Life had not abandoned him. But he did his best to abandon life. ‘Oh,’ he thought. ‘Oh, dear.’ His life was not debauched. Quite plain. So it only made the gods giggle when he sat down to his wonky writing desk and used scrap paper to draft a few pathetic lines.
“Death note: well, you can’t blame me!”
“But don’t blame yourselves, either.”
A wasp entered through the window.
“Death note: it’s really nobody’s fault…”
The wasp left.
“I feel so sorry about everything, — I even pity you all. But never mind.”
The sky was darkening; more with clouds than with night. He stood. A pen fell to the floor. ‘This isn’t working,’ he thought. So when he walked into the gathering thunderstorm it seemed natural to retreat into a lobby and take the lift to a rooftop restaurant in one of those hotels that they are in London. A woman was singing cheap white jazz. So he sat listening to how she could only give her love. And how extraordinary her lover was. And how New York is just the best. The waiter brought him the wrong drink. The amplifier was unplugged. He sat up: three songs didn’t seem very many. The music gone, only chatter remained. It was hard to feel at ease. An LED tea light flickered its programmed flickering on the table. There was a plastic daffodil, too. And the woman at the next table appeared to be wearing a polyester cardigan.
“Aesthetics is everything!” he might have roared, once, — at a dinner party, — with some friends. Had he ever had friends? He did not think his friends were very friendly. They were busy. They rushed dinners to jump into cabs to go places. They patted, never held.
Outside, the storm was coagulated, hot. Blue fluorescents in takeaway shops cut together with wet tyre spray from passing cars. He found himself dripping onto the floor of a cab, watching yellow lamps drift through the sea outside.
“I can’t take cards.”
“Hmm?” he said.
“I only take cash.”
“Cash? Oh, yes, I am sorry — I’ll find an ATM. There’s one on this corner, I think.”
He read ‘card declined’ on the screen. It was difficult to know if it was the hotel bill that had done it. Or the rent-boy. Or the matinee that afternoon. It had been so nice to see Mark at the matinee. He never gets a private word with Mark, whose life is formed of public events and can bear no interruption. He had watched Mark dispatch emails before touching his prosecco at the interval. His other friends transmute constantly between ally and enemy — he can never discern if they hate him, secretly. But Mark is different. He only ever sees Mark at matinees and dinners and convivial business soirees: Mark is always the same. He finds this vaguely reassuring.
At the Wentworth hotel — a late-Victorian restoration — he booked a suite and called John. Besides John’s affiliation with the escort agency, he works small jobs as a caterer. But John is often free at short notice. Waiting for John, he lay on the floor. John knew that this meant he was to lie on top of him. Leg on leg. Hand on hand. He let the air rush out of his chest and sipped shallow breaths until his head began to swim and the floor was swelling and roiling under John’s body — arms, abdomen, thighs: all bursting with beating blood and floating steady on the roaring ocean: gentle anchoring weight. The carpet had a very short pile. It was white and smelled of cleaning products. As a boy, his clothes had always had this scent. Washing powder. Every shirt, pair of boxers, sock: all clean and perfect. It was was his mother who oversaw the cleaning. She employed a cleaner, a Kenyan lady, and grew very dependent on her (they were as compulsive as each other). His mother was devastated when, in Istanbul, she couldn’t settle on a new housekeeper. He had listened on the phone to how each new Turkish maid had dirtied the carpet, forgotten to vacuum, broken a vase — and his mother, harried by this parade of incompetent foreigners, had ultimately allowed the apartment to grow dishevelled and died there surrounded by relative filth. He had sold her apartment during his visit to repatriate the corpse. The housing market had been soft. After paying the mortgage and all the costs required to attend to an American’s death, he made a net loss and so derived no fiscal benefit from his mother’s passing. Nor did he derive any psychological relief: it was too late for that. He was already seeing John regularly. The week he returned from Istanbul, impoverished, John came every morning to press down on him. But today John’s weight did nothing to quiet the growing storm. The white carpet frothed and foamed: John gripped his shaking wrists and dug knees into his thighs and the storm buffeted. His ragged breathing mingled with the long deep pulls of John’s lungs — the sound of waves lapping at a calm shore that he knew was out of reach.
He could see the nose of the taxi waiting at the corner. The driver was not watching. He slipped into a restaurant and asked for a table at the back. They brought him a steamed trout with steamed broccoli in a separate bowl on the side: the usual fare. Mark disapproved of these spartan meals. But he had always ordered this meal at this place. Why stop? Why now? Seeing as his bank cards weren’t working, he pretended to receive a phone call and ran into the consuming rain; the rush and slip of the street; a true night.