I drained my whiskey and soda, sat back, lit a cigar.
I could not hear the traffic outside, the shouting and the swearing and the constant hum of inane chatter that fills the streets, the chatter of people talking but not listening, wanting to be heard without wanting to hear.
The soft sounds in the hotel bar were very different. Polite murmurings, muffled laughter, the slippery chuckle of ice against good glass.
A piano! I could hardly believe it. There he was, the man in a sharp suit, tickling the ivories. I honestly thought it only happened in the movies, but no, there was Sam, larger than life.
I left my chair for the fifth time walked to the bar, ignoring the bustling waiter who tried to take my order at the table. I got my drink the way I always got my drink. I wasn’t a fucking cripple.
“Jameson’s with soda. Ice? A couple of chunks.”
I paid, returned to my chair. The waiter sulked. He’d been busy though. The ash tray was clean but my cigar still rested there, burning. The torn beer coasters were miraculously whole again, waiting to be slowly plucked apart for the fifth time.
Each time I’d returned from the bar he’d performed that same trick. I’d not seen it happen. I asked the bartender for my drink, paid, turned around and voila! My table was new again.
If that waiter ever got laid off, he’d have a fine future on the cabaret circuit.
I sucked up some whiskey, drew a lungful of smoke and blew it at the room. Those that had been looking at me looked away. This had been going on for over an hour. I knew what they were thinking. What is he doing here? What does he want? He does not belong!
They were right, of course, those grey suited heart attacks with thinning dead hair and their far too young secretaries flirting for a rise, those older women of leisure with spun-sugar hair in pastel clad covens huddled around glittering glass cauldrons of export strength gin.
I didn’t fit, I was an outsider.
I had no right being in that fine hotel bar on that pale August Thursday afternoon, smoking their cigars, drinking their fine whiskey.
I was sick, I should have been in bed.
That’s what I told my boss, anyway.
The usual shit.
I’d phoned him, told him I can’t come in, it’s my guts, gonna stay in bed and sleep it off.
He’d hung up in disgust.
I had put down the phone, showered, pulled on my black jeans and cowboy boots, black shirt and jacket. I packed a bag, called a taxi.
Told the driver to take me to The Grand.
The reason I was in that bar drinking whiskey and smoking cigars, the reason I’d lied to my boss and dressed in my good boots and jeans, the reason why was the usual reason for me doing anything back then.
Or to be precise, two women.
I had been in bed with one of the women, Delila. She was someone I saw sometimes, neither of us laying any claim to the other but once in a while we’d meet for one thing only.
After we’d done that one thing twice, I sat in bed, smoking and drinking a beer.
She called through from the bathroom.
“I wondered if you’d do me a favour?”
“Depends on the favour.”
“Just say yes.”
“I’ll say yes when you tell me what it is.”
“Ok. Promise you’ll say yes though?”
“I’m not promising anything.”
The toilet flushed. Delila walked back into the room naked.
“Ok, I promise. What’s the favour?”
“I want you to have sex with someone.”
“No problem. Hop back into bed, someone. I’m just about ready…”
“Not me. Someone else.”
This made me pause.
She saw the expression on my face.
“Don’t worry, the someone is a girl.”
“I’m only slightly less worried.”
“She’s gorgeous. Late twenties, slim, big tits, pretty face, brunette.”
“If she looks like that, why does she need you to shop around for her?”
“That doesn’t stop a lot of other wives fucking around.”
“She’s different. Her husband is a real bastard. He drinks, he puts her down all the time, he hits her. She told me that one time he came in drunk and raped her.”
“She’s frightened of him, wants to leave him, but she’s got no confidence. He’s the only man she’s ever been with. He fucks women all over the place, he’s fucking women right under her nose, she knows about it but doesn’t dare say anything.”
“He sounds like a real catch. Why don’t you help her? Why don’t you help her run, give her a place to stay while she gets on her feet? It wouldn’t be too difficult. Wait till the bastard is out shagging one his other bits, get all her stuff in the car and go!”
“It’s not that simple.”
“No. Her husband is my brother.”
“Hmm. It really isn’t that simple. Well, the obvious question is, why are you looking for a fuck for your brother’s wife? Surely you should be rooting for him and not her.”
“He might be my brother, but I know a rotten bastard when I see one. He’s been a rotten bastard all his life. I know it better than anyone. And besides, she’s a woman. That makes her a kind of sister.”
Delila slithered across the sheets to me. She took the cigar from my hand and put it in her mouth, slowly inhaled, the ember crackling and flaring in the darkened room. Thick smoke billowed as she spoke.
“So will you do it?”
The smoke, her words, drifted through the light leaking between the limp curtains where they writhed as if burned, burned by the ember, burned by the light, twice burned.
“Will you do it?”
“Because you’re kind.”
“Not because I’m a great fuck?”
“That too, but that’s not what she needs.”
I held up my beer bottle and looked through the warped green glass at the light and the smoke. I realised that I didn’t know if the light was morning light or afternoon light. I didn’t really care. I felt her hand moving beneath the sheets. I felt myself move. I couldn’t help it. I took a long drink of beer.
“Will you do it?”
The man sounded like an arsehole. The girl sounded hot.
“I’ll do it.”
I put the empty bottle on the sideboard, rolled over to face her.
“What’s her name?”
In the smoky light of the afternoon or morning, we did that one thing for a third time.
I went to the bar for the sixth time.
The barman had stopped asking if I wanted to open a tab after the third drink.
I made out that I went to the bar because I liked the exercise.
The truth was I wanted to watch what I spent. I’d paid for the room up front, but this left my wallet conspicuously slim. I didn’t need the embarrassment of calling for a bill and not having the funds, so I paid for each drink, one at a time.
I didn’t tip.
I let the heart attacks and the pastel witches do the tipping.
Miracle Max had performed his usual trick with my table.
I sat down, reached for my cigars.
And as I started that sixth drink and calculated how much was left in my wallet and lit a cigar and killed off some stares with a stare of my own, I saw her.
She strode into the bar from the lobby, between the two huge palm trees that were some fool’s idea of class. And just for that moment, maybe they were class.
The effect she had on the room was like a gun shot.
Long black hair, long black boots, short black dress. She moved through the room with a purpose, an unstoppable force. She swept the room with dark eyes, saw me, homed in.
I saw the heart attacks stare, saw how they ignored their secretaries and filofaxes and drinks and just stared.
I rose from my chair and took her hand.
She smiled a small smile. “You must be Lucifer.”
I nodded. “Drink?”
I beckoned the waiter. He scampered over like a whipped dog who’d been offered a bone.
“A vodka with…?”
I looked at her.
I looked back at the waiter.
He hurried away.
Gabrielle sat down, opened her purse and lit a cigarette.
I watched the men watch her smoke.
They knew that she was an outsider too, but with her it was different. She made them ashamed of what they were, made them loosen their grey ties and pat their dead hair and kick their briefcases behind their chairs. They wanted to be like her, to be accepted by her, and suddenly that plastic secretary and the fat wife cooking dinner at home was no longer enough to make them happy. They wanted her.
The women looked at her with nothing but hate.
She ignored everyone.
Everyone except me.
And the strange thing is I can hardly remember what we spoke about.
It wasn’t the drink that made me forget. I drank a lot back then, I could really handle it. I remember being with her, talking to her, I remember us getting closer. I just cannot remember the words.
But then again, what are these conversations ever about? He says, she says, polite chatter and interesting anecdotes. Of course I never mentioned the drunk husband, the violence, the rape. I’m no councilor. I’d rather talk about the weather than the girl who set us up to fuck.
It was never mentioned because it did not need mentioning, we already knew that we both knew everything. The knowledge was as solid as the chairs, the table, the ashtray. If it had been mentioned, it would have ended there. We would have stood up and walked away.
I could see that her confidence was a front. It was thin and brittle. Her beauty was real enough. but the front was a sham. I did my best to put her at her ease. The vodka helped.
The windows slowly changed colour from pale to dark, a steady stream headlights sweeping the ceiling until the gaudy chandeliers started to glow and the piano man changed his set.
My slim wallet got slimmer, the easy talk got easier with each drink.
Then it was time.
The vodka made her lips wet, her dark eyes glitter. Several glasses of bravery had done the trick. She leaned towards me.
“Ok. Let’s do it.”
I checked my wallet for the last time. Five pounds. It was all that was left.
I put it on the table as a tip.
The dog had finally got his bone.
The ladies of leisure were curled up on their couches at home, the heart attacks were attacking the dried dinner that had been left in the oven, the secretaries were painting their nails, ready for battle the next day.
None saw us leave, walk to the lift, up three floors, enter the room.
At first nothing happened.
I didn’t lunge at her. Perhaps I should have done, but I didn’t. It was like we were both suddenly lost, blinking at a stranger across an unfamiliar room, unsure of what was to come, even though we both knew the script.
I brought a bottle from my bag.
“I have wine.”
She smiled. It was a slightly tired smile. I poured us a glass each and we sat on the bed. The script said we have should be lying on the bed, but fuck the script.
We spoke some more. We looked at ourselves in the long mirror above the dressing table.
What the fuck were we doing?
I drained my glass and she drained hers. Then she looked at me.
“Ok, let’s do it,” she repeated, resigned.
We did it.
We followed the script to the letter.
We went through all the moves, all the expected positions. Like two marionettes we fucked, the lights of the city piercing the room, the only noise coming from the streets far below.
Some time in the night she stopped pretending to be asleep.
She rose, dressed, and slipped silently from the room.
After a while I stopped pretending to be asleep too.
I sat up in bed, poured a glass of wine and lit another cigar.
I smoked and drank in the dark by myself.
Until it started to grow light.
I stood at the desk wearing blue jeans, scuffed boots and a beat up corduroy jacket, waiting to check out.
My good clothes were in the bag.
The desk clerk scowled at me, at my clothes.
He snatched my key and turned away.
I was an outsider again, but without her I was a leper.
I wondered if she’d gone back to her husband last night, or if she’d gone somewhere else.
Had it made a difference?
Out on the pavement amongst the bustle of commuters and the rude blare of traffic, I realised I had no money. It was all behind the bar. The clock above me said 7.45am.
Fifteen minutes to walk three miles to work.
I was going to be late.
I shrugged, started walking.