Much reworked chapter from a work I'd neglected. Campiness magnified, wordiness minimised.
| Chapter 4
En su bolsillo
We're sitting in the balcony and the autumn flies attack our plates like the Luftwaffe over London town, leaving only the mojito pitcher unmolested, like a great, sweaty St Paul's. It might as well be piss for all the rum that's in there, I haven't touched my straight-out-of-a-kit fajita, and the entertainment consists of Fran silhouetted against the setting sun, miming Alejandro for his troupe of thirty-something queens - the 'Nearest and Queerest' - while Gabby, their undisputed doyen and grand dame, regales me with stories of his exploits in Marrakech:
'Skin like the night and an arse like a ripe plum!' he cries, spraying me with spit, then goes on to describe the heat, the hotel, the other boy and the one after. At first I'm thinking that it all sounds very Fassbinderian, but then when I factor in the royalties he skims off the likes of me, it starts to make a lot of sense.
Ostensibly I'm here for Fran, who's been bitching sans fin about how I don't treat this shithole like a 'home', but really I've only stuck around to pre-game on the cheap - completely gratis, actually, since my only contribution was Rebecca's manky old dessert wine. Nodding in Gabby's direction, with the occasional 'No?' or 'Really?', I reach for the Bacardi and pour until my glass is two parts rum and one mojito. Now it's got the desired kick to the taste buds, I turn back to Gabby and smile like I give a shit.
'He squealed with pleasure,' he informs me, fussing with his comb-over, 'but the poor bugger was terr-ified of getting caught. Now I don't speak a lick of French, mind, but he kept whinging about getting arrested. And who could blame him?' He shrugs, puffs on the cigarillo lodged between manicured fingers, then nudges me. 'Cut off your ear if they don't like your face in those parts, don't they?' I literally can't even tell if he's joking.
'He wouldn't happen to have said something along the lines of arres?' I ask.
'Yes,' he coughs, waving the cigarillo in my face. 'Clever bitch, that was it!'
'I believe he was asking you to stop, mon cher.'
He turns pale and, for the first time all afternoon, speechless, staring at me with this stupid expression. Eventually he reaches up to flatten his comb-over again, then smirks and says, 'So very clever, aren't you, dear?' He turns his back to speak with the Scouse spouse, Derek (Eric?).
Whatever. I turn my gaze to the horizon: the sun is just about to disappear behind the brown sea that meets the grey sand across the street, reminding me again how much I hate this shithole - sorry, home - and I start going through a mental shopping list of the things I could've bought with my share of the bond; at number thirty (colonic irrigation), I reach for another cigarette but the box is empty. The bloke sitting across from me offers a weak-tea Marlboro Gold. Newest member of the N&Q: black turtleneck, built like a brick house, deathly reticent for this brood of ovulating hens, and he's been staring at me since the Doritos course. I vaguely recognise his face as he reaches over to light the cigarette, but it's too hot and I'm too drunk to care at this point, so I fall back into my chair, and very old habits. I sniff at my wrist, where the Gucci has cooled, leaving hints of pepper and sandalwood in its wake, then hold the glass under my nose and close my eyes, to find the sum heavenly: rum, lime and peppermint tease amber, ginger and spice from the eau de toilette, and with the tobacco smoke underscoring it, it's olfactory Elysium.
'What've you been saying to Gabby?' And he's ruined it. I'm not sure when he stopped doing his Monster Ball routine, but here's Fran now, sweating and wheezing, his paunch taking on a life of its own next to my head. 'She's looking mighty stroppy,' he says, with an affected smile directed at Turtleneck.
'Heavens forbid. I'd never dream of being so bold.' I start gulping my drink down.
Fran refills his cup from the pitcher. 'Good, these, aren't they?'
Burp. 'Scrumptious, Frannie, my compliments to Theo.' I raise my glass and clink the mouth of his.
He surveys the table and sighs. 'It's so nice having everyone here. Makes it feel like a real home doesn't it, cous?' He wipes his brow with the back of a fleshy hand and then extends the same sweaty paw at me.
I smack it away before he ruins my hair. 'Your audience awaits.'
'Ooh, should I? I think I've got another one in me,' he says, eyeing Derek/Eric, who's singing something so incredibly camp - 'Her name is Auroraaaaaa!' - I can't even place it. Fran sips on the mojito, curtsies, and then waddles off to the head of the table, hips asway like he owns the place; which I suppose he will, if Uncle Jean-Hugues politely obeys doctor's orders and kicks the bucket by year's end. Though they're both too proud to ever see each other again after 'the incident' - seventeen-year-old Franco caught being spit-roasted by a pair of lusty tradies in the family pool house - it's been almost two decades, and the only alternatives for J-H's estate are three bitch ex-wives or charity, and that just wouldn't do, would it?
Fran kisses Theo's forehead, then shoos Derek/Eric away and takes up the microphone for a rendition of Jolene. Theo starts lighting some Bath and Body Works candles, and as I'm trying to clear some space on my phone and capture the sunset in a time-lapse before it disappears, I catch his eye on me. The unibrow and the gummy grin make my skin crawl on cue, and that married to the cinnamon-y scent of the candles, which is simply not jiving with my stomach, is my signal to leave. I take up my phone to check if Melissa's on her way to Sarah's yet, and as my drunk fingers contend with the autocorrect function, the newbie in the turtleneck pushes his plate aside and leans in closer to yammer something about the phone.
'Pardon?' I say, ready to throw it over the balcony.
'The symphony? I hear you're a fan.' He says it in a meek, soft-spoken tone that belies his mastifflike build.
'A fan?' I say, stretching a nascent yawn into awkward, open-mouthed grin. 'I'm the one subscriber under the age of forty, mon cher, so...'
He shrinks and wrings his wrists. That's where I've seen him: He's in the Greater Metro Phil, first violin, part of an injection of new blood they got in the summer, and he wrings his wrists like that every time they stand for an ovation, albeit with fiddle and bow making it even more ungainly.
'What are you doing with this sorry bunch then?'
He snorts and fills his glass from the pitcher's watery dregs. 'They're not so bad,' he whispers guiltily.
'Bad? No, not at all. Slightly insipid though, n'est-ce pas? Bordering on the downright vacuous at times.'
'It's my Adam partner' - he stops and snorts again; beads of perspiration form at his temples - 'I meant to say my partner, Adam, he's a friend of Gabby's.'
'How unfortunate for you both.' Doubly so if this Adam's one of Gabby's Boys.
Turtleneck makes a nervous sort of shriek-laugh and then falls silent, embarrassed, as well he should be.
'Saw you euthanise Dvorak Eight at the Bowl last weekend,' I say, almost lighting the filter end of the cigarette I've pried from his box. 'Seriously, can't management afford some Soviet-trained young gun? During the Adagio, this one Katy Swift lobotomy case sitting next to me took a break from his vegan burrito to tell me that Takagawa's conducting was spiritual. Catatonic, more like. And I mean no one ever reached a new plane of enlightenment tapping their feet to Dvorak, am I right? Fucking spare me the Furtwgler-isms and get on with the big tunes, bub.'
He shrugs, stares at the floor, mumbles, 'I like Dvo?.'
'My point exactly!' I snap, far louder than intended. 'What next? Zen Gershwin? Did you read that idiot who said Brahms' music was a product of anal-retention, Wagner's the opposite?'
There's a pause.
Shit, I'm a mean drunk today. I hope I don't end up making Sarah cry again, because I really can't be bothered dealing with a rehash of the breakup, or the perfunctory makeup sex, or her housemates' protective macho bullshit. Why am I even going? I glance over at the rum; Gabby snatches it away, gives me this calm-your-tits-sister look, coupled with a glance at Turtleneck.
'Seen Jackie Koutoufides lately?' I chirp, sweeter than a tit in a tamarind tree. The question is redundant, she's GMP concertmaster, but I can't think of anything else to say and the lump is just sitting there.
'Just yesterday, actually,' Turtleneck says, his voice even more high-pitched as he gets excited. 'We're rehearsing for the Return of the King showing.'
'Riveting,' I say bitchily, now thinking Gabby was right to take that rum away.
But Turtleneck doesn't seem to mind. 'Do you play?' he asks. 'You seem to know your stuff.'
'Couple o' scales on the ole klavier, but that's about it.'
'Interesting,' he says, fingering the white hairs fighting for dominance on his chin.
Yawn. 'Is it?'
'Well, there's only ever a handful around your age at our concerts, and as a rule they're musos. But my Adam, he's about your age and it's uncanny how much... Anyway I meant to say he works the foyer bar at Hamer Hall, it's how we met and-' He trails off, sips from his drink, returns it to the table with a jerky slam, blushes. 'What I'm trying to say is he's musically literate, plays the piano, writes his own stuff, but I doubt he's ever stepped foot in the concert hall. Calls it the morgue. Loves the ballet though, which is funny if you-'
'Yeah. Apologies for the lost generation.' I check my (Fran's) Cerruti and it's past time to spruce up, so I rise and offer my other hand.
'You're leaving?' he asks, staring at the hand. 'Benji,' he says, finally shaking it, but avoiding eye contact.
'Serge,' he blurts, like the wind's been knocked out of him, then winces when I touch his massive shoulder
Is there anything so pathetic as a meek giant? Here's a barrel-chested brute with fists so large he could crush my skull between thumb and forefinger if he wished, and yet he cowers, constantly on the verge of hyperventilation. The sight of this waste of flesh and anima, the goddamn cinnamon-scented candles, Toni Braxton's Spanish Guitar blaring from tinny speakers, and Theo slow-dancing with Fran; the combination is so nauseating that I can't bolt out fast enough. I snatch the still-unopened dessert wine off the table, slur my farewells and drunkenly swimming through the clich to go back inside. The sliding door jams as I try to shut it and I just fucking leave it be.
'Serge!' Gabby whispers loudly, easing his slight frame through the gap in the door.
I stop and sigh. 'Yes?'
'Our mutual friend's called about the pipes,' he says, fiddling with that thrice-damned comb-over again. 'Text you the deets?'
'What, now? Fuck's a deet?'
'Of course not, you silly bitch.' He moves nearer and places and places a firm, avuncular hand at the back of my head. 'It's for tomorrow morning, so I suggest you quaff a litre of water, slather some Vichy on those eye-bags and knock off.'
I stumble towards him, brain swimming in an eighty-proof alphabet soup. 'But I have Katia, urgh-' Stubbed my toe on the dining table. 'Lunch... Mother, city, tomorrow,' I say, steadying myself on his shoulder.
'I know it's last-minute, dear, but... Wait, why am I making the excuses? Look, Mummy'll have to take a rain check, yeah? Otherwise I'm sure Victor'd be more than happy to go.' He grins hungrily, almost a caricature of himself.
'No, don't, don't, I'll do it,' I say, my head falling to the crook of his neck. 'No need to get Alfalfa involved, okay?'
'Al-falfa!' he shrieks with glee, stroking the nape of my neck. 'Oh my, he do look the part, don't he, the lanky bugger? You have to admit the freckles've got a boyish charm though... Anyroad, come on Drinkerella, let's get you back in that broom closet before you turn into a pumpkin.'
'Thanks, Gabby,' I murmur up into his ear, as he helps me to my room. 'I'm sorry, Gabby.'
'I know you are, dear.'