Friday, January 4

Where You Calling From?

THE OFFY WAS still called ‘The Blue & White’ because, despite its numerous name changes over the years under various owners, the blue and white front had remained constant. At half-eight on new year’s eve it was bouncing a coarse fluorescent light off of the wet pavement outside. There was no one else around, except, in the shadows, a young man called Martin who was still not old enough, neither in age or appearance, to purchase alcohol.
‘What is taking so long?’ he thought to himself.
Finally the man came out of the shop. He was drunk and unsteady. For a moment, Martin thought that he would not get his drink.
‘A grand fine! can you believe that? A sign right up behind the till sayin’ it’s a grand fine for buyin’ booze for kids. Unbelievable… New year’s eve… Everyone deserves a drink.’
‘Cheers, mate.’
‘I got you … “Californian red wine”. It was the cheapest, like you asked for.’
Martin thanked him again and the pair separated.
The night was sorted now. He had only to get home and enjoy the rest of the evening. Eyeing the quickest route home, along the main road, he turned away down the darker, quieter street. He unscrewed the wine and took a sip. It was cold and warm at the same time. He did not understand how something could be cold and warm at the same time.
Wind travelled in straight lines, brisk, stirring dead leaves on the cold ground. Trees pinpricked the road, bare branches glowing a little.
He walked quickly.
This was it. This was the life. He drank the wine as if all wine would be illegal come twelve o’clock. It still tasted cold and warm.
Leaving the party he considered stealing four beers, still neatly ringed together on the kitchen work-surface, but a couple – their eyes bloodshot with the possibilities of the night – would surely cry him out, as young hearts are so precious over illegal booze. So, filling his coat as he walked through the front door, he left. ‘Nicci’s not coming.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘She’s really sick. She’s been laid up in bed for days. I ain’t seen her all holiday.’ As the other discussed how sad it must be to be sick over the Christmas holidays, Martin left, swallowing the last of his cheap beer and casting a final look over the scene. He would not miss it.
All the lights were on in the house – ‘I want people to think we’re in… for safety reasons.’ His parents had gone to some seventies disco. He hurried – a quarter of the wine bottle empty – round the house and into the garden. Distant houses happied distant voices, happy that there was nothing left of twenty-twelve. They were voices he did not recognise. He thought of how the hair behind Nicci’s ear seemed a little softer than the rest of her hair, like it was the freshest. There was a lock on the garage door but he knew the code.
Garages, like houses, have a smell. Even when they had moved, the new garage smelled the same. Martin didn’t understand it, yet it comforted him. He put the wine down on a shelf, next to a tin that, having once housed expensive whiskey, now housed screw-bits. He was looking for some things he was sure were there.
His father kept an spare of everything; spare bag of sugar in the cupboard, a pair of scissors in the office drawer, still in its packaging, for emergencies, twenty different fuses and transformers under the stairs ready & waiting for use, three bags of basmati rice, should the occasion call for it, and an uncountable selection of spare shoelaces. In the garage, underneath a pierced tarpaulin, was a number of boxes of fireworks. One Guy Fawkes’ night he stocked up, as they were discount – ‘We can always use them next year.’ That was eight years ago.
Martin divided the fireworks into two and took half – the more colourfully boxed half – into the back garden.
As if this had exhausted him, he sat down on the patio and looked at the sky to see if it was clear, if the stars were doing their waltz.
Last year he and Nicci had spent new year’s together.
Tom’s sofa was their nesting place. Early on in the evening, separated by encouraging friends, they sat apart and slowly, drink through drink, hour by hour, crept closer together. Nicci took his hand and smoothed out its creases. Nicci was soft. She didn’t have any creases. They laid down and he smelled the odours that arose from the back of her neck, arose arousing, he pushed his erection into her and she pushed her into his erection. They giggled and drank cheap beer. She was his new year’s kiss. They did not stop kissing because it was the latest thing and all the kids were into it, except they did it best. He learned to say ‘Nicci’ as if it were a new word and he was the master at saying it. She tasted like very good soup. His timid underwear was soaked. She was the night. She was the promise. There was nothing better. He could not remember a time when he had been happier. In his mind he saw them spending the year together. They would become boyfriend and girlfriend, like words not in a dictionary, and he could be very glad to just walk down the street. But then, the first time they saw each other in the new year, in the school library, it was strange. And that was that.
He had hoped that this new year’s eve would be the same. Maybe she was a wolf, stirred to life by the full moon, the changing of the date, immaculate on any sofa, waiting for him to return.
He pulled a bucket out of the garage and set it on the lawn, then he ran a bag of sand out and emptied it into the bucket. Again he sat down. The wine was going down a treat. Californian red wine. The best in the world, no doubt.
Not a thought did he lend to the party that was going on away from him.
He saw Nicci in her bed. He imagined that she had a very thick duvet to keep her white skin warm.
‘I never liked new year’s eve.’
‘Me neither.’
‘I do now, though.’
He laughed – ‘Yeah.’ He ran his hand once more over the solid bone underneath her skin.
The man at the blue and white should have bought him two bottles. For some time he sat there, finishing the wine and staring at the boxes of fireworks. He drove a stick of bamboo he found into the sand. A fine platform.
‘I don’t know anyone with a nose like her,’ he thought – ‘It isn’t quite blunt. It has edges, like she’s trying to catch me off-guard. I remember making way for it the first time we kissed, then I didn’t want to.’
There were three boxes of matches in the garage. He took one of them out to the garden.
Many of his friends, foolish & amateur, kissed girls because they were the only girls they could get hold of; not him. No, he wanted Nicci. He wanted Nicci from the moment he saw her swimming in a pool the summer previous. Her skin was so white, despite the sun, and when he put the goggles on he went under the water and looked at the greyish pink of her knees. She climbed the slide and went down it; in the sparkling sun, dying, she flailed and giggled and he wanted her.
Then he got her.
She had short hair and rich eyes that had something to give away but kept it close to their chest and she had lips that belonged to an Australian popstar and the wine he had was running out but it was almost midnight.
At five minutes to midnight he unwrapped the fireworks and they sat there, shaking with excitement.
At one minute to midnight he put one on the bamboo stick.
At midnight he let it off.
It stretched its arms and yawned and then it spun and exploded. It whistled its ounce of freedom. It was white with little red fingernails.
He smiled, watching it. Then he lined up another. And another. They set off on a journey tragically cut short by their own enthusiasm.
Nicci was beside him. She was wrapped in a shawl and was taking a sip from the bottle. She smiled. And the flashes lit up her cheekbones. And the flashes lit up her eyes and eyelashes. And the flashes lit up the rim of the bottle. And the flashes lit up the soft curls of her hair as they ducked for cover behind her ears. Martin smiled and took hold of her hand and he kissed her.
‘I thought we weren’t going to spend it together this year.’
‘Me too. I heard you were sick.’
‘Let’s make a go of it this year.’
Martin saw that the bottle was empty and threw it into the bushes. He was drunk. Throwing the empty bottle into the bushes was not something he would have done sober. He went to light another firework and, when he came back, Nicci was gone.
‘As a kid, my parents used to drag me to this dance thing down Ilford and everyone there smoked and by the end of the night my eyes were red-raw and dripping. I couldn’t see a thing. This is much better.’ She laughed a kiss on to him.
At that moment most of the other gardens around burst upwards in firework plumes. Martin stared at them. He remembered that his wristwatch was five minutes fast. He chuckled to himself and then he felt that no one in the world knew he was there at that point in time.
Everyone at the party had gone into the kitchen for midnight and when the countdown finished they all clapped and cheered and sent off bangers and hugged and kissed and started chanting old songs and dancing their bodies all over the place. Martin had only turned to Nicci and wished her. Then he kissed her.
The wine had got through him so he abandoned the fireworks – disappointed as they were for being set off early – and went into the house to pee.
The phone, propped up in its holder, was black and unaware of his intentions. He quickly picked it up and dialed a number. His fingers were clumsy drunk, so he dialed it again.
It was engaged.
He tried a third time: it was engaged. He slammed the phone down, paced back and forth, talking to himself, and then he tried one final time.
There was glittery, distorted cheers-chatting-laughter on the other end. He knew what Nicci’s mother sounded like. Is that what Nicci would sound like in twenty years? He hoped so.
‘She’s sick, in bed.’
‘Can I talk to her anyway, please?’
She must be reasonable.
As the phone was carried upstairs through a forest of new year’s revelers, Martin came to the conclusion that he was drunk and that this decision was foolish but now he was too far in to stop. He could not just hang up.
A quiet room. Some quiet words – ‘OK … yeah, just a tea, please.’ Even hearing her voice, faint & distant, sent tremors through him. ‘…Hello?’
‘Hey Nicci, it’s Martin.’
‘O, hi, Martin. How’s it going? I thought you were going to what’s-his-name for that party?’
‘I was. I did. I thought you were going.’
‘I was, but I’m sick. Ain’t left my bed in three days.’
‘Is your mum having a party cos you’re sick or cos it’s new year’s?’
She laughed – ‘New year’s. She wanted to cancel but I told her not to. It ain’t so bad. I can’t sleep anyway so I’m just lying here listening to the music from downstairs.’
‘What they playing?’
‘Some seventies shit… where you calling from?’
‘My house. I came home and lit some fireworks.’
‘Why didn’t you stay at what’s-his-name’s?’
‘I found out you weren’t there and came straight home—’
Martin hung up.
Without knowing why, he hung up. The hallway where the phone was located fell silent and he just heard the house, its clocks ticking and its central heating creaking.
Why had he hung up after such a confession? It wasn’t so much of a confession! It was perfectly innocent. Then … what if she thought the line had gone? Would she call back?
He sat down on the floor and his sudden shift in level made him woozy.
He put his palms flat on the tiled hall floor, feeling the cold.
They lay on the sofa and she nestled her feet against him, only he wore socks and she didn’t. ‘Get your socks off.’ ‘OK.’ Nicci’s feet were a little colder than his. She had delicate tiny toenails. They rubbed their feet together all night, as if trying to start a foot fire. As her friend dragged her away in the early hours, before the sun rose but as the birds started to puff their chests, she said – ‘Call me tomorrow.’ He didn’t call. He thought that she wouldn’t remember him or would not have meant what she said. ‘Apologise,’ he thought when he saw her in the library. He didn’t apologise.
The phone rang. Its tone occupied the house. He stood up, propping himself on the hall table.

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