Chapter Two – New York
I’m in my silk dressing gown when the doorbell rings. I look around for Ania but as always she is nowhere to be seen so I move over to the monitor to check who it is even though I already know. Anthony stands shuffling and panting and wheezing by the front door, unshaven, his blue overalls splattered with white paint, which is a surprise because in the two weeks or so that he’s been working on the exterior of the house I’m yet to see him pick up a fucking brush. “Yes?” I call out in resignation over the intercom, even though I already know what he wants.
“Mornin’ Ian,” comes the response. His voice is rough, a smoker’s voice, East End, although a part of me is convinced that as soon as he’s back home he will revert to public schoolboy patois. “Mind if I use your facilities?” I know not how he comes to call me by my first name. He was never, ever invited to do so; in fact, I cannot even remember ever telling him my first name.
I check the time. It’s just gone ten. Anthony is a creature of habit because he will ring my bell at this time every morning with his fucking obligatory copy of The Sun and spend a good half-hour warming the seat of my toilet. I let him in. He looks me in the eye as he enters, challenging me, and heads off to evacuate his steaming bowels.
“Any chance of letting me know when things are going to be finished?” I ask, hoping he will not sense the desperation in my voice.
He turns to me and smiles smugly. “I reckon a couple more days and we’ll be there,” he replies, winking at me and moving off again.
“So… Hum… you’re saying that it will all be done by Friday?”
Anthony stops walking and shakes his head slowly. “Well, hopefully, yeah, weather permitting, these are big old houses you know, (pronounced” ‘hauses’) and there’s a lot of work involved you know…”
I’m not brave enough this morning to get into an argument with Anthony. Although he is not a tall man, he is stockily built with an over-developed, muscular neck. He has an intimidating air of self-confidence about him, almost as if he’s someone who is genuinely pleased with who he is.
I retreat into the living room, my coffee and my MacBook Pro. I check through my emails. Among the standard Viagra offers, messages from attractive Russian teenagers offering sex, invitations to furnish my bank details to a minor Nigerian tribal leader and messages from clients desperate for work there is an email from Mr. Tickle. It reads: “Mr. Tickle has met Mr. Happy and he is happy.” For a moment my heart leaps and then the insecurities take over. What does he mean? Does he mean that Mr. Tickle is happy or does he mean that Mr. Happy is happy? This little slice of grammatical ambiguity offers subtly different outcomes. I hastily write back: “Good or bad?”
I check iCal and that see that in addition to the New York flight I am scheduled to call Ramirez today, who is in the South of France chasing up leads. We are both aware that he is looking for a needle in a haystack but that region was – is – a favourite of Laura’s. It’s as good a place to look as any.
On a whim I launch Safari and type ‘laura south of france’ into the Google search field. The top SERP is: ‘A Journey into Matisse’s South of France by Laura McPhee’. Not really very helpful. I move on to YouTube and search for ‘Chris Waddle goal’. I watch a short grainy video of England’s semi-final against West Germany. I see the ball rebound off Paul Parker and dip crazily over the onrushing Peter Shilton, I watch England equalise with less than ten minutes to go, there is an interview with Gary Linker who tells us what he was saying to the bench after Gazza was booked for his impetuous lunge on a German. There is no sign of a Chris Waddle winner in extra time, instead we see footage of him absurdly skying a penalty out of the ground. John Motson groans and once again I’m confused. Now I search for ‘Lady Diana’ and just as it was last time I looked the top SERP is a video of Elton John singing Candle In The Wind with different, ludicrous, lyrics.
I hear a shuffling noise and realise that somebody is standing behind me looking over my shoulder at the computer monitor. I look around, surprised, somehow guilty, and see Anthony’s smiling face leering at the screen. “Like Lady Di, do you?” he says. “Pity she died. She had a nice old pair o tits. I’d of had some of that myself.”
A very, very large part of me wishes I had a very, very sharp scalpel in my hand. I try to keep calm and imagine running the blade in a precise arc beginning from Anthony’s forehead and ending up at his chin. But the smaller part of me takes control and simply says: ‘All right?” A meaningless term but really the only thing I can think of given the circumstances.
Then Anthony says: “You work with celebs, right?”
I straighten up in my seat and am about to compose a response to the question when Anthony cuts me off. “Let me tell you something about celebs,” he says, “never talk to them. It’s a fucking pointless exercise. There’s nothing to be gained from it.”
“Yes… I see what you mean…” I respond, obviously not seeing anything of the sort, bored, irritated, suicidal, nose fucking bleeding again.
“I mean, let me tell you a story… Your nose is bleedin’ you know… I was walking down through Bloomsbury a couple of months ago and I seen that bloke from The Office. You know that show from a few years back? Supposed to be a comedy but it don’t make me laugh.”
I nod my head.
“Well anyhows, I was walking through Bloomsbury and I sees that bloke – the little fat bloke who plays the boss –”
“You mean Ricky Gervias…”
“…I sees him walking along the road wearing headphones and listening to his iPod. And I says hello to him and he stops and he says alright. And then I’m sort of stumped for words so I tell him that I like The Office and I don’t normally talk to celebs. And he says, really up himself, like, well I don’t like that word, I don’t really see myself as a celebrity. And then he looks me up and down like I was made of shit and walks off.”
I snigger a little and shake my head. Anthony is made of shit. It’s pouring out of every orifice.
“So you see,” explains Anthony, “it ain’t worth talking to celebs. There’s nothing to be gained from it. You end up coming across like you want to suck their dick.”
As he says the word ‘dick’ I hear a key in front door and a few moments later Ania enters the room carrying bags of shopping. She sees Anthony and an angry look spreads across her face. “Hey, you!” she shouts, looking straight at Anthony, who starts laughing. “Go and do some fucking work! Get out now! Out! Out! Out! You’re not paid to talk you big fucking lazy boy!”
Ania is just over five-feet-tall, Lithuanian, with the face of a slightly disfigured angel. Anthony laughs even harder, enjoying the telling off, finding it difficult to hide the fact that that he obviously has the hots for her. She bundles him out of the room, pushing him in the back with both hands, which he seems to enjoy even more. I hear the front door slam and Ania returns. “Thanks for that,” I smile weakly. Ania returns the smile and heads for the bedroom. I sit at my chair smoking as she packs my suitcase for the trip.
At Heathrow I spot Paul Young queueing with all the plebs as I am politely, reverentially, ushered into the VIP section. He sees me calmly strolling by the other side of the rope and shrugs, probably embarrassed. I wave back, flashing my expensive teeth. It’s been over fifteen years since Paul has had any entitlement to this side of the rope. I feel vaguely sorry for him and idly wonder if there is anything that can be done.
In the VIP suite a fresh-faced hostess plies me with drinks. I sit in an easy chair and stare at the empty room, wondering how long I will be alone. Years ago I sat in this very same seat alongside Anthony Hopkins, a former client of mine. “I envy you,” he had said. “You have the perfect position. You have all the trappings of fame, the VIP treatment, the invitations to parties, to openings, the dinners with the right people. But none of the nasty stuff. Nobody knows who you are. You can walk down the street and, unlike me, people will leave you alone. Do you know that the other week I was stopped five times when I was walking down Oxford Street? All I wanted was to buy a new pair of shoes and I was quite unable to do so. The more people that stopped me, the more people recognised me. People were crowding around me, quite what for I have no idea. Perhaps they were hoping that I’d hiss and say ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti…’. The recognition was exponential – you don’t have any of that, which is fortunate in the extreme. I envy you.”
“Yes, but I don’t have your money,” I had responded.
“What’s money?” Tony had said. “When you’re too famous to spend it?”
During the flight I put my feet up and drink Champagne and watch a movie. I fall asleep and dream of Sofia and when I awake I am greeted by the sight of a ridiculously attractive hostess hovering over me. She gives me the broadest smile and hands me coffee and food. She makes chit-chat: “Are you on business or pleasure?” she asks. I study her features: long, immaculate brown hair; smooth immaculate make-up. A natural, easy, relaxed smile that makes it easy to forget that ours is purely a business arrangement, that her job is only to serve the person with the ticket. “Business,” I reply, “Although I hope that I can make a little time for pleasure.” For a moment I toy with the idea of asking her out to dinner.
A cab ride later and I’m in the apartment in Queens. I bought the place back in the late 80s for a song, in the days when I really didn’t have to think about money. I probably stay here only two or three times a year. The place smells of damp and bleach. I pull back the curtains and stare out idly at the city for a moment.
The apartment definitely belongs to a bachelor. The floors are wood, the walls are wood panel to make things easy to clean, as I never allow a cleaner into this place. In fact, with the exception of the estate agent and a few utility companies, I am the only person on earth who ever visits this place. Not even Laura knows of its existence – and how I managed to keep her out of the loop is a story in itself.
It’s been several months since I last stayed her and there is a visible film of dust everywhere, on the floors, on the table on the stainless steel chairs. Tomorrow I will spend an hour or so putting the place back into order. Right now I have other things to do.
In July 1995 I visited the apartment to find that it had been burgled. A TV had gone, along with a CD player, some money and a few trivial personal effects. Fortunately, the perpetrator had obviously not stayed long – an in and out job – because if he had he would have discovered untold treasures that would have made his toes curl. Although I chose not to report the crime to the police, I made sure that it could never happen again. On the front door I installed a state-of-the-art quadruple tumbler system, on the windows I installed steel shutters (in case Spiderman decided to try to gain entrance to my fourth story apartment) and in the main reception area I installed no less that three separate safes. All three are built into the walls and hidden behind reproduction paintings. One is behind a Peter Blake watercolour of Alice, a second resides behind a John Sell Cotman watercolour of a Lancashire viaduct, an a third is hidden behind a large reproduction of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope. It is to this safe that I now go, sliding the Bacon out of the way and keying in an eight-digit password. Although I know that the safe has not been opened since I was last here I feel a strong urge to check that its contents are in intact. I open the steel door and rather like a very expensive fridge, a light flicks on to reveal an old address book, several white plastic bottles containing various stimulants, a small antique clay pot half filled with cocaine, a number of syringes, something like $10,000 dollars in used $100 bills and an ancient Nokia mobile phone and charger which I take out from the safe and plug into a socket.
I return to the window and take a seat to watch the sunrise and see the light stream into the room, dust floating in the air. One by one tiny pinpricks of light appear in the darkness as New York begins to awaken. I light a cigarette and for a few minutes I am at peace. My nose is no longer bleeding and I am locked away from the world. I think of Laura and Sofia, of Chris Waddle, of Princess Diana, of black holes and the nature of time.