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Fritz spends the afternoon at the desk, ringing up charges, opening accounts, haunted still by the thought of Isabel. Without wanting to, he thinks of her alone in Greenwich, sitting in the living room under his father’s portrait, and knows that he is ridiculous, that Isabel is never alone, surrounded always by her luncheon friends, that Simon is there. And yet he thinks of her as solitary, isolated, slim and elegant and unreachable.

She will die there. He knows it, knows her well enough to understand that she will not fight against fate, against her own body. She will stay at the house in Greenwich—the house where she had been born—because she understands drama. She will stay at the house in Greenwich because she has always known which battles could be won, which must be lost, when to find beauty in defeat.

He and Denby take their break together at half past three, go downstairs and get iced lattés at the cafe across the Yard. They sit outside in the aftermath of a rainstorm. Everything is clean and dripping. Fritz stirs sugar into his coffee and says offhandedly, “My stepmother’s got cancer.” Somehow, he wants to tell Denby, to hear Denby’s response.

“Fuck,” says Denby. And a minute later: “You didn’t get along, did you?”

“No,” says Fritz, and then, thoughtfully: “She’s a bitch.”

Denby lights a cigarette, half-smiles. “American, is she?”

Fritz laughs roughly. “Yeah.” He reaches into the pocket of his jeans for his Marlboros. “Can I have a light?”

Denby hands him the Zippo and says, “Paul said to tell you they’re playing at Los Desaparecidos tonight, and that if you like, he’ll put you and Elaine on the guest list.” Paul is Purgatorio’s drummer, a fat Scouser with an orange mohawk. He and Fritz sit in the front room of the house in Hampstead and discuss Tennessee Williams when they’re stoned.

“That would be great,” Fritz says, makes a mental note to call Elaine. He likes Purgatorio, although he doesn’t know why. He’s never liked punk, has always been revolted by the unrestrained anger of it all, but for some reason he thinks their concerts are hilarious, four public school boys with meticulously shaved heads smashing cheap guitars. “Speaking of which, what the fuck is that on your shirt?”

Denby looks down at it and grins selfconsciously. “You like it? It’s a limited edition. Silkscreened. Emma did them.”

Emma has countless undiscovered talents, ranging from needlepoint to television repair, and Fritz is impressed. “But what’s it supposed to be?” he says. “I’ve never seen cattle that passionate before.”

Denby shrugs. “Paul painted the original. He says it’s representative of the industry’s rape of rock music.”

Fritz says: “Rock music is being raped by a cow?”

****

His shift ends at eight, and he goes downstairs, skirts around the milling tourists in Neal’s Yard, on Long Acre. He has always liked Covent Garden, since the days when he and Magda were teenagers and had gone to the theatre together, buying student tickets ten minutes before the performance and running laughing up flights of stairs to the seats by the ceiling, where the slant was so steep that they stepped carefully and Magda held his sleeve, afraid of heights. Inevitably, it was Magda’s treat—money had slipped from Fritz’s fingers with alarming ease. He sees the irony in this—that even in grammar school, when they had received the same generous allowance from Isabel, Magda, with a trust fund from her dead father and the flawless ability to manipulate her mother, was scrupulously frugal, while he, Fritz, lived precariously from month to month.

He meets Magda at the King’s Head on the Marylebone Road. It’s a pretty pub, all dark wood and burgundy naugahyde. She’s there already when he arrives, sitting on an old church pew, nursing a shandy. He gets a pint of Kronenbourg, sits across from her, says: “How was your MP?”

She’s lighting a cigarette, says indistinctly, “Passionate.”

“Which you have to admire,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says, blows a long stream of smoke. “Be always drunken.”

He raises his pint glass: “With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.” It had been Magda who first handed him Eugene O’Neill. He had been seventeen, had dreamed of playing Edward Tyrone. He never has, although he can still recite the speeches.

“He wants a united Ireland,” Magda says slowly.

Fritz laughs. “Which is why he’s Sinn Fein.”

“No,” Magda says. “I mean, yes, that’s why he’s Sinn Fein. But that isn’t what I meant.” This is typical of Magda. She believes in clarity, believes in it, he supposes, the way her MP believes in an island. This is not like Elaine, it occurs to him suddenly but unsurprisingly, the way ten minutes after a conversation one remembers the name of a particular actor, a song, the source of a quote, already known but previously inaccessible. For Elaine, what is important is the telling. They are alike in this way—having an endless capacity for conversation, for words that dissolve upon articulation, muffled in walls and furniture, intonation, connotation, the past.

Magda says: “What I meant was that he wants a united Ireland the way I want—” She stops: “I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want anything that much.

“You do,” he says, although he has no idea why he is so positive. He thinks possibly it’s the lager. “It’s just not so concrete. Everyone does. True love or something.”

“Or something.” Magda chuckles. “Jesus, Fritz.” But she’s teasing him, the way she had when they were children, on Cholmondeley Circle. She picks up her shandy, starts to take a sip, stops and looks at him over the rim. “So you tell me. What’s your ‘or something?’”

He says: “Fuck if I know.”

Their food comes then and they’re silent, eating. Afterwards, Magda lights a cigarette. The pub is dim and gleaming, pleasantly hazed by his drowsiness, his pint. The slot machine in the corner flickers, drawing multicolored patterns on its own face, erasing them, a strange fluorescent etch-a-sketch. The jukebox is playing R.E.M. No one has put in money. It’s crazy what you could have had, crazy what you could have had, I need this. He wants suddenly to be very drunk, gets up without speaking, goes to the bar, orders himself a double vodka and tonic, another shandy for Magda. He comes back and Magda is still smoking.

“Thanks,” she says. “You’re a dream.”

He takes a large sip of his drink, sits down, says: “You’re welcome.”

“Listen,” Magda says. “We have to talk.”

“Okay,” he says. He doesn’t like the sound of that, but he’s thinking about his vodka.

“It’s mom,” Magda says. “She wants us all to come home.”

“Enjoy it,” he says. He’s deliberately playing idiot. He doesn’t want this to happen. He wants to refuse for this to happen. He cannot face Isabel. He wants her to die without him, the way she had lived without him; thinks that if he gives her this it will be absolution, forgiveness, understands it blindly, through the muffler of his pain. He is disgusted by his own bitterness.

“All of us,” Magda says distinctly. “Gwendolyn through Simon. In August. Please, Fritz. The cancer’s pancreatic. She won’t last very long now.”

He tries to remember how many shots of vodka it will take to make him vomit, thinks longingly of the yellowed porcelain toilet next to the kitchen, says: “Look, Magda, you know as well as me that it won’t be all of us. What did Dieter say?”

She shrugs. “He said no, but he’ll be there. You know him. He’s got a good sense of drama. He likes endings.” Then: “Fritz, she brought you up.”

He says: “How could I forget? Magda, I didn’t—”

“I know, I know—you didn’t love her. And she didn’t love you. I know that. But she’s going to die, and for some reason she wants to see all of us together.”

“So she can read us her fucking will,” he says.

She says: “Maybe.”

He downs the rest of his drink, says violently: “So she can read us her fucking will and tell us for the last fucking time who she loved.”

There is a long silence, and Fritz is aware that at the bar, people are turning around to watch. Finally Magda says: “So you do care. I was beginning to wonder.”

He says almost pleadingly: “Don’t you get it, Magda? When I’m here she’s so far away, I don’t have to give a shit. Can you understand that?”

“Possibly.” She stands up, takes her bag, kisses him lightly on the cheek. “Only maybe you should.”

“Should what?” He’s drunk, can feel it in his fingertips.

She’s already moving away, looks over her shoulder, says: “Give a shit, for once.”

****

Purgatorio are playing at eleven. He and Elaine had agreed to meet at the club a little beforehand, and when he arrives, drunk but coherent, she’s talking to Emma, who looks simultaneously completely out of place and utterly at home. Los Desaparecidos is one of the more unsanitary holes in the vicinity of Leicester Square, and Emma is wearing linen slacks and a cotton sweater, her brown hair held in place with two barrettes. “Fritz, darling, hello,” she says, and he kisses her lightly on the cheek. He likes Emma because she’s the most confident person he knows. The first time he met her, Purgatorio was practicing in the front room of the house in Hampstead, and she was knitting, curled up on the fraying couch in her pajamas, tapping her foot along with the rhythm. It’s a quiet and unruffled self-assurance, a sense of belonging wherever she goes. He can’t imagine anyone else he knows arriving at Los Desaparecidos dressed like a public school girl.

Elaine says: “How was dinner?” He had told her on the telephone about seeing Magda, but he hadn’t mentioned Isabel.

And he says: “It was all right.” Elaine has never met his family, excluding Dieter and he only briefly, once on the stairwell. She’s never expressed interest and he prefers it like that, prefers her to know them only through his own description.

“Oh, charming,” Emma says. “Sibling bonding.”

“Well, not really,” Fritz says absently. “More like sister tells brother what to do with his life. I’m going to get a drink. Can I get either of you anything?”

Elaine indicates her half-full pint, Emma her gin and tonic. Elaine says, “I think we’re set, thanks.”

The band comes on while he’s at the bar. They all look a little the worse for wear. Hugo, the singer, has dyed his hair in stripes of green and blue since Fritz last saw him. He’s carrying a half-full bottle of red wine by the neck, goes up to the microphone, tilts his head back, and chugs the rest. Fritz is reminded of a gerbil at its water bottle. The audience cheers raucously. Hugo leans towards the microphone, says blearily: “Heeeey—” and burps. More cheering. Hugo holds up one hand unsteadily and says with a complete lack of inflection: “We’re called Purgatorio, and this is Los Desaparecidos.” He pauses, thinking intently. “And today is the twenty-fifth of June.” Fritz is taking a sip of his Kronenbourg and almost chokes on it, snorting with laughter. Today is the twenty-sixth of June. Hugo keeps going: “Just before we came on tonight, we got some very disturbing news. My friend’s mother has just been diagnosed with leukemia.” Fritz has a feeling that Hugo is referring to him. It’s not that Hugo is stupid, but more that he spends his life in a drug-induced haze, and the things that filter through to him are generally altered slightly in translation. Hugo is saying: “It hit me pretty hard, because cancer’s a terrible thing, you know. And today all everyone talks about is AIDS. And AIDS is a terrible thing, too, you know, but we all felt that tonight—” Hugo takes a breath, blinks hard, lifts his empty wine bottle slightly in an uncoordinated salute. “Tonight we wanted to dedicate our performance to everyone everywhere who’s living with cancer, and especially to honor the life of Fritz’s mother, who I’m sure is a wonderful woman.” Fritz snorts again, but he’s enjoying it, thinks it’s funny, remembers again why he loves Purgatorio. There is a smattering of applause, and someone who sounds distinctly like Denby yells, “Rock the fuck on!”

“Right,” says Hugo dazedly, breathing hard. “Rock. The fuck. On.” And they start playing.

Really it’s a ghastly noise. Los Desaparecidos is a far cry from Wembley Arena, but Fritz has no idea how four guys with bad hair and absolutely zero musical talent have made it even this far. There is an empty space against the wall, and he makes his way towards it. It occurs to him that he is alone. There is no possibility of human contact here. The dull thumping bodies around him are alien, matter without substance. The dark shudders with blinding strobe lights. Hugo is shrieking into his microphone, twisting his slender body, stamping his feet, abnormally large in massive untied trainers. Fritz puts his cool glass to his hot cheeks, leans his damp forehead against the wall, shuts his eyes, lets misery swell up inside him, flood through his body, leak out his pores. He is sweating, but he feels clammy, ill, drained. He is dimly aware of the band starting a new song. By now he knows the lyrics, and he concentrates on Hugo’s dull, scraping voice. Purgatorio’s music is militant, but the words are usually surprisingly gentle. You left me by myself. I came home and you were gone. The song is about Hugo’s ex-girlfriend, Michelle, who had quit trying to convince him to get a regular job and moved out one afternoon while Hugo was visiting his father at the alcoholism rehab center outside Manchester. Fritz had been there that night, when Hugo arrived back in Hampstead. I’m sorry, man, Paul had said, stoned on the couch. I tried to make her stay. He remembers how Hugo had wandered aimlessly through the house, touching things—the kitchen counter, the coffee table in the front room, the gaps where things of hers had been. Fritz had been reminded dimly of a blind man feeling his way through a new home, establishing the limits of a new existance.

There is a tap on his shoulder and he turns around. It’s Elaine. She takes his hand and leads him back, weaving between groups of people, through a doorway, along a dim corridor into an empty side room. Theoretically, it’s the performer’s lounge, but Purgatorio has played here enough that he and Elaine have learned the back way; it’s never locked. She sits on the couch, pats the cushion beside her, produces a joint from her handbag. She makes them up beforehand, says it’s too sleazy if you have to go into the toilet and roll them in the stalls, hates the secrecy of it all, keeps them in her grandmother’s silver cigarette holder.

He says: “Fuck, Elaine, I love you.”

She smiles a little, lighting it, smokes for a minute and hands it to him. At Cambridge, he had had an American friend, Justin, who had written a sociology paper on the difference between American and British pot etiquette. In America, the paper had said, the sixties had immortalized what Justin called ‘puff puff give’, whereas in Britain a joint was smoked like a cigarette, each person for a few minutes. Fritz had been drunk the night he read it, hadn’t gotten far enough along to find out what said etiquette revealed about the two cultures, although he seems to remember that the paper had failed on the basis of illegal research techniques. The tingling begins in his face, spreads down his arms, his legs, into his fingers and toes. The music is muffled, distant; in the room there is only one light burning, a small dim lamp in the far corner. He hands the joint back to Elaine, watches her smoke, her lips that touch the paper, her hair falling across her neck, her lowered eyelids, wants suddenly for her to hold him. Usually it is so easy. They fall together without thinking, in some ancient instinct, a strange and unarticulated ritual, but tonight he cannot remember the steps, cannot decide to begin. He lies down on the sofa, murmuring something that perhaps will sound like words, puts his head on her lap. He can feel her breathing, every drag she takes on the joint.

Her hand touches his hair, gently, her fingertips light against his scalp; she says: “I’m sorry about Isabel.”

“Don’t be,” he says. He is drowning in his own emptiness.

She says gently: “It’s okay, you know. You can love her and hate her at the same time.” They stay together for a long time, silent, until it all drains out of him like water from a sponge, until the thought of Isabel is so far away from him, so inaccessibly distant, as to be painless. He has never seen this in Elaine before, the ability to offer comfort. It occurs to him, not for the first time, that he does not understand women. He believes that the only real thing in his life are her fingers, exploring his hair the way they explore his body at night in her dark room, the haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke.

He says sleepily, “You never finished your story,” feels her laugh internally, feels her stomach convulse gently against his cheek.

She says: “Which one?”

“About the woman on the tube.” He thinks possibly that he loves her, that Plato was wrong, there is no search, no destiny, that love is not a choice but an instinct. They are not matched, he and Elaine, but somehow, inexplicably, he needs her.

She says quietly, “Oh, right. The woman on the tube.” She is not looking at him, her eyes soft and unfocused, her fingers against his temple, touching his ear. “Well, after the interview, I was walking back to the station, and she was a few yards in front of me, and I could see her shoes.”

“Court shoes,” he says.

And she says: “Yes, Court shoes.” He closes his eyes again, listens to the rhythm of her voice, lets it carry him along like a raft in the vastness of the sea. “And I guess they were new, because they’d rubbed through her stockings and the backs of her heels were all bloody. But you would never have known it from how she was walking—with her back straight, like a lady.” Elaine pauses, her hand stops, her thumb against his cheek. She says slowly, “And I thought, you know, that that was real courage. When your heels are bleeding but you keep on.”

Somewhere that seems very far away, Purgatorio is playing. He clings to the screeching guitar, to Paul’s thudding drumbeat, to the soft flesh of Elaine’s thighs under his head. They are all real, he thinks, he and Elaine and the woman on the tube, all of them united by this same nameless and inexorable necessity. He thinks that perhaps he had been wrong, that none of them are in him, any more than he is in them, but rather that they are like him, everyone in the world, all of them linked by this identical sorrow, this identical strength, will to carry on. He thinks of Isabel, thinks of her for the first time without pain, understands that she will not die alone, understands that he will go to her, not because she had loved him but because somehow, unreasonably, he had loved her, that love is not an even exchange, new pence for old. He opens his eyes, says aloud: “It’s not equal.”

She looks at him, raises her eyebrows a little, questioning. He says: “Love. Between two people, I mean. It’s never equal.”

And she says: “No. I don’t suppose it ever is.”


Copyright © 1998 NC Houghton

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