I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories (the others in the series can be found here and here) a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.
In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.
WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.
My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.
On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.
“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”
“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”
“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”
“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”
I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”
“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.
“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”
She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.
“Done,” she said all of a sudden.
There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.
“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”
“Certainly,” I said.
She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.
“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.
The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled.
“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”
“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”
“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.
“And the bones?”
“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”
“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face. It’ll hurt her too much otherwise.”
“All right. It’s all the same to me.”
Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”
“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”
In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.
“You’ve certainly done that very well,” I said.
Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”
When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her, “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.
Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later, I noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.
“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”
The French writer Jean Levy, who wrote under his wife’s surname as Jean Ferry worked mainly as a screen-writer for various French directors, including Henri-George Clouzot, the French Hitchcock, and was a pre-eminent expert on the work of that notable Surrealist precursor Raymond Roussel. Ferry only book of fiction, the short story collection The Conductor and Other Tales, was initially published in a limited edition of 100 copies in 1950, then again in 1953 with a very laudatory introduction by The Pope of Surrealism himself, Andre Breton.
The Conductor and Other Tales is an absolute gem of a volume. Every tiny story perfectly conveys Ferry’s unique style that is comprised of equal parts charm, weariness and a subtle terror. As Michael Richardson writes, Ferry never appeared to have convinced himself that the world actually exists.
Andre Breton called Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” a masterpiece. Ferry certainly manages to expand Kafka’s paranoia (an achievement in itself) to dizzying, vertiginous heights with it suggestion of wheels within wheels within wheels… … …
Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”
Joseph K—, around his twentieth year, learned of the existence of a secret, very secret society. Truth be told, it is unlike any association of its kind. some have a very hard time gaining admission. Many who wish ardently to do so will never succeed. Others, however, are members without even knowing it. One is, by the way, never entirely sure whether he is a member, many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although they have been initiated, they are even less a part of it than many men unaware of its existence. In fact, they were subjected to the trials of a fake initiation, meant to distract those unworthy of actually being initiated. But it is never revealed – not to the most genuine members, not even to those who have reached the highest ranks in this society’s hierarchy – whether their successive initiations are valid or not. It may even happen that a member who has attained, through a series of genuine initiations, an actual rank in the normal fashion, is then subjected without warning only to fake initiations. Whether it is better to be admitted to a low but authentic rank, or to hold an exalted but illusory position, is a subject of endless debate among members. At any rate, none can be sure of the stability of his rank.
In fact, the situation is even more complicated, for certain applicants are admitted to the highest ranks without undergoing any trials, and others without ever being so much as notified. Actually, it is not even necessary to apply: some have received very advanced initiations without even knowing the secret society exists.
The powers of its highest members is limitless; they carry within themselves a powerful emanation of the secret society. For instance, even should they not show themselves, their mere presence suffices to turn an innocent gathering like a concert or a birthday dinner into a meeting of the secret society. It is their duty to draw up secret reports on all the meetings they attend, reports pored over by other members of the same rank; thus there is a perpetual exchange of reports among members, which allows the secret society’s highest authorities to keep the situation well in hand.
However high or far an initiation goes, it never goes so far as to reveal the purpose of the secret society to the initiate. Still, there are always traitors, and for some time now it has been no mystery to anyone that this purpose is maintaining secrecy.
Jospeh K— was quite terrified to learn this secret society was so powerful, so many-limbed, that he might easily shake hands with its most powerful member without knowing it. But as bad luck would have it, he lost his first-class metro ticket one morning after a troubled night’s sleep. this misfortune was the first link in a chain of muddled, contradictory circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, in order to protect himself, he was forced to take the necessary steps towards being admitted to this formidable organisation. All this happened quite some time ago, and how far he has gotten in these attempts remains unknown.
While Surrealism is usually associated with the visual arts, in particular painting, photography, collage and films, the initial impetus was literary. As well as the many manifestos and polemics, Surrealists also produced poetry (translations of which can be found on this site, see Free Union, The Spectral Attitudes, Sleep Spaces,Serpent Sun and I Have So Often Dreamed Of You), and fiction. There are Surrealist novels, but as Andre Breton disapproved of the form as the medium of literary careerists the majority of Surrealist fiction tend to be in the short story format.
As most Surrealist short stories tend to be hidden away in hard to find collections and obscure periodicals, this facet of the Surrealist imagination has been unjustly ignored.
In an effort to remedy this situation, I am pleased to post Alain Joubert’s delightful fable Art, Pleasure and Gardening, the first in a projected series of Surrealist stories. In Art, Pleasure and Gardening, Joubert shows how desire, passion and pleasure can transform the world.
Art, Pleasure and Gardening
He was sick of living within four walls grey with dust in the tiny two-roomed flat with kitchen washbasin and toilet on the landing in the tenth district which a lucky (?) chance (and a little help from his sister) had provided him with the opportunity to invest in a couple of years earlier. While lying in a more or less collapsed spring mattress which was set out on a level with the floor, he let his gaze linger on those miserable grey walls with torn wallpaper on which it was still possible to discern, here and there, a few bunch of grapes trying vainly to serve as decoration, but which had been definitively devoured. In this way the minutes were drawn out and by degrees were turned into hours without the slightest desire having passed through his mind. But suddenly , when twilight had ceased eating away what little light appeared to him through the dirty windows that opened onto another wall without windows (it was six in the evening and February had never been the most cheerful month) he decided that what he would do would be to buy a plant. That was the first day.
On the second day, he went to the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. After some dreadful hesitations and a titanic internal struggle, he finally chose a Monstera deliciosa of the Araceae family, whose leaves, twelve inches long and ten inches across, stretched out in the form of a heart and deeply cut between the secondary veins, threw many strange shadows on his walls when he installed lateral lighting.
Passion then overcame him. an Aechmea fascianta, some Bromeliaceae, a Cissus antartica, some Vitaceae, a Diffenbachia, a Fatshedera, a Peperomia together made their appearance in the flat and something tropical began to rise up from between their foliage. That was the the third day.
On the fourth day, as he scrutinised the hothouse at the Botanical Gardens seeking new species, he had an encounter. In front of a Sciandapus Aursus, which originally came from the Solomon Islands and whose heart-shaped leaves very much intrigued him, his gaze met that of a charming young woman, whose long hair lightly flowed and who appeared to be – like him- fascinated by the plant world. Later, as they lay on the spring mattress, which as discreetly as possible had accompanied their amorous journey, they decided to turn the two-roomed apartment into an enchanted place in which the plants would occupy pride of place in the room as they already did in their lives.
No sooner said than done. They bought a quantity of peat and wood hummus and spread it far and wide over the floor and took the plants they had already brought out of their pots and, after unpotting them, planted them in open ground, together with a good dozen newcomers they had spent the day collecting in more or less the usual way. in the evening, exhausted but happy, they slept together, naked, on a bed of palm leaves after having refreshed themselves with fruits. That was the fifth day.
On the sixth day, they were surprised to see that the plants had sprung up in a way that had nothing natural about it. From morning, a tangle of branches, leaves and liana prevented them from moving about the flat easily and by noon they had to become resigned to tracing out a route with a machete if they wanted to get from one room to the other. They found this extremely poetic and were pleased with the astonishing humid heat which reigned in the rooms, something which encouraged them to dispense with the slightest clothing on their radiant bodies. Water streamed down the walls, serving to complete the illusion but completely ruining the wallpaper! Dozens of birds came in through the window and mingled their songs with the sighs of our two young savages, who were more in love than ever!
The next day passed as if in a dream. Strange and succulent fruits had appeared on some of the plants – which soon turned into trees – and they even saw an iguana, which sprang up from who knows where and took a trip around the room before vanishing into the undergrowth. They spent their time savouring its flow, caressing one another and re-discovering the pleasures of forgotten senses – or the meaning of forgotten pleasures. In short, they weren’t bored! That was the seventh day.
At dawn on the eighth day, there was a knock on the door. an old man with a long white beard, flanked by a tipstaff and a policeman, read out a declaration printed on official paper that announced that they were being evicted forthwith, failing which they would suffer a severe penalty. And this is how they were ignominiously thrown out of Paradise Road for having tried to create it there again! Since then he has worked for the Social Security, while she became a teacher. As for the flat, they say no one has ever been able to get inside, so intensely has the vegetation grown. But then they say so many things.
‘Which way now?’ Christopher asked at the T-junction.
‘How should I know,’ Angela snapped back.
‘Why are they never any signposts out in the country?’
‘Because people usually have a good idea of where they are going.’
He ignored the insult. He glanced at his watch, the second-hand on fourteen, fifteen, he turned right.
‘I hope this is the right way,’ Angela said.
Christopher remained silent and drove on.
What should have been a relaxing winter weekend getaway from the demands of their respective professions and their two young children, a time to rediscover each other, had gone wrong from the very start. The temperature had taken a sudden unexpected dip and they had argued as to whether to return home to collect heavier coats. Christopher had remained adamant that they press on while at the same time blaming Angela, who had been in charge of packing, for her lack of foresight. When Angela countered that the weather forecast had called for it to remain mild, Christopher, in that tone of voice that always made Angela see red, suggested that instead of always believing absolutely everything that was on TV that perhaps she should have looked outside the window.
The icy conditions and sleet showers made leaving the city even more difficult than usual and it was 7:30 before they reached the open countryside. Stopping to fill up at the petrol station Angela bought chocolate and coffee. It would be very late by the time they reached the hotel. Continue reading →
The interplay of light was different, even the seemed different to Max. As they walked along the avenue, the horizon stretched out before them indefinitely. He could detect the curvature of the earth —meaning that if they carried on walking as did, in a perfectly straight line, they would eventually reach this point again. There was no end. They were two tiny specks scurrying across the crust of a tiny ball spinning in space. For the first time, Max understood, really comprehended, that the world was round.
A heat haze shrouded the street, as the sun slowly but perceptibly leeched away all colour from their surroundings. Margot had dug out a pair of sunglasses from her small black handbag. As Max raised his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun glinting off the windscreens of the speeding cars, he cursed himself for not showing the same foresight. Each flash of light was like a blade slicing into his pupils. Max felt as exposed as a shucked oyster beneath a half lemon, poised to be squeezed. Glancing at Margot, he noted that she was as composed as ever. Nevertheless, she must have realised —either by intuition or telepathy, perhaps— his distress, because she paused and raised an arm.
Almost immediately, a black cab pulled over and they climbed in.
‘Euston Station, please.’ Margot said to the driver.
The driver started the meter and turned around to face them.
‘Are you young folks catching the train to anywhere nice?’ he asked.
Max looked at him in bewilderment. He was young for a taxi-driver and although his English was good, he spoke with an accent, perhaps German? That wasn’t the strange thing, though. His features were sharp and angular, yet the planes of his face failed to intersect. It was quite unsettling.
‘Oh, not really, just off to Birmingham to visit some friends,’ Max answered, bemused that he had lied for no reason whatsoever.
‘OK then, what time is your train?’ the driver asked, as he started up the engine. ‘Traffic is quite heavy and it is cross-town.’
Max turned to Margot but she was nestled in the corner, staring out of the window at the passing pedestrians. Obviously, it was up to him to make conversation with the driver, who, with his accent and heavy dark jacket (in this weather!) looked like a member of the Gestapo or the Stasi.
‘No particular time. I mean, we haven’t booked it or anything. I believe they run quite frequently, though. Maybe every hour on the half-hour… or is it every half-hour on the hour and at half past? Something like that, anyway… I think. Besides, I am sure we will get to Birmingham before night-time.’
The driver nodded without turning his head. Max hoped this was a sign that he could now stop babbling nonsensically, as it was a real effort not to give himself away. Surely, the driver could tell that he was out of it. Max imagined that the driver wasn’t a taxi-driver at all. He certainly didn’t look like your archetypal, loud-mouthed, pink-shirted, London cabbie. Maybe he was a former Stasi agent freelancing. Max looked again to Margot who, this time, returned his stare after pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head.
She didn’t speak, but in his head he could hear her saying not to panic. ‘That’s the cardinal rule, never ever panic.’
Was it a memory? Telepathy again? Whatever the case, Max felt calmer. His hand sought Margot’s hand lying limply on the seat between them, and when they touched, she interlaced their fingers and gave his hand a good squeeze. There, there now, that was much better. Much, much better. He could relax a little, despite the taxi driver watching them intently in the rear view mirror. Max was tempted to tell him to concentrate on the road ahead instead of spying on them, but thought better of it. It probably wouldn’t help matters, might even further arouse his suspicions.
The driver started rooting around in the glove compartment when the taxi stopped at a blocked intersection. After muttering what Max assumed were a string of German swear-words, he exclaimed with evident joy upon finding whatever he was searching for.
The traffic still hadn’t moved when the driver lit up what Max now realised was a joint. He opened the sliding glass panel and offered the joint to Margot, who accepted with a ‘why ever not?’ and an innocently winsome smile. Her left hand remained nestled in Max’s right hand, thankfully. He desperately needed that contact. The puzzle of the driver’s face was still terribly unnerving. Perhaps in some other dimension, those angles would form a pleasing symmetry.
After a couple of drags, Margot asked the driver if she could offer the joint to Max. The traffic had managed to unsnarl itself and they were at last, moving again through streets Max didn’t recognise. The driver nonchalantly waved his hand and said, ‘of course, plenty more where that came from.’
Max took the joint in his free left hand and inhaled deeply. It was strong stuff and it immediately reinforced the effects of whatever hallucinogen Margot had slipped him earlier. After a couple more heavy drags, he passed it back to the driver.
‘Thanks, its good is it not?’ the driver asked, then added, ‘What are all these people doing here?’
‘Yeah, it was excellent, thank you,’ Max answered. He had presumed the remarks about the people were a rhetorical question until he noticed the dubious-looking mob gathering outside as they passed. What indeed, were they doing on such an unprepossessing street corner in this rather unfashionable and frankly, quite desolate part of London? After what seemed a day and age, the taxi pulled up into the rank at Euston Station.
‘Here we are now. It’s eighteen pounds ninety, but we can call it fifteen pounds flat because of that hold-up.’
‘Oh, that’s very generous of you, but really not necessary. After all, you did help the time pass smoothly,’ Margot answered as she disengaged her hand from Max’s and pulled out three ten pound notes from her purse. She handed them over through the panel.
‘Really this is too much,’ he protested.
‘Not at all, your customer service skills are second to none. I can honestly say that this was the best taxi journey of my life.’
‘Thank you very much. I knew you were nice people as soon as I saw you on the street. Enjoy your trip to Birmingham,’ he said, as they tumbled out of the taxi in rather a heap.
Max felt quite dizzy. Margot took his hand and guided him through the entrance to the station.
‘Just concentrate on me, Max. Pay no attention to anyone but me, otherwise you’ll be getting the fear. God knows anyone could get the fear in this hideous hole at the best of times, but I have you covered. Do you trust me, Max?’ she asked him, her voice gentle, her mouth sweetly smiling. Her face, he suddenly realised, was simply angelic. It was like he was seeing her for the first time over again. No. Not true. He had never really seen her before this moment. All the other times were fleeting glimpses from a distance.
He trusted her totally.
But why? Was this trust misplaced? Did he actually know her any better now than he did this morning? This feeling of complete identification and of an absolute, telepathic communication —wasn’t it just an effect of the drugs? But even if it was, as he looked around at the surging crowds with their briefcases and handbags, these forever unreadable and unknowable strangers, he realised that this tenuous connection was all he had. He didn’t hesitate for a second longer.
‘Absolutely, I trust you, Margot. You’re still a complete mystery, of course, but I…feel like this is destined to be.’
‘That’s the spirit; you are your father’s son, after all. Come let’s get something to drink. After that we can sort out tickets and the such-like.. Everything is going to be peachy creamy, isn’t it Max? My brave little soldier.’
Margot insisted that Max needed to change first, as the doorkeepers at Xanadu could refuse admission for any reason they saw fit. ‘And you do look a rather young eighteen,’ she said teasingly. ‘Don’t you think Max?’
‘Not really… Well, OK maybe a little. But I still look older than you, Margot. Come on, you can’t deny it.’
‘I don’t deny it even a little,’ she said. ‘But Max, no door is ever closed to me. Nobody would dare to turn me away.’
What a puzzling thing to say, Max thought. How could she be so sure? Was Margot that well connected? Whatever the case, Margot wore such an expression of serene self-confidence that his doubts quickly evaporated.
With each passing moment, Max was learning ever more about her personality. Yet this knowledge only reinforced how much of a mystery Margot was. Who was this gamine, rather gauche, well-read and upper-class rebel, who —without ever stating the fact— just seemed to know things that others could only guess at?
From what Max had gathered from her off-hand remarks, Margot had been expelled from several exclusive boarding schools, much to the disgust of her wealthy, French father, who had subsequently disowned his incorrigible, troublesome daughter.
Margot, in return, had no time for him either. She explained that she had overheard her father justify his daily visits to prostitutes by saying that he preferred people to have expertise in their respective fields. ‘And well, they are professionals, after all…’
Her hatred of her father was only matched by her contempt for her mother, a terminal depressive who wandered vaguely around their Knightsbridge townhouse arranging and then re-arranging ornaments before absentmindedly breaking them…
And the question remained —how did Margot know Alex and how had she ended up living with him here at Elysium Crescent? Was she being coy earlier, when she had laughed off the suggestion that they were indeed lovers? Alex himself had been close-lipped on the subject. Max was half-tempted to go upstairs right away and ask him what the story was, but then he realized that Alex would, at this present moment, be zoned out on the shot that Margot had earlier administered.
Margot’s voice broke his reverie. ‘Well just don’t stand there, Max. Get a move on, will you? We have a long, long way to go, you know.’
‘OK, sorry. I was just following a train of thought.’
‘Well step off that train and concentrate on getting ready. And Max? Look smart, but try not to look like a boy trying to look smart.’
‘What do you mean by that? Exactly what should I wear then, Margot? Do tell, as you seem to be the dress-code expert for wherever the hell we are going.’
‘I may not be the expert, but I’m certainly older and wiser than you. So leave your smart remarks at the door and just do as I say, OK?’ she teased. ‘Just remember, you’re not going for a job interview, but you’re not going for a swift one at the pub, either.’ She waved him away. ‘Come on, move it. Go put something on and let me be the judge, but make it quick, otherwise we will never get out of here and we’ll end up spending the time just staring into each other’s eyes.’
Max thought it sounded like a heavenly way to spend the afternoon, but Margot’s restlessness was infectious. Besides, he wanted to see what effect the drug had on the senses beyond the four walls of the flat. It might all be too much to bear, but then again, it might just open his eyes. Perhaps he would see things as they really are. But then again… perhaps he would see things as they really are?
Max went into his bedroom and after a quick glance in his wardrobe, decided to freshen up first in the en suite bathroom. A whore’s bath would be just the ticket. Oh, and a brush of the teeth.
He had heard from someone (who) from somewhere (when) that you should never look into a mirror while tripping (if that’s what this was). Yet, the mirror was right there in front of him, staring him in the face. He could hardly not look now, could he? Besides, how am I going to get ready without checking myself out in the mirror, he thought. ‘It’s impossible, simply impossible,’ he laughed. How stupid to think that he could do all that without the aid of his reflection.
Tentatively and with a degree of trepidation, Max looked into the mirror. He smiled. Nothing to fear here. True, his eyes did seem to be constantly changing colour, from their usual copper hue, to grey, to blue and then black, before changing back to brown, but he could handle that. And yet, and yet…the longer he looked, the more he became aware of a vague double-image coalescing in the top, right-hand corner of the mirror. It was himself, but older. The eyes were slightly bloodshot and worry lines were etched into the forehead. In fact, the whole face was marked with the inedible stamp of years of strain and hard living.
Enough of this phantom from the future, Max thought and he slid the mirror over several times. After doing this for several minutes, the image finally disappeared. Focus, Max, he thought. Stop following chimeras; fight your way out of your own head for once. Right outside the door, there is a smart, pretty woman waiting to take you out and show you the world. It’s time to stop thinking and live a little.
Eventually, after much hesitation, he pulled it together and washed, brushed his teeth and changed. He hazarded another look in the mirror. Yeah, he thought, you’ll do. He just hoped that Margot would think so, too.
He returned to the living room and found it empty. No Margot. He considered calling out for her to hurry up, as he was anxious to get to wherever they were going, but decided that it would be better if he played it cool.
He sat, immediately stood up again, paced the room, spied the cigarette box on the coffee table and decided he needed one. They were Margot’s brand —Gitanes—smoked as an ironic homage to her loathed father. They were a little too rough for Max’s taste, but they were on hand and since he didn’t have a clue where he had left his own, he lit one up.
Mmmm, now that tasted good, he thought as he inhaled deeply. When did he last have a cigarette? Surely it couldn’t have been that long ago, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. Time. Time —where did it go and what was the time now? And what time is love? Now? In some ill-defined future? Perhaps never? If only he could pin down the details, then everything would become clear. All the elements would fall into place and the seeming chaos would resolve itself into a logical order.
Max was staring at the rainbow-coloured ash, shifting like tiny crystals in a kaleidoscope, when Margot entered. She was so completely transformed, that at first, he wondered if the drug was playing tricks on his senses again. But no, this was simply what women were capable of —metamorphosis. A man, on the other hand, was compelled to stay true to the persona the world had selected for him.
Max stared at her. He had rarely seen Margot in anything but jeans and a t-shirt. She generally disdained make-up and hardly ever bothered to brush her hair. Now however, she had dressed in a simple, but stunning, black satin dress, complemented with an emerald necklace which perfectly matched her green eyes. She had wound her hair up in an elegant twist and applied subtle make-up that accentuated her high cheekbones and painted her bow lips with an exact shade of labial red.
Could this be love?
What time is love?
Can that instant last forever?
Even when time moves on and we age and fade and eventually turn to dust?
All these thoughts —along with other less pure images— were whirring through Max’s mind. However, with all sorts of marvelous words on the tip of his tongue, all he could manage to croak out in an awkward rasp was: ‘You look nice Margot.’
‘Gee, thanks Max,’ she said frowning. ‘After all that effort I went to, I’m glad I look nice.’ She gave him a once over. ‘You look nice yourself, Max. You did well with the brief. So, are you just going to sit there staring, or are we ever going to actually leave?’
‘Righty-o boss. Let’s get out of here.’ Max stood, then hesitated. ‘What about my Dad? Shouldn’t we tell him that we will be gone for a while?’
‘Don’t worry about that, Max. I checked up on him when I took a little bit of money to tide us over —you know, for taxis and train fares and general going around expenses. Oh, and I have his credit card, too. You have to pay to play in Xanadu, but don’t worry, I have the ways and means and I never lose. Well, hardly ever, anyway, and I will repay it all with interest. So relax, your Dad is fast in the Land of Nod, dreaming of distant lights or maybe of catching birds and mice —who knows with Alex, he’s a deep one.’ She winked.‘Perhaps he even dreamt us up.’
She sighed at the dubious look on Max’s face. ‘I didn’t want to disturb him so I left a note saying we will be back soon and not to concern himself about you. That you’re under my wing for the present and I wouldn’t let anything untoward happen. I’m sure he’ll find some way to entertain himself. He does so like the night.’
‘Are you quite sure about this, Margot?’
‘Positive Max. We are going to have a time. Believe you me. You haven’t really lived until you have been to Kubla Khan’s.’
‘Kubla Khan’s? I thought we were going to Xanadu?’
Margot regarded him with a look of amused pity. ‘I suppose you couldn’t know… how could you possibly? You’re still wet behind the ears aren’t you, my dear? Max, to get to Xanadu, you first have to enter the Pleasuredome, and you can only get to the Pleasuredome by visiting Kubla Khan’s. Don’t worry, it will all become crystal clear when we get there. That is, if we ever do, at the rate we are going. Enough chit-chat. We can talk on the way if you insist, but let’s just go.’
‘All right, but after you Margot. Ladies first.’
‘So Alex taught you something after all. I’m glad of that.’
Max followed Margot to the door, which he opened for her. Then they stepped out onto the street, Elysium Crescent, and into a brand new world.
‘Close your eyes, Max, and open wide,’ said Margot. ‘There’s a good boy now.’
Max did as he was told and waited for an indeterminate period before he felt something against his tongue. It was a sugar cube.
‘Can I open my eyes now, Margot? That was quite a production for a lump of sugar.’
She laughed that deep, throaty laugh that drove him to distraction during the day and echoed loudly throughout his nocturnal fantasies.
‘Silly Max. Yes, you can open your eyes now. That was more than just an ordinary sugar cube, you know. Let the medicine dissolve slowly and be patient. That sugar cube will take us to the land of milk and honey, to the other side of the mirror, or at least to that oasis of horror in this desert of boredom. Wherever it takes us, it will be something… other.’
‘What exactly have you given me Margot?’
‘Don’t you trust me, Max? I thought we were over the awkwardness by now. Don’t worry about the details, just follow my lead and everything will be fine.’
‘I am more worried about Alex. What if he comes downstairs and sees us off our faces, his girlfriend and his son, you know, like, ummm, all loved up?’
Margot laughed. ‘You think that’s why I’m doing this? My, my, listen to you! You do think highly of yourself, don’t you? Well, my darlingest Max, you can rest assured that this isn’t some convoluted plot to seduce you. I have a feeling I wouldn’t need to resort to drugs if that was my intention. After all, you are younger than me.’
‘Yeah, but only by nine months.’
‘Yes, but still…. And for your information Max, I am not your father’s girlfriend. Whatever gave you that idea? You know I have my own room, right?’
‘Ummm, I don’t know. I thought that was just to avoid difficult questions. You do live here with us, after all. And, don’t take this the wrong way, you wouldn’t be the first younger girlfriend my Dad has taken up with. Though, to be honest, you’re not his usual type.’
‘Oh really? And what would be his type be? I mean, usually?’
Max could hear the amusement that Margot had tried, but failed to conceal in her tone. He said, ‘Ummm, well, you know, blonde, leggy, polished, posh. Not that you aren’t very posh yourself, Margot, but, you know… You’re just a little different, unusual, but in a good way. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you, Margot. I mean…’ Max trailed off. Quit while you’re ahead. You’ve dug a big enough hole already, he thought rather morosely.
‘So, I’m unusual, but in a good way. Hmm. Well, you certainly know how to flatter a girl, Max. Me and your father… how can I explain it? It’s rather complicated. Let’s just say that we are very good friends. So you don’t need to concern yourself on that score.’ She laughed again. ‘You needn’t start calling me Mummy. Besides, Alex is having one of his bad days today, so I doubt he’ll be making an appearance anytime soon, not with the shot I gave him.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know that. Is he O.K?’
‘Yes he’s fine, I am glad to say. Well, as fine as he can be. Some days he just needs a little something-something to take the edge off, to stop the memories flooding his brain and overwhelming him. Yes, my bet is that right now he is completely grand and faraway from here and faraway from all this shit down here. Up there,’ she gestured vaguely. ‘Where the sky is bluer and the horizons wider. That’s where I hope Alex is. And that’s where I want to go with you, Max. And unless I’m very much mistaken, it shouldn’t be long now. No, not long at all. I can already feel it, can you Max?’
Max was aware that Margot had asked him a question, but the exact nature of the question eluded him. The big bay window behind Margot was letting in a burning golden light that suffused everything in this flat on Elysium Crescent with a subtle halo, transforming all the everyday objects that he had seen a thousand times without even noticing or paying the slightest bit of attention —unless he needed them for something (to sit on, to drink out of, to drop his ash into)— to deeply mysterious items from another realm of being, whose purpose he believed, with enough concentration and the laser-like penetration of this illuminating insight that he felt he was on the cusp of gaining and possessing forever, he was about to divine.
But all that was nothing compared to the change that had taken place around Margot. Surrounded by an intense blue aura, Margot radiated emanations that caressed Max’s skin like electricity. The waves of her love, mercy, and wisdom enveloped him in a protective cocoon. He felt overwhelmed by a tenderness that was dissolving his soul.
Yet at the same time, Max became strangely disassociated from the scene. He was now an observer as well as a participant. From somewhere in the middle distance, Max looked down on Max leadenly lifting his arm from the chair’s arm, while Margot in her T-shirt and jeans, slinked towards the door to the kitchen. Max looked up to where Max was looking down and Margot stopped in her tracks and turned around to follow Max’s gaze, and their eyes met the eyes of the disembodied spirit of Max, which held them fast, fixing them immobile to the spot.
Max knew —after all this wasn’t the first time that he’d gotten wasted (though never like this before; this, as Margot had promised, was something other)— that certain drugs have a tendency to fuck with your sense of time, either slowing shit down… to… a…….crawl….. or speedingeverythingupbloodpumpingheartracing ohmygod sweetlordabove I, I know that I never really bothered with you and all that, but please, Lord, can’t we just overlook the fact that I overlooked you, let me just survive this night, this never-ending infernal night and I promise, I swear, please believe me, to be good, to do better, to try to anyway, fight the good fight and all that… Yeah, Max knew that under the influence, time was subjective. A week could disappear in the space between two heartbeats and a moment could elastically stretch to a reasonable imitation of an aeon. But nothing before compared to this.
Or did it? Hadn’t Max been in this exact same situation before? At this exact same point in time? Sitting in his father’s flat in Elysium Crescent, hallucinating with Margot, the girl who lived with them and who may or may not be Alex’s girlfriend? Max realised that the other Max wasn’t his dissociated personality or an astral projection. No. That Max was his future self.
This flat, Margot, his father, this trip had already happened a long time ago in the past. Time had moved on, events had moved forward. And now —when was now? In the immediate future that was actually past, he was unsure what was to happen next, The details were all blurry. Yet, he remembered the long-term consequences, though try as he might to repress them. After all of this —the scene he was observing— had happened, he became the man he was now —a successful restaurateur with a beautiful wife. No, that wasn’t quite right. That was just a dream, a dream about a woman. Catherine? Catarina? And he was actually at this moment half asleep in a fancy hotel bath remembering a girl he once knew, a girl called Margot.
So was this just a memory? Was he lost in a past reverie while half asleep? Then again, could all five senses be engaged by a mere memory? It didn’t seem possible…
Margot came over and placed her hand on his head and stroked his hair gently, soothingly. It lulled him, nearly hypnotized him. He could hear a tap dripping from five blocks away, he could smell the honey and vanilla odour emanating from between her legs and he could feel the heat of her blood as it coursed through her vessels.
‘Baby, we need to get out of this place before the walls start closing in,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t you agree?’
Her words made Max forget. Forget that he’d heard those words before. The second Max had vanished. He was here, now, in Elysium Crescent. There was no fancy bath in a hotel out in the desert, there was no restaurant called Noir Et Rouge, nor any woman called either Catherine or Catarina.
‘Absolutely, Margot. Yes, let’s get out of here, the sooner the better. Got any suggestions?’
‘I know just the place. It’s in Birmingham though. Xanadu. Believe you me, Max, there is nowhere like it. It’s quite a trip.’
Opening his eyes, Max saw that he was back in the Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel. In front of him, were two glasses and a small pile of chips. Looking around the table, he saw faces that he hadn’t forgotten nor could ever forget, as the events of that night were etched into his memory forever. Except that someone was missing.
Max picked up one of the glasses and took a drink. Definitely gin and tonic, just as he knew it would be. Confirmation —not that he really needed any— of the reality before him. He knew, though he couldn’t begin to understand why, or for that matter, how he was back at the Heavenly Hotel, but also, that he had returned to that fateful night.
Everything was the same. Everything, from the clothes he’d worn —the blue suit and the white striped shirt— to the positioning of the stack of chips and the two glasses in front of him, to the kimono-clad waitress, the balding croupier and the fat, Midwestern businessmen with their clinging hookers. Everything was the same but one detail. She wasn’t here. The chair opposite Max was empty.
Man, this was one helluva of a trip she’d laid on him. What the hell had been in that cigarette he’d smoked? He drained the rest of the glass. The drink at least was real. Real gin and real tonic. The taste on his tongue was undeniable. And if that was the case, then everything around him was real. It wasn’t just some vivid flashback or incredibly detailed hallucination. Unless, unless… but his mind reeled at the prospect. It couldn’t be… no, no it simply couldn’t be. What had already happened was happening again, but this time around the script had been re-written.
Unless, it had never happened the first time around.
That his lucky streak and all subsequent events had simply been an elaborate fantasia, spun him into abject desperation. There had never been a beautiful woman sitting across from him, whose every move signified which bet to make. There’d been no life-changing win, no celebrations with Catherine as the eerie, early morning, desert light flooded their hotel room. And if that night never happened, then there was to be no fresh start. With no extra cash in the bank, there would be no house or restaurant. No Noir Et Rouge. Only debts and Harry Diamond.
Yet, surely he couldn’t have dreamt over a year of living in between two turns of the roulette wheel. That couldn’t be the explanation. No, it had to be that he was dreaming now of the night at The Very Heaven. At this moment, he was sunk in a drug-induced sleep at the upstairs table of the Noir Et Rouge. Soon, service would begin and the tables would fill up with well-heeled couples out to enjoy their Saturday evening.
Tonight would be a good night. After initially clearing up, the weather would take a turn for the worse, encouraging to people sit out the storm while enjoying another drink. The staff would be hustling to increase the spend and in consequence, their tips. Later on, after everything was done and dusted, he would open a couple of bottles of good red and pour anyone who wanted a glass. Max could see it all so clearly. Surely, he couldn’t be imagining a life he hadn’t lived in such detail.
Yet here he was, back in Vegas.
God, he needed to think the whole thing out clearly and the last place he could do that was sitting at a roulette table in the middle of a casino. Who could achieve clarity amidst all the noise and crystal and strangers?
Yet, he didn’t dare leave the table. If this was happening, really happening —and it must be because he hadn’t yet snapped out of it, nor did it appear that he would— then he had to see it through to the end. He had to adjust to the situation and roll with it. And Max could do that at least; it was in his nature. He would always be a gambler, after all.
The chair opposite Max remained unoccupied. Where was she? Even if Catarina was just a figment of his imagination, how would this night play out in her absence? He’d taken all his cues from her. She had been the agent of fate.
When Max tried to think, tried to recall his winning wagers, he was overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo. With a shaking hand, he grabbed the other glass and sipped, hoping the gin would neutralize the foul taste of vomit in his mouth.
Ten, that was it. Ten for a perfect ten. Christ, if only he’d known. But at least she’d done the trick. Now, he was all on his lonesome. Without her, Max was clueless as to how to bet.
As he hadn’t been following the action, he had no idea whether the ten had already come up. And that had been the starting point.
There was nothing to do but follow his own initiative. Max was in no mood for a massive all or nothing bet, though. He hedged and put a hundred on red. He won and again on the next turn but his hundred-dollar bet on the outside third lost. History wasn’t going to repeat itself. But that reality had all been a dream anyway, an impossible illusion. Catarina wasn’t here, had never been here. She only existed as a projection of his desires, and without her, his luck wasn’t going to change for the better.
So if Noir Et Rouge and the rest wasn’t real, this was real, this was it. His world was reduced to this table with his half empty glass, the small stack of chips that comprised the remainder of the fifteen thousand pounds his Grannie Edith had lent him, and finally, only Catherine alone, upstairs in a suite, asleep and oblivious to the danger that Max was exposing them to. And Harry Diamond, of course, no doubt already planning ways to force Max to make good on what he owed.
After half an hour or so of drifting in and out of the game, Max counted his money. During that time, he clawed back some of his losses, but at such an incremental rate, he would have to play twenty-four/seven all the way into next week, just to break even. And that presumed that he wouldn’t lose his head at some point and blow it all on one number.
Max decided to cash in at the roulette table. He wasn’t feeling it, nothing was doing. Unlike in his dreams, there would be no high-rolling tonight, just the tedium of small stacks —winning a little here, losing a little there. After a while, you ended up broke. Because that’s what happens when you do the same bet over and over. House rules. Every gambler learns this the hard way.
Besides, Max was sick to the back teeth of this stretch of green baize, the spinning wheel, the bouncing ball. The hateful monotony of it all. If you let yourself get sucked in, then every turn became of supreme importance, the universe coalesced into that spot where the marker was placed on the chequered field.
Step away for a second, however, and view it from a distance and it revealed itself as nothing more than an elaborate way to fleece desperate individuals of anything of consequence. Once the extra cash, that little bit of mad money, had gone, soon followed the savings, the car and then the house. After all your own tangibles had disappeared, then you’d get resourceful with other people’s money. After that had been used up, and with it any remaining ties of friendship… well, there were other ways and means. You would always find a way.
Max did realise that for most people it wasn’t like this. But Max held no truck with those for whom gambling was just a frivolous pastime, content with an occasional flutter. He viewed such people in the same manner as a committed IV drug user viewed the casual, after dinner-party joint-smoker: with complete and utter contempt.
It was time for a change, time to try his hand at something else.
Max decided on blackjack after passing a table, which for some unknown reason, seemed promising. The only other player was an Asian woman of indeterminable age, weighed down with heavy jewelry, and with the etched features of an immovable idol. She could have been anywhere between forty and four hundred, really. She played with a total disregard for convention. Fluky winnings were rapidly followed by heavy, yet avoidable losses. Nevertheless, not once did she betray the slightest sign of emotion. Win or lose, it was obviously all the same to her.
Max didn’t have that luxury. He couldn’t afford to lose. Not this time. However this cautious, softly, softly, approach had one major drawback. Without putting down real money, he was never going to win big. So it was slow and torturous going and Max had to constantly resist the temptation to follow the Asian’s impervious punts. He managed to hold his nerve, though, and when he finally called it a night, he’d managed to recoup a third of Gran’s money. Of course that meant he’d lost nine or so thousand pounds, but at least he wasn’t completely out for the count just yet. He would live to gamble another day.
Just what that other day would bring, Max was too tired to care about right now. If he started to think about the monstrous implications that this night held for the future, then he would turn on his heels, take the lift down to the lobby and walk out of the hotel and just keep on walking along the Strip into the Mojave Desert and not stop until he reached Death Valley. In this wasted state, it wasn’t a good idea to do anything except return to his hotel suite and sleep. Besides, it was probably best to leave matters in the lap of the gods for the moment. Maybe they would have mercy on him and change his destiny for the better. Though this would undoubtedly mean changing his character. If only they would, Max thought as he left the elevator and walked towards the suite, because he certainly couldn’t. Heaven knew that he’d tried, but at the end of the day, maybe it just wasn’t within his power. Perhaps, it was as impossible to defy destiny as it was to escape gravity. No one can escape their own personal atmosphere.
After inserting the electronic key-card upside down in the little slot several times, Max finally managed to get the door open. Once inside the darkened hallway, Max shut the heavily pneumatic door with the exaggerated care of those who knew that they’re more than a little drunk. He made double sure that the dead bolt was on. You can never be too careful, Max thought, as he crept slowly into the oversized bedroom that remained largely in darkness despite the hour.
If Catherine hadn’t pulled one of the impenetrable curtains too far into the middle, exposing a sliver of bay window, allowing a solitary strand of light to dimly illuminate the foot of the Californian king bed, Max wouldn’t have been able to navigate his way to the bathroom without banging into the ostentatious objets d’art that pointlessly littered the suite.
Max had gone to the bathroom only because he knew that if he’d climbed into bed, Catherine would rouse herself from her dreams into full consciousness and he wasn’t in a fit state to face her. Not at this moment anyway. He needed a little more time to reconcile himself to the lies he would have to tell, to the false promises that he would have to make. As a necessity, he would have to dissemble and every word, every gesture, would contain traces of dishonesty which, in time, would colour their relationship. Max knew from experience that such games could be the source of a certain kind of sophisticated pleasure; yet, he had no desire to despoil the sacred character of his feelings for Catherine with such perversions. For Max, the love they shared was his only hope of salvation. But he desperately needed sleep. He felt like he’d been awake for a year and a day, which he supposed he had been, in a way. In his imagination, at least, if not in reality. Still, it was hard to believe that he’d managed to compress such a thoroughly detailed vision of an illusory future into a micro-nap lasting no longer than a few seconds. Even for Max, this was astonishing.
Understanding dawned on Max. Every teacher he’d ever had made the same comments.
All the report cards he brought home to Gran were inevitably disappointing, yet Max was always shocked by the mediocre grades. He couldn’t understand it, he knew he was intelligent. Even the report cards acknowledged how bright he was. But after that, it was all downhill. Attendance was poor and effort in class was barely satisfactory. Of course, all these areas could be improved quite readily, but they were not the major sticking point. The trouble with Max was that he had too much imagination. Max thought such assertions were ridiculous. Was it even possible to have too much imagination? And if you did, well surely that was a good thing, wasn’t it? His father’s girlfriends seemed to think so, always telling Alex that he had a brilliant boy. It was only now that Max could clearly see what his teachers had meant by the warnings they’d given him and that he’d always so pointedly chose to ignore —that too much imagination could only lead to insanity and from there to prison, or the asylum— just a breath away from an early grave.
As he was in the bathroom, he thought might as well run himself a bath. In contrast to the bedroom, which conformed in all major details to a Louisville pimp’s idea of paradise —all skins and chrome, furs and mirrors— the bathroom held an understated elegance. That is, if you were prepared to discount the solid gold taps, of course. With the stunning trompe l’oeil mural that decorated three of the walls, and the cunning placement of mirrors, you were given the impression that you could step onto the long drive that led to the faraway château, set in Italianate gardens of a rare formal perfection. If only he could, Max thought, as he lowered himself into the deep bath. Perhaps, he would have felt more at home in that long, lost world in those far, distant days. Instead, he had to make do with this image, undoubtedly ripped out of the rotting hulk of some demolished mansion in the Old World and shipped over wholesale to adorn a bathroom in Vegas.
This hotel deployed such jarring eclecticism in its design policy as a matter of course, or so it seemed to Max, during their stay. For instance, the sixth floor bar was an imitation, a rather successful one admittedly, but an imitation nonetheless, of an old-style English gentleman’s club, all dark wood and heavy leather armchairs. Completing the pastiche, were the clever copies of Victorian sporting genre paintings, the assorted horses and hounds imbued with far greater personality than their lackluster riders and owners, who seemed dimly aware that their tenuous claims to immortality lay only in their connection with such magnificent specimens.
Yet, other floors had yielded to the garish aesthetics of a Tokyo love hotel, gone to seed, with various diseased hues of pink, orange and purple, all competing to overwhelm the distracted guest stumbling though the corridors. Unlike the other major Vegas hotels, which all exhibit an overriding thematic context, regardless of how kitschy the end result, The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel lacked a single unifying principle in both initial conception and subsequent design.
Maybe that was the whole point, though. Unlike Ancient Rome, the Britain of King Arthur’s Court, or Pharaonic Egypt, it would be hard to reach a consensus as to how a hotel/casino designed to be a representation of Heaven should look. Of course, there was the common conception of cherubim scampering around on clouds while a long-bearded, white-robed Lord smiled beatifically from his gold throne. Indeed, something of that vision could be seen in the cloud-scraping, roof top restaurant, but hell, Max thought, at the end of the day, it was a casino and you could only push the heavenly overtones so far before they became a buzz kill.
Besides, Vegas was in America after all, and they at least, had to pay lip service to the democratic Dream, wherein everyone had their say and one person’s ideas held as much validity as another’s. Well, in theory anyway.
One man’s Heaven was another man’s Hell, after all.
The water in the bath was beginning to get cold. Max thought about getting out but was so comfortable, decided against it and instead turned on the taps. Unlike at home, with the whole trouble with the immersion, here there was an endless supply of hot water. In the desert, no less.
Of course, Vegas sold itself on its wavering dual identity as both oasis and mirage. But as Margot would have put it, Max thought drowsily, it was an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.
God, he hadn’t thought about Margot for ages. Yet, in a way, she was the one responsible for his current situation. Indirectly, of course, but undoubtedly. Who knows where he might be in the world, if that summer at his father’s place hadn’t played out the way it had. True, the seeds had been planted, but Margot had nurtured them into fruition.
His last thought before he drifted off into the borderland between waking and dreaming, was of Margot asking him to open up wide.
The first part of the story can be found atTempting Fate: Part One. Thanks again to Dr. Meg Sorick for editorial support and advice. Please visit her at drmegsorick.com. Part Three will be available next Saturday May the 27th.
After a particularly busy lunch, and the Saturday evening rush ahead, Max decided to clear his head with a walk around the neighborhood. Throwing on his new grey jacket, he set out with no particular destination in mind. He strode purposefully through the crowds aimlessly gathered in small clusters around the shops and boutiques along the way. The contrast he presented relative to the people around him was exceedingly apparent. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, on a journey towards bluer skies and wider horizons. Unlike the semi-hypnotised masses around him, who were perpetually rushing toward destinations unknown with ever narrower boundaries.
Things were definitely looking up for Max. Tonight, the cash tills would brim as the increasingly in-demand tables turned over and over in the hot, new restaurant. The word, first spread by local newspapers, had been taken up by the national trade publications after several glowing reviews. If the restaurant continued on its current trajectory, they would have to start thinking seriously about expansion or perhaps even a second location.
Dreaming of the potential future that lay before him, Max failed to notice the ominous clouds gathering overhead until the skies opened and the rain poured down. Yet, the deluge only served to increase his euphoria. Smiling, Max turned up his collar and ran through the quickly emptying streets.
He was drenched by the time he arrived back at the Cafe. As he opened the door, his phone rang. By the time he had fished his mobile from his coat pocket, the caller had hung up.
‘That was me Max,’ Nina said, approaching him. ‘Catherine wanted to know how far away you were. They are waiting for you in the nook upstairs.’ Then, helping him out of his jacket she added, ‘My God, Max. You’re soaked through.’
‘I know. The storm came out of nowhere,’ he said. ‘Nina, who exactly, is waiting for me upstairs? I wasn’t aware of any appointments today. Why didn’t you warn me earlier?’
‘Sorry Max, Catherine said she reminded you earlier in the week. It’s some writer from Food and Drink magazine.’ She winced. ‘Oh god, I’ve already forgotten her first name. It’s something Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant. Catherine is with her at the moment. You better hurry.’ Then changing her mind, she put a hand on his arm. ‘Wait! You can’t go up there like that, better if you dry out a bit. Your shoelace is undone as well.’
‘Don’t panic, Nina. It will be fine. I’ll freshen up in the bathroom,’ Max replied as he bent to fix his shoelace. As he pulled, the lace broke off in his left hand.
‘Damn,’ he cursed.
‘What’s wrong?’ Nina asked anxiously.
‘Oh nothing; just broke my lace. Not to worry,’ he said, reassuringly. Tucking the dangling lace inside the tongue of the shoe, he added, ‘There. Easily fixed. Now, go and tell Catherine that I’m here and that I will be up in five minutes. Ok? Oh and Nina….?’
‘Try and find out this writer’s name, will you? I don’t want to look like a complete idiot. Discretely, though.’
‘No problem, Max,’ she said, heading for the stairs.
In the bathroom, Max ran his fingers through his damp hair and adjusted his belt. On the way to the door, he gave himself a last glance and decided that he would pass.
Nina waited anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. ‘You took your time. Her name is Catarina. Catarina Blanca. You got that?’
‘Yes, yes, I’ve got it. Catarina Blanca. Unusual name. Is she Spanish or something?’
‘I don’t know. She definitely looks exotic but her English is impeccable –not even a hint of an accent.’
‘Alright,’ he sighed. ‘I better get up there, otherwise I’ll be hearing it from Catherine later. Thanks, Nina. Can I leave you in charge of tonight’s set up?’
‘Sure, no problem Max, I’ll take care of everything on the floor for now. You get upstairs and start charming this Blanca woman. And don’t worry, I’m sure the restaurant will get a fabulous review.’
‘Hopefully. No reason not to be confident, but you never know with critics. They’re a moody bunch, in my experience. She must be staying to eat. Do you mind taking her table yourself, tonight?’ Max asked, on his way upstairs.
‘Not at all. I’m all over it,’ Nina said.
Catherine was talking animatedly to the writer as Max approached the nook. Max waved and Catherine stood. ‘Max you’ve made it at last,’ she said, relieved. ‘I would like to introduce you to Catarina Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant for the September edition of Food and Drink magazine. Isn’t that wonderful?’
As Catarina rose and faced Max, his words died on his lips. It was her —his Lady Luck from the casino in Vegas. She was dressed in black again, although instead of a cocktail dress, she wore an expertly tailored suit with a black blouse, the top two buttons open to reveal that familiar necklace —the one that so complimented her striking emerald eyes. She probably never left home without it. Yes, it had to be her. There couldn’t be another. One was more than enough. But what were the chances they’d cross paths for a second time?
‘Pleased to meet you, Catarina,’ Max said, pulling himself together and shaking her hand. ‘Hopefully, you will be suitably impressed with what we’re trying to do here and you can share that with your readers.’
‘Oh, I’m sure that I will, Max. I have friends who’ve eaten here, and they’ve done nothing but sing your praises. And after talking to Catherine, I’m just dying to sample the menu. Such innovative use of such humble ingredients.’
Max studied her face for any sign of recognition, but there was none. Granted, it had been over a year ago and they hadn’t actually met. Yet surely some memory of that evening’s excitement must have made at least a passing impression on her mind. However, apparently it had not.
Max struggled to concentrate on the shop talk between Catherine and Ms Blanca. How was it possible that this woman discussing their restaurant was the same woman largely responsible for its existence? What odds would a bookmaker give? He’d wager that it would be an astronomical computation, running in the millions. Yet here she was, talking with his wife about the sourcing of high-end product. When Nina came in he ordered an espresso, hoping to focus his attention on the task at hand. He’d just have to chalk it up to being one of those random anomalies that occur from time to time. It is a small world, after all.
‘If you’ll excuse me, Catarina, I have to get back to the kitchen, but I’m leaving you in my husband’s capable hands. He’ll answer any more questions you may have,’ Catherine said rising. Turning to Max, she added, ‘Just make sure, darling, that you don’t go showing Ms. Blanca the skeletons in all the closets.’
‘I’ll try not to, even though there are so many of them lying around,’ he replied, raising an eyebrow. ‘You see how she has no faith in me?’ he chuckled to Catarina. ‘Anyway, you better hurry into that kitchen and start cracking the whip, otherwise we’ll never be ready for the evening service.’
‘You’ll be staying for dinner, I trust?’ Catherine asked.
‘Of course. I’m looking forward to trying the John Dory. It sounds delicious,’ Catarina answered.
‘Well, I’ll see you later then. We can enjoy a nice bottle of wine together.’
‘We will indeed.’
After Catherine left, Max drained his espresso and looked over at Catarina. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t help but be attracted to her. Her beauty was unearthly. She, in turn, was looking back at him. Max waited for her to begin the interview, but she seemed in no hurry to start and just continued to stare at him. Finally, in an effort to break the increasingly unnerving silence, he asked her about her name.
Instead of answering straight away, she reached over the table and placed her left hand over his right hand and smiled sweetly. Bewildered by her gesture, Max made no efforts to disengage from her touch.
‘Well, Max, here we are at last,’ she said, still smiling. ‘You have to tell me something. How does a man like you manage to snare a lovely creature like Catherine? I just can’t make sense of it. How does something like that happen?’
‘Pardon?’ he replied, wondering if he had heard correctly. Surely not. Her fingers were tracing intricate geometric patterns on his palm. Under normal circumstances, receiving such attention from such a splendid specimen would have been one for the ego, but these were not normal circumstances. The whole situation was out of kilter.
‘Hmmm,’ she purred. ‘You heard correctly, Max. So tell me, I’m very curious. She loves you and yet here you sit, thinking of nothing else but how to get me into bed. Isn’t that true, Max? Wouldn’t be the first time though, would it Max? You spent hours in that casino back in Vegas thinking exactly the same thing, didn’t you Max?’
That confirms it, Max thought numbly. She was the woman from Vegas. But what was this? What the hell was going on? He tried to extricate his hand from hers but she grabbed his wrist and held on tightly.
‘You’re keeping quiet there, Max. What’s wrong? Has the cat got your tongue? Rather unusual for you isn’t? You’re not one to be at a loss for words, are you Max? But then again, you can’t downright deny what is obviously true. Not to me, anyway. And I wouldn’t try if I were you, Max. You see, I know what goes on inside that head of yours. I know you. Unlike poor Catherine. She sees only the handsome exterior, the charming façade. She doesn’t know what makes you tick, has no idea of what you’re willing to do if push comes to shove. But I do, Max; I know exactly how low you’re prepared to stoop. Tell me, how do you think Catherine would feel? I know what you’re thinking; this isn’t going at all liked you’d hoped and you’re dying to tell me to get the hell out of here. However, if you do that, I might decide to speak to Catherine and tell her all about that night in the Heaven Hotel and what you considered doing. Now, she would undoubtedly tell me to go away and disappear, but I would have planted a seed of doubt in her mind and she’d begin watching you closely, so much more closely than before —a little too close for your comfort, in fact— for confirmation that you are not the man you have always appeared to be but the man she secretly feared you were, all along. I really don’t think you want that, do you now, Max?’
She relaxed her grip a little and Max managed to free his hand. He glared hard at her, trying to reconcile the contrast between her angelic features and her vicious words. What the hell had just happened? How dare she brazenly insinuate, insult and threaten him to his face in his very own restaurant? Obviously, all this was a prelude to some sort of sordid shake-down attempt; but she had a strange manner of going about it. What exactly was she driving at? It was apparent that she’d done some research and that she believed that she’d dug up some dirt. She evidently knew things about him. That alone was reason enough for treading very carefully, but when he factored in the guilt he felt over his initial attraction to Catarina —or whatever her real name was— Max concluded it would be best to avoid any kind of scene.
‘Excuse me, Ms. Blanca, but I’m not quite sure I’m following you. I was under the impression that you were a restaurant reviewer with Food and Drink magazine and that you were here to do a piece on the Noir Et Rouge. Yet, it appears from your conversation, that you have no such intention and therefore, you are here under false pretenses. So then, I’m at a loss as to what you are really after.’
He shrugged. ‘So you happened to see me win at roulette one night in Vegas, over a year ago. What of it? It isn’t any kind of secret. Catherine knows about it. She was with me in Vegas at the time. Just because you were sitting across the table from me, doesn’t mean that you can presume to know me. You know nothing at all about me.’
‘Oh, Max.’ Catarina leaned back into the banquette and let a long weary sigh before continuing. ‘If you think I don’t know you, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. First of all, I know your type. And let’s be honest, you are a rather stereotypical representative. But secondly, and more specifically, I know you, Max Edward Chasm. Everything about you. From the major facts, down to the dirtiest little details, as well.’ She paused, studying his face. ‘I can see you need some convincing. Where would you like me to start? From the beginning? That would be best, don’t you think?’ She fingered the necklace while she waited for an answer.
‘Sure why not? Though I doubt you’re going to tell me anything I don’t already know,’ Max replied, trying to inject a note of nonchalance into his wavering voice. Obviously, she had gone to great efforts, but for what purpose? The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control.
‘Ok, Max the beginning it shall be… though it can’t be said that you had a particularly auspicious start in the world.’ She sat forward again and began.
‘After an unusually difficult and painful pregnancy, which she never really recovered from, your mother, Julie Chasm née Bateson, gave birth to you at 3:13 am, January 23rd, a Wednesday morning. You were born on a cold, rainy, winter’s night and it could be said, in a certain sense, that your mother was never to leave that place where it was always winter, always night and always raining. She was to keep on reliving the horror of that moment for the rest of her days.
Given such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that you remember little of your mother and what you do remember is so distressing, that you automatically repress it. After all, who would want to remember the visits to the clinic of the moment, the wordless Sunday afternoons spent fidgeting in a chair opposite the pale stranger who failed to acknowledge your existence? Nobody really…
At least your father was well disposed towards you, after a fashion. However, you had a great many rivals for his affection, didn’t you? Daddy’s many girlfriends made for more suitable companions, so you spent a good deal of your childhood at the home of your maternal grandmother, Edith Bateson. Now Grannie Edith, it must be said, admirably stepped up and assumed responsibility for your upbringing. Good job really, as nobody else was prepared to accept it.
A fine, upstanding woman —your grandmother. She does have one minor vice, though. Perhaps vice is too strong of a word, really more of a foible. It’s really a question of degree, don’t you think? One man’s casual time-killer is another man’s overriding obsession. Anyway, your grandmother liked to have a little flutter now and then on the gees-gees. Nothing much, a fiver here and a fiver there. No harm done, just enough to make things a little more interesting.
Nothing wrong in that, but it did mean that you spent a good many afternoons in front of the TV watching horses run in a circle around a track. Every race held you mesmerized. You readily picked up the rudiments of form and odds and you passed your intuitive understanding onto your grandmother who often followed your tips. Still, only a fiver though, for her gambling would never be more than an amusing diversion. If she won, you would get a little extra pocket-money or a special treat, like ice cream or a toy that you coveted. Every gift received served to focus your attention on studying the guides, discerning the tricks and playing the angles. Even in school —when you bothered to show up— your mind was never on the blackboard. Instead, you were thinking of combinations and permutations, calculating the possibilities of the big win.
She paused and sat back again. ’My, I must say, Max, you’ve gone rather pale. Look at yourself, you’re shaking. You obviously need a drink. So do I. All that talking is thirsty work. Where has that waitress gone? Nina, isn’t it?’ She stood. ‘Probably easier if I went downstairs and got it myself. A bottle of red would suit, don’t you think?’
“Red is fine,’ Max answered in a dull voice.
Catarina slipped from the room and went down the stairs.
Usually, he would have derived great pleasure watching the retreating backside of a woman as beautiful as Catarina, but instead, he carried on staring at the space she had vacated. He wished with every nerve in his body that she would pass the bar downstairs, continue though the door onto the street and carry on walking until she was far, far away.
Max knew, however, that was a vain, idle hope. Whoever this woman really was, she was here for a reason. She had a purpose in mind and that purpose involved him. As to why he should be targeted in such a manner, he couldn’t begin to fathom. But she was targeting him, no doubt about that. She knew all about him. She knew things about him that he’d never told to anyone else, not even Catherine. She knew every, last, dirty, little secret. All of them. How was that possible? How did she know about Gran, his father and, and… His stomach knotted. Oh god, no, not that…
She even knew about all the stuff he’d buried. All those memories that he’d chosen to forget, because they were just too painful to recollect, even in passing. Max, Max, poor little orphan boy, lost and alone in the cold, cruel world. No, he hadn’t been an orphan in any legal or technical sense, not until he was seventeen, anyway, after his father had gone and done what he did. Nevertheless, that cunning bitch had clearly been insinuating as much, and he might as well have been, with parents like his.
She had stirred up those long-suppressed memories from his childhood. Dredged from the depths of his mind, they floated to the surface like pond scum…
He’s on the long bus trip with Gran. She’s brought a paper packet filled to the brim with pick-and-mix sweets. There’s a dense fog. They’re going to visit mother in her new place. It’s way out in the sticks. He spends the trip silently sucking on boiled sweets. They get off the bus and stand on the empty village street for a long time. He’s cold. He complains about it. Gran tells him that they won’t have to wait much longer, mum will be here soon to take us into her nice, warm house and make us a lovely, hot cup of tea, or maybe hot chocolate, if you prefer and she’ll also have some bourbons, biscuits, or even a piece of cake. ‘Now isn’t that something to look forward to?’ she asks, ‘and besides, I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing your mum again, aren’t you?’ Max nods his head in agreement and says, ‘Very much so.’ But he wishes she would hurry up and come, as it’s so cold out here. He feels guilty because he told a lie. He doesn’t really want to see his mother, although he knows that he should want to. She is his mother after all, but Max feels scared whenever he is with her. He wants to be back home with Gran, sitting next to the fire, drinking hot chocolate, eating biscuits and watching the horses like they usually did, instead of standing around on this eerie street in the middle of nowhere. Gran answers that she’s sure she’ll be here soon, something must be holding her up.
After waiting for what seems to be an eternity, Gran silently takes his hand and walks down the road until she sees a red, public phone box. She tells him to wait outside, but not to go anywhere, just stand right there where she can see him, and enters. He watches Gran fumbling in her purse. He knows, from the way her lips are drawn together in a thin line, that she is angry. He hopes that she is not angry with him. She picks up the receiver and puts some coins in the slot. Max stands stock still so that Gran can see where he is. After a long while, during which Max can see her talking and again, fumbling around, Gran pulls out a pencil and paper. After writing on the scrap of paper, she slams the phone down. She grabs his hand again and pulls him along, as she marches through the town into the open countryside. He doesn’t say anything. He knew all along that mum was going to let them down. She always had done, why should today be any different?
He is tired and frozen to the bone by the time they reach the small one story cottage where his mother has just moved to. Gran has to use the lion’s head knocker several times before the door finally opens. His mother, still in a dressing gown, lets them in. In the hallway, she grabs hold of Max and hugs him too tightly for too long. The house is chilly and damp. There is no hot chocolate or even tea. He sits in front of the television and drinks weak cordial that barely disguises the taste of rusty tap water. He turns up the volume on the racing to drown out the sound of arguing. Later on, he knows Gran will let him stay up late as a special treat, to make up for having to visit his mother…
Catarina returned with an uncorked bottle of Malbec and two red glasses. She had been right; he really did need a drink.
‘That waitress of yours loves to chat, doesn’t she?’ she said, as she poured two glasses and returned to the seat opposite him.
‘Yes, Nina is very vivacious. Guests love that though,’ Max answered guardedly.
‘Of course,’ she agreed. ‘And she is such a pretty little thing, you can’t help but love her.’
Max sipped the wine. He had to restrain himself from draining the glass. What game was she playing?
‘Who are you?’ he demanded, draining his glass and pouring himself another.
‘Have you already forgotten Max? Thought I made more of an impression than that,’ she said, feigning hurt. ‘I’m Catarina Blanca, restaurant critic with Food & Drink magazine. But you can call me Cat if you like.’
She was the picture of innocence. A guileless expression played upon her flawless features. Max knew he’d been had. Enough already, it was time to get to the bottom of all this.
‘Don’t give me that. I’m not stupid, you know,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t want to hear anymore of that shite about a review. We’re way past that point, don’t you think? No, what I want to know is: who the fuck are you, really, and what do you want from me? Why the hell are you here in my restaurant and how come you know so much about my past, Cat? I can see you’ve done your homework on me. You’ve snooped around and you think you’ve got something on me. So do me a favour, please, and come straight out with it, this time. Ok, Cat?’ He spat her name out like a curse.
She didn’t respond, she merely smiled. Normally, Max would have interpreted such a warm, friendly smile as expressing a degree of empathy. But under the circumstances, he wasn’t buying it for a heartbeat.
‘You know what you need right now, don’t you Max? A cigarette. I know I’m dying for one. Let me get mine,’ she said, searching in her black handbag. ‘Ah, here we are,’ she exclaimed triumphantly as she produced the pack with a flourish. She took off the clear wrapper, edged out two cigarettes and leaning her elbows against the table offered one to Max.
‘Thanks, but I’ve given up. Besides, you know you can’t smoke in a restaurant these days. It’s against the law.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want one?’ she repeated, shaking the pack slightly. ‘No? Suit yourself, I suppose, but you really look like you need one, to take the edge off. I don’t know about you, but I can never understand why people worry so much about their long-term health prospects, when they have no idea what’s coming around the very next corner. Mind you, maybe that’s just me.’
Now what was that supposed to mean? Surely there was no other way of interpreting a statement like that other than as a thinly veiled threat. ‘Thanks again, but no thanks. And if you insist on smoking, then you’ll have to go outside.’
‘Come on now, Max,’ she said, pursing her lips in a pout. ‘Are you really going to make me go outside? I do believe it’s still raining. Besides, I don’t see anyone around to complain, do you? Really, I’m surprised, but then they always say that the ones who give up are the worst. Why do you think that is, Max? Is it because they can’t stand to see other people enjoy what they can no longer enjoy themselves? Rather petty, don’t you think? Are you like that about certain other vices in which you no longer indulge? What do you feel in your heart when you pass a bookie’s or a casino? Is it rage? Or maybe envy? Disgust? Desire? Maybe a mixture of all those conflicting emotions that you’ve had to fight long and hard to overcome and master? But tell me this Max, is denying yourself like that really worth it? Deep down, I know you doubt the wisdom of such virtue. Because at the end of the day, it really isn’t you, is it? Go on now, Max, take the cigarette, you know you want to. The shame that you will force yourself to feel is nothing compared to the pleasure that you will experience. Go on and take one,’ she said, waving the pack in front of him.
She was right. There hadn’t been a day yet that hadn’t involved desperate cravings at some juncture. Since returning from Vegas, he had been determined to resist all temptations on the logic that if you surrender to one, then you’re more likely to succumb to others. But he badly needed a cigarette right now. He needed to think. And despite all the bad things you could say about tobacco, it certainly helped him concentrate.
‘Thanks, have you got a lighter then?’ he said, pulling a cigarette out of the pack and raising it to his lips.
‘Sure,’ she said, passing Max the elegant gold lighter after lighting her own cigarette.
He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. God, that was good, even better than he remembered. He’d almost forgotten that delicious, light-headed sensation. A dizzying bliss. He offered Catarina her lighter back, but she told him to keep it, just in case he needed it in the future.
They smoked in silence for a couple of minutes, using the saucer as an ashtray, as there were none in the restaurant. Max looked warily through the drifting smoke clouds at Catarina. She hadn’t answered any of his questions —she had deflected them with this whole cigarette charade. Yet with each drag, the possibility of posing questions to this creature sitting opposite him, seemed evermore unlikely. In fact, with every sharp intake of nicotine, Max felt increasingly detached from this whole unreal situation. And tired as well. Very, very, tired all of a sudden. Even stubbing out the cigarette in the saucer required an effort that took an inordinate amount of time. She had started talking again, but he paid no attention. His arm had fallen off the table and lay like a leaden weight in his lap. His whole body had become heavy and dense; the slightest movement was suddenly out of the question. All Max could do was swallow the iron-tasting saliva that flooded his mouth and close his sand-filled eyes.
The world could just go and fuck off, as far as Max was concerned. Obviously, I’m exhausted, he thought, as the sound of Catarina’s voice and the distant hum of the restaurant equipment receded into an echo-y reverb. A power nap would be just the ticket. He would awake refreshed and re-invigorated, ready for anything. Max was drifting further off when an unpleasant thought struck him. Something was wrong, everything was wrong. It wasn’t his way to nod off in the middle of the afternoon like this. He hadn’t been exhausted before this sinister little tête-à-tête. Even during the interview. The two glasses of wine that he’d drunk might have made Max a little sleepy-eyed, but certainly not this overwhelming stupor and general paralysis, this near catatonic state.
Of course… the wine…She’d slipped him a Mickey Finn or maybe spiked that cigarette she’d been so insistent he smoke. She’d given him something —some poison to contaminate his body and fuck with his head.
Max knew he had to fight against whatever substance was coursing though his blood stream. He tried opening his eyes but they were glued shut like the time he’d come down with conjunctivitis. He tried clasping his hands into fists but they remained inert. He couldn’t even move them a fraction of a millimetre.
After an indefinite period of time, Max become aware of the quiet. Even the echoes of Catarina’s voice had faded. There wasn’t a hint of sound. Instead, there was an absolute silence, the likes of which is not found anywhere in this world, in this life.
Was this what death was like? The brain continuing to function, yet in a void, divorced from the body and deprived of all necessary sensations? An after-life of absolute negation? And if so, did that mean he was already dead? Had the poison she’d given him killed him? Was this it…?
But then, sounds, distant at first, but gradually becoming louder, began to filter through to Max. Not the sounds of the Noir Et Rouge, yet sounds that were still distinctly and instantly recognizable to Max. Before he’d managed to get his eyes unstuck and opened, he knew by the incessant chiming of hungry slot machines, demanding to be fed, and the hubbub of the multitude of excited voices punctuated by the louder, dispassionate tones of number callers and croupiers, that he was in a casino.
There inevitably comes a point in every gambler’s career when he is compelled to call upon the aid of unseen powers. Because they instinctively follow the smart money, which these days is laid heavily against God, a gambler need only make dubious entreaties to these shadowy entities. But then a true gambler will do anything to win, consequences be damned.
So it was with Max Chasm, who in the early hours of June 23rd of an ill-starred year, was seated at the roulette table in the casino on the 33rd floor of The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton™ in Paradise, Nevada. At 1 am, when his young wife Catherine —always a Cinderella— had left him for their suite and their bed, he found himself ahead and on a streak which he was determined to pursue.
As the hours passed, the tide had slowly but perceptibly turned against him. Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? And once he started, he would have to reveal the true state of affairs, something which he was loath to contemplate. Max had refused to acknowledge, even in passing, the utter, absolute mess he had created.
Of late, his gambling had become all-consuming, he had lost his job two weeks ago and still hadn’t dropped that bomb on Catherine, and the debts…. oh yes, the debts for which he had borrowed £15,000 from his Grannie. And bless her, the dear soul thought it was a bridging loan to help him start-up a restaurant. Of course, once he had the wad in his hot hands, the idea of turning it over to Harry Diamond and all the rest of the piranhas seemed a lot less attractive than going to Vegas and winning a pile. Besides, it would be a nice treat for Catherine —it hadn’t been easy for her lately and she deserved a little spoiling.
“What was I thinking?” Max reproached himself. All his callow dreams were rapidly evaporating and soon he would be forced to confront the unavoidable reality. If Harry didn’t get his money upon Max’s return then Harry would not be best pleased…and you always wanted to stay on the right side of Harry. His experiences growing up a Jew in Belfast during the Troubles, had taught Harry the importance of making examples. This knowledge had served him well in his various careers as landlord, nightclub owner, bookmaker, debt collector and other assorted enterprises that you couldn’t put down on paper. Max knew that Harry would never abandon the tried and true methods that served him so well. Mr Diamond was the perfect embodiment of his name: flashy and very, very hard.
As he watched the croupier rack up yet more of his money, Max toyed with the idea of never returning to England. That would be, at best, a temporary solution inevitably leading to more problems, since Harry had his tentacles everywhere and undoubtedly had enough information about him —like the names and addresses of his friends and family— to make life even more difficult and dangerous than it already was.
It would also mean having to persuade Cathy to stay out here, which actually wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility, since he’d already convinced her to marry him against her beloved father’s strong objections. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an easily won argument. For a start, what would they do for money? For a moment he considered that if worst came to worst, he could put her on the game. Cathy would definitely make a killing looking the way she did. Now that was a thought, if it came to the last resort.
Max decided to sit the next few turns out to give himself time to think. He had to hit upon a strategy to come back from underneath. He ordered a gin and tonic from the kimono-clad cocktail waitress and resolved that he wouldn’t bet again until she returned.
All the while, as Max waited nervously, he fingered the lucky dice in his jacket pocket as he ran through a half-crazed litany of desperation and desire addressed to vaguely remembered deities.
“O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.”
He vowed everlasting allegiance to Chymerica and the Secret Illuminati Sisters for a taste, just a whiff of success. Hell, he was prepared to strike a bargain with the Devil Himself, if that’s what it would take.
When the waitress appeared with his drink, he tipped her with a precious chip from his diminished pile. Lighting up yet another cigarette and sipping slowly on the syrupy gin and tonic, he looked across the roulette table and studied the assortment of late night revellers, searching for some sort of omen.
“My God, what a crew,” thought Max. Shrill-voiced working girls draped themselves over the bloated bodies of middle-aged businessmen and egged them on to ever greater excesses with their childish shrieks and giggles. And that was just the winners. More numerous by far, were the sullen-faced losers —chancers with their all-nighter flesh tones illuminated by the sickly, unchanging, artificial light, who wouldn’t have been out-of-place in some nightmarish canvas by Grosz or Bacon or even Bosch.
Who was he to judge, though? Deep down, he knew this was where he belonged; these were his kind of people. Max briefly returned to staring into the depths of the glass before downing the rest of the viscous liquid. As he set about looking for the waitress again, he noticed that a newcomer had taken a seat at the table directly opposite him. Max blinked and looked again. Max wondered how it was possible to look so fresh at this ungodly hour, as he watched the serene figure accept chips from the croupier. No one else at the table, absorbed as they were in play, paid her the slightest bit of attention. Max, however, was entranced.
She was slender and even seated, Max could tell that she was very tall, possibly as tall or even taller than he was, measuring in at a good 6’1. Her shoulder-length, raven-black hair was the same colour as her satiny dress —a striking contrast with the lustrous porcelain of her skin. Most mesmerizing of all though, were her green, shining cat’s eyes, which matched the emerald necklace around her exquisite neck. Max guessed that she was around his own age, 35 or so, but really it was impossible to tell —she was simultaneously youthful and mature.
Max managed to attract the waitress’s attention and he ordered two gin and tonics. He needed to fortify himself for the following few moments. Because this was definitely it. His life could go one of two ways and he had to be prepared for whatever fate threw at him.
The waitress brought over the drinks. Max glanced over the top of his glass at the woman again. Never before had he seen the like. She was an angel in human form: a perfect ten. For Max, that was as good a sign as any. So, after a quick calculation of his remaining chips which amounted to a little over a thousand dollars, he thought, “fuck it,” and placed the whole lot on black ten.
As the croupier placed the ball in the wheel and told the punters that no more bets were allowed, Max raised his glass and silently toasted the newcomer, hoping she was the harbinger of some much needed luck. Then, of course, he watched the wheel.
This was definitely it now —his last chance. It was now or never, do or die. With this crazy bet, it really had come to that. As the ball did its usual mad dance, he asked himself why? Why had he just risked it all with odds of exactly 37 to 1, stacked in the house’s favour?
He could barely watch, yet there was no question of turning away or closing his eyes. No way. The ball continued to bounce. Max just wanted it to land so it would be over and he could start reconciling himself to his drastically straitened circumstances. One more bounce and then it settled.
“That’s it then, I’m finished,” Max thought, not registering the fact that the ball had landed in the slot numbered ten. Ten? Ten. Yes, it was definitely ten!
“Yessssssssss, thank you, thank you Sweet Lord above or whoever controls such matters!” Max prayed, as the knowledge sank in and became a reality. It was nothing less than a miracle. He’d been saved at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.
As the croupier pushed over pile after pile of chips, Max calculated that he over $40,000 dollars and with the current rate of exchange, it worked out to between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds. With that money, he could pay off Harry Diamond and the other loan sharks, and still have some change left over. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to pay off Gran, which was a shame, but she was hardly likely to take a baseball bat to his kneecaps or a meat cleaver to his little finger.
All things considered, this was a result and he decided to cash the chips in right then and there. But when he looked over at the blessed newcomer who had been the inspiration for his life changing win and saw a faintly ironic smile play on her deep red lips, it occurred to him that he should stay a little longer to see how everything played out. After all, why not? Why leave when the luck was starting to go his way? Who knows where it could all end? Yes, why not indeed?
Max went for the maximum of ten grand on red. That would still leave him with enough to clear his major debts. Twenty three red came up. Another result. He glanced again at the woman. She reached out with her immaculate hand, manicured nails painted the same shade of red as her lipstick, to grasp her drink. Max took his winnings and left his original bet to ride.
The ball landed in lucky number nine. Red again. “How long could this streak last?” Max thought, anxiously. With a deep breath, he decided that as long as she was there he would just roll with it. He was surprised she hadn’t noticed him staring at her. Then again, she probably had and wasn’t letting on. Elegant ladies always played it cool. When she ran her fingers though her glossy hair, he switched his bet to black. Black thirteen.
Surely morning had broken by now, but Max didn’t care as his run showed no sign of ending. Before every turn, he would watch the raven-haired angel, taking her every movement as an augury that infallibly came true.
Max’s success was generating excitement at the table as the other players, including the enigmatic stranger, who was the source of this good fortune, followed his bets. After the string of chances on red and black paid off, Max changed tack and started playing the odds and evens, taking his cues from the positioning of her hands on the baize.
As she began dreamily stroking the emerald necklace circling her throat —a throat worthy of a Mannerist masterpiece— Max didn’t hesitate and put ten thousand on zero. And after everything that had gone before, he wasn’t the least surprised when the ball nestled cosily in the green slot.
Max realised that if he carried on at this rate, it was entirely possible that he could break the bank. With his 24th consecutive win, he had amassed over $600,000 and his fellow gamblers were raking it in, too. Heady with this prospect, Max ordered half a dozen bottles of champagne for the table from the chatty, flirtatious waitress just starting her shift.
While his attention was diverted, Max failed to notice that his charm had collected her winnings and had left the table, disappearing into the recesses leading to the massed banks of slot machines. He would have liked to thank her and maybe gotten to know her better —a lot better, actually— but it was already too late. She was lost to the casino and by the time he cashed in, he knew she could be anywhere.
He gave a tip of a thousand dollars to the croupier, ignored the pleas of his fellow gamblers (for once, he was going to quit while still ahead) and headed for the elevator to take him up to his suite. He was going to wake Catherine. She would be furious that he had stayed out all night long, but at least he felt sure he could sweeten her mood.
That night marked the start of a new beginning for Max and Catherine. With the money Max had won, he paid off the loan sharks and cleared all his other debts. With that unpleasant task behind him, he vowed never gamble again and to do something worthwhile with his life. Most importantly of all though, he vowed to start treating Catherine right.
Max lived up to his promises admirably. They put a large deposit down on an inter-bellum, three-story, semi-detached in an up-and-coming borough. Then, after a few months of drawing up a business plan and searching for the ideal location, they opened a restaurant which Max, in an homage and a farewell gesture to the game that had made their dream a reality, named Noir Et Rouge.
With Max working the front of the house and Catherine crafting her unique creations in the kitchen, the restaurant was such a success that Max gave no thought to having an occasional flutter or buying a lottery ticket on a Saturday night.
As the present was just so and the future looked exceedingly bright, Max chose not to dwell on the past. Whenever a stray memory from his gambling days did surface, he instantly suppressed it. He was no longer that person — the degenerate gambler, staring ruination in the face, yet still only thinking of the next bet. What possible connection could exist between that man and the successful businessman with a beautiful, talented and loving wife?
This is the revised, edited and improved version of a story/start of a novel that I have previously posted. Dr Meg Sorick (https://drmegsorick.com/)has once again kindly taken the time to review the material and has waved her magician’s wand and pulled a rabbit of the hat. Please visit her site. The next instalment will be next Saturday May 20th.