Tempting Fate: Part Four

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

The previous parts can be found at Tempting Fate: Part One, Tempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part Three,and Tempting Fate: Part Three. Thanks as always to drmegsorick for her editorial advice and support. Part Five will be available on Saturday 10th June.

V.

‘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.’

‘Fuck it, let’s go this very second.’

Tempting Fate: Part Three

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

Tempting Fate: Part One and Tempting Fate: Part Two can be found here. Once again a big thanks to drmegsorick.com for her invaluable support and editing. The continuation can be found at the same time, same place on June the 3rd.

IV

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.

Tempting Fate: Part Eight

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923
First of all my apologies in the delay of this instalment of Tempting Fate which I planned to post in the first week of January. You can find the previous parts at Tempting Fate: Part OneTempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part ThreeTempting Fate: Part FourTempting Fate: Part FiveTempting Fate: Part Six and Tempting Fate: Part Seven. As always thank you to drmegsorick.com for her infinite patience and invaluable editorial support.

                              IX.


After finally emerging into the daylight from the scrum and press of the ticket barriers, Margot immediately declared that they couldn’t possibly go to Kubla Khan’s at this early hour. The shutters may have been lifted, but nobody who was anybody would be caught dead there at this time of day.

‘Besides Max, you are looking as peaky as I feel,’ she said. ‘I think that we are both in need of some refreshment. Yes, a little pick-me-up would act as a tonic, do us both a world of good. So what do you say to that?’ Margot asked, more to herself than to Max.

Max nodded absently. ‘Sure.’

He’d been so absorbed in the act of putting one foot in front of the other, suppressing the nausea brought on by the sight of the grey concrete towers dissolving in the sickening heat haze, that he really hadn’t been paying close attention. Now, though, he wondered where exactly they were walking to.

‘I know. Let’s go to that new place,’ Margot said, answering his unspoken question. ‘You know, that place they spent a fortune on? It was in the news. They called it the beginning of an urban renaissance or some such public relations nonsense.’

She stopped, lifted her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes in an effort to jog her memory. ‘Oh what’s it called?’ she asked aloud. ‘The Babylon. No. That’s not it. Something like it though. Babylon, Babylonia, Bethlehem, Bedlam…’ She shook her head. Then clicking her fingers, she said, ‘The Babel, that’s it. Let’s go there.’ With a look at their surroundings, she added, ‘Though I’m sure we’re headed in the completely wrong direction.’ When her gaze landed on a cluster of buildings that had briefly obscured the sun, she pointed. ‘There. Let’s go that a way instead.’

Again Max just nodded. He tried to speak but discovered that his swollen tongue was incapable of forming words. They had to get somewhere soon though, he thought. As Margot’s mind spiralled in ever decreasing, tightening circles, his limbs and extremities were being overtaken by a debilitating leadenness. Soon, very soon, he sincerely and desperately hoped, they would find this damned hotel and be seated in a dim nook with tall, long glasses of some refreshing, viscous, alcoholic drink. He could see it so clearly. He could almost taste it. Why were they not there already?

These thoughts were familiar. Memories, perhaps? Thoughts he’d had before? Glancing out of the corner of his eye at the mirrored, reinforced, window of the shop-front they were passing, he realised his mind was like that sheet of glass —reflecting everything and yet remembering nothing. The images that appeared before his eyes made a momentary impression, then moved off and vanished forever.

They scurried down empty avenues designed to disabuse anyone of the quaint notion that streets were for pedestrians to stroll upon. It simply wasn’t the case, especially not these days and not here, of all places. No, an avenue was a place for traffic to tear down, brakes untouched —woe betide anyone stupid enough to try to cross the road. Getting to the opposite side required being born there. And so they turned up sinister, dead-end alleys built primarily to facilitate robbery and rape, emerging finally, on the canal area. Margot immediately perked up, remarking that it couldn’t be far away now.

‘Thank God, I thought we were well and truly lost there for a while,’ Max said, finally finding his voice again.

‘Dearest Max, your lack of confidence in me is simply appalling,’ she said. ‘Though, I believe we are both on a bit of a come-down, which simply won’t do. But never fear. I believe I have the solution to having peaked too soon. I just never expected it to be such a long day. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, isn’t that so?’

‘I realize you have some master plan in the works, Margot. I just wish you would enlighten me a little.’

‘Oh Max,’ she said, smiling. ‘That would just spoil the surprise. Where’s your sense of adventure? When you woke up this morning, I bet you never thought you’d end up lost in Birmingham, did you?’ She gestured to a squat, low-rise, balconied building which had BABEL TOWERS emblazoned across the entrance. ‘Look, that must be it.’

‘It must be indeed, though it’s not really a tower, is it?’ Max remarked.

‘Not to worry, I am sure they will add bits onto it later. It does look shiny and new, though, doesn’t it?’

‘Sure does. Anyway, I couldn’t care less. I just want to get inside and take the weight off and have a drink. I’m completely parched’

‘Come on, then, stop dawdling and we’ll be there right quick.’

‘Coming, Margot,’ he said, pouting. ‘Are you just going to get bossier and bossier as this day goes on, or what?’

‘You’d better believe it, darling. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Besides, that’s the reason why you love me so,’ Margot suggested rather tartly.

‘Oh, you think so?’ Max replied, though he had to admit that she probably had a point on this score.

And as she marched up to the bar —with its space-station curves and mirrored surfaces— and commandingly ordered two gin and tonics with a squeeze of a lime, he felt just a little bit more in love, if such a thing was possible. The fleeting thought of his somnolent father finally waking to discover their absence entered his mind and was dismissed straight away. Hadn’t he already had that thought before?

They slid into the seats of a banquette in a shadowy nook, just like he had envisioned. Suddenly awestruck, he wondered if he was now psychic. Had the drugs Margot so thoughtfully provided unlocked a hitherto unused portion of his brain to reveal everything in the world in all its essence? He sipped the viscous gin that wonderfully refreshed his parched mouth and throat.

‘We really shouldn’t be mixing drink with what we took earlier —not really the ideal combo, but what the hell. I really needed this. Besides we are definitely on the comedown phrase, and that certainly won’t do if we are really to make a night of it,’ she said. ‘And I really want to make it a night we will never forget, don’t you, Max?’

Max sipped his drink. ‘Of course.’ Though, it was already a day that would live long in the memory.

‘Anyway, so,’ Margot said, pausing to rummage in her handbag. She withdrew her hand to present two sugar-cubes in her open palm. ‘This may be too much, but too much of everything is just enough, don’t you think?’ She laughed. ‘Though it may be in this case just too much. What do you say?’ She handed him one of the sugar-cubes.

‘I say yes. Thanks, Margot,’ Max said as he swallowed and reached for his drink.

‘Good boy, hopefully we can expect fireworks very shortly.’

‘No doubt. Do you want another drink?’ Max asked as he rose.

‘Absolutely, same again. Here, take some of your Dad’s money to pay for it.’

‘Cheers,’ Max said, smiling as he accepted the ten pound note.

Then cash in hand, Max wound through the crowd toward the glowing Shangri-La that was the bar. As the drug took effect, he felt the resurgent joy that had been slipping away, slowly return.

Tempting Fate: Part Seven

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

Previous parts of Tempting Fate can be found at Tempting Fate: Part OneTempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part ThreeTempting Fate: Part FourTempting Fate: Part Five and Tempting Fate: Part Six. Due to the festive season parts Eight and Nine will be available on the first Saturday of 2017. As always thanks to drmegsorick.com for her unstinting support.

 

VIII.

The train left at 4:13, which meant they had exactly 37 minutes to kill. Margot bought two packets of Silk Cut and handed one to Max.

‘Now you can at least smoke your own instead of taking all of mine,’ she said drily.

‘I thought sharing was caring.’

‘Yeah, but it’s meant to be a two way street, darling, not completely all one way traffic.’

They went over to the dirty, beige-coloured cafe and ordered two dirty, beige-coloured coffees. The place was full of tramps in the process of disintegrating before Max’s very eyes and sharp-faced young men, completely immobile and watching all the entrances and exits patiently. They were undoubtedly pimps just waiting to offer sinister charity to the inevitable waif having strayed too far from home.

‘Shall we head towards the platform now, Margot?’  Max asked her. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’

‘We still have…let’s see,’ Margot said as she checked her watch. ‘Another 23 minutes yet. Besides, you haven’t finished your coffee.’

‘Nah, it’s OK. I think it’s re-heated washing up water anyway. I need to get a coke on the way out to get rid of the taste.’

‘I suppose we can wait on the platform. I hope you will be able to sit still on the train. It’s over two hours, you know,’ she teased.

‘Of course. Sitting still is not really a problem for me. I can do anything if I put my mind to it.’

‘Really? Is that so?’ Margot seemed amused at Max’s boasting. ‘Maybe you should put your mind to it more often, then.’

‘Just because you’re my father’s guest doesn’t mean that you can be cheeky to his son. You’re not that much older than me you know. I mean, the way you go on, anyone would think you’re my big sister,’ Max grumbled.

‘Ahh poor baby, did I hurt your feelings? Come on,’ she said, standing. ‘Let’s get to platform 5, then.’

They left the dismal cafe and walked against the tide of disembarked passengers to platform 5. When they had found a place to wait, Margot opened her packet of cigarettes and offered one to Max. They smoked in silence until the train pulled up to the platform.

All the other passengers seemed to be Midlands businessmen ready to read every line of print in their rolled newspapers, either that or sleep. Even the ones traveling with friends or colleagues sat in stony-faced silence.

Max gauged that Margot wasn’t in the mood to talk either, so he contented himself with watching the scenery unroll outside the window as they passed through the North London suburbs. Of course, property close to train-lines always tends to be less than truly desirable, so for a good while all he saw were unkempt back gardens, strewn with broken prams, discarded children toys and rusted kitchen appliances.

As the train left the city behind and entered the countryside, it began to pick up speed. There was something about traveling that always made Max feel sleepy which in turn, made him very aroused. The desire for sleep had been somewhat counteracted by the drug —his blood cells jittered and raced through his ever expanding capillaries. However, the motion, the proximity of Margot (that scent -her scent), the living, shimmering fabric of her skin— all of it combined to make Max uncomfortably aware of his erection.

He didn’t suppose it would do any harm to close his eyes for just a few minutes and let delicious visions of unbridled bliss wash over his tired senses. It wouldn’t hurt at all. In fact, it would be a good thing, a very good thing indeed…

He could picture it all so clearly, the sun unmoving at its zenith above the tranquil, blue water reflecting the cloudless sky. The beach deserted as it would never be in this day and age, on such a perfect afternoon. He has it all to himself. Over to his right, where the cliffs meet the sand, a woman is swimming to shore. Once out of the water, she spots him and hesitates, but then waves at him rather hurriedly and shyly. Despite the tentative nature of the gesture, it seems like she is beckoning to him, the motion was meant to entice, is in fact, an invitation. But before he can get up and follow her, she has already disappeared into one of the many high-rise apartment blocks that nestle in the hills overlooking the sea.

The train came to an abrupt halt, jolting Max back to consciousness.

‘Ahhh, I see you have decided to re-join the land of the living. About time too, we are almost there now, Max. I would say about another fifteen to twenty minutes. That is, if the train ever leaves this benighted shit-hole,’  Margot remarked with a gesture towards the bleak landscape on display.

Max peered through the dirt-smeared windows. She hadn’t exaggerated. Massive chimneys belched out bilious smoke that only partially obscured the derelict Victorian factories and abandoned rusting warehouses. Heavy industry had long since poisoned the earth so that now only the rankest of weeds were surviving and thriving in the brown fields. All manner of refuse had been thrown from the banks of the disused canals into the silted beds below. A few occasional figures, undoubtedly drunks or junkies, all dressed in drab, earth tones or dingy, rainy-day hues, stumbled forlornly across this hopeless environment.

‘Do you know where we are now?’ Max asked.

‘Darling, what gives you the notion that I would have the faintest idea what that place is called? Does anyone know? And even if anyone did, would they care to remember? It just one of those places that the trains always stop at for some bizarre reason, even though there is no station.’

Just then, the train lurched into motion. ‘Finally,’ sighed Margot.

As the train approached Birmingham, slowly, with frequent stops —presumably because of interchanges and increased commuter and freight traffic— it became apparent that it was a city of competing brutalities. A place designed for man’s absence; all distressed concrete and smashed glass. Some joker had thought that Birmingham should emulate L.A’s autopia (under these northern skies!), while another genius had tried to recreate Le Corbusier’s Radiant City on the cheap.

Well, guess what, Max thought, that shit hadn’t worked. It had failed miserably, actually producing the opposite of what was intended, a place that neither shone nor sparkled, in fact cast no light at all. Birmingham The Unradiant City.

‘We are here,’ Margot said, standing up as the train came to a stop at New Street Station.