By Charles Boyle.
Rick phoned. He was back. He wanted to meet me and suggested the Slow Man.
He shook his head, wonderingly, when I asked him how was it, and I took this to mean not good. He looked as if he’d been smuggled home in the back of a lorry. Where had he been? I’d forgotten.
‘Portugal was not the point.’
He sighed. He ran his hand through his hair and I felt like a schoolboy who’s trying hard but will never get it. ‘Have you brought it with you?’
There was a pause then, while a girl who sometimes worked in the bar brushed by, a girl with her hair cut high and short at the back, and I’d still never laid a finger on her neck, but what he meant, it turned out, was £3,000 in cash, and I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
He took me through it. He had a girlfriend, Tina. I’d met her: slim, bright, with big wide eyes that didn’t blink. A week before he’d gone with Tina to Portugal he’d sold his car to a cash buyer. He didn’t want to put the money in the bank because his account was joint, with his wife. He didn’t want to open a new account because he knew he’d just spend that money while he was away. He wanted it intact, a cushion for a safe landing in case Portugal turned out to be not exactly a honeymoon, and so he’d given it to me to look after, a safe pair of hands. All of this made sense, except for the last bit.
He’d been away for longer than he’d expected, for three months, but still.
I worked at that time as a press officer for a national charity so I was, in Rick’s eyes, a good person. I supported the underdogs. I didn’t forget things, and though I’d made a few mistakes none of them were mortal sins, nothing that couldn’t be shrugged off with a few beers. I was a safe bet, and he’d lost, and neither of us could explain this.
How thick is a wad of notes that add up to £3,000 – an inch? Two? You couldn’t just lose that money down a crack in the floorboards. And for me not to even remember it, how big was the hole in my head? Though I did, sometime into our third pint, recall the ghost of a brown envelope, and something turned over in the pit of my stomach leaving a hollow the shape of that same grubby envelope. Maybe I’d donated it to the charity. Maybe I’d climbed to a high place and scattered the notes to the wind.
We went to my flat and we searched, turned everything upside down. Really it should have been Rick looking while I stood back, because if I’d hidden it I’d know where it was – when the police do a raid, they don’t leave searching to the dealers. But Rick was so frantic he kept missing places, so while he was emptying drawers it was me doing the detailed work – in the lining of my jackets, under the cutlery tray. Inside a bicycle pump – there would be a good place to hide the money, if I ever had to go through this again. Except whenever you have a puncture, you can never find the pump. Nothing.
Rick stayed over. He had nowhere else to go. The girl, Tina, hadn’t come back with him, was still in Portugal, and his wife had changed the locks. So for a few weeks we wound around each other, two dogs in the same cage, me owing him money but him with a rent-free space, both of us waiting for it to break.
One night he came home from the Slow Man drunk, and hit me. He had to do this, to get it over with, and I was glad he was drunk when it happened because his blows were less sharp than they should have been, he was going through the motions. But I did hit back. Otherwise we’d have had to do this thing again and again. I caught him on the forehead and broke my finger. It sobered him up, and on me it had the opposite effect. This was in the kitchen, a place with so many knives and sharp edges it’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other, and at one point when we were on the floor, kicking against the baseboards, trying to both stay out of the reach of hurt and get closer, which came to the same thing, I started to feel happy, enjoyment, relief, because I knew this wasn’t about the money at all, it was about the girl he’d left behind in Portugal, and there was nothing I could do about that, nothing I could be held responsible for. Though I wasn’t going to win, I knew that too. I was going to lose, or we both were. He smashed my jaw and I bit my tongue and felt my teeth shift and complain in their sockets, and once we’d both tasted blood we could stop.
I went into the bathroom to clean up. I tried not to look too long in the mirror. The light was too bright: you don’t need 100 watts to see your own face. The cap on the toothpaste tube, I noticed, wasn’t the same as it used to be, it was somehow chunkier. And now that it was in my hand, I saw that my toothbrush was designed like a miniature high-speed train. The world was changing around me so fast I couldn’t keep track. I could focus on only one thing at a time. Everything else slipped under the radar.
Rick had once told me how the toothpaste companies could increase their profits overnight by enlarging the exit hole just slightly, a millimetre, a millimetre and a half if they were greedy, so that people would get to the end of the tube quicker. He was going to take this idea to Colgate in a sealed envelope, persuade them of its value, and get them to promise him 10 per cent before opening it. Why would they do that? If he wanted to, he could persuade people.
One person he’d recently been trying to persuade, though not about toothpaste, was the girl at the Slow Man with the long neck. After Rick left I made a move of my own, only to find that she belonged in every possible way to the old West Indian man after whom the bar was named, who took forever to serve a drink. He was a role model of sorts, and now even more so. Neither Rick nor I stood a chance. We were both being punished. I found this reassuring, as though it made us equals.
The fight we’d had was the kind that can make blood-brothers out of casual friends, but in our case it didn’t. Portugal had come between Rick and me, not just the broken trust but the slow sad songs he’d picked up in the bars of Lisbon, and we grew apart. But Rick did OK, did more than OK. He found a new girl, this one from a rich family, and after he got her pregnant her father lent them money to buy a flat, and he was up and running. This was the 90s. Buy a flat, add in a jacuzzi and sell it on for double. Buy two more flats. Do nothing even, just stay in bed for a month blowing bubbles, and he was still richer when he put his clothes back on and stepped outside. Each of us is born with a password; most us never find the place it unlocks but Rick, Rick had found the door. He bought a house in the suburbs for his ex-wife and children. In the summer I’d see him cruising around in an open-top Mercedes. He had reached a certain level of immunity.
In the late 90s a journalist with an interest in digging up dirt happened to look at the charity that employed me and added up some figures and found income unaccounted for – a figure with a whole row of noughts, besides which Rick’s £3,000 was just pocket money. One of the directors had been siphoning it off for years. For years – you’d think someone must have known, you’d think a lot of people must have known, or maybe they didn’t, maybe they just happened to be facing in the other direction. After a certain time, whatever is happening becomes the norm, the routine. But this didn’t sound very convincing when it was the charity’s own press officer saying it. I was out of a job.
I was unattached, as they say, and I wasn’t as wedded to good works as Rick had assumed I was. Nor, obviously, was I much good at them. Who exactly had I made life better for? Not even myself. I decided to go and look for that self, even if I didn’t have much expectation of finding anything; I decided to go travelling. I gave notice on my flat. While packing, I picked up some some ancient shoes at the bottom of a cupboard and they felt heavier than they should have, and I knew what was in there even before my fingers touched it.
I phoned Rick’s office and made an appointment.
‘Count it,’ I told him.
It was summer, a hot day, and to get to his office I’d walked through the park. I remember that day. I was feeling good, I was making a clean break. I was coming out of a long tunnel, or a corridor with names on all the doors made up of those letters you can move around or replace but whatever they spell the rooms behind those doors are still prison cells, and I was a free man. I remember stopping in front of a tree and not even closing my eyes but just listening to all the sounds we usually filter out: traffic noise, the occasional siren, children’s voices, birdsong. I wasn’t in a hurry.
I told the girl on reception that he was expecting me.
He glanced at the envelope I’d placed on his desk and nodded. Then he opened a drawer and swept the money into it. On the wall behind him was a photograph of a woman and child, I assumed his new family. His hair was sleeked down and he had put on weight. He didn’t need that money now, I needed it a lot more than he did and he knew this and he could have told me to keep it but we both knew that’s not how the world works. He didn’t want to give me the pleasure of refusing it.
After so long, I still felt the bruise on my jaw. If he wasn’t even going to bother to count the money then I could at least make him answer a simple question.
‘Do you ever hear from Tina?’ I asked him. ‘Where is she now?’
He closed the drawer and looked away, looked through the window at the blue sky with not a cloud in it. He still loved her, he said. He loved her to distraction, except he pronounced it wrong.
I thought he was drunk. ‘Distraction,’ I said.
‘Distración,’ he repeated. She’d left Portugal a long time ago and this was where she now was: a place in South America, a small town in the middle of nowhere, a town where the wind blew dust through the streets and most of the men had left for the city and the old people’s dreams were troubled by jackals. He laughed. It wasn’t a laugh I warmed too, it was harsh as the wind blowing through those streets, but I had a feeling he was telling the truth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Boyle is a lapsed poet and current publisher and writer of fiction. He runs the small press CB editions. His most recent books are 24 for 3 (Bloomsbury, 2008; published under the pen name Jennie Walker) and Days and Nights in W12 (CBe, 2011; published under the pen name Jack Robinson).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 10th, 2012.