After they’ve been served she tells him what remarkable features the boy had. Not exactly a face to be launched for direct commercial purposes; the agency would put him on at fashion shows. A world not entirely unknown to him, as his mother was a fashion designer. His father, a lawyer, was absent most of the time; the kid was in need of a strong hand in his life, someone to guide him.
They had a couple of great weeks, then everything went awfully wrong. One morning he suddenly refused to get out of bed. He hated this fashion business, he said, he hated commercial departments, he hated sales altogether; all things considered, it was telling lies to get people to buy stuff they didn’t really need. He started eating vegan. While they always had such a great time at Mama Kelly’s.
“Do you know Mama Kelly?” Eyes wide, suddenly. Northern lakes.
“Not personally,” he says. He’s never heard of the place.
“They’ve got marvellous chicken. Mar-ve-llous, really.” She stares at her hands, breathing in deeply, pulling her skirt straight. She looks as if she’s ready to massacre a whole chicken coop. She takes a napkin out of the holder, wipes her fingers.
“Chicken fat?” he asks. Now she’s overdoing it, he thinks.
“No, you fool, Coke.” Once they were sitting in a restaurant like this, she says, he started sniffing at the empty plate in front of him, and when the waiter came he yelled, “Meat has been served in this plate, hasn't it? I’m sure it has.” When the waiter answered the restaurant, even when they had a large and fine selection of vegetarian dishes, wasn’t vegetarian as such, and that he could bring him another plate, he jumped up, pushing away his chair, spat on the plate, and left, slamming the door. Then he came in again, still yelling at the waiter, she had to put her hands against her ears.
“I’ve got nothing against vegetarians,” she says, “they’re some of my best friends. But they have to mind their manners. And anyway, people aren’t supposed to change that quickly. They just shouldn’t. I understand you can’t always have it your way, but there has to be some natural development. There has to be some logic.”
“That’s true,” he says. He’s chewing on a mussel, suddenly stops. Was that his heart skipping a beat? He straightens his back, breathes slowly in and out. As inconspicuously as possible he lays aside his fork and knife, still smiling at her, putting his right hand on his pulse, counting. Perfectly regular, more regular a heartbeat couldn’t be. A Swiss clock maybe, yes, but not a human heartbeat. It accelerated a bit though, now. He remembered the very first time his heart skipped a beat; at least the very first time he was aware of it. He had been forty-something. He thought he was dying. He had immediately called the hospital, and made an appointment, asking for less a check-up, more an investigation, in order to probe the matter to the very bottom. There must have been some uneasiness in his voice, as the receptionist was asking if there was any immediate problem. He had one hand around the telephone, the other on his chest and was sweating considerably. “Depends on what you call immediate.” Did he know how a heart functioned? He could well drop dead in a minute. Maybe that was how it had been since Hippocrates’ times: once you skipped a beat you were on death row. You were as good as done. Again, he was no doctor.
But in hospital, after a very close examination with bike test, creams smeared out over his shaven chest and the doctor’s assistant pointing out on a screen that the little thing pumping up and down was his heart valve (“This irregularity you witness – you see, you see? – doesn’t have to alarm you, more than half of us passed forty-five have this kind of thing.”), everything was declared normal. “These palpitations of the heart, they mean nothing. Do some yoga. Keep on running. Chances you’ll die of heart failure are zero point zero.” His late uncle Edward had been told exactly the same. A week later he was under the ground.
“Hey, why aren’t you eating? Is there something wrong with the clams? Will I call the boy?” She’s already waving her hand, but he shakes his head, there’s nothing wrong. He says he’s only concentrating on what she’s telling him. He doesn’t need a fork and a knife for that.
“Don’t worry,” she says, grabbing his hand. “Actually, I like men who are a bit dotty.”
“But, what was I talking about? Frederic, right. Well, one could certainly call him a bit dotty. The strange thing is though, that in the beginning he seemed perfectly normal. He was acting straight, clean, he knew what he wanted. I like that in a man, that he knows what he wants. He has to know where he’s going to. It’s sexy.”
“I guess so,” he says. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure of it.
“I don’t know why he suddenly changed.” “Are you afraid of dying? Does death frighten you?” she suddenly asks. She lights a cigarette. “Can I smoke? I only smoke when i get nervous."
“Not of dying as such,” he lies, “only of losing control. That’s what i’m afraid of: one second you’re in control, the next they take your body without you being able to formulate even the slightest remark. They do all kind of things with your face, stuff your mouth. A gorgeous nurse takes off your clothes, you don’t even have a hard-on. It’s embarrassing.”
She just says, “Fuck off.”
“And that’s only the beginning. Then you’re transported to some afterlife, a place where you’re supposed to be happy ever after – if you’re lucky, that is. Eternally lucky. But the place happens to be chosen for you, not by you. You understand what i mean? It scares the shit out of me. Eternity is a very long time.”
“It’s like going to the same holiday home every year again,” she says, looking in the far distance. “Terrifying.” She takes small puffs of her cigarette as if she isn’t really used to smoking. A girl, again. “I think you’re a very religious person,” she says. “Like his parents. They’re all Catholics down there.” The way she pronounces it, it sounds like a disease.
“Not to mention Purgatory,” he says.
“Purgatory.” She stops puffing.
“It’s the place where they keep you burning, anterior to entering Heaven. When I say burning I mean burning. Without the dying. Because you’re already dead. Picture a beef stew, somehow alive, in the pot. For billions of years.”
“I don’t understand, Ben. Now, is the beef stew alive, or is it dead? That isn’t clear you know. Philosophically I mean. You have to be clear about these things. What I do know, though, is that this isn’t a regular pasta vongole conversation.”
“It’s complicated, darling. Sorry.”
“No, now you tell further, you idiot. I want to hear the whole story. I hate people starting a story and not finishing it. I got all nervous then. See? I’ve got goosebumps.” She looks at him accusatorily; pulling up her sleeve she drapes her right arm in front of him, the whole of it. He can’t keep his eyes from her shoulder - curvy, muscular.
“Well, come on, get on with it. Tell me how I’ll avoid Purgatory. Don’t want to simmer for a billion years. I don’t even know how to put off a gas stove, for God’s sake.”
(to be continued in couple of days)
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