“Don’t have the exact date, but around the end of July. I can’t believe it. Back to Berlin.”
Richard had to shout a little above the noise of the pub. There were highlights of a World Cup game showing Bulgaria beating the mighty Germany, and the London pub was cheering as loudly as any in Sofia. Richard’s attention wandered to the screen when he thought Melanie wasn’t looking, but he was caught out and had to suffer her views on football and football supporters, but knew enough to keep his views on her views, to himself.
It was also the first time he had seen her in a skirt, a pretty skimpy one, that showed off legs that were smooth and shapely. He was prepared to contemplate a complete review of the Melanie situation.
Maybe it was the skirt, the warm Summer night, or the joy of seeing Germany beaten without the inevitable heartbreak of watching England lose (as they hadn’t even been able to qualify), but the conversation, after three or four drinks, became the most revealing the two ever had. No reviews of art, or humorous small-talk, usually with Chris as the butt, or hints of truths that suddenly pulled back. They actually got to know a little about each other.
After ten o’clock, they decided to spend the last drinking hour at the Coach and Horses, a pub famous for it’s artistic clientele, actors, painters and writers and therefore infamous for its collection of would-be actors, painters and writers. A simple “excuse me”, or a “hello” would be met by a laboured and over-rehearsed half-witticism, or a meaningless epigram.
They got two seats at a large table and had to politely smile as a man with long, straight hair and a cane, offered salutations. Then they got down to business.
Richard asked about her relationship with Chris. What exactly was it ? He wasn’t prepared for the answer.
“Oh, we’re married.”
Richard paused, the wine glass half-way to his lips.
Then Melanie laughed.
It was an even greater shock, now, to discover that Melanie had a mischievous sense of humour. And great legs, that inspired alcohol-fueled aspirations. She clarified.
“No, but we did go out for a time. Yeah, we were dating. Boyfriend and girlfriend. But, there was no sex, obviously.”
“Well, Chris, you know, and I … you know … it was cool.” Melanie was biting her lip and nodding her head, expecting Richard to be able to fill in the gaps.
“What, you didn’t have sex ?”
“No, of course not. I mean we were … intimate … with each other … but there was control … ” Back to the nodding.
Richard was having difficulty processing, and restraining the “WHAT ?” that was screaming to be let loose.
“Well … what’s the point in that ?”
“What do you mean ?”
“To have a girlfriend and not … have … not … Just … what’s the point ?”
“It was what we both wanted …”
“Yeah. I mean, you must know about Chris … ?”
“No ? What do you boys speak about ?”
Again, that phrase, ‘you boys’. Richard let it slide, the revelation was too big.
“Man stuff. TV programs. Quantum Mechanics; had some quite heated debates over that. Football. Sweets from our childhood that no longer exist. ‘Spanglers’, for instance.”
“And women ?”
“No, sir, never. Almost never. OK, but not always. Yeah, a lot of talk about women. I didn’t know with Chris it was just all talk. I’m going through a fallow patch, admittedly, but that’s just to replenish the oats. I’ll be back ploughing soon enough …”
“Ah, don’t gross me out.” Just then, the music stopped and there was a momentary volume drop in the bar. Richard continued, at his previous level;
“That’s why it’s more fun with men.”
The long-haired man next to Melanie slowly turned towards him, and raised his glass. Music re-started.
“Talking, I mean. So, you and Chris … never … ?”
“That’s right. Can’t believe he’s not told you. That’s why I knew it would never work out with Ute. She’s used to sex. It’s hard to go from being sexually active to celibacy.”
Something wasn’t quite right about this, thought Richard, but again, he thought he shouldn’t push any further. He envisaged some very interesting conversations when he got back to Berlin. And Monika ? Did Melanie think she was also in a celibate relationship with Chris ? Was that what she meant, claiming she was ‘her kind of woman’ ? Was Melanie gay ? Tonight, it seemed, anything was possible. But, in the best tradition of show business, or, in this environment, show-off business, Richard was saving the best till last.
“I’m in love. And she’s German.”
“Wow ! That’s great. Who is she ?”
“Her name’s Käthe. She has platinum blonde hair, dark eyes and is just gorgeous. And she going to be driving me to Berlin. Along with her boyfriend.”
“So one of the chefs tells me to clean out the large, vegetable freezer and I’m in there, scraping frozen crap off the shelves and sweeping up lumps of … I don’t know what. Then, this other chef appears, young guy, tall and gormless, carrying a clipboard. It’s part of his job to make routine checks on the temperatures, every day, same time. Now, the door’s open because, right, I’m in there, doing their shitty work. Gormless looks at the temperature gauge and, naturally, it’s way up, and he freaks out. This has never happened before, it’s an anomaly, except, of course, he wouldn’t know what an anomaly was, because he’s a chef, and of all the qualifications needed for that job, intelligence ain’t one of them. “
“So,” asked Melanie, unaccustomed to keeping quiet for long, “you’re saying he’s not too bright ?”
“As two short planks. Now, here’s the rub; he has to think.”
“In spades, and he really does, no bullshit, man, stand there, gob wide-open, dribble trickling down, you can hear the spokes turning, slow, slow, then … light bulb above the head, he comes up with a solution, though he’s probably more used to sniffing solutions that in coming up with them. Be that as it may, he says, proud as Punch, ‘I’ve gotta closer door, Mate.’ And proceeds to do same.”
“What did you do ?”
“I objected, of course. I’m in a bloody freezer, in just a T-shirt, and he wants to close the door on me. Apart from the fact that the temperature is going to go down to minus Twenty-Five or whatever, the perishing light will go out ! They’ll go back to get some peas, and find me frozen like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’.”
“The situations you find yourself in,” joked Melanie as Richard once again got the sense that she was laughing explicitly at him, not his anecdote.
“But he wouldn’t be told. I tried to explain the law of manslaughter to him, and that being a fucking moron was no defence. No avail. So I just left it. I mean, the freezer’s working, everything is stone cold and the only reason the gauge is up is because the door’s open. Use some initiative; fake the temperature. But no, he can’t do that, has to carry out his orders, do his duty. Then his girlfriend walked past and gave one of those, ’look what I have to put up with’ expressions, deep intake off breathe, then followed by the,’But I love him all the same, the big lumock’ look.”
“What’s she like ?”
“Not bad, kinda cute. OK, bit on the chubby side, but good features. Lovely eyes. Too good for him. What I should have done was to hit him on the head with a bag of frozen cauliflower. We got time for one more, or shall we go ?”
For the past month or so, Richard had been meeting up with Melanie and seeing movies or just having a drink. This evening, they were in a small pub by Leicester Square, before going to see a film based in post-war Berlin. It was a disappointing mess of a co-production, with a British actor giving a one-dimensional portrayal of an American, an American actor giving an unconvincing, stiff-upper lipped rendition of a Englishman and an Italian beauty attempting to be an ugly German. But, at one point during the film, there was an interior scene showing a room with an Ofen. Richard and Melanie poked each other on the leg and laughed. They left as soon as the film finished, heading straight back to the pub. They covered the usual topics: Richard’s awful job, awful love-life, awful everything. It seemed to cheer Melanie up.
“No regrets about leaving the record store ? I mean, it was regular work.”
“Not really. Couldn’t go back there, anyway, they would have sacked me for taking off too much time. And for what ? Berlin in Winter. Barely even saw Chris.”
This was the link Melanie was waiting for, and she barely listened to the rest of his speach.
“I can understand what Will meant, now, about not being able to work with people. I mean, my job really is shit, but at least I don’t have to deal with … the public. Book shops and classical music, sounds like ‘green and pleasant land’ material, but it’s the Mean Streets. In Fordham’s I devised a theory. People were in a bad mood because they came in to buy books that they couldn’t find, couldn’t afford and didn’t want. As for the Classical Music lot … I tell you, you won’t find a more arrogant bunch of self-loving Arschlochs than music students. Makes me miss my old physics gang. “
If Richard hoped Melanie would take up this cue, he was mistaken.
“Speaking of Chris, I got a letter from him recently. Are you still in touch ? You know he’s moved, now, and got a new girlfriend ? Oh, yes, much better by the sounds of it. I didn’t like Ute at all. I knew it wouldn’t last.”
This was all news to Richard, who hadn’t heard from Berlin since he left, the previous November. Melanie brought him up to speed, taking secret pleasure in being the one with the information.
Ute had decided to go back to Hamburg, possibly having something to do with the suspicious phone calls and letters that periodically arrived and which she read privately and hid at the back of a cupboard. Chris seemed somehow prepared, as if expecting it. Soon after, he was in love with a new woman. Her name was Monika and she was Austrian.
“She doesn’t stand any nonsense, by the sounds of it. She’ll keep Chris in line. My kind of girl. That’s what you need, a good, strong, Germanic girl.”
Richard was very close to admitting that right now he’d settle for any kind of girl, but didn’t want to give Melanie too much ammunition.
“So he’s still at the restaurant ?“
“Oh, yes, he says they’ll probably make him a chef before long.”
“Please, no more talk about chefs.”
“And the new place. In Prenzlauer Berg.”
“Oh, that’s much better. The flat in Rigaer Strasse … I’ve tried telling people about it and no one believes me.”
“I know, they look at me and think how could someone like me possibly spend time there.”
“Quite. Oh, there was something else weird happen after you left. Every night, about six o’clock for an hour, the water from the toilet sink had an electric charge.”
“There you are, trying to wash yourself, two inches at a time, and no cheap cracks, Lady, and suddenly … the water gives you an electric shock. Only in Berlin. Still … “
“What, you miss it ?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. I don’t know. I’ve never lived there. Maybe November was especially bad. The weather. Chris being preoccupied. So, Monika … ? “
Richard enjoyed these after-work evenings and found Melanie good company. She introduced him to a lot of films and authors he wouldn’t otherwise have know, and got him out of the bedsit. The film about Berlin, and the conversation about Chris had provoked conflicting thoughts about that city. The November nightmares began to fade, as the good times of September asserted themselves; amazing squat bars, friendly, open people, an easier pace of life. U-bahns that arrived on time. A population less than half of London’s. Women, girls, young ladies. Hannah. Maybe she was still at the bar … or Monika … she must have friends. Maybe it was time to re-open diplomatic ties between London and Berlin.
Unlike Richard, who had left University more or less spontaneously, Chris had planned his gap year.
He had travelled so many times to London from the Midlands to see concerts and films, or just to savour the atmosphere of a city, that he thought he should live there for a year. He knew about the crowds, the rudeness of people, the near impossibility of making friends not to mention the astronomical cost of everything, but was prepared for this and welcomed the experience, before returning to complete the degree and then to embark on a brilliant career.
He explained this to Richard one Tuesday night in a small, quiet pub they liked near Soho Square. They had decided that it being only a Tuesday, they needed a drink. Debbie was going to join them, but cancelled and although Charlotte did come, she left after fifteen minutes, a fact that Richard vocally blamed Chris for. Chris took full responsibility.
So they were left to themselves and compared notes on their studies and on the whole student experience, both of them expressing severe disappointment and boredom. Both of them had had images of idealised college life, inspired by books and films and they, in their separate campuses, were having an increasingly difficult time reconciling fantasy with reality.
They simultaneously decided to end that conversation and broadened the topic from student life to life in general.
Their tastes in the arts, seemed to be so similar that Richard wondered if Chris was just agreeing to be polite.
Chris kept checking his watch and even ran outside, just to check the name of the pub.
“She’ll be here, soon,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
And then Melanie arrived. For many years after, Richard was still unsure as to the extent of the relationship between her and Chris.
At that first meeting, she seemed to be just an old friend of his from the Midlands, in town for a few days, but over subsequent meetings, all in pubs or on the way to pubs, he detected that there may have been something deeper. Her manner of speaking to and about Chris showed a certain familiarity. The mocking tone and disparaging comments which alternated with sometimes quite embarrassing compliments, seemed to border on the obsessive.
A further clue may have been the fact that she was transferring to London to complete her art history course, stating that it was the obvious move, with all the galleries and resources in the capital. Richard couldn’t be certain, but he thought he saw Chris shudder upon hearing this news. She had already found a place to stay, a place which sounded far better than where either Chris or Richard lived and there was the implicit offer that Chris could move in, but that point hung in the air, unresolved.
Despite her seeming openness, and slightly forced affability, Melanie exuded an air of confidence that veered uncomfortably close to arrogance, especially when the subject of conversation was the arts.
She apparently had seen all the films worth seeing (in her irreproachable opinion), all the exhibitions worth attending, and read all the latest books worthy of her time.
She also continually caressed her short, dyed-blonde hair, as if hunting a stray hair that was causing her irritation, continually talking or drinking or gesticulating. But there was no doubt that there was something very attractive about her and Richard found her very friendly, if a little talkative.
He mentioned this to Chris when they were momentarily alone.
“She’s nice. Can certainly talk.”
“Oh, you noticed. Yes, she has opinions. Whole bloody manifestos. Don’t start her on art, there’s no off-switch. She suddenly turns into back-of-book blurb.”
Richard laughed at this reference to their work, then added, quickly,
“Quite cute, too. You and her … ?”
“She’s like a tap,” was all Chris allowed, obtusely. “Runs hot and cold.”
Before Richard could ask further, Melanie returned and more drinks were ordered and the night blurred into drinking, walking and tube tunnels that seemed to go on forever.
Melanie became such a regular drinking partner that by January, it was taken as read that she would be joining them whenever she was free, which was at least twice a week. The three went to films together, generally those selected by Melanie, the occasional museum and once or twice, money permitting, an Indian restaurant. Chris noticed that when she came to the Fordham’s staff drink, her presence seemed to deter others from speaking to them, so he tried to discourage her, to little effect.
By this time, there had been changes at Fordham’s. Angela and Debbie had both moved on to jobs in publishing, Simon and Ben had simply moved on. Derek, a full timer from Transport was now acting head of Technical and as Richard had requested a department change, he was also relocated to Chris’ section. Work now played a very poor second to ever increasing jokes.
Richard would develop a serious limp every time persistence customers demanded that he go and check the shelves for them. Chris would pretend to be a customer and stand between a genuine shopper and the shelves, blocking their view, whilst keeping a serious, searching look on his face and continuously shifting position to maintain the blockade. They would both try on new accents, a favourite being an invention of Richard, The Cockney, who would appear only when a pompously aristocratic customer demanded attention. The Cockney would normally open procedures by a friendly
“Yes, Squire, what can I do ya for ?” then loudly asking another member of staff to take over as he, “was dying for a slash.” The Cockney would often interrupt transactions, shouting across the shop floor to passing staff, “go git a cut-a-teee, there’s a luv.” which even Chris found somewhat impenetrable. However, Chris was intent not to be outdone, and on one occasion, he came into the staff room, one lunchtime, while Richard was massaging Charlotte. He didn’t have time to pass comment, as he was accosted by the most senior member of staff, an ex-public school type, wanting to know if Chris was, “The vending boy ?”
Gilbert, always dressed in blazer and tie, was having trouble getting a cup of tea. Without a flinch, Chris studied the machine and slowly drew his hand to his chin and nodded.
“I see. Forgive the question, Sir, but did you by any chance use a coin of foreign denomination ?”
“No French Franc ? It’s easily done. You may answer without prejudice.”
“No, I used two ten-pence coins.”
“Twisted or in any way deformed ?”
“Not that I was able to ascertain.”
“Ah, ‘able to ascertain’, I see, I see. I don’t have my tools with me. They’re in the van. OK, you stay here, you stay right here and I’ll be back promptly.”
With that, Chris left, taking his coffee in the second floor staff room. He kept a low profile all afternoon as he realised that Gilbert must, at some point, emerge, and would, he predicted, not appreciate the humour.
One Saturday, Ed brought in two fez hats and dared Richard and Chris to wear them, all day. Without hesitation, they both put them on, with earnest ceremony, and won the dare. There was a tricky moment, when Chris had to deal with an irate customer who wanted to return a book, but had no receipt, and something of an Egyptian stand-off occurred, neither side backing down, until the customer threw the book into a pile and fled the shop, cursing.
There was widespread applause and laughter. Ed stood open-mouthed, and had some difficulty in asking,
“How … how did you do it ? I would have cracked up. Oh, that’s it, you’re the main man, I swear.”
General sounds of concurrence.
“You were so calm, I thought he was going to hit you. When he threw the book. And with the hat on.” Admiration from Sophie, a new girl in Biology.
“It was because I had the hat on. It’s impossible to be angry at someone in a Fez.”
“Really ?” asked Sophie, as if it were a piece of received wisdom that had so far eluded her.
“You saw for yourself,” said Richard, gesturing to the invincible Chris.
Their department became the place to hang out, not least because Chris always brought in a small radio for live football commentary. Every Saturday, Dave from the ain desk in General Fiction would pass by around ten to six, and hang out and chat while the scores came in. The rest of the week, he wouldn’t even acknowledge them.
“Our fair-weather friend,” pointed out Richard as he saw Dave coming up the escalators on cue. This time he knew about the fez incident as seemed keen to discuss it. It had been telegraphed all around the shop and everyone was impressed. Everyone, except the manager who summoned Chris to his office the following Monday and gave him an official warning. Chris observed the order of the fez by not mentioning that Richard had also sported the hat, a fact that entitled him to free drinks that night, after they decided that it was only Monday and therefore cause enough for a session.
As Spring came, Richard knew that his time was nearing its end, unless he were to be made full time. As that didn’t seem to be in the offing, he began looking around for other jobs and finally got accepted as assistant manager in a small classical record shop in the City. He had a genuine love of Classical music and that along with his experience and ability to improvise quick, impressive answers, got him the position. His happiness was tempered when it was revealed to him that the other candidates couldn’t tell their arias from their Elgars.
The timing coincided with a new, permanent manager in Technical. Nigel was in his late twenties but could well have been late forties in both appearance and mentality. He had been the manager of a bookshop in the Home Counties and acted as if he were manager of the entire Fordham’s, sometimes even referring to himself as Floor Manager, a post that simply didn’t exist.
Naturally, his style clashed with Richard, who was on his last week, and Chris, who had been happy drifting, not being told what to do. He also asked for a transfer, but with his disciplinary record, it was never going to happen. And then the incident occurred that forced the hand of the management and, indirectly, the course of their lives for the next few years.
It was a Wednesday morning in London in Spring, which meant it looked like a black and white film. The sky was grey, the roads were grey, the building were grey, the people looked grey. There was a light, persistence drizzle outside, constant and irritating.
Richard and Chris were talking about the film that Melanie had dragged them to.
“She knew who the D.P. was … I didn’t even know what the D.P. was,” said Chris.
“What a turkey. I don’t care how many festivals it won. Megabore.”
Their review was interrupted by a stern-looking customer who dripped onto the desk and looked over his glasses at them with a look of disdain and impatience. Without any introduction, he shouted out the name of a certain book, as if expecting it to be there waiting for him. Chris rose to the occasion.
Adopting a similar expression as the middle-aged man, he walked slowly, yet purposefully out from behind the desk, somewhat in the manner of a somnambulist forced to obey an inner command. He didn’t change his expression once as he told the man, in such a close repetition of his own voice that it startled Richard, to, “Follow me.”
Chris went to the nearest bookshelf and scanned first one, then another and another shelf. Slowly shaking his head, he progressed to the reverse of the unit and repeated his performance. Then onto another unit. And another, all the time, the unwitting victim trailing him and seeming to actually grow in confidence that the book would soon be discovered.
Minutes passed and Chris had covered half of the shop floor and was now busy on the second, but increasing his pace, knowing that timing is all important. Then, without a word, he disappeared down the escalators, never looking back. The man was visibly perturbed and unable to decide what to do, when he suddenly made a dash for the escalators and ran after Chris.
Richard moved over to the window, but couldn’t believe it when he saw Chris on the street below, closely followed by the hapless chap, walking over the side street and into a neighbouring bookstore. Some minutes later, Chris came out and, seeing Richard in the window, gave a thumbs up sign, which slowly sank as he saw Nigel behind Richard’s back.
Several hours later, in their usual pub, Chris explained what had happened in the manager’s office. It had been quick and painless. His pay check was already made out in cash, along with his paperwork. From that moment on, he was free to seek other employment.
“I’ll ask at Warren’s,” said Richard, referring to the new company he was to work for, “but it’s only a small shop. Maybe there’s other branches.”
“Yeah, thanks. I have to find something. I’ve got my rent covered this week, but next week could be troublesome. This,” tapping the pay pocket in his chest pocket, “isn’t going to last long, especially the way you drink.”
As reward for such an impressive joke, Richard insisted on paying, but Chris was having a hard time maintaining the good humour. Richard noticed this, after Chris had gotten up to use the toilet and the way was blocked by a young lady who was kneeling on the floor, showing a crowded table some photos.
“It’s OK, darling, just climb over my legs.” she instructed, and he did so without comment. Not even a subtle wink. Richard thought of a possibility and when Chris returned, he borrowed some change to make a call. He returned, smiling.
“Right, it’s not much, but it’s something.”
“What ?” asked Chris, without enthusiasm.
“Better than nothing. A place to start, Pay the rent, anyway.”
“What are you talking about ?”
“I’ve got you an interview tomorrow at Howard’s. I used to work there, before Fordham’s, so I called the manager and he’ll see you, two-thirty tomorrow. Ask for Mr …”
“Sealey. You’ll like him, he’s a character. Bit of a sergeant-major type and sometimes, to be honest, a bit whiffy. But he owns four stores, so good for him.”
Richard went on to tell about the job, how it would be quite hard, never a chance to sit down and about the type of produce and client.
“You’ll be dealing with Earls and Barons and minor members of the Royal Family.”
“Oh, yeah. Awfully nice, actually. Charming, be that as it may, most people are quite polite but you will get those who’ll treat you like shit. You’ll learn humility.”
“And the money ?”
“Yeah, it’s not great, but you get lunch and leftovers. Two-thirty tomorrow. Don’t wear the fez.”
“Thanks. Good advice. Now, I appear to have a fistful of dollars. What shall we drink ?”