Sunday, August 19

Wódka

The conversation started between just two, but then others from the party gradually came and joined, standing by with drinks and a polite air of interest. Things were not quite in full swing, not yet. The sky was clouding over. It was grey but warm. It seemed that at any moment it would start to rain and there was the smell of dry grass wafting around everyone. Occasionally the wind changed and one could smell the barbecue with Polish sausage cooking upon it in split curls. My friend, the host, had stepped away from his duties, beer in hand, to speak to me about something.
‘I don’t know why I’m laughing,’ he said, as he began to recall. ‘So my brother was helping on my sister’s house… plastering the walls or preparing them for plastering… or painting – I don’t know, but he’s just getting on… and then my father walks in.’ He shook his head—‘My father is drunk.’
‘What time is this?’
‘About two, three, four. I don’t know. It’s in the afternoon. All he does is drink. He is retired now so all he does is drink. And he makes his own – how do you say – moonshine? That’s all he does. And he wants to get it as strong as he can. He doesn’t care about the flavour, he just wants it to be really strong… So he walks in and he’s drunk, and he just starts to sort of tease my brother and slag off his work… He’s going—“You’re doing that wrong… it’s shit.” And so on.’ He gesticulated and sipped his beer and—‘Then he said to my brother—“Let’s fight!”’
He laughed, I laughed, but both a little nervously.
‘My brother is big. Since he has no job, all he does is work out and he is bigger than me. He’s massive… and my father asks him to fight. So my brother ignores him, and then he says it again… “Let’s fight!” and he shoves my brother. My brother ignores him… because he’s drunk! And then my father does it again.’ He chuckles, and wipes his lips, rolls his eyes—‘And they go for it.’
A small crowd has gathered now. People who had been chatting elsewhere or smoking in huddles, preparing drinks or taking cling film off the salads, all gathered around.
‘They fight.’
‘Hang about,’ I say—‘Are they going for it properly or just like when you’s a kid and you just go for body shots? Or are they going for the face and everything?’
‘O, they’re going for the face and everything!’
We laughed.
‘So they’re fighting and my brother wins, of course, and my father is on the floor and my brother is kicking him and then he leaves him and just says—“Ah, fuck it!” you know? and walks away.’
‘So my father gets up and is all bloody and everything and he chases after my brother and my brother is running around the garden and gets out the gate and locks it with a key and then throws the key so that my father can’t get out.’
I have run out of beer, so I lean across to the cooler and pull another one out. When I open it, it fizzes and spurts over me. I shake my hands off, apologise and continue listening.
‘So my father is running around the garden and he picks up this shovel and finds a hole in the fence, bends down and chases after my brother—’
‘You reckon your old man would actually use the shovel against your brother?!’
‘Yeah.’
‘Fuck off, really?!’
‘Yeah. He was drunk… So he chases after my brother with this shovel and my mother comes out and she’s trying to stop him and… and my brother is like you, he can’t drive… so he cannot drive away, he runs to the bus stop and,’ he laughs—‘And he catches the bus. He runs away… Because he is scared of what he has done to my father and he has to get away from there.’
‘Fuckin’ hell, man.’
‘So he is staying at my flat in Poland now.’
‘That’s fucked up.’
‘I feel so sad,’ he says. He is candid. He is a sensitive soul and he talks like a character in an old Russian novel, and his wife is cold and funny. She stands nearby and shakes her head, her eyes cast down low.
‘Sounds like you need a fuckin drink!’ says another friend.
‘Yes,’ he says—‘So tonight I am going to get drunk. That’s all I want to do. I just want to get drunk.’
His countryman comes out of nowhere with a round of wódka, a lumbering labourer who has worked during the day and is now also ready to become drunk. He passes shots to those who will have one. We raise them together, partaking in the ceremony, feeling drips down our digits and then pushing them back. The ride is sweet. It is good wódka from the mountains. A puff rises from the throat.
The night goes on.
Every time I turn around the labourer is there with another shot. His skin is red, he is large and good-spirited. He puts his arm around me and we do another. Perhaps at a point in time we were in a fire-lit pub singing songs and shouting jokes, but now we are in a back garden in east London, where the grass smells so sweet and dry, where the barbecue burns out and the bottle we pulled from the freezer is sweating next to us. As times goes on, all I can taste is the wódka. I burp: wódka. I breathe: wódka. I talk: wódka. The labourer leaves, led out by his wife. It is a shame because his wife is charming to the last. She is coy, quiet, she has her shoulders exposed and when she talks of the time she called me in a drunken state she becomes bashful and apologises profusely.
The party has ended, somewhat prematurely. I am seated next to my friend, his wife nearby.
He is sat in a fishing chair and throwing up into the flowerbed—‘Where is everyone?’
‘They’ve gone,’ I say.
He wipes the vomit from his lips.
His wife calls at him, scolding—‘What are you doing?’
‘I drank too much.’
‘You wanted to drink, geez! You fuckin nailed it!’
He vomits into the flower bed and begins to weep, thinking of his family.
‘I don’t know why I can’t just have a normal family,’ he says. He coughs, gags and throws up. The vomit is thick and gets caught in his throat. The flowers take what they are given. He weeps and laments his brother. I rub his back and try to comfort him but maybe I am no use at all. In the end he goes to bed. His wife and I stay up, sitting in the garden, drinking and listening to the quiet of the night. Strangely a friend turns up, but by then I am very drunk and my memory abandons me.
I wake up on their sofa but I do not like the feel of it and there is daylight upon me. (The smell of people interests me greatly; how odd that you can visit a friend or a relative’s house and you start to smell like them! My jeans smelled of them.) My back ached. I rolled over and thought about the night before. I worried that I had made a move on his wife in my drunken state. I do not know why I thought as much, but I worried nonetheless. I have not done anything like that before. Perhaps it is because I find her attractive, but I am no bastard! I would not do something like that. Also, she would beat me to a pulp for such behaviour! I could hear her arranging the dishwasher. The inside of my mouth was dry. I fell asleep.
When I awoke, I rolled a cigarette and went into the back garden again. It was tidied and there was no sign of trouble. She awoke too and said—‘O, no, you’ve seen me with no makeup, no mascara!’ She covered her face and laughed and then she offered me some coffee. He came out from their bedroom and sat at the garden table. He said to his wife—‘Make me a cheese sandwich.’ And she did. She brought him a cheese sandwich. I said I was okay for food and rolled another cigarette. We sat there and talked. He laid his head upon the table. She tutted. ‘Why didn’t more people come?’ he asked, and she insisted that people were terrible and didn’t care, while I said that maybe it was too far. She wore only a long t-shirt that she kept pulling over her crossed knees. His large back arched as he burped and tried not to vomit. He went back to bed. She and I cleared up some more. My taxi arrived. ‘Give him some food,’ he said from his bed. She offered and I said—‘No, no, it’s okay.’ I left the two of them alone.

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