I believe in love. No, I really do. It wasn't luck that made sense out of my life. It was lurv, in all its absurdity. Love, a sound liver and a night out at the pub with Roy. I drank a drain load - so, what's new? - and the hangover next day was like a teenage rave taking place inside my head, the racket totalling all those insipid brain cells studded with doubt, bullshit, paranoia. The past? It was toast; a memory.
The present's the soft breath of the sea as she cups my ear with her palm.
"I go work yesterday."
"I went work yesterday."
"I went to work..."
Again she covers my ear; a lesson. When Lu-kai's tired of conjugating verbs the hand like a sea shell that reaches for my ear is to show me that her own ears are suffering.
"I go quick."
She hisses through serpent teeth and I watch from the window as she moves without hurry along a pathway lined with flowering mimosa towards the hotel. The light's dazzling and I've quit smoking.
I have my father to thank for that. He had been a maths teacher, a manic depressive with visions of street cafÃ©s, a carafe of wine, French novels; French women, I suppose. He smoked sixty Gauloises a day, a meagre gesture. Cancer got him the summer he retired.
My father had lived in constant mourning for something that had never been. It's the bullshit. We pile it up. Few choose the life they end up with. It happens. We weave this eternal safety net, a vast intricate, all-consuming web, starting from the edges and circling inwards until we become the fly trapped at the centre of our own self-made delusion.
I sit now at the bamboo table turning a Pilot pen between my fingers as I would a cigarette. It's been more than a month since I gave up but I miss it still, the ritual as much as that feeling when the day's first fingers of warm smoke stroke the membranes at the back of your throat. The boys' bogs at school. College. All nighters at unknown addresses. Waking with an unknown girl curled about you like a vine. You light up. Fag packets like the chapters of an unwritten biography.
When I write to Jack my brain shapes keys that open caches of memory, my son kick-boxing the arm of the sofa; the TV seducing us nightly like a drug, Ecstasy for the thirties; Angela rolling over with the duvet tucked beneath her. I'd awake shivering and resent having to slip into the curdled warmth of her night oils and dreams. She'd get up before me and I'd spend ten minutes with the bed to myself. Better that Ecstasy. As good as the first fag. I'd make breakfast for Jack and we'd listen to the twang of the exercise video in the next room, a glimpse of the abyss at that hour, the routine a bid to recapture something I had wrongly thought was gone.
She comes to an unwelcome halt. I'm standing at the door, ready to go.
"Don't forget our lottery tickets," she puffs, continuing again to step up and down from a red plastic box.
"You remember the numbers?"
"Sure I'm sure."
"Don't forget, then."
In Angela I had married my mother. I lived my father's life. I was a three pack a day man.
Pretty Friendly Thai Model. 05557 207 3700. I saw the card in the telephone box I was repairing in Charing Cross Road and put it in my wallet. My number's 05557 207 3701, a difference of one digit. It was a message. I just didn't know what it meant.
Bookshops litter the street, so many books, so many tenuous connections. I used to read, before I entered the zombie period, the long sleep that set in the day I turned thirty-one, that age when the last link to youth putrefies and snaps like an old bone. At thirty you're still clinging to the edge of twenty-nine and all the things that are important: you know what's top of the charts. Twelve months skyrocket by and you haven't even heard of any of the bands. I vowed to commit suicide at forty.
My black suede boots become two bags of soggy chips. Rain washes between the rooftops as if misanthropes have gathered above with buckets of water. I shelter in Foyle's with my tool bag and browse among men in round glasses and girls with sombre eyes focusing on private utopias. I buy a guide book to Thailand; a Roald Dahl for Jack.
The cafÃ© smells of cappuccino and hot bagels. The walls are decked out with film star prints in black-and-white, the non-colours I wear myself, as do those around me, a conformist army endeavouring to be individual while remaining anxious to belong to something and we're not sure what. I light up, a clone among clones full of little doubts, petty objectives, small rivalries, a zoo-born giraffe peering out from my cage with genetic memories of wide open spaces, a dazzling light.
Waitresses and office girls move between the tables like dancers in an erotic ballet. I would take any one of them to bed, ignoring a flat chest here, plump thighs there, they are all the same, legs in black tights, condom pink lips, flowers in a field. What is it that makes you pick one, not another? How do we get picked? It's so imprecise, so enfeebling. And after all the picking's been done, it doesn't work. It never works. Dad only stayed with mum because he despised himself. Once when she was searching for her rabbit's foot on bingo night he warned me during the lull in a coughing fit only cretins believe in luck. A maths teacher and a lotto player. What chance did they have?
Jack was named for my dad. He's nine. I watch him watching a video. Monsters are killing each other.
"I've bought you a book."
He doesn't look up. He says with an American accent wow and pow...Go for it!
"It's called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
"We read it in Miss Penn's class. Pow! Thanks anyway."
Angela's in the kitchen. She has what she calls a soft perm and below the fluorescent tube the threads of bronze and copper recall the wires in telephone cables. In a clinging pink sweater, grey skirt, black heels, she perches on a stool with an air of well-being and glances up from a newspaper with Gwyneth Paltrow striding across the front page. I light a fag. She fans the air, crinkling her nose.
"God, look at you, you're soaked."
"It's the rain."
She doesn't smile. A troubled look sullies her composure. "Did you buy the lottery tickets?"
"I'll do it tomorrow."
"It's Friday tomorrow. You know what it's like," she says, not saying, looking down at her paper and crossing her legs, an activity I study like a biologist peering at pair of eels copulating in an aquarium. The legs, unseasonably unsheathed, are tanned from sun-bed treatments, smooth as brown eggs.
She catches me.
"What are looking at?"
She searches the ceiling as if answers may be circling in the ringlets of smoke, those legs again refolding and I remember for some reason a short film set to the music of Swan Lake about robots making motor cars, each thrust and turn oddly Oriental, tightening, sealing, sending something shiny and cheap along the line.
Over dinner, between telling Jack to leave his chips and eat the broccoli, she tells me that red is the best colour for the Prime Minister's wife and Warren Beatty used to stand on Sunset Boulevard giving his telephone number to every pretty girl who passed.
She hurries off to watch her programme. I wash the dishes. Jack sulks. It's unclear why.
...away from the bustle of the big cities are beaches with white sand, warm seas and tall palms. Native boys tie their feet loosely together and shin dramatically up the thin trunks to release the fruit. They will slice the top from a coconut with a machete and serve it to you with a straw. The local people welcome the many travellers, but remain ardently proud of their own timeless culture. You will see in the markets Buddhist monks in saffron robes, old people shopping for spices, and open-faced girls who are not at all shy with the foreign visitors...
I stop reading and listen like an eavesdropper as she prepares herself for bed. I've begun to admire the irrational optimism behind all this depilating, flossing, shaving, slapping on creams that cleanse away the day's brimstone and yuk, rubbing in unguents to counter bags, sags, lines, crevices; character, I imagine. The cabinet is an alchemist's stash of emollients, ointments, liniments, balms, slimy salves in clear plastic pots, a panoply of chemical artifice devised to abrogate the turning of time in order to save it: and for what? The poor girl's thirty-one, the same as me.
And so to bed. She curls her greased body in a backward S and I casually stroke the firm expanse of her thigh, a scientific experiment. I was beginning to wonder if we belonged to the same species. That was the extent of my curiosity. She flinches as if a mosquito has invaded the space between the sheets.
"What are you doing?" It is the tone she uses when Jack misbehaves in a shop.
She takes my hand as one might a used Kleenex, dropping it where it belongs, on my side of the bed.
When I was eight, a fat boy at my school was killed in a road accident. He was a year above me. I didn't know him very well, but I'd see him sometimes in the paper shop buying a Wagon Wheel. We were collecting the wrappers. You'd send off twenty with a 50p Postal Order and receive a covered wagon through the post. We spoke only once.
"How many wrappers you got?"
"Eleven," I said.
"Eighteen. I've got four wagons already. I'm going to make a wagon train."
He died a week later. I don't remember his name. But he wore glasses and was smiling as he envisioned the covered wagons traversing the bedroom carpet.
There's a sign on the notice board asking for volunteers to take redundancy. You get Â£800 for each year you've been on the job. I started at eighteen. That means I'm worth Â£10,400. I'm good with numbers, like my dad.
"Chucking it in?"
I look back at Roy and for some reason he reminds me of the fat boy who had been building a wagon train. It's that distant look, not like girls in bookshops, but as if he's just watched a last minute goal nodded into the back of the Chelsea net. He is stroking the curve of his stomach and I imagine that inside him there is a desert only Foster's can irrigate.
"Do what?" I say.
"Thinking of chucking it in?"
We light cigarettes. His eyes cross my shoulder and flash down the passage.
"Here, I'll tell you what," he says, "if they up it to a couple of grand I'd give it a go, get a pub or something. All this pissing about's getting on my tits."
"I've seen your number..."
"Yes, dear. Our girl's eighteen and comes from Thailand, very petite, thirty-four, twenty-four, thirty-four. She gives full relief massage starting at fifty-five pounds."
"What's that for?"
"That's up to you, dear. It's a hundred pounds for an hour. Would you like the address?"
I write it down on the back of the card as one does the addresses of people you meet on holiday knowing you don't want to see them again, ever.
Another odious day, the trees pitiful with limbs like starving Africans, the rain falling forever falling, an interminable river of abused telephone boxes, all that frustration, missed connections, a smell so abject it can only be human.
I step from my clothes into the shower. My wallet must have dropped from my jacket. Angela finds it on the bathroom floor. We have no secrets except those in my head and those she would soon be revealing.
She'd been checking that I'd bought the lottery tickets, our familial anniversaries flattering providence with their arcane associations, one each for the three of us. She waits till Jack's gone to bed.
"You know what it is. What you're trying to say is what's it doing in my wallet."
"I know what I'm trying to say."
She holds the blue card at arm's length, in a Hitler salute: Pretty Friendly Thai Model.
"Did you notice the phone number?" I ask.
"Fuck the phone number." Her face stretches as if it's a plastic mask too close to the heat. "I'm going to get AIDS," she screams, running at me, hitting me with both fists, shouting and crying.
"Robin's going to get AIDS. You've ruined my life."
"I hate you."
She rushes to the cabinet and pulls out a butcher's knife, the largest from a set of twelve ordered from her sister's catalogue. The blade glints in the neon light as she raises it above her head, a scene from Psycho.
"I'm going to kill you."
It's an empty threat. She's shaking and swearing, almost enjoying herself. She puts the knife down and cups her plastic face in her hands to sob.
"I haven't been with a prostitute, if that's what you're worried about. It's just the number that's funny. It's the same as ours."
Confusion torments her eyes. The newspapers have prepared her for the passing eccentricity, a sighting of Elvis, a grand piano found on the moon, the mystery call girl. I could see her seeing herself stepping full-length, short-skirted below the tabloid headline I'LL NEVER TAKE HIM BACK.
She studies the back of the card. "What's this address?"
"A crossed wire."
She grows tranquil. Her expression mirrors my feelings. We have found togetherness, a connection.
"Robin?" I ask.
"He's the district manager," she says.
"He's asking her for a divorce." Tears run down her cheeks. She's happy, sharing her secret.
"I really love him," she whispers.
And good luck to her.
Good luck to them both.
It was this love stuff that settled matters, cut the web, freed the fly. Lu-kai's English improves. I can even order tea in Thai. She's learning. I'm learning. If you're constantly learning you don't feel old. I don't suppose I'll even commit suicide at forty. But I might.
Â© Clifford Thurlow 2007