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Authors: Deborah Levy

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BOOK: Black Vodka
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I smiled and patted him on the back. Nick grew up in a small, Victorian terraced house in Archway, north London. I don’t want to presume, but those cramped, damp houses held together with bricks and spit do not usually come with meadows attached to them. Yet I think I understood what was happening. There is a slight shamanistic edge to what we do here at the agency, which is to say that it is our job to crash into the unconscious of the consumer and broadcast a number of messages that all end with ‘buy this product’. Nick had somehow extended his brief as Head of Finance – and crashed inside me. Although I had told him about hiding in that meadow, I had yet to explain why. I thought that could wait. Giving the right information at the right time is after all the art of what we do here at the agency.

A week later Nick called me again, as I knew he would, this time on a Sunday at 3am from his waterfront apartment with river views and twenty-four-hour security. The uniformed guard who sat in his cabin all night long just outside the electronic gates obviously did not make Nick feel safe and sound.

‘Tom? Um . . . I’m not feeling right.’

I caught a cab straight away, and actually wish I had not been so hasty. Nick was in boxer shorts when he opened the door. The man’s chest was still tanned from Spain. A beautiful man with tears in his eyes.

‘We are stardust, Tom.’

‘That’s what you said in Almería.’

I thought I’d better give him something to do and suggested he make us some strong black coffee. He was remarkably composed, given the circumstances. True, his hands shook as he put the espresso pot on the gas, and I observed that his eyes flickered over the ceiling as he asked me strange questions.

‘What’s your name? Can you spell it for me?’

‘T-h-o-m-a-s.’

Nick frowned.

‘No. No. Um. I mean what’s my name?’

‘Your name is Nikos.’

I could see some kind of agony leak from inside Nick and fill his eyes, which were already full.

I sat at the table smoking too many cigarettes while he looked around for cups in his orderly, stainless-steel kitchen.

When Nick finally sat down he was sweating.

‘I’ve had a very bad night, Tom.’

‘How bad?’

‘I keep thinking I should visit my mother. I hear her voice all the time.’ He started to mimic a pinched, choking female voice. ‘Devon is lovely at this time of year. We can eat crab sandwiches in that pub you appreciate in Salcombe.’

Nick’s mother does not live in Devon. She lives in Kentish Town, where she is a teaching assistant at the local primary school. Needless to say, my mother does live in Salcombe and she always insists we eat a crab sandwich at the Fisherman’s Arms with the other widows she has grown fond of over so many lonely years. I sit with them, the only man in their lives, a thin wreck of a man in a smart suit, while they talk about the weather and TV soaps and how appalling it is that teachers don’t wear suits like mine any more. Of course my mother and I cannot talk about my childhood, so it is better to talk about the lack of English as she understands it in England. I always carry my briefcase with me on these occasions and slip outside as often as I can get away with for a gulp of cognac in the fresh air. Whenever I visit my mother I am in a right old state.

‘You are in a right old state, Nick.’ I patted his brown neck with my scabby hand.

‘Tell me about it,’ he groaned.

I was tactfully silent for a few minutes, but I was excited too. Nick had somehow made my bio­graphy his own. Rather him than me, I must say. To be honest it was a tremendous relief to see how distressed he was. I started to tell him more about that afternoon when I ran into the meadow.

‘I was eight years old . . . the year Britain went decimal and John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’. The year
A Clockwork Orange
was released and I lost it with my father . . . ’ I gave him a clear picture of myself as an eight-year-old boy running at my father with a kitchen knife in my hand. I told him how I was too small to take on a big army man but my tutor helped me. That is what tutors are supposed to do after all – they help their pupils. Her blond plait was tied with a white ribbon. A gold crucifix attached to a fragile gold chain glistened between her breasts. She smelt of milk and mown grass and I was her calf. After she wrestled him to the ground, her eyes told me what to do. I plunged the knife between his ribs.

And then she ran out into the meadow.

My father was lying very still on the kitchen floor.

And then my own warm urine trickled down my legs.

What if my father suddenly stood up and chased after me?

How I described it to Nick was like this:

‘Imagine a butterfly displayed in a glass case suddenly flying towards you with the pin still in its body.’

Nick shook his head and tugged at his unshaven cheek with his fingers.

It was then that I realised we were not alone. Someone else was in the apartment. Listening in the hallway. From Nick’s open-plan kitchen I saw her. A short woman with long black hair, dressed in pyjamas, walked towards me with my coat in her arms.

‘So you are Tom Banbury-Mines.’

She threw the coat into my lap and said something to Nick in Greek. He shook his head and groaned.

‘This is my sister, Elena.’

He stood up and disappeared into the bathroom. We could hear water begin to trickle from the shower.

Elena stood so close to me that I noticed her pyjamas were patterned with moons and suns. Rather childish for a woman in her thirties.

‘I’ll tell you something about my brother, ok?’

‘Ok.’

‘If Dad has earache, Nikos gets earache. If I’ve got bronchitis, Nikos gets bronchitis. If my mother cries, Nikos cries. So it’s lucky that none of us are mad isn’t it?’

She pointed to the door.

‘I am looking after my brother, so you can go home. Shall I call you a cab, Mister Money Bags?’

Thanks to our agency’s generous health insurance package, the hospital Nick ended up in looked more like a small castle for the rich and unstable than a lunatic ward. The Abbey even had a moat with two white swans that seemed permanently asleep as they drifted on the stagnant algae-covered water.

Two very attractive resident female doctors carried hypodermics between their fingers as if they were carrying cocktail cigarettes from one party guest to another. As I parked my Porsche in the almost empty car park, I wondered if the doctors had somehow tranquillised the swans in the same way they had tranquillised Nick. Large doses of colourless liquid were injected into his nervous system via the azure veins in both his arms. I liked to think the doctors filled their syringes from the water in the moat, which, like Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, made their patients forget the troubles of their earthly life. I held Nick’s hand in my hand and felt peaceful and calm for the first time in many years.

Unfortunately his sister was at his bedside too. Elena had to be polite to me because she knew The Abbey was better than an overheated institution with no windows. She sat on a chair on the right side of his bed and I on a chair on the left side of his bed. As Nick lay between us, moaning on two white pillows, I came to think of his sister as a sort of guard dog. That is how she appeared in my dreams anyway, often with three heads, informing me that it was her duty to guard the sick. The doctors left me alone with Nick the few times his sister was absent, but one afternoon, when Elena brought him food his mother had cooked for him and stayed by his side to watch him eat it, he suddenly started to speak in a voice that was rather like my own.

‘I am eight years old. The year Britain went decimal and John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’. The year
A Clockwork Orange
was released and I lost it with my father . . . ’

‘Nikos?’ Elena murmured something in Greek and tried to clamp her hand over his mouth but he shrugged her away. His words were my words and I listened in a cognac-soaked trance.

‘This is the year I run into the meadow. My Dutch governess is picking mushrooms on her knees. She says . . . “Ah, you have a knife in your hands. May I use it to cut the fungi?” I am shaking. She says, “How is your heartbeat today?”

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

‘She kisses my cheek and her kisses feel like a bite. A bite of love so startling I want to die in her milky arms. I want her to untie the white ribbon wrapped round the end of her plait and I want her golden hair to cover me like a shroud. She says: “One day I will take you to visit the Netherlands. In Holland we are nice to our children. Especially in Limburg, where my parents were born and where many mushrooms grow. Yes, I will take you to see the castle gardens at Arcen.”’

Elena pleaded with me to stop him but I pretended not to notice. I had to fill Nick in. I wanted to give him more information. He would need to know how my Dutch tutor stood up in court wearing her white leather heels, holding the Bible in her soft hand as she told the jury in some detail (my fingers were in my ears) how my father beat me and how my mother looked the other way. I needed to feel through Nick whatever it is I felt then because I feel nothing now, but the two female doctors suddenly appeared and took over. They asked me to leave the room while they wrote notes in spidery black ink and clipped them to a file on the end of Nick’s bed.

I drove home feeling more optimistic about the future than I can remember for a long while. When my mother rang my mobile to enquire about the weather, I parked in a lay-by and told her not to feel so bad about ‘the events’, as we called them. I even asked her if she recalled the name of the Dutch tutor she had employed to look after me all those years ago? I could imagine the colour draining from her face as she thought about this. After a long, tortured silence, she whispered, ‘Cornelia. Yes, her name was Cornelia. She liked to collect mushrooms in the orchard. You called her Cokkie.’

I made a note to give Nick this new information. Cornelia was Cokkie. But I would have to get past his guard-dog sister first.

Elena did not usually come to the hospital on Wednesdays so I decided to make Wednesday my main visiting day. I would take Nick for a walk in the grounds and fill him in. When I arrived he was sitting in an armchair in his dressing gown watching a Laurel and Hardy film on TV. I noticed he was wearing his outdoor shoes rather than slippers and that his suit and a few magazines had disappeared from his locker. He waved to me cheerfully and asked if I’d mind getting him a cup of tea from the canteen.

‘Of course,’ I smiled. ‘How about a couple of scones as well?’ The canteen at The Abbey provided a homemade cream tea that I had shared many times with Nick. I even spread strawberry jam on his scone for him, as if he was a child.

The canteen appeared to be entirely deserted. A clock ticked loudly on the wall. As I made my way to the counter (longing for a cigarette) and searched for scones among the white plastic plates on which biscuits were paired with various fruits (two gingernuts with a wedge of orange, two bourbons with a slice of kiwi), I heard someone call my name.

‘Thomas. Come and sit next to me.’

Elena had got to the canteen before me. In fact she had put her coat over two of the green leather armchairs in the far corner as if she were expecting me to arrive. She had even bought a pot of tea and two slices of cheesecake. I was forced to sit down with her, vaguely nervous to be alone with this enigmatic but stern sister. We chatted generally about Nick’s recovery but that was obviously not what she wanted to talk to me about.

‘Why are you so attached to my brother, Tom?’

Elena spooned the cherries off the cake and seemed more relaxed than usual.

‘I don’t really know.’ I told her the truth. ‘I just think your brother is an exceptional person.’

‘You really smell of drink,’ Elena leaned forward. ‘You’re a drunk, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, I’m a drunk.’

She closed her eyes as if trying to gather her thoughts. I noticed that her eyelids were dusted with pale blue eyeshadow that glittered and sparkled under the lights. When she opened her eyes again her manner was no longer amiable. I quickly understood that I was not out of my depth, it was just that Elena was swimming alongside me in the deep end.

‘The doctors think my brother is having a nervous breakdown.’

I attempted to smile.

‘Your brother is very sick.’

She leaned forward.


Yes. He’s suffering for you
.’

Elena licked a few crumbs of cheesecake off her lips and gazed out of the window at a black Jaguar with tinted windows driving out of the car park. Its engine suddenly stalled near the poppies growing on the banks of the moat – and then started again with a jump. Even this did not wake the two sleeping swans adrift on the dark water.

Elena turned her gaze back to me.

‘It’s very difficult for my family. You see, Tom, I know my brother has a lot of empathy . . . but your kind of problems are not Nikos’ kind of problems.’

‘Yes,’ I replied solemnly. ‘I can appreciate that.’

‘His kind of problems when he was a kid were having the electricity cut off because Dad couldn’t pay the bills. He never had a Dutch tutor. He went to a comprehensive school off the Holloway Road.’

BOOK: Black Vodka
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