‘I pop pop pop blow blow bubble gum. You taste of cherryade.’
For a while, I got by living on nothing but air. It wasn’t easy and in London, like any big city, nobody goes out of their way to give you a leg up. And I must have looked awful too, because not even the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons on the street would approach me. But I got by. As it happened, I eventually did get a call to work at an event one night. That’s how the Gourmet Food Company rolls: they only call when they need you. And actually it’s you who have to call them most of the time to remind them that living on nothing but air isn’t so easy. The event was apparently some kind of function for diplomats and businesspeople. We got there early to unload the glassware, plates, cutlery, tablecloths, wine, chairs, flowers, vases, crate after crate of champagne. Everything a guest could possibly require. The Gourmet Food van had the company logo printed on the side: a red tomato, which from a distance could be mistaken for a pulsating heart in a pool of blood. The places they catered for were amazing though. I got to see the inside of the Saatchi Gallery, The British Museum, Two Temple Place, the Round House… That day it was Australia House I got to see. Inside there were huge round columns leading to the domed ceiling with glass chandeliers. The whole building had an Ancient Greek mythological vibe about it. ‘You guys have five minutes to get your stuff on,’ said James, the boss. We all went to get changed into our work gear: black slacks with white shirts bearing the tomato on the breast pocket, our waists wrapped in white aprons. As the girls tied back their hair, some of the guys twisted wax and gel into theirs. After an hour or so, the room was brimming with white-haired guests in eveningwear. I did the rounds with a tray of champagne flutes. I had to dodge some of the guests as they hobbled around unsteadily and came close to losing the whole tray of glassware once or twice. Every now and then I had to change the tray from one arm to the other to avoid them going numb. One of the new guys asked me if we were allowed to accept tips. He was tall and had an athletic build. His name was Daniel. ‘Only if they’re not expecting something from you in return.’ Later on, one of the silver-haired ladies spilled her glass of wine all over my white apron. I got Daniel to take my tray and headed for the lifts. As I was walking through the reception hall, it occurred to me that most of the houses in London were at least a hundred years old and Australia House would be no different. In Peru they’d have been a big deal, but here you took it for granted. I felt classy and kind of important, enjoying the contrast of my lustrous black shoe leather against the immaculate white stone. I went down a level, took off my apron and saw the large wet patch on the front of my trousers. I went into one of the toilet stalls nearby and began using the hand dryer to sort it out. After a while I sat down on the lid of the toilet and rested my head on the cistern. It was cool. I don’t know whether it was because I was tired, hungry, bored or a combination of all of them, but I’d fallen asleep and was startled awake by someone banging on the cubicle door. I swung the door open and saw the pale faces of Daniel and the boss, James. James was an ok guy but totally unforgiving with this kind of thing. I was fired on the spot, which was what Daniel clearly intended to happen going by the look on his face. I quickly got changed, threw my work clothes into my backpack and put on my white Pumas. As I was heading for the exit I caught sight of Daniel, who still looked pleased with himself. He had taken my place in the pecking order after all. ‘I don’t know what’s worse, not having a job or being a dick.’ He stopped to think about it and finally replied, ‘Not having a job, I’d say.’ I kept on down the hall towards the main entrance. I was the only one in trainers and jeans and now just felt like an impostor. I stopped to serve myself the last of a Moet & Chandon into a plastic cup. The dinner conversations of hundreds of guests echoed around me in a haze. I took a sip from the cup and continued on my way through the entrance hall and out onto the street. There were crowds of people hurrying by, scuttling off in all directions. Like an infestation of ants. I wondered where the hell all these people had managed to find work. I crossed the street and was continuing along The Strand in the direction of Charing Cross Station when I realised a metallic green Jag was cruising along next to me. The driver was waving and calling me over. I thought it must have been someone looking for directions. An ant that had lost its way. As I approached, the window sunk smoothly into the side panels. It was her at the wheel—twice my age but, as I came to learn, still a girl at heart. I looked her over. She was wearing a steel-grey evening dress and her plunged neckline was adorned with dark olive-like stones. Her green eyes were calm and open. It had been a long time since a stranger had looked at me so openly and welcoming, in a way that’s unusual in Europe. ‘Hello… Can I help you?’ I asked, almost like I was still working. She adjusted suede gloves. ‘Look, I am moving house shortly and was planning to leave this TV in a charity shop. I wonder if you could use it?’ She signalled with her eyebrow towards an enormous plasma lying on the backseat. ‘What do you want for it?’ She opened the passenger door. ‘Hop in’. She was smiling. I jumped into the car. The seats were cream-coloured leather and there was a smell I found relaxing, like a mixture of sandalwood and cinnamon. I could see her legs bare from the knee down where the skin was soft and fresh. I could feel she was beginning to notice my gaze so I turned and looked out the window. ‘By the way, my name is Charlotte,’ she said. ‘But everyone calls me Lottie’. ‘I’m Fernando,’ I replied. ‘My friends call me Nano.’ ‘Ok. Nano.’ she said thoughtfully. ‘I feel awful about what happened to you in Australia House. It was my aunt that spilled the wine on you’. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed her at the party. She was beautiful. I asked her if I could turn on the radio. I wanted to distract myself from thinking about everything that had just happened at The Australian Embassy, the spilled wine, getting fired. I found the signal for Radio 4. There was a woman leaving a voicemail for someone named Andrew, begging him to call her. Love unrequited. ‘How can you listen to The Archers? You’re not old enough to listen to radio dramas,’ Lottie laughed. ‘Look in here, Nano, I have some CDs instead,’ she said, opening the glove compartment. I pulled out the first disk and put it on. There was a picture of a woman with her head in her hands on the front cover of the CD. KT Tunstall. The music came through the speakers with a fidelity that I had never heard in a car before. ‘Oh 'cause I'm under the weather, Just like the world, And I need somebody to hold When I turn out the light. You're out of sight, Although I know that I'm not alone Feels like home.’ We had gone past Victoria Station and were heading towards Chelsea when it began to rain. Figures, I thought to myself, in London. The rain, together with the glass of champagne and the voice of the girl singing began to bring me down a little. Eventually Lottie parked the car in front of a white Georgian terrace. We sprinted towards the doorway in an effort to keep ourselves dry, without much success. She pulled out a handful of keys. The wind was hurling the rain into our backs. She got the door open and pulled me inside, where she looked at me and took me by the hand. Her hair was soaked through and her skin was cold and smelled like cinnamon. Like a mother walking a child to school, she led me to the master bedroom where we immediately gave expression to what was so rapidly bringing our lives together. There was an air of sadness in her room, but there is nothing better for sadness than making love. It felt as if the world were about to fall to pieces and this was our answer. ‘Do you… like me?’ she asked, as we lay in bed. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Do you think I’m… attractive?’ she clarified, slightly embarrassed. ‘Very,’ I said. ‘You look like an Elizabethan actress.’ ‘Because I’m old or overly dramatic?’ ‘No, no, not at all. Because you’re lovely. You’re beautiful.’ It was all a bit strange, having gone from total strangers to fresh lovers so rapidly. ‘But…’ ‘I like you, Lottie. I want you.’ The next morning, I woke up with light streaming in through the window and no sign of Lottie. On a nightstand next to me there was a photograph of her, much younger. In the photo she was wearing a ridiculously oversized hat that somehow she still made look elegant. There were also two books by PG Wodehouse, Summer Moonshine and Cocktail Time and another thick volume with flowers on the cover called Poem for the Day. I flicked through them for a while, but soon grew bored. I got up and went to the window. Lottie looked up from outside and waved. She was preparing a table for breakfast. The garden was large and there was a horse sculpted from white stone in the centre. There were vines burgeoning at the side-walls and at the back two trees, guarding the oasis like sentinels. ‘Were you comfortable last night?’ she asked, serving tea. ‘Very.’ She passed the sugar. ‘I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Happy, but a little… nervous. It’s a mix of emotions.’ She exhaled deeply and continued. ‘I’m just getting old I suppose. I should probably start taking a yoga class or something.’ ‘You have a beautiful body.’ ‘You’re sweet, Nano. Thank you.’ After breakfast, she walked him through the garden. She was wearing a blue dress with white spots that perfectly contained her figure. Without making eye contact, she said ‘You probably think I’m crazy. Picking you up off the street and taking you to bed like that.’ ‘No,’ I answered, although the thought had occurred to me. ‘I do wonder why you wanted to though.’ ‘I don’t want you to think I do this all the time,’ she said, finally turning to look at me. ‘But when I saw you last night with that tray of champagne… I felt as if we’d already knew each other.’ ‘Lottie, you are crazy. But very romantic.’ She asked me whether I would stay with her for another three weeks. At the end of July, she had to travel to the south of France for a few days and then on to Geneva where she would remain with her husband for another year. I tried to imagine her husband. I pictured him as an older, elegant man dressed in a suit and tie and working in an important bank or insurance company or in an embassy. ‘Do you have any children?’ I felt a flash of guilt as soon as I’d let it out. ‘No,’ she said, lowering her head, as if the guilt had been passed on to her. As if owning up to something, she added, ‘I have never been able to conceive. It’s as if my whole life I’ve never really been an adult. Like Peter Pan.’ I raised my hand and touched her face. She blushed a little. She placed her hand on mine. ‘Three weeks,’ I agreed. I sent a text to my roommate, telling him not to worry if I wasn’t around. The days with Lottie were luxurious, like a holiday in the Caribbean or on a cruise. We spoke about a thousand different things and went all around the city visiting cafés and art galleries. Everything felt like it could come to an end at any moment. One day I asked her about the paintings that were hanging in the staircase of her house. They were all of serious, slightly overweight men and painted in dark oils. Each had a small metal plaque beneath it bearing the surname Jones-Walker. ‘Are they your family?’ I asked. ‘No, they are my husband’s ancestors.’ They all looked alike and I guessed that the husband must look the same too, just in more modern clothes. I was able to guess from all the empty spaces around the house, on shelves, on nightstands and her dresser, that Lottie had decided to hide all the photos where her husband appeared. In addition to being beautiful and fun, Lottie was generous. She always came back to the house with some kind of gift, often clothes of some kind, like a corduroy jacket, or pink Ralph Lauren trousers. Normally I would never have been seen dead in that kind of thing, but in Lottie’s company they almost became a kind of costume. Lottie was enrolled in an assortment of courses at the university, generally in the arts and humanities as far as I could tell. One night in the garden she spoke of her husband, which until that moment she had generally managed to avoid. ‘I asked my husband if he would read the story I had to analyse and the essay I wrote about it,’ she said, pausing to take some tea. ‘He’s so busy he normally doesn’t have any time to read. But he does look after me.’ ‘He’s not much of a reader?’ I asked with a kind of superior pleasure. ‘Not really. He reads The Times and The Telegraph, but that’s a different kind of reading.’ She paused with her tea held just in front of her, ‘It made me very happy that he enjoyed the story. It probably wasn’t a brilliant essay, academically speaking. I suppose it’s not important anyway.’ Her teacup remained suspended in the space in front of her, unmoving and elegant like the hour hand on a grandfather clock. The last night there were tears. I guess she knew we would never see each other again and that these days had been a small luxury she could only allow herself once in a lifetime. Eventually, I began to forget Lottie, though at first I would still occasionally walk through her street and look up at her house. It had a melancholy vibe about it, the closed curtains in the upper windows transforming it into a blind and vulnerable entity. Three winters passed. By then I had a job in John Lewis and was in a much better situation generally. Everything was much more stable anyway. By pure coincidence one day, I walked past Daniel in Sloane Square. We both turned our heads and he decided to engage me, which I interpreted as a kind of apology. He told me about how James had eventually fired him too. How several Gourmet Food workers had been fired around that time. ‘Since the bombs on the underground no one wants to have a party in the city centre anymore.’ I gave him the name of my boss and the very next week he was working with us as a security guard in the makeup section. I was now the manager in charge of the CCTV system which was boring but steady, paid the bills and even allowed me to put something away. All I had to do was file incident reports every now and again and manage the guys who monitored the security cameras. One Sunday afternoon I saw Daniel on the monitor detaining a woman. I grabbed the controls off Peter, a blond kid from Manchester who worked the afternoon shift. I zoomed in. I recognised the face but needed a few seconds. It was her. No doubt about it. I ran downstairs to the makeup section to take charge of the situation and, hopefully, to help her out. It was busy and it wasn’t easy getting to them. When I finally found them, Daniel had her by the arm. ‘I’ll take it from here. I know her.’ Daniel looked at me with surprise, but let go of Lottie and left me to look after the situation. He carried away the Molton Skin Lotion pack she had stuffed into her bag. I accompanied her to the entrance. She was much thinner than before. Her hair was longer and her eyes were a little swollen and dull. ‘Recognise me?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she replied faintly. ‘What is your name?’ ‘They call me Lottie.’ I opened my wallet and gave her what I had, which she stuffed straight into her black plastic purse. I wanted to kiss her but instead I watched her fragile figure make its way into the dark, busy street and disappear. A gust of wind carried a scent of sandalwood and cinnamon.