Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel. (Tuesday evening. Entente Cordiale.)
The person in charge of the ballerinas is a tiny old woman. She sees you watching and she comes over and tells you her name which is something Russian which you don’t catch so you decide to call her the little duck, a name you are sure she will like.
Like COACH the little duck is a talker. She tells you she grew up in a time of communism, that her own grandparents were taken off to one of Stalin’s gulags, raped, murdered, and that for the whole of her childhood her parents worried that they, or she!, would be taken away one day too, that one day the men in trench coats and heavy boots would arrive and the next day they would be gone, snuffed from the world as if they had never existed.
“It was only when I was dancing did I feel this freedom.”
“At night I lock the door thinking no one else can see,” you hum thinking that she was making reference to Madonna’s Into the Groove but she looks at you blankly and once again you realise you have missed the point.
The mood required something and you were lacking.
The little duck rules the dancers with a rod of iron. She has a stick which she beats on the floor and if she spots a single error she will rush up to that dancer and launch a vituperative salvo of invective.
She is four feet tall and she is seventy but you are a little in love with her.
Power is an aphrodisiac and there would be no bother with unwanted children.
You imagine her naked on your bed, her little sagging tits, her ass spread and twitching and you hope your crossed legs hide your hard on and you stare downwards and they do.
You tell yourself that if she looks at you in the next five minutes that means that she loves you. Then you give her another five. And then another. And then you make a clicking motion with your throat and she looks at you and you are in love.
During a break in proceedings you tell the little duck that you have always dreamt of being a dancer and, taking you seriously, she talks for ten minutes of the many sacrifices that must be made, the early starts, the way the muscles must be manipulated and bent, how a hard crust of skin must form on the toes and base of the foot.
“And it is all for what? Even after all of this there is no guarantee of success. It is only one per cent of one per cent who make it.”
“But what about me?” you say. “Do you think I could make it?”
Her laughter is not a tonic. It beats in time to your shallow heart, echoes against your rib cage.
You grew up at the time of the Cold War too. You felt that at any time the world would end and, dreaming of mushroom clouds, you would wake up in a cold sweat. At times you were unable to shake off this nightmare because everywhere you looked there were representations of nuclear annihilation, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, the fake documentary Threads in which Sheffield is destroyed in a nuclear war. On a daily basis you were made to confront your worst fears not least when at school they had atom bomb practice and you had to crawl under the table and for ten minutes you had Harry Roots’ bum in your face.
While the other boys looked on and laughed you performed a role play together. His arse was Reagan and your mouth was Gorbachev. They were due to come together for a summit in Geneva on November 19th and November 20th. They would discuss the scaling back of nuclear proliferation, signal the end of the Cold War, and you would all live in peace.
“No more bombs,” you shouted, your words muffled by the material of Rootsy’s trousers, the seat of his underpants, the warm yet comforting flesh of his buttocks.
And you have decided that because you are in love then the whole would should be in love.
You have a plan.
You will bring about your own entente cordiale.
The coach you do not have to worry about because after the practice session he told you he was going to visit the Museum of Human Anatomy for which the neighbouring town is famous. People will come from miles around to see the specimens. Sometimes you have top scientists staying at the hotel. They will come down to breakfast, little deformed foetuses in jars placed carefully on the table next to them.
And you can’t help but imagine these foetuses on toast, resting in bowls of cereals and you do not feel well.
To get the little duck out of the way you will take her to the cinema on the retail park across the motorway from Hotel Flamingo. It will be your first date.
You wait for her at the edge of the car park, your teeth newly brushed, you hair side parted to the left because a small child once told you it suited you this way and as the duck edges towards you your breath is quite taken away. She wears enormous dark glasses, the upper rims of which meet the fringe of a rather badly fitting wig. The effect, all together, is something of a motorcycle helmet.
At last you have your own biker babe.
You have arrived.
The duck talks all the way through the film and you realise you are not in love with this person after all, that in fact you could never love this person, and you wonder how you could have made this mistake and then you remember that with Deadeye Dave sleeping in your room you have not had the opportunity to wank into your sock this morning and so are inordinately susceptible to a winning smile, a pair of eyes, two arms and two legs connected to a fully functioning body.
Despite her continuous talking the little duck still manages to laugh loudly at all the jokes in the film, slapping at her thighs and leaning forward so her wig brushes again the back of the bald man’s head in front. You think he is going to be angry and are ready with your defence, your elderly mother has been let out of hospital in order to fulfil her dying wish, to see Adam Sandler’s latest movie with her favourite son, you, who is also dying, but when the man does turn around he has these big doe eyes and he says what beautiful hair the duck has and would she like to go for a coffee with him to Starbucks after the cinema as he has a pensioner’s discount card and on a Tuesday it is buy one cake, or Danish pastry, and get one free.
As you step out of the cinema the old man, who you can see now is barely more than four feet tall, like the duck, and has a hunchback, pulls you to one side and shouts up into your ear, “Hey buster, three’s a crowd, two’s company so why don’t you skidaddle.”
You watch them walk away, like you have watched so many people walk away, and your heart breaks a little.
But it is then that Eusavio appears. He has one muscular arm around a heavily made up girl who must be no more than sixteen and his eyes are frantic and her eyes are frantic.
“You haven’t seen them, have you? Two gays?”
He describes two shapes in the air and you can see them, these gays, in brightly coloured loon pants, hair combed and slicked, dancing to an Aretha Franklin and George Michael medley.
“I’ve told you,” says the girl. She speaks while breathing in. Her eyes are two dots, like she has loaned the rest of them to someone else. “They have gone, vamoose. I could see trouble in their beady gay eyes. I said get poppers, didn’t I?”
Eusavio is growing a Pablo Escobar moustache. He runs a finger backwards and forwards over it in the manner of the Columbian drug lord.
“Get yourself an ice cream,” he says to the girl. He pulls a five pound note from his pocket, thrusts it at her. “Baby I’m going to sort this mess out. Any flavour you like.”
Then he says to you, “We need a witness. Peggy-Sue and I are getting married tomorrow and we need a witness to sign the register. Are you up for it? You’re our last resort. What do you say?”
You think of your hotel room waiting for you, the bag full of dirty underwear, the socks you have wanked into and worn, wanked into and worn, a job that makes the blood ache in your veins, Angela’s cold hard shoulder, Mersault’s disdain, Deadeye Dave’s bare arse, the sour smell of minor disappointments piled up mountain-like outside the door of your room, some of the mountain even spilling into your room and up onto your bed, even onto the covers so that when you breath at night you are breathing in disappointments, disappointment after disappointment, and you nod your head in acquiescence. You tell Eusavio you’re his guy. You’ll be there. He can count on you.
In order to get in shape for your role as a witness the following day you do ten press ups on the spot, jog around the men’s clothing section in Debenhams, and are heading at quite a lick towards the Disney Store when you spy Deadeye Dave dead ahead trying to scrounge a fag off a teenager.
“No way José,” you say and you duck inside WH Smith.
Ten minutes later he is still there although now he is with another teenager and because the woman behind the counter is giving you a hard stare as if you might be a shoplifter you buy a copy of the Daily Mail. When she asks you if you would like the extra large chocolate bar that is on offer with it you say that you do.
You eat the chocolate bar.
Then you pick up another copy of the Daily Mail and get another cheap bar of chocolate which you also eat.
Then Deadeye Dave appears and asks you why you have got two copies of the Daily Mail.
“I’m collecting the coupons,” you say and Dave picks up a copy and comes back with another bar of chocolate.
You eat this.
Dave goes over and browses a magazine about rock music. He stands there for ten minutes looking at the same page. When you worked together he did this sometimes with a plate or a spoon or one of those crazy little teacups they have in hotels. It drove you mad but Dave said the women loved it. It was a kind of hypnosis and women loved hypnosis. Look into their eyes for ten minutes and they will believe anything you say.
“That’s why I never date blind women,” he says.
You get down on the floor and do another ten press ups. You feel the burn.
Dave, it turns out, is not all bad. He takes you to The Scattered Hen and says in return for last night he is going to buy you a drink.
“Did I tell about the time I was sleeping with that Indian? Well she always had to have her brother in the bed with her. She said it was her brother but now I’m not so sure. He seemed awful keen to get off on whatever we was up to.”
He goes to the bar. The bartender has the kind of moustache you don’t like. You hear Dave ordering the cheapest beer before he materialises back next to you.
“So anyhow,” he says, “I’m going to lay it straight down the line,” and then the whole story comes out.
He tells you he appreciates you letting him sleep on your floor, you’re a lifesaver, but now he has another favour to ask and already you can see it coming, see him ageing slowly, sitting on the side of your bed in his underpants, one of your cigarettes dangling from his mouth, Homes under the Hammer on the tv. You could have got him around the neck then, killed him, put you both out of your misery, but where there was one glass of beer there might be another and you let him talk.
“Jimjam the Spam,” he says, “has got out of prison and he sees us working together again. He’ll do all the hawking, I just have to find a girl and a set of knives. All that’s going to take a couple of days.”
Someone puts Thriller on the jukebox and two drunks start slowly to dance. The barman shuffles a deck of bar mats. On the ‘Daily Specials’ board someone has scrawled ‘Dick Soup’.
“Get me another drink,” you say to Dave.
“Hold your horses,” says Dave and then he says this is the deal. He’ll buy all the drinks, within reason, but can he stay in your room for a while?
He puts a palm flat over the eye that hasn’t got a patch on it.
“Close your eyes and you won’t even know I’m there.”
“I’ll still smell you. At school they called me Snoopy.”
In fact they hadn’t, it had been a recurring dream of yours, like scaling the Eiffel Tower in a leotard or building the Marie Celeste out of Lego and then being whisked off to Copenhagen, interfered with, and called a genius by the Danish guy who'd invented the bricks. But you do have an acute sense of smell. It is one of your best qualities although not one that has been beneficial over the years in getting you many girls. They are looking out for other things; muscles, money in the bank, a willie that not only sounds good on paper.
Drunk now you have almost forgotten the plan, twenty-eight notes under twenty-eight doors, “Party in the car park. Bring a bottle.”
But as you stand with Dave waiting to cross the motorway you hear the caterwauling. It’s the sound from grainy black and white videos recorded through half open doorways, from the shaded balconies of European flats. The first girl you dated said she was saving herself. You didn’t know she meant for someone else. In the cars whooshing past are glimpses of faces pitching into the darkness. Rushing towards something. Or away.
What is joy? What is love?
Sometimes you dreamt you were wandering in the desert and came across a single flower, its colours kaleidoscopic. And it was crying out for you, had been waiting in fact for you, hiding from the rich Berbers with their ghost-trains of camels, but then just as you were about to pick it, this is what it had been waiting for, you found that the flower was your own body, your face its bright centre, burnt raw by the sun, its white petals, your skin carefully peeled away.
Several of the basketballers stand with their backs to their bus, shorts around their ankles. And the thing is the ballerinas don’t even have to kneel down. It’s synchronicity, one action perfectly suited to a reaction; a bigger issue, at the end of the day, if they wanted to kiss.
“Jesus,” says Dave but he is helplessly drunk and he won’t be doing any praying.
You look up and the stars are out and you wish you knew astronomy. Or is it astrology? The Sky at Night. That show ran through the whole of your childhood years. You used to flick it on to hide the sound of your masturbation from your parents but in truth you didn’t make much noise and they would have had to stand with their ears pressed to the door. But this is what you were scared of.
“It reminds me of the time I almost killed a guy,” says Dave. “He was so fat he hardly fit on the target. That was the problem.”
And you are dragging him away, actually pulling on one of his ears and he is sobbing for this almost dead guy he can’t even remember the name of, when you hear it, the thump, thump, thump, like those jungle drums in King Kong.
This is the price you pay for dreaming.
One of the ballerinas stands naked before you, her legs apart, she might even have been on tiptoe. And between her legs she bounces one of the orange balls. In and out, first past her left leg and then her right. She has grace and control and on her face this look.
You’ve never seen anything like it.
It's that grain of sand, the one you find on the seam of your underpants months after returning from holiday.
It's a miracle.