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Authors: Deborah Levy

Black Vodka (6 page)

BOOK: Black Vodka
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They walk into the Portuguese cafe and kiss the owner’s new baby, who was born last week and is now the star of the establishment.

‘Good evening, your royal highness,’ Pavel says when she is passed into his arms.

Later, when Pavel and Ella, now too tired to walk home, wait by the bus stop, he tells her he did not get the job in Dublin. The word ‘Dublin’ makes his girlfriend stiffen and move away from him. Pavel touches his throat. More than anything he wants a glass of water.

‘Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?’

Ella is frowning, looking out for the bus.

‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’ Ella’s voice is suddenly angry. ‘Do you mean you don’t know whether you’re staying or leaving . . . is that what you’re trying to say to me?’

‘I’m sorry about Dublin,’ Pavel murmurs into her hostile brown ear.

The bus arrives and they step inside, fumbling for change. Not knowing if everything is all right between them, they glance at the passengers in their scarves and hats and overcoats. Some of them are drinking fizzy cold drinks from cans. They hold the drink to their lips, eyes half shut, tense and concentrated as they gulp down the liquid, briefly stopping to catch their breath before lifting the can once more to their lips.

Cave Girl

My sister Cass thinks that ice cubes in the shape of hearts will change her life. Cass is a Stone Age girl. She hopes hearts will bring her love in the same way the Ancients thought dancing for the Gods would bring rain. She does the whole atmosphere business: turns off all the lights in the house and burns up a bargain pack of Tesco night-lights to make fake moonlight in her bedroom. After a while she makes herself what she calls a Piña Colada (some sort of milkshake), lies on the bed and sobs to a CD. It’s hard to believe that that small silver disc can spin her to the other side and back. Cass wants to be somewhere else. She has been abducted by visions of paradise that are not here, and to punish me for being happy, she twisted her hair into a tight plait and cut the whole lot off. I used to be scared of open spaces until I realised it was indoors that was the most frightening.

At night the satellite dishes on the roofs and walls throw spectral shadows across the tamed gardens. I have grown to love the bronze doorknobs in the shape of jungle beasts: a lion’s head, a tiger, a snake. These seem to me to be caveman icons on the doors of the bankers and dentists who live here, a way of keeping in touch with The Divine. Sometimes I lie flat out on the gravel under one of the new shrubs and feel the electricity charge me up. The TV repeats. The CD players and video hires, personal computers, microwaves, dishwashers and hairdryers. It gives me a thrill because I know the world is very old. At night, I sometimes hope that an Ancient will find me shivering in front of the TV eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. He will teach me how to sharpen flint and I won’t know what to teach him because I don’t know how to make antibiotics.

And then one night Cass told me her secret. Unburdened her confidence on my white-boy shoulders. She said she wants a sex change.

‘What, into a man?’

‘No, into a woman.’

‘But you are a woman.’

‘I want to be another kind of woman.’

‘What does that mean, Cass?’

‘I want to be light-hearted,’ she begins, and already the worry lines on her forehead come into focus. ‘I want to be airy.’ My sister is whispering this to me under the new shrub in the dark. Her sad girl breath makes me dizzy. She says, ‘I want to have blue eyes for a start, that’s the trick. Blue eyes are the gentlest, sexiest, most ambivalent eyes. My blue eyes will cut out, but they will also be very much there.’ When Cass says ‘very much there’, a thrill jolts through my stomach. She chews her nails for a while and then says, ‘I want to be a pretend woman.’

I’m glad the gravel is clean and all the cats well fed here. I hate the way butchers display the insides of animals on silver trays.

Cass continues talking, her eyes shut tight and the light from the little lamp post chuffing over her shorn black hair. I’ve found a surgeon to do the op, she says in a flat voice. I can already see him drilling a hole in my sister’s forehead with a rusty nail. I don’t want to talk to her any more.

There’s been a pile-up on the motorway nearby. A furniture van collided with a baker’s truck. The drivers crawled out of their vehicles streaked in blood to find a load of chocolate éclairs and cream cakes splattered on leather sofas and office chairs. I don’t want to see anything shocking ever again.

So this woman walks up the gravel drive, long legs, wearing sandals even though it’s raining. Sandals with little heels and criss-cross straps over the instep. Dragging her bag with limp wrists, smiling under a dirty blond fringe, and the bluest eyes, kind of flat eyes, can’t get inside ’em but she’s got energy in her body and she says, ‘Hi Bruv. Do you like my fake snake?’ I don’t know who she is or what she’s talking about and then I see she’s pointing to her fake snakeskin sandals.

‘I’m Cass,’ she smiles, dimpling her cheek.

Cass doesn’t have dimples. And she never wears sandals with little spiky heels. And her hair’s not blond.

There’s something about this woman’s voice, it just twinkles over me, cool and easygoing like a best friend in a great mood.

‘Let’s sit outside even though it’s raining.’ She smiles and takes out a wedge of Swiss cheese from her bag – sets about effortlessly slicing it, whooshing her fringe out of her eyes with her long fingers, nibbling at the cheese like she’s got a bit of an appetite but doesn’t want to hog the whole lot.

‘I like Swiss cheese because of the holes,’ she says airily, and then when she sees I’m freaked out her voice goes gentle and low.

‘Hey, you’ll get used to the new me. Don’t look so frightened.’

She makes a shivering noise with her breath as we drag our chairs out into the garden, her little heels sinking into the grass, poking holes in the lawn, just like in the Swiss cheese.

‘I like the rain.’ She dimples again. ‘No sun to damage our skin structure.’

When she speaks it’s like she’s trailing the tips of her fingers across the surface of a swimming pool, no gloomy silences or deep breaths before saying something truly hideous. And she smells of soap and deodorant. The old Cass never used deodorant. She used to say it was a trick to make her feel dirty so she would use something she didn’t need. This Cass laughs with her eyes and she is all here, but she’s also far away, admiring the rose bush like she’s never seen it before, noticing there are bugs on the leaves and thinking aloud about how to spray them away. My sister would do something gross like eat the bugs rather than use a pesticide. This Cass leans back in her chair, dusts the crumbs of Swiss cheese off her white linen dress and suggests we plan some pleasure outings. Should we go to the cinema and see something light-hearted? What do I think? Cass never used to ask me what I think.

This is the unhappiest day of my life. I think I’m in love with my new sister. I want to find out who she is. I want to stare into her pretend blue eyes. I want to write my phone number across her hand and brag about her to my friends. I want to play with her hair and lift her onto my new bicycle and lie in the dark with her and show her my new computer game.

Something has just been massacred. There’s a pile of bloody feathers on the gravel. A cat has caught Dickie, the neighbour’s budgie, named after the famous cricket umpire. Dickie Bird’s eyes have been gouged out and his head chewed up. His intestines are lying under the new rose bush.

I tell Cass what’s on my mind because she seems to want to know.

‘Well . . . ’ She bends her head to one side so her long hair falls over her shoulder. ‘See, you are my brother and I am your sister.’ Then she says, ‘You’ll find a girlfriend soon, and anyhow, why don’t we go inside and watch that stoopid sitcom we like?’

When she stands up she yawns and her blond eyebrows rise up on her forehead and then she quickly puts her hand over her mouth and giggles. There’s a ring on her finger. A thin silver ring with a heart and two baby doves welded onto it. And her nails are clean with shiny see-thru pink stuff painted on them. When my new sister looks at me, I feel I am precious to her.

‘Come on, Bruv. Let’s go inside.’

I’m frightened to go inside and breathe all over the wallpaper.

The man who does the TV weather for the nation finished his forecast tonight by saying, ‘Beware of the chill winds to come.’

Another thing. The ice in my Pepsi jumped out of the glass of its own accord.

I’m sick with longing for the new Cass. She has become airy, like she said she wanted to. For a start, she doesn’t have opinions; she listens to what I have to say as if I am someone important. And when I tell her a joke she laughs, shining her dimples in my direction, making toast with lots of butter, just how I like it. When she eats toast, she breaks it up in the palm of her hand and kind of pecks the crumbs into her mouth, always on the lookout for something I might need. I take more care of how I look these days because I want her to think well of me. She particularly likes my trainers with red lights on the heels, the ones old Cass said made me look like a sad fuck.

‘You’re a style angel,’ this Cass says, and then bends down to wipe off some cereal that’s stuck itself to my shirt. She makes me want to do things for her too. Run her baths, put a new fuse in her hairdryer, walk to the shops and buy her chocolate bars and magazines. I’d cut off my arm if I thought it would please her. But I’m scared too. I’m fucking terrified. What if Cass morphs into her old self? What happened to it anyway? What if old Cass suddenly jumps through the smooth white skin of new Cass, laughing like a demon?

The men around here all make excuses to talk to her when they get back from work. I’ve noticed how they chat from inside their cars, air conditioning on and the windows down. Nothing makes sense any more. Cass leans in towards them, she is all there, light-hearted and smiling, listening to how their day has been and how bored they are with their wives. Some of them give her presents.

Mr Tollington with the wart on his chin from Number Six gave her a tacky gold chain with a creamy pearl on the end – presented to her in a little box lined with red velvet. Cass smiled at him like he was the only man in the world. She even let him put it on for her, his horrible manly fingers lingering on her neck. Worst of all, Mr Lewenstein, who is quite good-looking I suppose (everyone knows he’s got a mistress in Malta), gave her a bracelet plaited from three kinds of gold with a tiny padlock to snap it shut on her wrist. He had the lock engraved with the letter C, ‘personalising it’ he growled from his car window, a flash Jag that he pays me to wash for him on Sundays. Why does she bother talking to these men? I know she knows they’re boring so what does she get out of it? Why does she care whether they like her or not?

‘I told you,’ she says, her voice sort of serious but flirtatious as well, ‘I want to be a pretend woman. The surgeon did well. He really fiddled with my controls.’

She breathes out when she says this, like something amazing has happened to her. Where has the old Cass gone? Did the surgeon slop her into a stainless-steel tray?

I need an Ancient to find me now. We’ve got things to discuss and I know he could help me. He would have answers to where souls go after death and how people transform themselves from one thing to another. He made baskets woven from asparagus stalks and fires from frozen flints. He even knew about the sweat glands of poisonous frogs and which mushrooms were toxic. I want to ask him if he’s scared of the dark and things lurking in the sea like I am, and if he ever had a sister who changed herself like Cass did.

Her blue eyes take me in, and freeze me out.

Placing a Call

You are telling me something I don’t want to hear. You are telling me the honest truth. We are standing in the garden and it is dusk. There are rain clouds in the sky and midges and someone is planting a rose bush in the garden next door. The telephone is ringing.

The telephone is ringing. I run into the house and pick up the receiver. The telephone is pressed against my ear, someone is calling and I am answering. I am saying hello into hard black plastic but I hear the dial tone and the ring tone happening at the same time. Someone is missing. Someone is trying to get through. And then I remember there is a bird in the garden that imitates a telephone when it sings. I can see it now in the tree in the garden where you are telling me the honest truth. It is singing in an old-fashioned ring tone, it is singing like a land line. I run back into the garden.

We are standing in the garden and it’s autumn and there’s a bird in the tree that imitates a tele­phone when it sings. Your hair is silver but you are not old. Under your soft silver hair is your skull with your central nervous system inside it. It is dusk and it has started to rain. The roots of the eucalyptus tree that grows in the garden are spreading under the house. Our daughter is sleeping inside the house under a photograph of the sea. She is covered in a thick blanket. Her bed stands on a green carpet. There are two stains on the carpet.

You are wearing a white shirt and a suit and under your soft silver hair is your skull. While you speak the honest truth I am thinking about the time we ate horse steaks in Paris. The waiter served the dish of the day and the dish of the day was horse. It was like eating a unicorn in the twenty-first century. My iPod was playing a song we’d never heard before. You untangled the headphones and pressed them into your ears and you lifted my fingers and pressed them into your mouth.

BOOK: Black Vodka
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