Well, at least we should be safely in for a while longer.” James and John sat back in their metaphorical chairs (metaphorical because there are no chairs in Cape Town) and prepared for the early evening rant, which was a regular feature of the threesome’s evenings together. “Shall we start with the hypocrite of the week award?”
“There can’t possibly be just one winner!” John protested. “The entire Brexit-loving pack is littered with them!”
“True,” acknowledged the self-appointed award committee. “But this week, Mark Francois has to take the golden biscuit.”
“Did I miss something?” asked James, in a tone which implied he probably hadn’t done anything of the sort.
“You can’t have done,” retorted Mike. “No-one could miss such a brazen example of total hypocrisy that it shone like a beacon from the shores of Neverland or whichever fantasy world he inhabits. He actually had the temerity to demand a second vote on May’s leadership because ‘things have changed’ since December! How dare he, how very dare he, then deny the British people a second chance of a Brexit vote when things have totally changed in three long years; you know, really important things, like the truth becoming known? Shameful! Utterly shameful!” Mike never let the listener in too much doubt as to how he felt.
“Sad but true,” sighed James.
“The other award for hypocrite of the week,” continued Mike, presumably about to award the silver biscuit, “in fact, for being one of the biggest hypocrites of all time, goes to Farridge who still seems to believe he deserves a fat EU pension for doing everything he can to destroy Europe.”
James and John collectively shuddered at the mention of the ‘F’ word.
“He’s launched his new party this week.” Mike was clearly in the mood to announce old news as he would that of the breaking variety. “What a joke! And he’s got Rees-Mogg’s sister to stand as a candidate!” He shook his head in complete frustration at the lengths some people seemed determined to go to in order to ruin their country. “I suppose we should give her some credit, though,” he added reluctantly. “Deluded though she may be, she is at least honest enough to stand for the party she believes in, the FLP; I just wish she’d take her idiot brother and the rest of the ERG with her because that’s where such extremists truly belong, not in a mainstream party.”
“What’s the FLP?” queried John, genuinely.
“The Farridge Losers’ Party,” growled Mike, as the others smirked. “And the bastard leader of the revolution is already resorting to typical extreme right-wing methods, issuing threats of bringing the wrath of Satan down on those who delayed Brexit, which, of course, incites the violent lunatic faction to take action while he sits on his throne, claiming innocence and blaming anyone trying to defend true democracy for bringing it on themselves.”
“I think what he actually said was ‘the fear of God’,” said James, trying his best to be fair, although one could tell it was a strain in the specific circumstances. Anything which gave a shred of credence to an utterance of Nigel Farage had to be avoided in this particular company. Or almost any company, come to think of it.
“He completely forgets that the initial referendum was a non-binding one, doesn’t he?” said John, clearly not intending this to be a question.
“A non-binding one whose result, once he ‘won’, had to be adhered to,” muttered Mike. “I mean, isn’t that something of a contradiction?”
“But that’s why no one can be prosecuted over it, isn’t it?” John was falling into Mike’s habit of asking the rhetorical.
“True,” responded the usurped king of rhetoric. “All those who lied, cheated and bought the Leave vote can’t be touched because it wasn’t a binding result…”
“Even though the government treats it as set in stone,” James finished obligingly.
“They’re all taking the piss,” grumbled Mike, with a marked lack of subtlety and ambiguity. “Boris Johnson gets paid stupid amounts of money for writing tripe in The Telegraph; he uses it to make unfounded claims which he intends to be taken seriously, and even the pro-Brexit newspaper has to apologise for him and call his columns non-serious pieces of writing!”
“Well, Ukraine’s new president seems likely to be a professional comedian,” commented James. “The way Britain’s going, we might end up electing an amateur one!”
“Beggars belief,” said John, totally predictably. I assumed he was referring to both of the previous statements but it could have been to almost the entire conversation.
“Three beers,” sighed Mike, in a bid to lighten the mood, before promptly spoiling the intervention completely with a very abrupt change of conversational direction. “How can anyone view losing one-nil at home to Barcelona as an achievement? Man United should be winning games like that, not lapsing into an inferiority complex!”
“The good ol’ days will return,” said James, his voice betraying a lack of confidence.
“I just hope we’re still alive to see it,” grumbled Mike.
“Oh, come on, it’s only been, erm, a few years, since we won anything,” John said in a failed bid to ameliorate the gloom.
“Try my new beer,” I said, even though my customers hadn’t specified their desired brew. “A limited import from Lebanon.”
“From where?” chorused the trio in astounded unison, laced with a generous dollop of doubt.
“Elmir Pilsener, brewed near Beirut.” I detected scepticism from the real ale fanatics facing me across the wooden bar-top divide, but I insisted they try. I stopped short of offering freebies if they didn’t like them – that would have been going a step too far. I needn’t have worried.
Sometimes, one has to take a risk to lift the mood. At least for a while, the trials and tribulations of the United Kingdom and Manchester United were forgotten. James and John turned their gaze back to the snot-flicking ball-scratcher, only to realise he had left ten minutes earlier. And had he had a solitary ounce of cognition relating to the conversation concerning him, I rather doubted his imminent return.
“Do we really do the same?” queried James.
The answer came in the form of an uncomfortable silence.
Jimez meets Jimmy in the Budapest room – would-be bohemians in competition?
Budapest is my room for aspiring artists. Just as they aspire to some kind of artistic success, so I aspire to put a plaque on the wall, proudly stating that blah-blah composed whatever notable work or whatever within the confines of these four walls with its two polished marble tables and reproduction Biedermeier chairs standing on dark-stained wooden flooring and surrounded by inspiring wood-panelled walls, dark mirrors and reproduction artwork.
OK, dream on. Reproduction seems to be the name of my game.
Despite my café being situated in an area known for its artistic creativity, my would-be artists to date have numbered one. And that one is Jimez. And, with all due respect, the plaque-makers of the north of England can put their order books away. Jimez is a failed writer and a failed lover who drinks wine he can’t afford, none of which prevents him from being a lovely guy, who his long-suffering friend, Jen, and I do our best to encourage, however futile and despairing a task this usually becomes.
Jen is clearly fond of Jimez, but long since decided his clumsy flirtations with her were an act of desperation rather than longing and, even if there ever was a flicker of interest, which I sincerely doubt, it had been well and truly snuffed out by his hapless overtures. I actually know very little about Jen, other than that she is an environmentalist with appalling timekeeping skills, has the gall to put milk in a carefully crafted Chemex-brewed coffee, and is the major purchaser of my Hungarian cakes, a fact which shows abundantly around her waistline, not that anyone would dare tell her so.
On this particular afternoon, Jimez, who had ended the previous year in a very upbeat mood, much to everyone’s surprise, given yet another twelve months of non-production, was sitting alone on a Biedermeier, rocking back and forth. I seriously doubted the legs would tolerate such actions for much longer as Jimez was not a lightweight. His Basset Hound visage, oft referred to in 2018, was freshly restored with a few additional grey hairs to add to the melancholy. And whereas one might be tempted on sight to throw one’s arms around a cute Basset, such an eventuality was unlikely verging on the impossible in the case of Jimez.
He ordered a cappuccino, which I made rather more hurriedly and a little colder than I would have liked, just to focus his mind on something other than his apparent mission to reduce my chair count.
“Here you go,” I said pleasantly. The to and fro motion continued as inexorably as a pendulum. “Erm, you want to be careful,” I ventured. “You might fall off if you lean back too far.” I phrased my suggestion to his benefit, rather than my pocket’s, but its impact was not immediate. I began to wonder if there was life on the Biedermeier. I slightly rudely wafted the coffee under his nose and this, finally, had the desired effect.
Jimez was displeased. “I was having an idea,” he protested, and who knows, it might have been true.
“Tell me,” I demanded, hoping to placate the frustrated self-styled bohemian by demonstrating interest.
“Shan’t,” he responded in the manner of a truculent six-year-old. “It was something about a talking Trabant but I need to think some more.”
I suppressed my laughter under the guise of a cough and was about to exit stage left when Jen squeezed herself through the door. This is, I admit, a slight exaggeration, for which I humbly apologise (should she ever read these pages).
“Sorry I’m late,” she began, predictably.
“What for?” asked Jimez. “Nothing’s happening.”
“One of those days, uh?”
“He was having an idea,” I explained. Jen nodded her understanding and ordered a Chemex and the cake menu to change the subject. “Milk?” I queried. The look of mild exasperation indicated the affirmative.
Having left Jimez in the safe but unloving arms of Jen, I spent the appropriate amount of time carefully brewing her Chemex, even though it was to be adulterated with lactose. I took the opportunity to make one for myself as well, choosing an unwashed Ethiopian for us both. Jen never specified origin, leaving it up to me to decide; unfortunately, this freedom of choice did not extend to additives.
I returned several minutes later to find two occupied Biedermeiers with eight legs firmly and happily on the floor.
“No need for the menu,” Jen said, perhaps having noted I hadn’t returned with it. “Two slices of Eszterházy, please. If that won’t cheer him up, nowt will!” Despite being referred to in the third person, Jimez was still physically present.
I returned with three and, not to appear too presumptuous, sat at the other table, relishing a black Chemex and some of my favourite Hungarian cake. It remained difficult, however, not to be distracted by their wandering dialogue.
“My band was only a studio band,” Jimez was saying in a complaining tone, although this, to me, seemed a perfectly acceptable alternative to spending one’s life on the road in a tour bus. “I think the last time I performed live was at a kids’ summer camp in Rožnov in the Czech Republic.”
“Very glam,” replied Jen, doing her best to sound sincere.
“Oh yeah,” said the downbeat one. “We were playing, and I use the term as loosely as it can be used, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ with the camp director lip syncing to Johnny Rotten and me and my friend thrashing broomsticks for guitars.”
Talking to Jimez made one well-versed in the art form of disguising laughter, although I often thought he was inviting friendly derision and almost testing our ability to contain ourselves. Self-deprecation is a favourite of many, from those fishing for compliments through to those crying for help and it was difficult to know where Jimez stood on this lengthy continuum. He was never in the same place for long enough to be confident.
“Can I have a Tempranillo?” I wasn’t sure if Jimez was making a request or asking for permission. As the latter seemed unlikely, given my role as a café owner, I left the room to oblige, taking the remnants of my coffee with me. The cake had been devoured with unseemly haste and love.
I returned to find both tables occupied and an old friend in my recently vacated seat. Jimmy, unfortunately sharing a moniker similar to two other regulars, as if I didn’t struggle enough with names already, was a very old friend, by which I mean he was middle-aged and I had known him for too long to mention. He had been away for a while and I hadn’t been expecting him so we greeted each other with a loud “Hey”, shook hands very firmly and then exchanged the cursory hugs typical of Brits who have spent a lot of time in more tactile cultures but still feel embarrassed embracing one of the same gender.
Budapest was a good choice of room for one such as Jimmy. He also fancied himself as an artist and bohemian, and would probably consider Jimez a kindred spirit, albeit on a different plane. He was tall and slightly emaciated due to drinking more than he ate, wore a bandana which covered his whole head, considerably more than his hair did, with a pair of sunglasses perched awkwardly, and coolly (his words, not mine) on top. He was frequently given to stroking his designer stubble (also his words) as if deep in thought, or possibly lost in self-admiration. It should be noted that his stubble was hair which was merely allowed to grow naturally when he couldn’t be bothered to shave for a couple of weeks; cultured and groomed it most certainly was not.
Jimmy was not alone. I was used to seeing him with various women in tow but this one was new. The facts she was half his age and very pretty were to be expected, but that’s where the obvious similarities stopped.
“Are you going to introduce us?” I asked, rather reasonably.
“Obviously,” came the reply in dulcet northern English tones. “Nawel, this is my old mate, in every sense of the word, Chaelli.” Charm was never Jimmy’s greatest virtue when dealing with males of the species. “And Kal, this is Nawel, my gift.”
Handshakes were exchanged, although, for some reason, I wasn’t sure mine would be welcomed.
“That’s very sweet of you, calling someone ‘my gift’,” I remarked in some surprise, as Jimmy wasn’t known for being open with any feelings of romance.
“’Nawel’ means ‘gift’,” Jimmy translated obligingly.
“Ah, even sweeter,” I responded, not being sure what else to say. Nawel looked a little more concerned by the use of the possessive adjective ‘my’ in association with her name. “Erm, can I get you anything?”
“We just looked at the menu in the other room. Can we have an Aeropress with the El Salvadorian coffee and an Algerian mint tea with sugar?”
“Your wish is my command.” I left the room, curiosity regarding the visitor well and truly aroused. But we all know what curiosity did to the proverbial cat, so I used my time out to curtail my infamous nosiness.
I returned with the requested drinks to find the occupants of the two tables engaged in arms-length conversation, exchanging pleasantries and, to date, little of substance.
“What do you do?” Jen was asking.
“This and that,” came the not very informative response.
“Can you tell us what ‘this’ is and we’ll settle for ‘that’ later?” Jen’s retort forced me stifle another laugh, although as this one was at Jimmy’s expense, I didn’t exert too much effort. Even Jimmy seemed to think the request was mildly amusing.
“I dabble.” I can’t honestly say this was any more helpful than his previous statement but, at least, this time, he offered some elaboration. “I freelance in various capacities while trying to produce and present television programmes.”
The last five words had an almost electrifying effect on the hitherto mute Jimez, who may conceivably have missed the key words ‘trying to’. Anyone who dabbled in what he perceived as art and the arts was of immediate interest. This I could have predicted as safely as the winner of a one-horse race. His entire body language changed as if he felt that here was someone who might understand him.
Without wishing to hijack the conversation, I was far more interested in the newcomer. Jimmy’s exploits were old hat to me and, rather selfishly, perhaps, I turned to Nawel.
“And what do you do?” I asked, sounding more like an interlocuter in a language exam than a potential new acquaintance in a café.
“I’m a student,” replied Nawel, her accent betraying a French influence.
“Et êtes vous française?” I asked, my accent betraying outer Manchester. This minor humiliation served to break the ice between us, as what had been merely a friendly smile on Nawel’s face dissolved into fits of giggles.
“You’re such a flirt, Kal,” commented Jimmy, as though he had seen it all before. And, in all honesty, he probably had. “And your language ability, like mine, remains in the basement.”
“And you actually like this guy?” I questioned. The newcomer didn’t seem willing to admit to this at the current stage of the engagement and returned to the initial question.
“I’ve lived in France for a long time,” she answered, her manner of speaking becoming more alluring with every passing syllable, “but I’m from Algeria, like this tea. And you make it very well; très bien.” I blushed, much to Jimmy’s amusement.
Jen decided to be more direct. “And why are you here?” This sounded a little aggressive, as my raised eyebrow conveyed. “I don’t mean that in an anti-immigration way, I’m just curious.”
“I’m doing a Masters in English at university here,” Nawel replied, her face back to a smile. “And most of my work is computer-based so I’m staying with him for a few days.” She nonchalantly jerked her head towards Jimmy.
“And how did you meet?” At least Jen was asking all the questions I wanted answers to.
“He was my trainer a few years ago in Algiers.”
“You don’t like anything like I expect an Algerian to look like.” It was beginning to sound like an interrogation but at this point, it didn’t seem to be causing any offence to the recipient.
“What did you expect?” broke in Jimmy, in an attempt to divert attention, if only briefly.
“I thought it was a very Islamist country,” Jen began.
“Islamist is a term more often used to refer to fundamentalism,” Nawel pointed out. “It is a Muslim country though, in general.”
“So, I assumed you would wear a hijab and neck to foot coverings,” pursued Jen, noting Nawel’s very western-style of attire; open top, distressed jeans and trainers.
“We’re not all the same. I’m a Berber; my family is Muslim but we are attached to our traditional and cultural values rather than to Islamic teachings and education. I wear the Berber traditional dress but never the Islamic one! No way!”
“I’ve got photographs of people bathing in burkinis in Algeria, you know, fully covered except face, hands and feet,” interrupted Jimmy, “and pictures of Nawel wearing the bare minimum in Europe, so there are very clear differences.”
“Can I see?” blurted out Jimez, obviously without thinking as both he and Nawel turned pink in unison. “I mean, the contrast, not…” His sentence faded into nothingness as he retreated back into his shell.
“And there are some beaches in Algeria where you see both types of swimwear side by side,” said Nawel, hurriedly redirecting the interaction, much to Jimez’s relief. “The religious conservatives don’t like it, but it happens. It isn’t Saudi Arabia or Qatar, fortunately.”
“And aren’t there any problems for you going out with an English guy?” Jen posed the question most people would like to ask.
“You’re making quite an assumption!” I was getting the impression Nawel, gift or not, was of a very independent nature. “Not at the moment. I don’t want to sound bad, but I’ve dated guys from a few different countries and I actually find it enriching and interesting. I certainly don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong.” She stopped to sip her tea. “I don’t think I’ve ever been really Muslim anyway. For instance, going back to dress, I don’t believe a woman should hide her body or be ashamed of who she is. I always feel shocked when my friends or neighbours decide to cover their heads. For me, it’s just a symbol of a lack of women’s rights and I think that’s nonsense.”
Jimmy was clearly used to his friend’s outspoken manner and sat back, drinking his coffee, occasionally glancing at Jimez as he would a curio, which, in his own way, Jimez was. Jimez, for his part, kept glancing at Jimmy, as if desperate to ask more about his televisual exploits.
Jen obviously appreciated Nawel’s forthright way of speaking and maintained eye contact as a means of encouraging her to continue without the need for further interrogation.
“I’m just like every woman who wants to live, be free, make decisions, choose what she wants to be, where she wants to be!”
“Hear, hear!” Jen had a new friend.
“I used to call her a black sheep,” said Jimmy, “I was so sure she was unique among people from her family and country, but I was quickly, and rather forcibly, talked out of that habit.”
“Algeria has this image of a Muslim country, but that’s not the whole truth.” Nawel drained her glass. “Mmm, that reminds me of home.” I was flattered.
“Ready to go?” asked Jimmy. They both stood up, hopefully not deterred by the barrage of probing questions.
“Are you staying around a bit this time?” I asked Jimmy, who spent far more time overseas than he did at what he liked to call ‘home’.
“Yeah, we’ll be here for a bit.”
“Looking forward to seeing you both again, then,” I said, following them out into the Cape Town room, fully aware of the explosion of well-intentioned gossip concerning inter-racial relationships and television producer-presenters which was about to erupt behind us.
Matthew and Mark’s latest recollections from Beirut – from the Granada room
Early spring in England isn’t what it used to be. It’s a lot wetter and a lot warmer, although no doubt Mr Trump would say this is a figment of our imagination caused by being indoctrinated into believing that climate change actually exists. Nevertheless, having got through a week when more rain fell than was supposed to fall in the whole month and left the home valley on the verge of flooding once again, it was now unseasonably warm enough to leave the street heaters and blankets in what passes as my utility room. ‘Dumping ground’ would be closer to an honest description but I’m the only one who sees it, so ‘utility room’ it remains.
Matthew and Mark were sitting in their customary seats in my outdoor space known as Granada. Both were wearing jeans and warm sweaters, with Mark also sporting what I understand is known as a beanie; whether this was to protect him from the wind chill or conceal his lack of a thatch, as Matthew politely described his friend’s near-baldness, was open to question. I hadn’t seen them for a while as they had been back in their beloved Lebanon for a month or so. As quite big spenders, as well as being really nice people, it was good to see them back.
Even more pleased to greet their return was Lois who, despite having forged new relationships on the return bus to London the previous week, had missed her two closest friends, to say nothing of having some available gullible types to verbally make feel awkward.
“Well, hello, you great deserters!” she welcomed them with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “How dare you miss the march?” This was typical of the ‘never mind the formalities; let’s get straight to the point’ outlook on life which Lois possessed in more than ample quantity. Her friends preferred to term this ‘never mind the bollocks’.
“Yeah, I was really sorry about that,” half-apologised Matthew. “We couldn’t change the flights.”
The sincerity, genuine or otherwise, was lost on the abandoned one. “Pathetic excuse,” adjudged Lois, giving both of them a hug so cursory it barely counted as a pat on the back, before sitting down opposite them and, suffering from her over-estimation of the temperature in her choice of attire, looking for a blanket. Spotting this in the way only an excellent mine host could, I quickly, and as secretively as possible, opened the door of my utility room, retrieved a blanket and put it on the free adjacent chair at their table.
“Blimey.” I was, perhaps, expecting a form of thanks; this remark left me wondering if my standard of service did not usually attain this level of excellence.
“We found some really nice, new cafés in Beirut, Kal,” said Matthew, attracting and holding my hundred per cent attention in one fell swoop. “Take a seat,” he added after I had already done so, narrowly avoiding sitting on Lois’s hand as she snatched the blanket.
“I’m all ears,” I said, perhaps literally as well as metaphorically.
“Two really small ones, called Cortado and Ben,” said Mark, equally enthused.
“Ben isn’t a person,” Matthew interrupted helpfully. “In fact, I’m not even sure it’s called Ben; seems to be more like Bn, which I’ve been told means coffee, as in the beans or the ground form from which you make the drink.”
“The girl who works there is really knowledgeable and gives good guidance,” Mark continued, “although the seating area isn’t the most welcoming.”
“But you go there for the coffee.” It was almost like watching a tennis match as each took a rapid-fire turn to advance the collective point.
It is hard to imagine the turnaround in café society in Beirut in less than three years. From a city in which I had almost avoided coffee shops altogether to one in which I was becoming increasingly spoiled for choice, the change was both remarkable and encouraging. Local friends have even referred to new cafés I haven’t even had time to try yet, so adding to the ever-bewildering, mind-boggling choice of upmarket establishments, which are, unfortunately, mostly concentred in two very small areas.
“Last time, I was there, I found The High Llama” I countered, as if not to be outdone.
“I didn’t know Lebanon had llamas.” I assumed Lois was trying to be funny. “Or lamas,” she giggled to herself. We coffee enthusiasts collectively, and slightly rudely, ignored her.
“Yes, yes.” Matthew’s enthusiasm seemed to be reaching dizzy heights. “A great place for siphons, and they have a really good Yirgacheffe which really suits the method.”
“Are you speaking English?” Lois decided she was not to be ignored.
“A siphon is a way of brewing coffee,” Mark explained.
“And Yirgacheffe is a coffee-producing region in Ethiopia where it is possible the great bean was actually born,” added Matthew in tones verging on the reverential.
“I have both here,” I intervened, spotting a sale. Now it was my turn to be ignored.
“The main problem with these cafés,” Matthew continued, echoing a ‘complaint’ I had made before, most recently just a few lines above, “is that both Cortado and Ben are within about a hundred metres of Sip so the dangers of caffeine poisoning associated with café-hopping are growing rather rapidly.”
“There is a financial deterrent, though,” said Mark, who had a reputation for holding a tight grip on his purse strings. “You can pay almost as much for a decent coffee and cake in Beirut as you do in Mayfair, but you really do get decent coffee and cake.”
Matthew laughed at his friend’s all too frequent reference to money. “Look, you can still buy coffee from street stalls for around fifty pence,” he pointed out reasonably, “and, so long as you really do need a stiff wake-up call, these are perfectly adequate.”
Mark shuddered slightly at the thought, although I know from my own experience that some of the cheaper coffee can actually be quite decent, if you’re into that type of thing. “I wasn’t complaining,” protested the accused, although he had obviously been counting the cost. “I spent around £100 a week just on coffee in the last month. I blame you, Kal, for giving me expensive tastes! It would be almost cheaper to form a hard drug habit but that’s one train to Losersville I’m definitely not catching!”
“OK, go on, Chaelli,” said Lois, tweaking the subject and proving my voice hadn’t fallen completely on deaf ears. “I’ll have a siphon with that coffee I can’t pronounce.”
“Make it for the three of us,” instructed Matthew, even though Mark had remained mute.
To avoid missing too much of the conversation, but also in the interests of customer service, obviously, I made the coffee at the table, a marketing ploy I had first seen at the Calle 10 Arte y Pasion Café in Bogotà and one which I really appreciated as a customer. Lois seemed entranced as the water magically rose into the upper part of the device and then trickled back down into the lower section. Matthew and Mark, whilst anticipating the prospect of the final brew, had seen it all before and continued with their conversation.
“She might not be listening to us now, Kal,” Matthew said, with a nod to the bewitched Lois. I also nodded, although with the different communicative purpose of indicating that at least one member of his audience was paying attention. “But we were actually in virtual contact with you-know-who while we were away.” The chemistry experiment which the siphon process resembles was as appealing to Lois as it might be to your average ten-year-old. Matthew decided trying to involve her ranked in the third level of futility but fortunately deemed I was worth addressing. “The weather there was weird; at the same time that England and Wales were baking in 20-degree sun and a fair proportion of its population was lying semi-naked on the beaches, Beirut was like a warm-ish Manchester in November with torrential rain which just went on and on. And on.”
“And parallel to this,” broke in Mark, keen not to be left out, “Trump was launching another of his ‘climate change is bollocks’ campaigns.”
“Well, if anyone knows about bollocks, it’s him,” grunted Matthew, clearly not appreciating the introduction of the bollock pronouncer to the dialogue. “He rarely says anything which doesn’t fit that particular description.” He sighed, as many often do. “And then, a couple of weeks later, parts of England were facing flood devastation. And it was still pouring in Beirut. I was trapped in a café by rain in Lebanon while Lois was trapped in her flat by rain in our green and pleasant valley!”
Collective attention was then focused on the siphon which was happily gurgling its way to a conclusion. I arranged three glasses on the table, reluctantly depriving myself, lovingly swirled the coffee around in the lower bowl and poured it into the three waiting receptacles. Lois still seemed transfixed.
“It’s best left a couple of minutes just to cool down,” I told her, hoping the message would penetrate the mental fog. In the meantime, I was eager for more stories from one of my second homes. “Anything else new in Beirut?”
“Well, we had a moment of einstürzende altbaten,” said Matthew. Lois shook herself awake and looked confused, which as a non-German speaker, was hardly surprising. Matthew felt a brief explanation was called for. “I used to love that German band, Einstürzende Neubaten, which translates as Collapsing New Buildings, but as this was an old building, I’m assuming I can replace ‘neu’ with ‘alt’.”
Mark coughed in the manner of one attracting attention or prompting correction. “I don’t think you ever actually listened to that band; you just liked the name because it was trendy!”
Matthew looked fleetingly, and jokingly, annoyed but did not deny the accusation. “Whatever,” was the best response he could muster, whatever that indeed means. “Anyway, this building not far from where we were staying just collapsed,” he resumed, on the assumption the story was more engaging than his love or otherwise of experimental German music. “It must have been expected as cameras were there and no one was injured, although we were initially told it had just fallen down.”
“Without wishing ill on the residents, that isn’t the most exciting conclusion to a story,” Lois remarked, returning her attention to the coffee glass in front of her and thinking it was time to take a sip or two. Her facial features expressed the message, ‘still too hot’.
“The roads gave us more cause for amusement,” said Mark, changing the direction of the conversation as he knew how quickly Lois could become intolerant. “We were thinking of one or two friends when we were crossing the road near the school we were visiting. It’s a really, really busy road,” he continued, setting the context for his anecdote, by which I arrived at the inevitable conclusion it carried an awful lot of traffic. “There’s a flashing green man to help you across the first half of the road. And then…”
“You’re on your own,” finished Matthew. “A step into the unknown.”
“The easiest method if you’re insecure and a newbie to the wonders of Lebanese pedestrianism is latching yourself onto a pensioner and crossing with them; they seem less likely to get run over.” I think Mark was trying to be helpful.
“But then you get dangerously used to it,” said Matthew, nodding in fake sagacity. “One of my friend’s husbands saw me crossing the road to meet them once and apparently remarked, ‘Oh my God, he’s becoming so Lebanese!’” He paused to reflect. “I think it was a compliment. But, sometimes, you are aware there is more than one vehicle moving at thirty mph within twelve or twenty-four inches on both sides of you when you’re crossing the road and yet, for some bloomin’ strange reason, you actually feel safe.”
Lois obviously thought this conclusion unlikely but, ridiculous as it sounds, there is more than a note of truth in it. Until it all goes pear-shaped.
“Like so many things Lebanese, for us anyway,” Mark went on, “you acquire habits when you live in the place long enough and I think it’s fair to say British drivers do not appreciate the way I have learned to cross the road in places like Lebanon or Vietnam.”
“And imagine what happens when you go to a place like Germany, or some other parts of Central Europe, where you can get fined for crossing on a red light or, if not fined, you get looks of serious reproval for setting a bad example to children who may, or may not, be present to witness your transgression.” Matthew shook his head sadly, as if sending out the message that, in his opinion, everyone should be sent to Lebanon to learn how to cross the road. Despite my affection for the said Eastern Mediterranean state, I staunchly believed otherwise.
“I remember crossing the road once in Katowice,” said Mark, referring to another much-loved city of his close acquaintance. “It was one o’clock in the morning and there was no one around at all so I, and the two people I was with, crossed the road. I think half the road had a green light and the second half a red. When we got to the other side, two policemen came out of Gliwicka (the name of a street for the 99.99% of readers who, no doubt, count as the uninitiated) and accused us of crossing on red, just to earn a hundred złoty or so from gullible, uninformed foreigners. There was no way they could have seen the lights from where they were standing and they soon gave up when my friend told them so in Polish!”
Three glasses of coffee were raised to lips simultaneously and I stood awaiting their verdict as the defendant in the dock.
“On a par with The High Llama, I think,” said Matthew approvingly, with Mark’s thumbs-up presumably indicative of agreement. Attention moved to the female presence, where the smacking of lips seemed to count for more than words.
Matthew returned, mentally, to Lebanon, as though Katowice and Yirgacheffe had not interrupted. “I usually walk on the road in Beirut, anyway. On the road, you sort of know what to expect, what’s coming. On the pavement, you can never be sure!” Lois seemed to share her friend’s lack of certainly, although I imagine in a different way. “Well, for example, apart from the parked cars which actually force you to walk in the road, and the occasional moped or other motorised vehicles which endanger pedestrian safety, it’s a marketing technique, away from the smart, expensive shops, to make you fall over goods on the pavement. Everyday common or garden grocery shops just pile their wares on the pavement so you have to make a conscious effort to negotiate passage.”
“It definitely makes you notice them,” Mark offered in praise of the Lebanese retail industry.
“It’s strange how you become oblivious to things which annoy you at home,” Matthew said with a degree of nostalgia. “People who pip horns at home, I tend to look at in disdain, and I hardly ever, if ever, do it myself, but it’s part of the music of Beiruti street life.”
“It still makes you despair on occasion, though.” Mark was, perhaps, a little less tolerant. “You know, as soon as traffic lights turn green, or even when a green light is predicted, someone who is like six or seven back in the queue starts pipping as though the person at the front might not have noticed.”
Lois, who had never been to Lebanon, looked as though its omission from her bucket list was not in danger of remedial action. Matthew seemed determined to redress the negativity, at least a little.
“You just have to understand the unwritten rules of driving and crossing the road – I’m not really sure you can put the reality into words.” This did little to convince Lois, who, I was happy to report, seemed far more into the siphon-brewed Yirgacheffe. “You know how in language,” Matthew continued, trying to personalise his argument to an area Lois would more easily identify with, “we have prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. For example, prescriptive grammar, how the language should be used, dictates that ‘If I were you’ is correct, while descriptive grammar, how the language is used, allows ‘If I was you’. Well I’ve been assured that Lebanon does have laws of the road, meaning prescriptively, but the rules of what happens in reality, in other words, descriptively, are totally different but everyone seems to know them.”
Lois could be seen and heard, almost literally, trying to process this information and assess its relevance to the argument. Lost for words, an unusual event in itself, she shook her head.
Matthew decided to shock her back to reality. He turned to Mark and winked, indicating a wind-up was in the pipeline. “Have you ever had a hookah?” The effect was instantaneous; this was the type of conversation Lois loved and she awaited the answer agog with anticipation.
Mark, aware of the wink, was tempted to play along but limited this to a few seconds of deep thought before answering the question honestly. “No,” he said, and Lois was almost visibly disappointed. “I don’t smoke.” The female target of the joke returned to a state of confusion. Mark decided to put her out of her misery, although not quite yet. “A hookah is just another word for argileh or shisha,” he teased, waiting a few more seconds for the brow to furrow further. “Or hubble bubble!”
“Ah,” said Lois in final recognition.
“But I fell into the same trap when it was first mentioned to me,” admitted Matthew. “I wondered why the director of the school was offering me a hooker.” He laughed at the recollection, without divulging how he had responded.
“There’s no connection here,” said Mark, indicating a major shift of direction, “but I was just wondering if you could shed light on something I’ve been wondering about. When you go to kiss Lebanese women on the target cheeks, why do they turn their mouths so far away, you end up kissing their ears?”
Lois assumed this was the first line of a joke and sat awaiting the punchline. Apparently, it was a genuine question.
“Maybe that’s just you!” Matthew, not for the first time, laughed at his own joke, however bad it was, and then, noting Mark’s annoyance, jocular though it may have been, and the three empty coffee glasses in front of them, realised a change of subject, and drink, was in order. “Cruzcampo time?”