THE TIME IT
There was more traffic than hed expected
so soon after lunch. He was tempted to pull over and sleep for half an hour, pretend the
car had some problem, but so much had already gone wrong that day, small delays he should
have foreseen, unwanted phone calls, a bill he hadnt paid gone missing; he
didnt want to tempt fate. It would be just his luck to wake up two hours later and
realise that he had missed the plane. How long would she wait, he wondered, if she
The car smelt of deodorant. That
morning, a gang of teenage girls in green and yellow uniforms had swept over it like
scavenging insects with their brushes and sprays. No trace was left of the newspapers,
crinkled and beige after too much sun, cellophane from cigarette packets, scraps of bread
and cracker that had fallen from his lap as he ate and slept and then drove off, still
hungry, still unrested. He spent too much time in his car, Mara was right. Mara was always
right about practical things, even when nothing could be done to change them.
Half-past two already and she
was due in at three-fifteen, give her twenty, twenty-five minutes, and shed be
looking out for him, just a small bag, he supposed, because what would she need for a
night? A change of clothes, something for the show this evening. These days, hed
been told, she usually wore black. She might only have hand luggage. That would be just
his luck. Still, there was also a good chance the plane would be late; most planes were,
in his experience, except the ones that had to be met or there would be trouble.
He craned his eyes up through
the windscreen, squinting against the sun, half expecting to see her plane. Perhaps he
could slow it down by an act of will. Perhaps he would see it fall from the sky. That
wouldnt be so bad; a touch of disaster would fit with the rest of her. Like
whats-his-name, the one with the wings held on by wax.
She couldnt have been there more than a minute or two; she had that wary look people
have when they walk into arrivals, expecting to be met by strangers. He hurried across,
pushing the taxi touts and tour-guide reps out of his way until he was in front of her.
She was standing with a smile on her face hed seen a thousand times and she was
offering it to anyone who approached her, her eyes invisible behind sunglasses. Shes
waiting to be recognised, he thought. Then the absurdity of that struck him, because
surely there was no one at the airport who wouldnt recognise her; and also the truth
of it: that she was waiting to be recognised by him. He held out his hand.
Im sorry Im
late. He introduced himself, unexpectedly nervous, although hed done this a
dozen times before. Im from the town council, Im one of the
She took his hand and nodded.
The cars in the car
park, he said. They wouldnt let me park outside.
They never do, she
She was smaller than hed
expected, which was always true of people hed only seen on television and in
newspapers. He picked up the case beside her.
You can pull it, she
said, and pointed to the telescopic handle at the top as though she imagined hed
never seen one before. With this.
Thats fine, he
said, raising the case a little higher than was necessary, showing off, he supposed;
ignoring the twinge in his shoulder. Its only light.
I always travel
light, she said. She touched her lip with a finger and laughed briefly, as though
this had reminded her of something; something she wasnt going to share. He led the
way across the concourse and over the road to the multi-storey car park. After the cool of
the arrivals lounge, the air seemed to throb. He felt sweat trickle down his sides, under
his shirt. At least the car was air-conditioned.
Its on the fourth
floor, he said as they waited for the lift.
You remember these
things, she said. Thats wonderful. I never do. I wander around for
To be honest, neither do
I, he said, turning to look at her face, to see if she was smiling. But she seemed
to be watching the up light flash on and off. Not always.
When they got to the car, he
hesitated. Normally, people like her preferred to sit in the back, pretending that he was
their chauffeur. That way, they didnt have to talk to him or, even worse, listen,
because there was always that risk, that he would be a bore, although he never showed the
least desire to talk to them and also preferred silence. He liked to think as he drove;
not even think, just let odd thoughts drift through his mind. He liked to dream about
where he would be if he wasnt there, about a life he had somehow let slip through
his fingers, a life that was richer than the lives these people seemed to lead, however
successful or famous they were, or thought they were. Sometimes his passengers would close
their eyes as if they were sleeping; once in a while, someone might read a newspaper or
what looked to him like a script. Mostly, they would talk into their mobiles throughout
the journey and he would listen with a sense of mounting injustice as their vanity and
self-obsession and petty greed were revealed, though only to him, the driver, whose
opinion didnt count. He would listen to them moan about agents and fees and
journalists and the price of hotels, each identical to the others, the same complaints,
the same threats. And then he would stop listening and almost forget they were there, and
find himself thinking about his own affairs: Mara, the children, the south-facing flat
that was too small for them all and unbearable in the summer and that couldnt be
exchanged for anything larger and cooler unless Mara went back to work, and she had no
intention of doing that. She hadnt got married to work in an office, she said. As
though he had. He should have asked her, the last time she said it, why did you
then? Why did you get married? But shed have looked at him and tapped her fingers
against her forehead, that gesture he couldnt bear.
But now this woman seemed to be
waiting for him to open the passenger door so that she could sit beside him. He walked
round to the boot, to put her case in, then looked to see where she was. Yes. Her fingers
were resting on the handle.
I prefer the front, if
thats all right with you, she said. I like to see where Im
Thats fine by me.
Ill go and pay, he said, unlocking the car with his remote control as he
walked towards the machine, wondering why he should feel so pleased, as though he had been
favoured; her choice had nothing to do with him. When he got back, she was sitting in the
passenger seat with both hands between her knees like a schoolgirl. Theyd been
right, she was wearing black, a sleeveless T-shirt and a short skirt made from some fine
material, Mara would know what it was; all his wife seemed to think about these days was
clothes. No jewellery, no make-up that he could see. Sitting there with her patient air,
she could have been fifteen. As he walked round and sat down beside her, she turned
towards him and smiled, still wearing her glasses so that all he had to go on was the wide
mouth and the brilliant white teeth, the perfect white teeth of a star. A smile without
seeing the eyes was always a risk, he thought, as though the eyes couldnt also lie.
He resisted the urge to reach across and take her glasses off. When he smiled back, she
seemed to relax, resting her head for a moment against the seat, then reaching for her
seat belt, a gesture he hadnt expected from her. Wasnt she famous for her
recklessness? Hadnt she almost died a dozen times and been dragged back? There were
all those stories.
He had first heard her sing when
he was ten or eleven, and Giulia, his older sister, had brought home one of her earliest
records and played it until everyone was sick of it and their father had threatened to
lock her record player up. He remembered the way Giulia had nodded, then stuck her tongue
out at his back and carried on twisting with the volume turned down low, almost as low as
it would go. Then she would make him twist as well, not only for herself but for all her
friends, and it was always that record, so that even now he could remember every word of
it, although he had never really liked it. He had never bought a record of hers himself.
He had never really liked her that much, and wondered why others did. He didnt buy
records at all now, but when he had, before he got married, hed preferred hard rock,
Led Zeppelin, Yes, Deep Purple, then grunge. When Kurt Cobain died, he had wept, quite
alone in the bathroom, with the door locked, as though they had been brothers. That was
the last time hed cried.
But ever since this
evenings concert had been proposed and he had found the folder thrown onto his desk,
the words of that song had been going through his head, and the image of Giulia dancing in
the middle of the bedroom, calling him to join her. One night, when it was too hot to
sleep and he had lain there with Mara beside him, possibly also awake, he had found
himself thinking of a photograph Giulia had pinned to the wall near her bedit must
have been cut from a magazineof the singer swinging her hair around her head, her
face up close to the camera so that she looked deformed, grotesque in a way that was
fashionable in the Sixties, like a goldfish in a bowl. She was wearing the kind of dress
you might have put a child in, bows and frills everywhere, yet barely long enough to cover
her groin. She had a manic look on her face, as though she had been up for days, doing
nothing but dancing, and would either go on forever or collapse and die.
There was another more recent
photograph of her that came into his mind one morning at work, when he was glancing
through the paper and saw a story about some minor television celebrity arrested for drugs
and immediately thought of her. She was standing on the steps of the hotel she lived in
then, between two policemen, her hair greasy, no make-up except for the usual black stuff
around her eyes, wearing what must have been a borrowed raincoat, borrowed from a man, and
she looked like a woman who had refused to be beaten, and then been beaten despite that.
She could have been any age. He had wanted to cut this photo out and keep it, he
remembered, fold it into four and slip it into his wallet; he wasnt sure why.
Would you like some
music? he said. They were out of the tangle of roads around the airport now and on
the autostrada, he no longer needed to concentrate on his driving, and he wasnt sure
if she was asleep after all. But as soon as he had spoken he regretted it. Perhaps she
hated music as much as he hated the raw material of his own work. Perhaps she had also
wanted to be someone else.
She must have been awake,
because she answered at once.
No, she said. Then:
What kind of music do you like?
He thought for a moment, not
about music; about what he should say.
Apart from yours? he
said in the end.
Apart from mine,
naturally, she said, then laughed and turned her head away to stare out of the
window towards the hills. So he had made himself look foolish.
I like Nirvana, he
said abruptly, to redeem himself. I mean, I did.
She nodded. Yes, she
said, so do I. She began to hum, her fingers tapping out the rhythm on her
bare white leg. He recognised a track from Nevermind, he wasnt sure which
one, he could never remember titles, the words of the songs meant nothing in the end. It
was something else that held him. Then he did remember. Lithium.
You like Nirvana
too? he said. An articulated truck overtook him at speed. He felt the car swing out
towards the central guard rail, sucked over into the vacuum its passing had created.
Yes. Those whom the gods
love die young, she said. Do you think thats true?
No, he said. I
dont believe in God. Or gods.
She seemed to want to think
about this. Or perhaps she was disappointed in him and no longer wanted to talk. It was
true though that he didnt believe in gods. He didnt believe in anything. Fate
maybe, maybe not. He didnt believe in purpose.
I dont think Cobain
had to die, he said after a while. He was driving more slowly than he needed, the
truck had unnerved him; he hugged the side of the road as it passed through open
countryside, the rest of the traffic silently overtaking. Far to the left, the grass on
the hills was burning. Planes carrying water buzzed overhead. She didnt seem to mind
about the speed. I wish he hadnt. He could have done so much more.
Yes, she said.
Its better not to die. She lifted the T-shirt an inch or two away from
her shoulders and let it fall, twice. When he reached across to adjust the
air-conditioning, though, she caught his hand in hers.
No, no, she said.
Id rather you turned it off. We could open the windows. Let the air in a
little. I dont mind if its hot.
prefer, he said. A moment later, she was curled on the seat with her head hanging
out of the window, like a dog, her hair blowing about her head, one shoulder out of the
car entirely, her small feet near his hand. You could smell the smoke in the air from the
fire on the hills. Shell burn, he thought, she cant have been in the sun at
all. Her skin was smooth and white, almost the same tone as her hair, which, he saw now,
was blonde and silver-grey together, depending on the light. She was six, maybe seven,
years older than he was, no more. She had been a star for most of her life. She had been a
star when he was at school, and then university. She had been a star when he worked as an
architect for two years without being paid, because he had been promised a place in the
practice, which came to nothing. She had been a star when Maras father had found him
a job in the Council and everyone told him he should be grateful. And he had been
grateful. He had married Mara and packed his architecture books into boxes. And all this
time, as he dreamed of houses he would never build, and of schools and airports, and of
open spaces and glass, she had been a star.
It was almost six by the time
they reached the hotel. She had asked for a room with a view of the sea, the only request
she had made, and the woman who worked with him had been scornful. She hasnt
had a hit in years, she said. Shes lucky weve invited her.
Shes in no position to make demands. But it hadnt been that difficult to
find a room that would do, large and even cool, with a balcony and a bathroom that had
seen better days but served; she would like the big old bathtub, he had thought, and the
bidet with its stubby elaborate taps. The owner was a schoolfriend of his, which counted
for something. Besides, he had been arranging these things long enough to cash in a favour
or two and this had seemed the right occasion, if only to spite his colleague, who had
wanted to invite someone else, someone his children listened to. It was slightly out of
town but he would come and fetch her in time for the concert, that was his job. He watched
as she checked in, amused as the girl at reception pretended not to recognise her. She had
to search for a document, with an air of surprised irritation as though she hadnt
expected this; this indignity. She didnt have a handbag, she seemed to keep
everything in the front pocket of her case. She knelt on the floor beside it, pushing her
hair back with one hand and rifling through whatever the pocket contained with the other.
In the end she found a passport and placed it on the counter in front of the girl, not
putting it in her hand, making her reach for it a little. He watched as she signed the
register in her real name; but then of course she would.
When the girl reached
out to ring for someone to carry the suitcase up to the room, he caught her wrist with an
urgency that surprised him. Thats all right. Ill take her, he
said. The girl shrugged and turned her face away. He could see what she was thinking, the
little moue of contempt. Standing beside her in the lift, he felt uncomfortable and
wondered if she was also aware of this possibility, that he was trying it on. Perhaps she
hadnt even noticed. She had pushed her sunglasses up over her forehead to hold her
hair off her face and he saw her eyes for the first time, though not directly; in the
mirror inside the lift. She was standing quite close to him, not much taller than his
shoulder, watching as the small red light moved up from floor to floor; but she might have
been alone. Her room was on the fourth, the top floor. This is the second lift Ive
been in with her, he thought, and both times weve gone to the fourth floor. When the
lift stopped and the doors slowly opened, he stepped aside to let her pass.
She walked across to the door to
the balcony and opened it, while he stood by the door, embarrassed now that he was almost
inside the room, wishing that hed left her at the desk downstairs, then stepped
across the threshold and put the case down on the floor. He wasnt wanted. The girl
had been right to see him as squalid. What would Mara have thought, he wondered, but knew
immediately that she would have thought what the girl had thought.
anything you need, he said. She turned her small straight body and shook her head.
He looked around the room and noticed how shabby it was, the wallpaper faded, the tiles
worn and even cracked in places, as though something heavy had been dropped on them
deliberately. How sad hotel rooms were. Why hadnt he found her something better, he
asked himself. He should have thought of flowers, but this occurred to him too late;
perhaps something could be done downstairs, a word to his friend that she deserved more
than this. All at once it seemed terrible to him that she should be treated like anyone
Ill be fine,
she said. Ill sleep a little. She rubbed her face with her hands, the
fingers splayed out, in a rough, even masculine, gesture. He noticed her hands were fine
but large, with the spread of a pianist. She had asked for a piano for that evening; she
had insisted that was all she would need. I prefer to work alone, she had said on the
phone, and he had heard her voice for the first time addressed solely to him, and said
that would be fine. Hed arrange everything. Youll come and pick me
she said. She sounded tired now, eager to see him gone. He felt uncomfortable again.
Till nine, then. Unless
youd like me to take you somewhere to eat? He hadnt intended to say
She shook her head. I
never eat before singing. I get an upset stomach.
Then the thing that most
surprised him happened. He was about to close the door when she walked across slowly and
kissed his cheek once, not twice, and said: Thank you. Youve been so
He had time to go home, but
preferred to eat some chicken and potatoes in a place near the office. The chicken had
been on the spit too long, but the potatoes were the way he liked them, slightly burnt on
one side, soft and drenched with oil on the other. The kind Mara refused to give him
because she said he was getting fat. She was following what she said was a dissociated
diet at the moment, so they all were, even the children; eating at home he was always
hungry. Hed sneak out after dinner and wolf down a ham roll at the bar on the
corner, wishing he had a dog he could take for walks; at least then he would have an
excuse for leaving the flat. As it was, she knew what he was doing. She watched him with a
little smirk of contempt like the one he had seen on the face of the receptionist. We know
your game. He wiped his mouth on a piece of paper, then pushed the aluminium container
away, disgusted by the puddle of orange grease at its bottom, and called across for
another beer. He thought about the hotel room as he drank, and what she might be doing in
it. She would be lying on the bed beneath the fan, because he was sure hed seen a
fan, quite calm, thinking about nothing, her arms spread out. That was how he imagined
her. A slate wiped clean.
He reached the hotel at a
quarter to nine. He realised then that he should have gone home and changed, but it was
too late for that now. The shirt and trousers he had worn all day would have to do. His
friend from school was at the desk; the girls shift must have been up. They shook
hands, as they always did. They had known each other for more than thirty years. They had
been to school and studied architecture together, but the last time they had exchanged
more than the few words they needed, for their work was more than two decades ago, when
they had sat on the terrace of someones house outside town and he had held his
friends hand until there were no more tears and it was dark. They had sat in the
dark until someone came in and found them and said it was time they all went home. A
friend of theirs had died of an overdose, a girl they had both been half in love with,
there was nothing any one of them could have done. They had all used smack a little or a
lot in those days, and sat around in houses like this, listening to music, sometimes even
listening to her, eating boiled rice and tuna or tinned meat, whatever came to
hand, from a shared bowl, drinking local wine and imported beer. She would have
understood, he thought, imagining her in the room above his head, with the cracked tiles
and the sea view. She had been there. And now she was here and alive, as they were,
because they had all survived, in one way or another. Each with their job to do.
She says youre to go
up when you get here. Shes expecting you.
She came down?
No, no. Nobodys seen
her. She phoned. She sounded sleepy. He leaned across the desk, man to man, not
quite a leer. So whats she like?
How should I know?
he said. I only drove her from the airport.
When he knocked on the door, she
called out to him that it was open. He pushed it and walked in just as she entered the
bathroom, wrapped in a towel. I wont be a minute, she said. He heard her
flush the toilet. She didnt close the door.
He looked around. She
hadnt unpacked. The case was where he had left it, but on its side now and open.
There didnt seem to be much in it, a few clothes, all black, an empty water bottle,
a couple of books. There was another one on the bed, which looked as if she had just put
it down. He stepped across the room to see what it was; something about Buddhism from the
image on the cover, or perhaps a travel book, he had heard she liked to travel; she liked
the desert. Whenever she finished recording she took off to a desert and travelled with
nomads, according to the press release she had faxed him, and he had read this, and smiled
to himself, unconvinced. But now that he had seen her, and spoken to her, he wasnt
so sure. He also dreamt of deserts, so why shouldnt she? Why shouldnt she want
to stand beneath a sky so full of stars it felt like day?
He couldnt get close
enough to read the books title without being visible from the bathroom, snooping
among her things. He wouldnt want that. The only change in the room was the air,
which was fresher than when he had left her there. She must have had the windows open to
the sea. The fact that now she had also left the bathroom door open unsettled him. He
stood there, near the bed but not near enough to read what was on it, suspended between
the bed and the door to the room, and above the clean scent of the air in the room he
could smell his own scent, which was stale, the scent of closed cars and clothes he had
worn too long and cigarettes, the smell that was entirely his. He wondered if she had been
to India, but she must have been, everyone went to India then, she would have had her guru
like all the rest.
When she came out of the
bathroom, she picked up the book and gave it to him.
Take it, she said.
She was dressed in a black silk
singlet with no bra, so fine it was almost transparent, and matt black tights with the
kind of boots laced up to her ankles that skinheads wear. She looked perverse and like a
child, a girl whose breasts had just begun to grow. She was wearing make-up now, something
that made her skin reflect the light, not much else apart from on her eyelids, which were
smeared with green and black, the colours of a scarab beetle. He imagined her surrounded
by nomads, a distant exotic being.
He took the book and gave an
awkward little bow. She stepped back and curtseyed, with a flourish of the hand familiar
from a hundred television shows he had watched from the corner of his eye, because she had
never been his kind of singer, a flourish that he had always thought affected and now
understood was essential.
Youll like it,
she said. If you like nirvana.
She was silent in the car, one
elbow resting on the open window. He thought she must be steeling herself for the concert,
running through the songs she would do. Perhaps she still had stage fright after all these
years, after singing in theatres and concert halls and television studios throughout the
world. Perhaps the idea of sitting at a piano, hastily tuned the day before, on a wooden
platform in the main square of a small provincial town, in front of how many people would
there be? two or three hundred at the most, was just as frightening as that. It
wasnt the place that counted or the numbers. But how would he know? He had never
performed. There had been talk of groups, but they had come to nothing; he had sold his
guitar to pay for a washing machine. Perhaps she wasnt scared at all, but
indifferent, with nothing to say because there was nothing that needed to be said, to him
at least. Yet she had given him the book. That meant something, surely. She had wanted him
to have it.
He took her to the caravan
behind the stage. Someone from the office had put a cardboard star on the door, covered in
silver paper. It had seemed funny at the time, ironic, but now he wished that he had been
able to take it down before she saw it.
Youre leaving me
here? she said.
Ill come and collect
you afterwards, he said. To his surprise, she looked perturbed, even annoyed.
staying? she said.
Oh yes, he said
quickly. Ill be out front. He paused, and added, in the sort of tone he
might have used with his children: Dont worry, because it seemed to him
that she needed to be reassured. He had planned to go home and change, but there was
nothing he could do about that now. He felt that she would sense his absence. When she
walked onto the platform fifteen minutes later, his instinct was to wave, to show her that
he was there, no more than twenty or thirty feet away, standing by one of the rows of
orange chairs, which were still filling up because people were always late for concerts
like this, concerts that cost them nothing. He recognised friends of his mother among
them, people whose names he had never known, but nodded to in shops, the man who sold him
his cigarettes. They didnt stop talking until after she had begun to play, the first
few bars were drowned by their chatter. He wanted to shout at them to stop, but that would
have made things worse, the humiliation of being championed by an office clerk. She
didnt, in any case, seem to mind. She kept her shoulders back and her head down over
the keyboard, a little like a bird that stoops to peck, her hair concealing her face. Now
she was singing the song his sister had brought home all those years ago, but she had
taken the twist rhythm out of it and was doing it slowly, so that it sounded like a
ballad. He found himself singing along, under his breath.
There was no new material, he
didnt think, everything sounded both familiar and fresh as she played with her
pallid face invisible to the audience and each song remade to suit her playing style,
which was better than he had expected, although he was no expert, despite his guitar. He
hadnt known she played. Sometimes the words were different, small changes no one
would notice unless they had listened a hundred times to the original and knew the words
by heart. Only once, she looked up. She stared into the audience, almost but not quite in
his direction, and said, in a voice that felt both intimate and shy: This is for a
friend. He didnt recognise it at first, not until she had sung the first few
I'm so happy 'cause today I found my friends
They're in my head
He didnt recognise it
from the words, which meant nothing to him, but from the memory of her humming it in the
car that afternoon, the drumming of her fingers on her slim bare thigh as she sat beside
him. He felt himself flush with pleasure, wondering if anyone would realise that she was
singing for him, because surely that was what she was doing, if anyone would know that she
had understood; but that was absurd. No one would ever know unless he told them, and he
would never do that. His heart had begun to beat with an odd, irregular flutter, as though
he was on the point of dying and it didnt worry him, because he also understood. The
book had not been the only present.
That was the last song. There
was applause, but not enough to make her sing again. It was half-past eleven, she had been
on stage for just over an hour, everyone had had enough. It was still too hot for bed,
people drifted off to buy ice creams and walk beside the sea in the hope of a breeze. The
show was over and he stood there, with the rows of empty chairs beside him. He
couldnt think of anything but her, and the song she had given him. He didnt
know what to do. He felt as though his life had been returned to him.
He gave her time to prepare
herself, although there was nothing she could do in the caravan except wash, she had no
change of clothes with her. He waited five minutes, then tore off the cardboard star,
ripping it into pieces and throwing it beneath the caravan, and knocked on the door, a
gentle knock. She didnt answer at first and he felt a panic he couldnt account
for, because there was no reason to suppose she would hurt herself, not again; not
tonight. He knocked a second time and heard her cough, as though she had been drinking
something and breathed it in by mistake. He heard her get her breath and walk across the
caravan and he was thinking, she has noticed me. She has seen the value in me. I have been
She opened the door and smiled.
Come in, she said. Im nearly ready. There was a small fridge
in the caravan; he had forgotten about that, the other request she had made, a fridge with
water and German beer. She offered him a beer and poured one out for herself into a paper
cup. He took it and sat on the bed while she twisted her hair back and pinned it up with a
clip. Her neck was long and thin, her head almost precarious. That was something else he
had noticed about the famous, how large their heads seemed to be, as though they were
designed to stand out in a crowd, to be seen, however small they were; larger and more
luminous than everyone else. He was waiting for her to speak so that he would know what to
do. What he wanted was too enormous to be contemplated. He would wait for her. She sat
beside him on the narrow bed and sipped her beer. There was no air in the caravan. She
Are you hungry? he
said in a cautious voice. Would you like me to take you somewhere you can eat?
Theres not much open at this time of night, apart from bars. Theres a place
that does salads on the coast road, on the way to the hotel.
Bars would be fine,
she said. One bar and then another bar. We could do a tour of the bars. Id
like that. She laughed and he wondered what she had seen in his face.
Dont worry. Im joking. Some salad would be nice.
There was a table outside. The
road ran between the restaurant and the sea, but when there was no traffic they could hear
the waves on the shingles and see the light shift on the surface of the water. The sea was
calm. After a while, even the traffic seemed to die away. Only the planes could be heard
as they carried their loads of water to the fires on the scorched hills at their backs.
They sat and watched as the waiters nudged each other into action, having seen who she
was. She whispered to him: Look at them, arent they sweet? He felt that
he was a conspirator, breathless with anticipation. She took a cigarette from his packet
without asking, waiting for it to be lit. As he did so, his hand almost touched her cheek.
All the time in the car he had wanted to know what the words of the song had meant, but
couldnt ask; it would look so foolish to admit that he hadnt understood her
gift to him. He didnt order anything for himself and tried not to watch as she
picked the tomatoes out of her salad, eating them separately; it would humiliate her. They
had asked for a bottle of chilled white wine, which she drank, filling and emptying her
glass; he wasnt thirsty. Besides, he liked to see her drink. Mara would always
refuse to drink. When she had eaten what she wanted and the bottle was almost empty, she
pushed the plate away from her with a gesture of intolerance.
So what did you
think? she said.
He wanted to say the right
thing; what he wanted more than anything was to say the truth. Yet which were the words
that would do that? He didnt know. I thought you were wonderful, he
said. Id never realised. I felt as though Id never heard the songs
before, the way they should be. You made them new.
He could see she was trying not
to look pleased. He had said the right thing after all. She took another cigarette, this
time lighting it herself, then shrugged.
I dont even hear
them any more, she said. Ive been singing them all my life, the same old
songs. She paused. Its like evacuation. Like taking a crap.
It didnt sound like
that, he said. She glanced around the empty tables as if she had misplaced
something, or expected someone else to be there, as though she had forgotten where she
was, then pulled the clip out and let her hair fall down across her shoulders.
Thank you, by the
way, she said.
Now it would start. Now she
would make room for him, show him what had to be done. What for? he said.
For reminding me of
Nirvana. Ive loved that song for years, but Ive never dared perform it. I
wasnt sure it would work. Its not my kind of song at all. Then this evening, I
thought, who gives a shit. Theres nobody here that matters.
He felt cold and sick, as though
made aware of his own death, the details of it. He started: But I thought . . .
. then stopped, because of course he had misunderstood, his vanity and his hope had
misled him, and now everything was clear. She had come and gone, some cold and violent and
lonely thing that would never have waited for him, that had no need for him at all. He
stumbled into the vacuum she made as she passed. He became a fan.
Did you know him?
Yes. Not well. I
dont know anyone well. You never do, in this business. She stubbed out the
cigarette into her salad. We met the last time he was here, when he finished up in
hospital and almost died. She shivered, although there was no reason to shiver, it
was still too hot. He knew already that he wouldnt sleep that night, that he would
lie there sweating with Mara beside him, also awake. He thought he could smell the burning
behind their backs.
I think its time I
went to bed, she said. Can you take me back to the hotel? She paused,
then touched his arm with her fingers. Im so sorry, she said. I
cant remember your name.