A Gangster Smile
The first time I see Archie, waiting in the playground, I hate him. Of course I hate him. He is fat with the weight of regular restaurant dinners. He has tight, dyed blond curls, and a complementary perma-tan. And he smiles, all the time. The joke's on the rest of the world.
Why wouldn't I hate him? I can usually work people out on first impressions, and I don't like my impression of Archie. City boy, almost certainly, and if not of the type. There he is, with his wife (blonde, you needn't have asked), picking up from school a daughter who wears ridiculously fancy suede boots. She's six, like Lily. Need I say more?
I've never spoken to Archie before, but I know who he is, who they are. Archie and Talia. I'm not going to talk to him now, but I'm watching him. Through the classroom window the children are fetching their coats – I can see his reflection. I'm watching those constant smiles, that's what's really getting to me. What's there to smile about? All we're doing is waiting for our children to come out. So you're the kind of hands-on father who's there to collect his children from school. Big deal.
'Hi,' I say. I've walked over to Archie. 'Which one's yours here then?' I'm a friendly guy, I could have picked anyone to talk to. Archie tells me he's Maxine's father – he uses the word 'father' – and, after a moment's hesitation, deigns to introduce Talia. I shake hands with her as though we haven't already met, though we have.
'I haven't seen you at collecting time before,' I say.
'No, I'm usually working,' Archie replies, moving from one foot to the other. I can only describe this as a swagger.
'I'm here most days,' I say. 'My girlfriend and I, we kind of share the childcare.'
Why am I talking like this?
Archie continues to grin at me, and says nothing. I silently curse myself.
'Why are you so bothered about him?' asks Andrea, when Lily is in bed. She is almost laughing, but making a show of listening so as not to annoy me. I reiterate my distaste for City boys, for suits, for men and women who 'poison society for their selfish career advancement'. My well-worn rant bores even myself, and I trail off into silence. I cannot help being like this. The world doesn't work properly and we all think we know whose fault it is.
'I don't think he works in the City,' says Andrea when I've finished. I can sense a certain satisfaction at this deflation of my argument, as compensation for having to listen to my diatribe again. 'I'm almost sure of it. Talia talks about him often being at home in the day.'
'Works from home, then. Dealing in third world currencies on the internet or something.'
'Or maybe not.'
'Well what does he do then?' I sulk, quietly.
'Talia won't say,' Andrea says, turning from the table to clear her plate.
'Well isn't that odd? Isn't that a bit strange?
Andrea raises her eyebrows. She obviously doesn't think so.
'I'll bet you he's into something dodgy. Some people – you can just tell.' I do in fact believe this to be true. 'It's the way he and his wife smile, it's – sinister. They're looking at you and you can see they have no considerations beyond themselves. No normal empathy for others.'
'And you can tell all this from their smiles, you say?' says Andrea.
'Don't you think he looks like, I don't know, the drug-dealing type?' I counter.
'And you have been known, at times, to be the drug-taking type.'
'I'll bet you he's dodgy. Something just tells me. He goes around all high and mighty and I bet it's through something criminal.'
'Do remember you did just make that up,' says Andrea.
'Doesn't mean it's not possible.'
'Or that it is.'
'Low-life criminals still have to send their kids to school, don't they? Why not to Lily's school?'
'Don't you go spreading scurrilous rumours,' warns Andrea, and chucks me on the cheek.
'So what work do you?' I ask Archie, next time I see him, alone, in the playground. I'm being nice as pie. It's a perfectly reasonable question.
The smile stays fixed, but Archie's eyes flit from side to side. He's checking to see who's nearby, that's what he's doing! Is he going to tell me a cagey secret, because I look like the kind of guy who could keep one? I feel a ridiculous moment of pride.
'You know,' he says. 'Buying and selling. Import export.' His eyebrows are slightly raised. He's asking if I'm cool enough, if I can cope with this kind of information! Well actually yes I can, thank you. But don't think that puts me on your level, that doesn't mean we're partners-in-crime, for want of a better phrase. Don't think I'm like you.
'Right,' I say, as though I couldn't care less what he'd said. Archie turns away to look through the classroom window.
'Saw this great band on Saturday,' I say, without even realising I'd started speaking. 'The Moppets, this local band. They're amazing. You should see them if you get a chance.'
'Oh yeah?' says Archie. Children stream out of the classroom door and he looks away, making a show of looking for Maxine. I'm glad not to have to follow up such ridiculous aggrandising.
Archie eyeballs me. His pupils are tiny.
'Go out a lot then, do you?' The smile has cracked open all up one side of his face. He doesn't look away.
'Well, you know,' I mutter. 'Bit more difficult with the kid now. But I still try and keep up with things a bit.'
Where is all this coming from?
'What about you?'
'I only really get to my club.' Now Archie turns away and calls to Maxine. 'Martino's. At the marina. You know the place? I've got friends who come in by boat and we meet up there.'
Friends with a boat. Right. I've got you. Who might be helping out with a bit of import export, eh?
I tell myself to stop being childish. Aren't we just two fathers talking in a playground? No, because you're one of those private club people, aren't you? I hate those places.
'I'm not really into those places. You know, private clubs. Not my thing.'
I'm going to find Lily and go. I can just avoid him in the future.
'Oh?' Archie says. His smile is now a leer.
I'm starting to walk away to grab Lily. 'They're just a bit, you know. Divisive.'
Oh that's a good idea. Let's finish up by trying to convince him to give up his money with a bit of socialist discourse.
'Each to their own.' Now Archie turns his back, as though he can't be bothered with me any more. 'Having a bit of a do for my birthday next weekend actually. Not interested in coming then?'
'Oh. Well – '
He eyeballs me again. 'Two weekends in a row a bit much for you?'
You cheeky fucker.
'No, sure. I'd love to. We'd love to. I'll check – I'll tell Andrea. We'll be there.'
'Great. Martino's, from nine. Just give my name at the door.'
It's Saturday. We haven't managed to find a babysitter, and Andrea has insisted I go because I was the one who was invited and anyway she can't stand places like that, and now I'm stepping off the bus, on my own, at the marina. I have a suspicion Andrea knows how I got myself into this because she keeps going on about how broadminded it is of me to have made friends with Archie after everything I said.
Inside Martino's Talia sees me first, she pulls me over to her little group, and kisses me on both cheeks. It would be churlish of me not to mention that she is determinedly sexy. She introduces me to her (all female) friends, some of whom look reasonably normal, and not disgustingly expensively dressed, as Talia herself is. The music, playing to an empty dance floor, is surprisingly good.
After a while I see where all the men are – seated in large leather booths around the edge of the room. Archie will be embedded in one of these male cliques, no doubt. I continue talking to Talia and her friends, I make them laugh – I'm the only man amongst the women. I'm rather enjoying myself. Finally Archie comes over, says nothing to any of the women, and leads me off to a booth I hadn't noticed, hidden further away in the club's shadows. He's chatting to me as we walk, he's saying the usual nervous host things about not knowing how many people are going to turn up. I'm feeling victorious. That I might even enjoy myself. Maybe Archie will even have some drugs going.
The booth in which Archie sits is populated by the meanest bunch of designer-clothed hardnuts I have ever seen in the flesh. Archie indicates the spare chair next to him. I look back and cannot see a single female figure.
Archie introduces me to all seven of them. 'Marco and Juan are over from Spain,' he says of the two men to my right. Theirs are the only names I catch. Why did they leave a spare seat for me? My mind formulates scenarios wildly. Is this a gang? Are they planning something here? Does Archie – does he think I'm in for a cut of whatever they're up to, or something?
'Ed's an editor,' Archie tells them.
'Good name then,' says one of them. They all laugh in a low rumble.
'Copy-editor,' I say, to avoid a silence. 'It's – different.'
No one says anything to that. No one says anything much at all. The only social activity appears to be drinking. Everyone has an identical glass of iced golden liquid in front of them. In the middle of the table are two bottles of Scotch and a decanter of soda water, which seems quite moderate until I realise that every time one of the bottles is emptied a waiter suddenly appears, unprompted, and replaces it with a full one.
I sip at my drink, trying to look interested in the scant conversation. Another extra glass appears next to mine and Archie half fills it from one of the bottles.
'Don't you like Scotch, Ed?' he asks. 'I can sort you something else out if you'd like.'
I make a plan to sit this out until midnight, and to foreshadow my exit by looking progressively bored, thus indicating that Archie's parties are generally quite dull. Because this is quite dull, whatever kind of edgy lives these guys might lead, or pretend to lead. I find that I no longer care about Archie, I'd just quite like to be back on the sofa with Andrea and that bottle of wine she opened when I left. Archie reaches into his pocket and brings out a huge bag of coke.
'Aha,' says the man opposite me, whom I later note is called Stan. 'The goods.'
I look at Archie, who gives no indication of worry that I've heard this.
Right, I think. I'm going to get names, registration numbers, boat numbers the lot, and then I'm going to shop you before I'm in bed. Even if I do like a bit of coke myself every now and then.
'Got yourself a largish personal supply there, eh Archie?' I say. I've forgotten that I've drunk quite a lot of Scotch.
'This cool with you, Ed?' asks Archie, and he seems serious for a moment. I cannot tell if he's asking if I'm cool with the drug-taking or that fact that I've cottoned on to the fact that they're drug dealers. It hasn't yet registered that I might be in any personal danger.
Archie snorts a fat line, then pushes a mirror containing two more fat lines over in front of me, and passes me a note. I really don't want to do it. I know how it makes me talk and that I'll end up asking Marco or Juan or whoever to tell me just what it's like being a drug dealer or something.
'Not for me, thanks,' I tell Archie.
'Just not my kind of drug.'
You stupid arse. Next thing I know there's a sizeable bag of E's on the table in front of me. I can't refuse. I casually throw one in my mouth and slip it under my tongue so I can spit it out later.
By now the bag of coke has done the round of the table.
'So what's it like, being an editor?' Marco suddenly turns to me. 'I've done a bit of writing in my time,' he says, without letting me answer. He signals Archie to pass the mirror his way again, and tells me he's got a drawer full of stories but never had any of them published. That figures, I think to myself, seeing as you're a drug dealer, and then immediately reprimand myself for such intellectual snobbery. What's to stop a drug dealer being a writer? You don't even actually know they're drug dealers for sure. I need to reciprocate Marco's interest in me, so I ask him whereabouts in Spain he's from, noting it for later for the police. I tell myself again they're most likely not drug dealers and ask Marco what his stories are about. He describes one of them to me and it's funny, in fact it's very funny. I forget all about the police. I feel around the floor of my mouth with my tongue and find there is nothing there but a few grains of powder.
Later, I'm in a huddle with Archie, and I tell him: 'You know what.' I'm laughing again. 'You know, Archie, earlier I thought, you know, what with that bag of coke and the pills and the boat from Spain I thought for a bit that maybe you were all a bunch of drug dealers.'
And Archie laughs, and it's the laugh that goes with the smile from the school playground, the distant one.
Later still I'm in the middle of the dance floor, dancing with Talia, and really enjoying myself.
And even later we're out the back of the club, the side that opens onto the water, and right there moored by the back door is Marco and Juan's boat, it's this huge motorboat thing, and we get on board and Marco starts the huge engine and then we're out in the open sea. Now there's just Archie and Marco and Juan and me, and these other men seem quite serious, they stare out at the dark horizon without talking, or maybe they couldn't talk over the noise of this enormous engine. And we keep going for what seems like hours, and the way I know is that what with the cold air and everything the ecstasy seems to be wearing off, and now I know what we're here for, I know for sure that they're going to dump me overboard in the middle of the English channel, and no one will ever have any idea what happened to me, and Archie will go to school on Monday same as always and pick up Maxine like nothing has ever happened. I call over to Archie but he doesn't even turn round.
How the hell did I end like this, I'm thinking.
'Further out,' I hear Archie say to Marco. They look back at the lights on the shore. 'We don't want to see anything.'
And now I'm feeling really ill, though I can't tell from what. 'You all right, Ed?' says Archie, leaning down to where my head's between my knees, and if I look up I can just see that smile again.
'I'm alright, I say, I'm fine,' and then I vomit into the neck of a life jacket. And Archie tells Marco to cut the engine.
'Well, what are we going to do with him,' I hear Archie say.
'Do you want to lean over the side, Ed?' he says to me.
'What, so you can tip me over and say I fell out,' I reply shrilly. 'No way.'
And I hear Archie tell the others that they'll have to turn back, and then I'm sick all over Archie's shoes, and Archie says nothing. And then I'm back on shore and I'm in a cab, and the last thing I remember is Archie leaning over me.
'Missed out on something special there, Ed,' he tells me as he shuts the cab door. 'Floating in silence out on the ocean. Complete blackness. Not even any light pollution. Just you and the stars.'
On Monday, at school, there's Archie, picking up Maxine.
I go up to him. I have to.
'Didn't think you picked her up on Mondays,' I say, for want of something better.
'I don't usually,' says Archie. 'Thought I would today.'
I want to punch that smug smile right off his face. I find Lily and go home.