Monday, 28 January 2008


Johnny turned up half an hour late as usual, drank the cup of tea I’d ordered for him in two lukewarm gulps and dumped his tatty old briefcase on the Cafe table.

“Not enough sugar,” he told me, grimacing, “I have two in coffee and three in tea, remember? That’s the other way around for most people. Usually people put more sugar in their coffee to take some of its bitterness away but I’ve always preferred a very sugary cup of tea, there’s something reassuring about it. It makes me think about my grandmother’s house, dusty plastic flowers, scratchy old photos in mahogany frames. All that kind of stuff.”

I asked him if he wanted another.

“Nah, I’ll have a...” he plucked the greasy menu from its stand and flipped it around so he could peer at it, “... must get some new contacts, banana.. no a..... guava?” He squinted up at me quizzically.“ Isn’t that another word for birdshit?"

“That’s gua-NO,” I told him.

“Ahh,” he said, nodding his head gravely as he tried the shape of the word out.

“Gua-NO. Gua-VA. Gua- NO.” He looked back at the menu. “Maybe….let’s see, a......lime,” he said finally with great satisfaction. He sighed and whistled

“Bird lime,” I said.

“Pardon?” he asked me, eyes screwed up into knots at the top of his long, pale face.

“Bird lime,” I said again. “It is another word for birdshit.”

“Ah. Yes. Yes. I know that,” he said more to himself than me. He nodded again. “Good.”

I turned half way round in my seat and tried to attract the owner’s attention. He was sitting a few tables away from us toward the back of a small cafe on Steeple Road, engrossed in whatever the lead article was on that day, the 14th of February 1995, in some tabloid or other. I’m not the kind of person who feels comfortable shouting across cafes, even if they are small and even if the only people in there are me, Johnny, the proprietor and one old lady. I sat looking at him for a few minutes in the hope that he’d look up from his reading and see my expectant face, but his gaze remained stoically, almost it seemed to me willfully, on the paper. After a minute or so I looked at the one old lady as if she might provide some solution to the problem or offer some advice.

She was quite startling to look at, this one old lady. Time had worn her away and folded her in on herself. A deep crevice ran around her face a third or so of the way up, dividing a toothless mouth and sinking her lips and chin back into her face The bridge of her nose had eroded and a ledge of flesh had shunted down from her great broad forehead, over her eyes. I could still just about pick them out, glinting weakly in the shadows, trapped between the two thick folds of weathered flesh.

There was a fly doing circuit training in the middle of the room.

“Time,” I said, under my breath and the proprietor looked up at me and asked,

“Another cup of tea, lads?”

I cleared my throat, “One tea and a lime milkshake,” I told him.

“No, guava,” Johnny shouted at him over my shoulder and then, “changed my mind, sorry,” as I turned back to face him. He had a manky-looking comb in his hands that he started trawling through his hair.

“You know,” he said, inspecting the skin flakes and loose hair trapped between its teeth, “it’s occurred to me how easily unreciprocated love curdles into hate, how quickly.…I mean it doesn’t have to become hate but it’s nearly impossible to maintain a strong loving feeling for someone if they don’t feel the same way about you, your vanity has to be satisfied, you have to begin to demean them to stop yourself from becoming demoralised, because if you love someone, even platonically, you want it to be mutual, it makes you vulnerable and if they don’t love you back, if your presence or your words or your interest don’t ignite anything in them then you feel distanced, alienated, at a remove, and in such a position it’s difficult not to also feel judged, inferior, contingent. You have to re-locate yourself, emotionally speaking, you have to create a more flattering balance, and so you fall back on the time-honoured tradition of undermining the Other, diminishing them, finding as much fault as possible, and every time you find another reason to despise them your sense of satisfaction grows.”

He had a permanent cold and it made his voice unusually nasal.

The proprietor put two cups of tea down on the table.

“No,” Johnny said, pointing at it with the comb. He shook his head emphatically. “No. Nope. Not what I asked for.”

The Proprietor looked at him blankly.

“M-I-L-K-S-H-A-K-E,” he spelled out methodically, looking at the ceiling fan that was wobbling away above the proprietor’s head. Johnny had an eye-contact problem.

“ ..shake ?” the proprietor checked.

“Correct. Spot on. Most certainly. Milkshake. Lime.”

The Proprietor put a baggy knuckled hand on the saucer and began to take the tea away.

“Whoa there my good man,” Johnny said, shaking his head from side to side slowly. “The tea can stay now it’s here,” he told him, smiling benignly. “But I would also like a milkshake. Thank you.”

The proprietor moved back toward his counter wordlessly as I looked up from the table.

“You didn’t want lime, remember? Changed your mind.”

“Guano!” Johnny shouted at his slothful back.

“Guava,” I corrected him.

“Gua-VA, then, Gua-VA!” he yelled irritably, the sudden burst of noise provoking a slow, dazed shifting of the head and some subterranean mutterings from the one old lady.

Johnny opened a small packet of sugar rather hastily and half of it scattered across the table, fell off the edge and dusted my trouser leg. Without apology he poured the rest into his tea and immediately grabbed another. This one he approached more gingerly, his jaw clenched hard with concentration.

The fly that had been circling around the middle of the room suddenly deviated from its route and clipped the buzzing, blue filament of the Fly-Killer mounted on the wall above Johnny’s head. It made a sound like wet fingers snuffing a candle and then plummeted down onto our table with its left side seared off and cauterised. I assumed it was dead and I was pleased in some small way when, after a moment or two, it began scudding over the pink plastic surface, bumping into the teacups and pausing now and then to nibble at the spilt sugar. I was watching it with a mingling of admiration and pity when Johnny transformed it into a mini mauve and black Rorschach test with a sudden slap of the papers he’d removed from his briefcase and stealthily rolled into a low-tech, but highly effective killing machine.

“Of course, I’d never have got it if the machine hadn’t softened it up a bit first,"he said ruefully. Then he looked at the mulberry smear and the one tiny wing, diaphanous, intricate and delicate as a flake of mother of pearl that clung to his paper truncheon. “Oh god, oh no,” he clucked and scraped it off on the edge of the table. He loosened his grip, let the papers unfurl and placed them delicately on his lap. The Screenplay.

“How’s the screenplay coming along?” I asked him.

“How, indeed?” he asked me back. “That is a most interesting and pertinent question. The whole vexing area of the screenplay.” He took a speculative sip of his tea, puckered his whole face in astonished disgust and fished another packet out of the bowl.

We were sitting next to the window in a box of light that went dark slowly and then light again, dark, light and finally dark as clouds rolled across the sky thousands of miles above and alternately blocked and released the light that was pulsing out from the sun, numerous million miles away. One of the clouds, probably the fat, purple-black one resting on the roofs of the houses opposite, shed a few greasy drops against the windowpane.

I decided to broach the subject. “Have you seen anything of Linda?” I asked.

“The thing with the screenplay you see,” he began stirring his tea so furiously it was only the centrifugal force that kept it from spilling over as he whirled a funnel of tea up and above the rim of the cup. “Is that the ideas and certain key sequences are there...”

I stared at it in fascination, wondering how much higher he cold raise it, a Tornado in teacup, “… but it’s very middle-y, you know. Most people are OK with the starts of things, or the ends, they aren’t usually too difficult, you know, resolutions, tie ups, loose ends woven into a seamless tapestry of cause and effect, character and motive. I don’t have that. I have lots of middle. The middle is when things happen. The middle is alive with possibility. The Beginning is just the anticipation of the middle and The End is horrible, a kind of murder, a hideous fettering.”

He was looking an inch or so to the left of my face in the direction of a painting it was impossible for him to see clearly. One that the proprietor had picked up somewhere and ill-advisedly chosen to hang on the wall of his premises. It was a nighttime landscape of dark blue, rolling hills and dank, spinach green trees. In the foreground, picked out of the darkness by the lusterless light of the shriveled moon above was a little gypsy girl with a disproportionately large head and cavernous eyes whose long fronds of black hair, sweeping back from her face as she ran toward us, knitted into the night behind her and seemed to hold her there, like a restraint. You could imagine a horrible tearing sound as her scalp ripped free at last and she fell out of the frame and landed bald, deformed and shrieking among the ashtrays and dirty plates on the table opposite.

Now that would have been worth seeing.

“So the beginning is only going to be alluded to, and the end will be whatever extrapolations the viewer makes on the basis of the information he’s given.”

“Yes,” I said. “But what kind of screenplay is it. You know, what genre.” I’m the kind of person who hates using French terms in conversation, who uses them only when necessary and says them determinedly, without a hint of accent or intonation. If I have to write them, I refuse to use italics.

“A thriller,” he said. “A Whodunnit.”

“But in this case, without the ‘who’ whodunnit?” I asked to make sure I understood.

“Yes. You’re correct. That’s correct,” he told me. “Because you know what’s important in these movies isn’t actually who committed the crime but the possibility of who might have done it and why. Once you know, all the interest goes out of it. I intend to be all possibility. A million suspects, a million motives and most wonderfully of all, no solution.”

“People will find that infuriating,” I told him.

The proprietor put a guava milkshake down on the table. The one old lady shuffled, un-noticed by anybody, out of the door.

“It’ll explode the form,” he went on excitedly, his gums lathering, small flecks of spume catching on his lips. “It’ll disembowel it and pick through its innards. Unravel it. Peel its layers. Subdivide it infinitely.”

“Linda asked me to have a word with you.” I told him.

“Linda?” he asked, as though he hardly recognised the name and began drumming his fingers violently against the table.

“She says you’ve been bothering her.” I didn’t like to spring it on him like this.

I’d hoped to get round to it somehow, to work up to it slowly. I’m the kind of person who warns his girlfriend when he’s going to come.

“Well Linda is, you know Linda, what isn’t she? She’s paranoid, mistrustful, manipulative.”

“And married,” I told him. “She’s married now.”

He spluttered and began pumping his leg up and down under the table, making the milkshake he still hadn’t touched dimple in the middle so that small, concentric rings rolled out across the surface and lapped at the side of the glass. “People,” he said. “People just….”

“I know,” I said. And for a second I was going to reach out over the table and lay a conciliatory hand on his shoulder.

I didn’t though. I find it difficult to do those kinds of things.