© BM 2008
Chapter Fifteen – Episode 21
Alex looked up, as if startled.
“What? What did you say?”
Neil Willis scowled at him, mostly in exasperation. “I said, ‘Do you want another
“Oh, yes, thanks mate. I’m sorry, my mind was somewhere else.”
Neil put his hand on Alex’s arm. “Now, look, my old friend, and listen to your Uncle Neil, before you start staring into your beer again. You may have split up from your missus, but I haven’t split up from mine. In fact, I quite like the lady, and would have been more than happy to go home to her. You may have forgotten, but it was you, not me, who extended an invitation to come and have a drink. Remember?”
Alex sighed. “Yes, you’re right, I did, and I’m not very good company, am I? Sorry, Neil. Let me get the drinks.”
“Alex, old son, it doesn’t matter a toss who gets the sodding drinks. I thought you wanted to talk, or do something to get yourself out of this bloody awful pit you have dug for yourself.”
“Neil, I did, want to talk, but I can’t. I can’t talk, and I can’t get out of the pit, as you describe it.”
Willis pointedly took a pull at his near empty glass, and Alex, seeing this, got up and went to the bar.
He placed two pints of Fosters’ on the glass topped table, and in sitting down again, jogged the table with his knee, spilling some beer, which spread out in a steady stream, obliterating the rings already showing on the surface.
“Sorry, Neil.” Alex pulled out his handkerchief to mop up the spreading liquid.
“Alex, for fucks sake, mate, stop screwing around.” He got up and went to the bar, returning with a cloth. “Now, pack it in and drink your sodding beer. Your problem is that you need a girlfriend. Some blokes are absolutely useless without a woman in their lives, and you are one of them. Have you not been out with anyone since you left Anne?”
“No, not really.” Alex looked out into the middle distance again, seeing something out there that Neil Willis could not see. “Well, no, I suppose that’s not quite true. I did go out with Denise, you know, the divorced lady who works on the second floor?”
“Yes, I know her, not bad looking. How did you get on?”
“Well, yes, all right, I suppose.” He sipped his beer. “No, that isn’t true. We only saw each other once. It was, well, it just didn’t feel right. I think she felt the same way.”
“You have got to keep trying, you know. You can’t expect to crack it first time of asking. How long have you been split up with Anne? Six weeks?”
“No, it’s three months, nearly four.”
“Have you and Anne tried to get back together? Have you talked things over?”
Alex smiled grimly. “We spent years talking things over. No, not talking, shouting things over. That’s finished, Neil, we aren’t going to get back together again.”
“Bugger me,” thought Willis, “this is going to be harder than I thought.”
They sat in silence for several minutes, Alex once again fascinated by something in the middle distance, Neil gloomily drinking.
“Alex, I’m going to Rome at the end of next week, and I could use some help. It’s one of those dreadful EEC bashes, and I really could do with an assistant. Do you fancy coming along?”
“I suppose I could. I’ve got nothing special on. How long are you planning to be there?”
“Oh, five or six days. However,” Willis hesitated. “However, I thought that I might go a day or two earlier and visit Venice. I’ve never been. We could hire a car, and drive down to Rome, probably on the Sunday. We don’t need to be at the meeting until Monday morning. What do you think?”
“I’ll let you know.”
Neil was firm. “Balls to that, mate. Make up your bloody mind now. What do you say?”
Alex did not have a good reason to say ‘no’, and could think of nothing else to say, so he agreed.
They arrived at Marco Polo International Airport just after lunch on a cool, cloudy Thursday, and made their way, almost reluctantly, in Alex’s case, to the Avis car hire desk. The young woman on duty was dark haired, brown eyed and even to Alex’s jaundiced eye, very attractive.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Can I be of assistance?” She spoke in English.
“How did you know we were English,” enquired Neil brightly.
Alex elbowed his friend in the ribs, and muttered darkly, “Speak for yourself, you English bastard.”
The girl half smiled, uncertainly, but decided to press on. “Well, you look English.”
Willis nodded glumly, but the girl continued. “In any case the British Airways flight has just landed, and I have only two clients off that flight, sharing a car.” She smiled again, displaying an array of white teeth.
“You’re quite a detective,” observed Neil.
“Oh, yes,” she flashed her smile at them again. “I’m just like Sherlock Watson.”
“Or Doctor Holmes, even.” Neil could be witty when the mood took him.
They picked up their car, a two door, red Opel Ranger.
“What the fuck have you got there,” Alex asked disparagingly.
Neil looked at the little car. “What’s wrong with it? It’s OK. It will get us to Rome.”
“We’ll be lucky to get to bloody Venice in that thing.”
Alex’s gloomy prognostications were unfounded, and they checked into an inexpensive hotel near the railway station. They had a beer at the bar, and went out for a walk.
Despite himself, and his self-destructive wish to hate everything, Alex was impressed by Venice. He enjoyed the architecture, the bridges, even the canals, but not their smell. They wandered around, like the tourists they were, until they found themselves in St Mark’s Square. Alex and Neil had both seen photographs and film footage of the Square, but here, on the spot, they were both overwhelmed. The place swarmed with people, almost all of them tourists, like themselves. Groups of Japanese meandered here and there, like curious camera festooned sheep, until their guide, clipboard raised like regimental colours, brought them to heel around her, like an oriental sheep dog.
At that precise moment, the sun broke through the overcast, shafting down on the great piazza, bathing the square, its buildings and inhabitants in a soft afternoon glow. Neil and Alex stood in the middle of the square and turned slowly through 360 degrees admiringly as the tall haughty buildings became warm and inviting in the sun’s presence.
“It’s not Mount Longdon, Alex, but it’s beautiful.”
Alex nodded, and for a few seconds was back in the Falklands on one of the rare occasions when the sun had shone, giving even those bleak islands a dreadful beauty. Alex was now two weeks short of his fiftieth birthday. He had been a tough respected soldier, and over the last six years had grown into a hard, determined and equally respected professional journalist, but he shivered, sensing his own mortality in these ageless surroundings.
He was also getting divorced.
“What have you done with your life?” He asked himself the question, and mentally shook his head before any answers were formulated. He did not want to hear the answers.
“Come on, Neil, let’s get a beer. We can observe the world better through a glass.”
Alex and Neil took a table at a café on the edge of the square, content to drink their beers, and to watch at least the female half of the rest of the world pass by, its collective eyes gazing upwards at the Cathedral. Near them, a street orchestra, the members dressed in tieless white shirts and black trousers, played what Alex thought was Verdi. He shared these thoughts with Neil.
“I think they’re playing Verdi.”
Neil listened, his head inclined to one side. “No, I think it’s the Beatles.”
Alex grinned and returned to sipping beer and playing mind games about the people passing by. The musicians finished, more or less together, to a polite scattering of applause and moved on.
“I wonder who pays those blokes?” said Alex, more thinking aloud than asking a question.
“That’s easy, mate.” Neil was staring at the bill that the waiter had just dropped on the table in front of him. “We just have.”
That evening they wandered out into the gathering dusk for dinner, and returned in a mellow mood. Neil suggested, and Alex agreed, that another couple of drinks would be a good idea. Neil removed himself to the toilet, and Alex swivelled on his barstool, his back against the bar counter, and surveyed the customers.
A woman in her thirties, wearing a light blue dress, nipped in at the waist, and an older woman, perhaps in her late fifties, came into the bar. The hairs on the back of Alex’s neck tingled. He could not take his eyes off the younger woman. She was slim, with good breasts, and a thick mane of chestnut coloured hair. He did not believe that he had ever seen anyone so beautiful. She moved gracefully into the room, and looked around her, her hair swinging behind her, in opposite directions to the way she turned. Her eyes caught his watching her for a brief second of time before moving away again.
“Jesus,” he breathed, “who are you?”
The two women left again, and he was not sure that he had actually seen them. To save his life, Alex could not have recalled or described one feature of the older woman.
Neil returned. “Come on, it’s your shout, mate.”
“Neil, I have just seen the most beautiful girl I have ever clapped eyes on in my entire life.”
“Where is she?” Neil looked around the bar.
“She’s just left again.”
“Well, old son, that is, as they say in our trade, uncorroborated information from a highly suspect source. Now, get the beers.”
They were on their third beer when the women returned. The younger one was now wearing blue jeans, and a white shirt. Again, Alex did not notice what the older woman was wearing.
“Neil, there she is again. No! Don’t look round like that. Take it slowly.”
Neil did as he was told for about thirty seconds and then slowly turned, swivelling his barstool. He whistled softly.
“Christ, Alex, just for once, you were not wrong. She is gorgeous.”
“Well, just remember that you are married and that I know your wife.”
Neil lowered his head in mock submission. “I wouldn’t think about it. In any case, how could I even think of competing with you here?”
Alex’s mind was churning frantically. How can I get to talk to her? What nationality is she? Where’s her husband? Eventually he decided to go to the toilet, and steered his overtly disinterested path past the women’s table. Again, he thought, she caught his eye momentarily.
“You imagined that, you dickhead,” he admonished himself, as he faced the urinal wall. “You’re getting senile before your time.”
He washed his hands carefully, just in case.
Alex wandered slowly back to the bar, taking the same route, and noticed that the two women were drinking tea. He heard, with delight, that they were speaking English, with English accents.
“It’s good to see you ladies are not adopting strange foreign habits like drinking coffee.”
The younger woman smiled. “No, perish the thought. Are you English?”
Alex had stopped beside the table and assumed what he hoped was an engaging smile. “No, not quite, I am British, not English. I am from Belfast.”
“Oh, my mother is Irish too.” She indicated the older woman whom Alex saw for really the first time. “I’m Charlotte, but everyone calls me Charlie, except Mum. Mum is Iris.”
She extended her hand, slim and cool, and he was pleased that he had washed his. He decided not to correct what she had said about his being Irish. That could wait. He introduced himself.
They chatted airily for a couple of minutes, Alex standing, Charlie looking up at him and laughing. His mind was racing. “God, what eyes, what hair, what a woman.”
“Why not sit down, and join us, Alex? And ask your friend to come over too.”
Alex departed to dragoon a reluctant Neil, while Charlie arranged a further two chairs.
“Alex, you go. All I want to do is to have a few beers and go to bed. In any case, all you will do is lumber me with the old biddy.”
Alex smiled and waved to Charlie, before speaking to his friend through gritted teeth. “Neil, get your fucking arse into gear, and get over there. And be nice, or I will shove your balls up your nostrils.”
Neil picked up his beer heavily and said, “Oh well that’s all right, then, mate, now that you have explained it so much better.”
They chatted happily for an hour and Alex imagined that Charlie seemed to be as interested in him as he was in her. She was delightful, lighting up his spirit and engaging his dormant charm and sense of fun.
Charlie was thirty-five years of age, divorced, and living in Kingston, Surrey. The trip to Venice was a birthday surprise for her mother. They left about 11.30, expressing a hope to meet ‘the boys’ sometime the following day.
“You will, if I have anything to do with it,” Alex told himself.
Alex and Neil breakfasted about 8.30am, and Alex managed to persuade the reluctant Willis to hang on drinking coffee, just in case Charlie appeared. They were just leaving, driven by a need to evacuate their bladders, when Charlie and Iris entered the restaurant. Charlie was wearing white jeans and a red blouse, and she looked radiant to Alex, who realised that by this time he might be a tad biased.
“Good morning! Did you sleep well? Have you a busy day ahead?” Alex was delighted that his delaying tactics had paid off.
“Good morning. Yes, we slept well, thank you, and we have a great day planned.” Charlie smiled at Alex, dazzling him, and turned to Neil. “Morning, Neil. Did you sleep well?”
“No, this bugger snores. Kept me awake all night. I thought that you would like to know that.”
The two women laughed, Alex did not.
“Don’t pay any attention, it will only encourage him. Neil is a well-known liar. He is a journalist, you know.”
“Aren’t you one too?” Charlie put the question.
“Oh, yes, but I am honest. I work a lot for the Daily Telegraph.”
They said their goodbyes, and hoped to meet during the day. Alex suggested that all four have dinner together that evening, and Charlie and Iris agreed. Neil and Iris exchanged knowing glances.
As the two women went in to breakfast, Neil mimicked his friend. “
Good morning. Did you sleep well? Have you a busy day planned? Can I sleep with you?”
“Shut up, Willis, and no more cracks about snoring.”
Alex and Neil spent the morning in the old city, negotiating canals and bridges, plunging into small tourist traps known as shops, and in Alex’s case, eagerly searching the horizon in every direction for anyone wearing a red blouse. They caught up with Charlie and Iris in the early afternoon. Alex was delighted, and Charlie did not seem displeased. Neil and Iris seemed to know their roles by now, and chatted inconsequentially, away from the main action.
“Have you had lunch?” Alex asked, hoping for a negative reply.
“Yes, about half an hour ago.”
He was disappointed. “What do you have in mind for the afternoon?”
She waved vaguely behind her. “I thought we might take a boat trip out into the lagoon. You can visit the islands, you know.”
He laughed. “Great minds think alike. Neil and I are going to do that, too. We may see you there.”
Willis grimaced inwardly. “You lying bastard.”
Chapter Fifteen – Episode 21