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Authors: Deborah Levy

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BOOK: Black Vodka
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When she looks at her watch she wonders if Alex might have got lost. Has something happened to him in the wood? She thinks something is about to happen. This is how she felt at the baggage reclaim. A feeling of dread in her stomach when she knew her bag had gone missing. Strange thoughts occur to her now as she waits for him. She wonders if there are people hiding in the woods because they have lost their country and their home and their children and their sister and cousin and she thinks Alex might have lost his brother and father because of something he said earlier. She thinks about the form she had to fill in at the airport and the official who looked bored when she listed all the things she had lost.

The material of her blue dress is rubbing against her skin as she paces up and down the road on the edge of the woods. A wind suddenly blows in and then she sees him.

He is walking towards her. There are small leaves in his hair as he stands too close and tells her his name is not Alex. Not exactly. It is Aleksandar. He tells her he saw a deer in the woods with small antlers and how he used to have an Italian coffee-making machine in his kitchen in his country which he liked a lot, the coffee machine he means, not the country, and he is sorry to have missed the Rolling Stones film last night in the park because then he would have been near her a little bit longer. Aleksandar squeezes his lips and lowers his eyes. He offers to charge up her mobile phone for her before she leaves for London. He folds his arms across his chest and leans back on his heels as if to get a better view of her and then he tells her it’s nice to watch her laughing at him while the wind blows her hair about.

Vienna

‘Before I forget,’ Magret’s voice is low and vague, ‘I want to test my new microwave.’

He nods, as if he is a secretary taking notes from an inscrutable Executive Director who wears purple lipstick to frighten the more timid of her staff. She rips the silver foil from a carton of langoustines and slides them into the microwave that still has the price taped to its side. He watches her bend her long neck to check the minutes and seconds and then fold her arms against the pearl-grey cashmere that hugs her small breasts. While she waits she tells him she has no idea why her husband has bought her a microwave.

When the timer pings she takes out the langoustines and places them in front of him in a delicate blue china bowl. He cracks the pink and grey shells with his fingers and then sucks the white flesh into his mouth, suddenly aware that her accent, which he can’t place, makes him think of wolves. He looks down at the frayed cuffs of his shirt sleeves and notices a small rash on the back of both his hands. Does she know he has brought his agitation and turbulence into the white walls of her apartment? The rash on his hands is the memory of saying goodbye to his small children when he left the family house, knowing he was never going to return.

Magret walks across the carpet towards a sleek black answering machine and presses the Play button. A man’s voice speaks to her. He suspects it is the authoritarian voice of her new Italian husband.

 

Ti penso sempre

Mi manchi

Cara mia, ti voglio bene

 

‘What does it mean?’ He understands that her husband has told her he loves her but wants her to tell him anyway.

‘It means now I am going to pull down the blinds and you and I are going to take off our clothes.’

For the first time all evening he feels frightened. He wraps his fingers around the pulse of his wrist and shuts his eyes. A boiler concealed somewhere in the building makes the sing-song sound of cicadas. Worst of all, a picture of his ex-wife slides into his head when he least wants it to. She is sitting with his daughter and baby son, threading glass beads onto a length of red string.

When he opens his eyes, Magret is naked. Her long limbs are warm, he discovers, moving his cold hand between her legs and leaving it there, letting her move his fingers, while the hidden boiler fills the room with its own peculiar sounds. He likes her disdain for small talk after sex, relieved she does not ask him to exchange small confidences, pleased not to have to tell her about his wife and children, temporary bedsit and unpacked suitcase.

But he doesn’t want to let go of her yet.

He asks her a question in the language of his father, a language he has almost forgotten how to speak.

‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’ She sits up and shakes down her hair.

‘It’s Russian for do you have children?’

‘I do not.’

Now he knows she does not have children. This is one of the few things he knows about her. He knows she does not need him. He knows she can cook langoustines to perfection in a brand new microwave. He knows she is married. That is all he knows.

She stands up and walks to a cupboard made from Swedish blond wood, aware that he is watching her take down a blue silk bath robe and loop it over her long, tanned arms.

She is middle Europe, he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria. She is a silver teaspoon. She is cream. She is schnapps. She is strudel dusted with white icing sugar. She is the sound of polite applause. She is a chandelier. She is a velvet curtain. She is made from the horn of deer found deep in the pine forests of middle Europe. She is spun from money. She smells of burnt sugar. She is snow. She is fur. She is leather. She is gold. She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting middle Europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps.

Magret ignores his invitation to return to his thin white arms.

‘My husband wants me to learn Italian. So he tests me on the seasons. I have to say in perfect Italian all the months, January, February, March, until I get to December and then he corrects my accent.’

‘But you speak Italian don’t you?’

He hides his hands under the sheet, hands that are livid and itching.

‘Not well enough for my husband.’

He realises he does not know where she is from or if she works or why she lets him have sex with her.

‘What is your first language?’

‘There are so many languages.’ She flicks an invisible light switch and the room fills with unwelcome white strobe.

‘I am going to swim in the pool downstairs.’

He nods. He has been dismissed by middle Europe, who has plans that do not include him in the structure of her day. Again, he feels foolish, not sure what it is he wants from her or why he feels so excited when she calls him to say she is in town. He climbs out of bed and looks for his clothes. While he puts on his trousers, shirt, cufflinks and jacket, she slips on a modest white swimming costume. They do not speak until he is standing on the marble floor outside her front door. Only then, facing him in his suit and the heavy overcoat he bought in Zurich when he knew his marriage was over, barefoot in her Italian swimming costume, does she attempt to say goodbye.

Gute Nacht.

Spokojnoj nochi,
Magret.

As he walks to the tube station he thinks about the snow of his childhood and all the trams he rode on with his sister. He thinks about the wars and famines his parents lived through and about the 11:07 that leaves promptly every Sunday morning from Zurich where his ex-wife and children live. He thinks about Magret swimming in the cold pool below her apartment, her head surfacing, her mouth opening to take a breath. He knows she is dead inside and he is aroused that this is so, and he takes out a cigarette and lights it. He thinks about how there is life with rye bread and black tea and there is life with champagne and wild salmon. He can live without champagne but he cannot live without his children; that is a grief he knows he cannot endure but he must endure and he knows his hands will itch for ever. He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended at the same time as his marriage.

Stardust Nation

Good morning.

The London dawn. The light. The birds. The car alarms. The agitated men and women waiting for buses that don’t arrive. Does anyone still say ‘Good morning’ in the breezy manner of 1950s black-and-white English films? When I was five years old my mother employed a Dutch tutor to teach me mathematics and biology. She definitely had a breezy morning manner when she walked into the nursery in her high white leather shoes.


Goedemorgen
, little Thomas! How is your heartbeat today?’

Children of my class were taught always to answer an adult politely (no matter what they said or did to you) so I would reply, ‘My heartbeat is very good today, thank you.’

One day I detoured from my usual reply and told her the truth.

‘My heartbeat is jumping all over the place,
danke
.’

She was touched by my attempt at her language and insisted I wash my hands three times before presenting me with a sweet Dutch milk pudding called
vla
.

But
vla
is not what I want to tell you about. Not at all.

Although I am sitting on the edge of the bed in my West London apartment sipping cognac from an eggcup (well, it is breakfast after all), my mind is very much elsewhere. Let me describe the sequence of events so far. We will have to spin time backwards to seven months ago. A cross on my agency calendar (a gift to our clients) marks the precise date, 9th August 2004, when my colleague Nick Gazidis telephoned me at 2am from a howling beach in southern Spain, weeping broken words and images into my ear.

‘We are stardust, Tom.’

‘Nick? Where are you?’

‘Flamingos. Salt hills.’

‘Where are you phoning from?’

‘The moon.’

I knew Nick was on holiday in Almería because I am his boss and have to approve his dates. I seem to remember they filmed
Lawrence of Arabia
on the sand dunes in that desolate part of Spain. When I looked up Almería in my guidebook it was described as ‘a lunar landscape’, so perhaps he hadn’t gone completely nuts after all. Over the years, I have told Nick more about my life than anyone else I know, so it felt right to return his remarkable gift of empathy by listening to his strange words without judgment. He was somewhere on a beach, it was 4am his time and he didn’t know how to get back to his hotel. I could hear him sobbing in the wind as he dropped coins into a public telephone.

‘Tom? Are you still there?’

‘Yes. I’m still here.’

‘My father beat me when I was a kid. Did you know that?’

Nick’s full name is Nikos Gazidis. His father, Mr Gazidis, is a gentle, elderly man who owns a drycleaner’s in Kentish Town and has never beaten anyone in his life. I’ve met him twice, both times bent over his sewing machine, a tape measure draped over his shoulders. Mr Gazidis is awed by the money his son earns at my agency and treats him like a god. So you can imagine how I brooded on Nick’s peculiar phone call.

My father was a lieutenant colonel in the British Army. Uncomfortable with the lack of excitement on home leave, he did tend to start small post-traumatic wars against his eight-year-old son, usually with his leather belt. While he beat me, I used to imagine myself somewhere else, often on the moon, a boy astronaut floating head over heels away from Lt-Col Banbury-Mines, away from my forlorn mother, away from the marmalade jar and toast rack on the breakfast table, away from the thank yous and yes pleases people seem so nostalgic for these days. My Dutch tutor was appalled by my father and taught me a few martial arts moves specially designed to throw a grown man to the ground.

I had of course told Nick about my childhood over the years, usually in the pub after work. On these occasions he took off his tie while he listened. A little streak of eczema always crept into his right cheek afterwards. I too have long blazed with eczema, especially on my wrists.

Three days later, when Nick returned to work, he wore a Paul Smith suit like the rest of us and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

‘How are you, Nick?’

‘Yeah. Um. Sorry about that. I’m fine.’

For a man who had so recently been deranged he gave the impression of being entirely normal. I too have spent much of my life perfecting this performance. Nick is a promising accountant and I have been his encouraging mentor. So I kept one eye on him when I invited him to join my copywriters and take a look at a PowerPoint projection of the English meadows I played in as a boy. We were about to launch a shampoo that would conquer the bathrooms of the nation. I proposed we call the shampoo MEADOW MILK.

‘Milk,’ I suggested, ‘is an opaque white fluid secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young. It is the elixir of life itself.’

I glanced at Nick. Tears were spilling down his face and his hands hung limply by his side like the dead pheasants my father brought home from the meadow. Afterwards, over a glass of champagne, he told me the reason for his embarrassed tears.

‘My Dutch tutor used milk to make me custard pudding after my father hit out at me. And the meadow you showed in your slide . . . I used to hide from him in the long grass when I was eight.’

BOOK: Black Vodka
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