13th November 2020
Part One. London. Spring 1993
“So what’s wrong with you ?”
Richard put down his glass, took a deep sigh and said,
Chris had known him long enough to know that this wasn’t some belated confession, but rather the preamble to a skit that Richard had been preparing the whole day, if not longer. Without prompting, Richard delivered the tagline;
“All the girls I like have got boyfriends.”
Chris grabbed his drink, thus avoiding the cue to make a cymbal-crash. While he appreciated these jokes, he didn’t want to seem overly impressed, in case Richard felt encouraged to make nothing but.
He knew he was no match for Richard in word games, having already conceded that point back at Fordham’s. It was near the beginning of Chris’ tenure. Richard would pass by his desk, while he was alone, and call out, “Hello, chaps,” then happily wander off. Chris gave the raised eyebrow but this was a very ineffectual comeback. After the greeting became a regular fixture, and Chris was unable to counter it, he shouted back one time,
“There’s only one of me,” to which Richard answered, immediately,
“Oh, gentlemen, don’t both speak at once !”
But now Richard was going to talk about girls.
“So there’s Neeva, from Newcastle. Lovely lass.”
“There’s also Douglas. The boyfriend.”
“ Also working there ? You’ll be able to keep tabs on the situation.”
“True, but it seems solid. Didn’t get anywhere at Fordham’s.”
“Who did you like ?”
“All of them. But with Neeva … well, something’s possible. We all went out last Saturday, it was Gerald’s last day.”
“Which one’s that ?”
“Well he’s called Gerald, that’s all you need to know, going into stock broking, or merchant banking … anyway, we’re at the pub, I’m next to Neeva, who seems to have a low tolerance for alcohol,”
“Always a good sign.”
“And we’re talking. She’s saying how she wishes she was a tall blond goddess, which, of course, is cue for me to tell her how great looking she really is, then somehow she’s telling me how she likes to stretch out in front of a fire and just be stroked all night, like a cat.”
Chris stuck his hand up in the air, getting the attention of everyone around him in the West End pub.
“I volunteer for the job, sight unseen.”
“Hands off. Next thing I know, she’s whispering in my ear, ‘I think you’re fucking gorgeous, actually.’ ”
Chris, gave an encouraging nod, raised his glass and took a drink.
“There you are. What happened ?”
“That’s it. Nothing. She went to the bathroom, came back, then she and Doug left. Together.”
“Not good … but … yeah, maybe …”
“What … “
“Maybe, just maybe, things aren’t too great with Doug the thug. Maybe she’d putting out feelers, see if you’d be interested, if and when …”
“I’ll drink to that. So how’s your place ?”
Chris had the job, but was sent to a branch in Kensington. With Richard working in the City, they decided to meet half way, usually drinking in small pubs in side roads off Oxford Street. Neither was entirely happy with their new occupation, Richard’s managerial status merely meaning that he was responsible for staff rotas, while Chris found the food and drink industry to be non-stop, with the store having only quieter periods, never quiet. The wages were similar, but both had more work and a much tighter environment. There were understandably nostalgic about Fordham’s.
“My place ? It’s Kensington. The customers are snobs, the delivery people are snobs, the bloody window cleaner is a snob. The staff ? All got three names; Sophie Fawcett-Brown. Belinda Newington-Heathcoat. Even the staff are snobs. To me. I was driven there, after the interview, by Russell …”
Richard groaned. He remembered the man from his time with the company, Russell being tall and very blond, almost albino, with large square glasses, an upper class voice and no discerning qualities whatsoever. He was never exactly sure what is was that Russell did.
“And we’re driving through Knightsbridge and he asking me if I know this area. Bloody snob, he knows I’m not from London, but just had to play his stupid one-upmanship games. I’m looking for something else.”
“This is London. Everybody’s looking for something else.”
They met only once or twice a week, now, as it had become too expensive. Chris was devastated how quickly money just went, and Richard was constantly using his savings to finance the drinking sessions. They began to meet at each other’s bedsits and go to local pubs, or even just buy a small bottle of whisky from an off-license. On one of these nights Chris, visiting Richard, spoke about his plans for the September term.
“Don’t think I’ll be doing Physics anymore. Think I’ll change to English Lit. Melanie thinks it’s a good idea. And she can help. She’s read every book ever written.”
Richard wasn’t sure how to react. It seemed such a drastic and spontaneous action. Chris justified his decision, explaining how he wasn’t really getting much out of his course and needed a new direction. Yet, Chris seemed happy, as if he were keeping something back for surprise. The opportunity soon came when the half bottle of Teachers was drained. Chris went to his rucksack and pulled out two bottles of French beer, but before Richard could show his delight, Chris topped this act by pulling out two wine bottles.
“I didn’t tell you. My branch has an alcohol license.”
“And you got a staff discount ?” but even while Richard was asking the innocent question, Chris’ eyes told the answer.
It was the start of a new ritual. Richard would buy a small whisky, Chris would arrive with beer and wine. Chris chose the evening before a free day, while Richard was forced to go to work with a determination never to drink again, a resolution that evaporated by lunch time.
This situation suited Richard as he could get drunk at home and not have to spend so much money. His room had a spare coach upon which Chris slept, then made his way home later in the morning. Once or twice a month they met up with Melanie, though Richard sensed a slight reticence on Chris’ part and a certain holding back of information.
Another side effect of the home drinking was that Richard was alienated from Chris’ other friends, not knowing anyone at the branch where he worked. There had been mention of Nuno, a Portuguese chef, and a new German girl Chris spoke highly, then glowingly of, but he wasn’t prepared for the news Chris broke one night.
The whisky was finished, the topic of their workday, likewise. No mention had been made of either of their returns to university. The beers came out and quickly vanished, then the wine. They opened both, clinked and drank from their bottles. They enjoyed the semblance of decadence. While they were speaking about nothing in particular, Chris said,
“I’m moving to Berlin,” then took a long swig, averting his eyes from Richard, who, duly surprised, wanted to know more but knew that Chris would only tell him when he was ready. Thankfully, when Chris began speaking, it was sometimes hard to stop him, and he spoke about Marina, the German girl.
Marina was from what had been West Berlin and had come to London for a break, improve her English, see the sights. Apparently, Chris had been out with her a few times, friendly, platonic dates, but had started to be drawn to her. Very drawn to her.
“We were in this pub and I guess I may have been talking a little loudly, and the tequila slammers didn’t help, when this pouncey barman comes over and asks me to be quiet. One of those, ‘I’m not really a barman,’ sorts, ‘I’m an actor’ pricks.’ But I’ve been drinking tequila, so I’m just dying for a Mexican stand-off, and I slam down my second, it’s a pub for fuck’s sake, over he comes, over comes another barman, young, bald bastard, then the manager. Well, Marina can’t believe it. ‘This would never happen in Berlin’ she said, so I told her, ‘I’m moving to Berlin,’ and she said, ‘Good.’ So that’s it. I’m going to Berlin.”
“No, to live.”
Richard knew that, at least this evening, with the wine already half gone, he couldn’t put up an argument, nor would he want to. He could only face going into work because he knew it was for a specific time period then he’d be back studying. How so many people could live this life was beyond him, so he totally appreciated Chris’ idea, even if it were to remain merely a nice thought.
“So, what do you know about Berlin ?”
“Nothing !” replied Chris, defiantly. “No, wait … the Brandenburg Gate. Olympic Stadium. The Wall. Nazi’s. Burning books.”
“Sounds great. Grey. Rain. Men with short hair in long leather coats, just standing on street corners, like robots.”
“Sauerkraut. Great food in general”
“Uummm … no, I’m all out. Got nothing.”
“Me neither. Oh. Marina. That’s the only reason I need.”
“Ah, I see. Here’s to Marina. Maybe I can meet her soon. ?”
They clinked and finished the wine and spent the remainder of their evening making bad German jokes. Richard wasn’t sure how much to believe, but when he met Chris the following week near China Town, he understood that it was all quite serious.
“Let’s not mention Berlin to Melanie. Could be a bit tricky.”
“OK,” said Richard. Speaking about Berlin while they were still sober proved that Chris really did intend to go. Chris, however, broke his own rule, during the second round of drinks, and Melanie was surprisingly supportive. She, of course, had been there, back in the late Eighties, had stood on the platform by the Wall, had taken a day trip into the East and had stories and advice on what to do and see. Richard began to get interested, but had to contain a smile as Chris wrote in a little notebook under the table, which he passed to him,
DON’T MENTION MARINA !!!
It was the last time the three of them drank together in London. Within a month, Richard had received the first letter from Berlin.
Richard – in trouble – please send money.