© BM 2008
Chapter Fifteen – Episode 22
There were several boats wallowing in a stiff swell along the quayside when Alex and Neil arrived at 2pm, all apparently offering the identical itinerary at identical prices. There was no sign of anyone in a red blouse. Alex was irritated, but as departure time was approaching, they selected one of the boats and climbed aboard. To Alex’s delight, and Neil’s chagrin, they saw Iris and Charlie among the passengers. Neil nudged his friend in the ribs. “It’s kismet, Alex.”
“Belt up, Neil, don’t spoil things,” Alex hissed in reply.
During the course of the next three hours, Alex fell completely in love with Charlie Leach, and she seemed to share at least some of his feelings. They walked around the islands of Burano and Murano, watching old women making lace, and browsing in small, old-fashioned shops. They seemed light years away from the crowds and the bustle that was St Mark’s Square and Venice. They joked, laughed and chatted unceasingly. It seemed that they had known each other for years, and not less than one solitary day. Charlie was a tactile person, whose conversation was punctuated by little touches on his arm or hand. He shivered.
The two women went off to inspect some perfumes, while Alex fiddled with his camera. Neil watched him.
“You’re going to take their bloody photographs, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I thought one or two snaps would add to the occasion.”
“No, mate, that is not what you thought at all. You thought that when you get them back you can ring her ladyship, tell her you have the pictures and suggest sharing a drink while you relive Venice.”
“Well, I might do that, yes.”
“Alex, you are such an obvious bastard, you really are. I know what you are up to, and so does her mum. And after all that, you want to get into her knickers.”
“Neil, old son, so do I. I know what I am up to, as well. Don’t forget, it was only a week ago you were telling me that I needed a girlfriend. And if we do go to bed, that’s my good luck.”
“Well, Alex, make sure whatever you do, you do the right thing.”
“That is deeply bloody profound, Neil, and I thank you for sharing it with me.”
They had an excellent meal in the evening, and even Neil relaxed a little. He spoke with affection and tenderness of Julie, and his children, as much a message to Iris as anything else. She smiled, wisely, and said that she must remember to buy a present for Jim, her husband. Alex and Charlie had eyes and ears only for each other.
They had a drink in the hotel bar, and he desperately wanted, needed, to kiss her. He would have done if Iris had not been a chaperone.
Alex and Neil left the following morning, in the Opel Ranger, in torrential rain. They did not see Charlie or Iris at breakfast, but the undeveloped film in his pocket was Alex’s link to the future.
They drove down the East Coast of Italy, Alex’s mood matching the wintry weather. They visited the British Military Cemetery near San Marino in respectful silence, and the mountain town itself in a profane noise, as the rain flattened their hair against their heads, and flowed like rivers inside their rain jackets.
“Great view from here, isn’t there?” Neil spoke with heavy sarcasm as they stared at the unending mist and cloud from the top of the Citadel.
“Better view last night,” Alex replied dreamily.
“Jesus, Alex. You’re a grown man, not a spotty teenager.”
“Age isn’t important when you are in love.”
“Bugger me, Alex, you are seriously disturbed. Let’s have a drink, you are giving me a headache.”
The rain eased and then stopped as they drove south to Rimini, trundling the little Opel along the coast road, and past the deserted beach, where the sunloungers crouched forlornly on the wet sand. The moon, rising early, reflected from a now cloudless sky onto a tranquil, blameless sea.
“It’s very pretty, Neil.”
“Let’s find a hotel, and then admire the bleeding scenery.” Sometimes Neil’s soul lacked poetry.
The hotel was large and apparently unoccupied apart from themselves, and at £ 10 a night, unlikely to bankrupt either of them. It did not cater for evening meals, and as they subsequently discovered, or meals of any kind. The car was woken up to go out and search for a restaurant. One was duly found which subsequently they adjudged to be the worst Italian restaurant in Europe, if not the entire world.
“I can’t eat this, Neil. It’s crap.” Alex poked his fork into his pasta, as one might turn over something particularly unpleasant found on the beach.
“You’re not kidding. Let’s have a second jug. At least the vino is OK.”
They drank three litres of white wine between them, the effect of which was hardly nullified by the amount of bread they ate. They staggered out into the street, into the cool evening air.
“Millar, you’re pissed. Give me the keys, I’ll drive.”
Alex acknowledged that he was ‘pissed’, but even in his befuddled state he recognised that Neil Willis was not much better off. He passed over the keys nonetheless.
Neil drove carefully, probably too carefully, but they hit nothing and stayed on the road. At one stage, they heard a police siren and saw in the mirrors a blue flashing light menacing them from behind.
“Christ, Alex, I think we are in trouble.”
“What do you mean ‘we’? You’re the one who’s driving.”
The blue light sped past, going God knows where.
“Thank God,” they spoke as one, expelling relieved sighs.
Whether it was because of the police presence, or the white wine, or a combination of the two, they missed the hotel, and found themselves in Ancona.
“Alex, you were supposed to be the bloody navigator. How did we get here?”
Alex was embarrassed. “I don’t know, mate. I didn’t see the dammed hotel.”
They retraced their way back, more slowly this time, towards Rimini, and eventually found their hotel.
“There you go,” said Alex defensively. “They switched the sign off.”
Sleep was immediate.
Alex awoke about eight, his head pounding. He stood in the shower until the water turned cold and let it drive into him. He dried himself, feeling only marginally better, dressed and went to the next room. He rapped on the door several times without reply.
“Jesus, perhaps he has died. What will I tell Julie?”
He turned the handle and pushed gently on the door, which opened with a lengthy squeal.
“Neil, are you awake?”
Neil’s clothes were strewn all over the bedroom. The bathroom door was open, but of Neil, there was no sign. The prospect of murder was replaced in Alex’s mind by that of kidnapping.
He went downstairs where a small wizened woman of about seventy, with eyes as bright as a bird, held dominion over Reception. She had not been there the previous evening.
“Have you seen my friend?”
“Avez vous vu mon ami?”
“Breakfast?” He pointed to his mouth.
She smiled, toothlessly. “Si, si, cappuccino,”
He gave up. “Si, cappuccino.”
Halfway through his first coffee, he remembered the car, and leapt up and ran through the double front doors into the car park, frightening the old woman. No car! Not much of anything, in fact, apart from the blue Adriatic smiling at him. He went back to his coffee and sat thinking all kinds of warm thoughts about Charlie, and less pleasant ones about Neil Willis. “Bugger me, where is he?”
He was midway through his sixth cappuccino, and fairly awash with coffee, watched intently by the wicked witch of the west, before his question was answered. The Opel arrived in the small car park in a flurry of gravel and dust. A smiling Willis emerged.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Mass! You went to mass?”
“Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing?”
“I knew you would be asleep. In any case, I knew a heathen Protestant bastard like yourself would not be interested in coming.”
“May God forgive you, Neil Willis, because I will not.”
They paid and left, in pristine sunshine, climbing up and over the spine of Italy to Assisi. All the time they were on the road, Alex thought of Charlie, and talked about her until Neil told him to shut up. He complied but continued to think of her.
Assisi was a delight. It was Sunday and everyone, young and old, appeared to be dressed up in their Sunday best, to go to Church. The town itself was old in a mellow way, where the graffiti free buildings melded into the surrounding hills and fields and appeared to fit. They visited the great basilica of St Francis, and were impressed. Alex could just imagine the saint standing in the piazza, hand held out as the birds ate from his fingers, while deer gathered at his feet.
They reached Rome in the early evening and searched in vain for their hotel. At one point, totally befogged by their map, they pulled up in front of the United States embassy to ask a caribineri for directions. He raised his stubby sub machine gun and pointed it at them, without saying a word.
“I don’t think he knows, Alex,” said Neil, hastily engaging gear.
The week in Rome passed as quickly as a visit to the dentist. They dutifully attended the various conference sessions and sought interviews with the British delegates, all of whom were prepared to talk in sleep inducing detail about the EEC. Alex phoned Charlie’s office in Kensington and was delighted to find her there. He spoke circumspectly but at the same time tried to intimate how much he missed her.
Back in England, he collected his photographs from Boots on the day following his return, and phoned Charlie immediately. They met for lunch on the next day, and at the weekend she made him dinner. They made love and Alex was lost. Within three months he had given up his despised one bed roomed flat and had moved in with Charlie.
Their relationship was like an exploding star, and lasted only a little while longer, but while it lasted, it seemed to Alex to light up the entire world. Charlie was warm, sexy, funny, elegant, and at the same time she was childlike, selfish, hurtful and sometimes extremely cruel.
She liked BMWs, so he bought one. She played tennis, so he took up the game. She adored Indian food, so Alex developed an instant appreciation for chicken tikka. Above all, she was insatiable in bed. They made love all the time, in all parts of the house, sometimes five or six times a day. He thought that his heart would give out, would explode, so fiercely did it pound. “What a way to go,” he told himself.
Iris accepted him without question, knowing her daughter, she had understood back in Venice the way that the wind was blowing. Jim, Charlie’s father, took longer. Most fathers’ are possessive of their daughters, even when Daddy’s little girl is thirty-five years old.
He met her brothers and sisters, two of each, and got on well with them, taking particular delight in their small children. He introduced Charlie to Maggie, who pronounced her approval. Richard, still angry with his father over the impending divorce, refused to meet her.
Alex and Charlie took holidays as often as possible, sometimes in connection with Alex’s job, and sometimes because they simply wanted to get away. They cruised the Rhine on the KD Rhine cruiser, and then repeated the journey on both sides of the river by car, between Koln and Rudesheim. They stayed at Boppard in a small hotel on the west bank and made love to the sound of the water gently lapping the shore.
They visited Spain and Gibraltar with Charlie shrieking with delight as a Barbary ape climbed onto their car and peed on the windscreen. They went to Bermuda and drank planters’ punch on a glass-bottomed boat. They hired motor bikes to explore the scorpion shaped group of islands, and scrupulously observed the 28mph speed limit. They swam and snorkelled among the myriad outrageously coloured fishes in Bermuda’s crystal clear waters.
In Bermuda, he asked her to marry him. She refused. She had never before told him that she loved him, but she did in Bermuda. Once. Alex suspected that she was tipsy at the time, because she never said it again.
Canada and New England followed. They drove from Boston to Princeton in Cape Cod and then through a scattering of small towns in Massachussetts and Rhode Island, before ending up in New York. They stayed in an apartment owned by a Reuters friend just off East 42nd Street. Charlie was wide eyed with wonderment, and Alex, who had been before, tried to be blasé.
They cruised the Hudson, climbed the Empire State Building and saw ‘Les Miserables’ on Broadway. They walked back to the apartment, hand in hand, and apparently several feet above the pavement. Nevertheless, Charlie gripped his hand more firmly at the sight of some of the ‘Big Apple’s’ night-time citizens.
They drove their Pontiac into upper New York State, past the Finger Lakes and into Canada, via Niagara Falls. Alex felt that he had never been so deeply, so completely in love as now. His feelings of tenderness and affection for Charlie seemed to be a physical, tangible thing, and so intense it hurt. He ached with love for her.
They delighted in Canada, in the warmth and gentleness of the people, after the more abrupt and less charming way of their neighbours on the other side of the Falls. They felt at home in Canada, pleased to see the Union flag in the corner of the Ontario standard, and the Queen’s head on the coins and notes.
They crossed back into the United States near Lake Placid and visited Watertown.
“Sinatra made an LP called ‘Watertown’” he informed her. She bought it as a tape cassette at their next stop, but played it only once. It was too sad she said.
The blazing glory of Vermont and New Hampshire in the Fall stunned them into silence, and awe, and he took roll after roll of film. They drove laughing through a snow blizzard in Vermont and descended into sunshine in New Hampshire.
Alex was deeply content, deeply in love, and the one cloud on his horizon was Charlie’s unwillingness or inability to say that she loved him. He believed that she did. He was wrong. At the end of their first year together they visited Washington, held hard by an icy winter. That was when his divorce, long delayed by Anne, became final. Charlie seemed to change, and Alex despairingly sought a reason. He did not find one, and she denied that she had changed. She would no longer make love, and in January 1990, he moved out.
Their last month had been bloody. He could not believe that someone could change so much in such a short time, but change she had.
Their star had taken from May 1988 until January 1990 to burn out, and Alex was back again in a one bed-roomed flat. He tried many times to reignite the star, writing and phoning, but it was a dead planet, in a galaxy of other dead planets. He took on more and more assignments, trying to crowd out his memories with work. He visited Russia and the newly independent states of Eastern Europe, being arrested in Riga. Alex had become a driven man, a man who seemed to have acquired a death wish.
He saw Charlie just once more. In the early autumn of 1990, from out of the blue, she phoned him. She had found some of his LPs in her house, by Neil Diamond mostly. Would he like them back?
Yes, he said, if that was OK with her. Did she want him to pick them up?
No, that was OK, she would deliver them. She called on a Sunday, looking smaller than he had remembered her, nervously clutching a plastic carrier bag in front of her, almost defensively.
“Hi, please come in.”
“No, perhaps I shouldn’t.”
“Come on, have a cup of tea.”
She came in, hesitantly. She preferred coffee, and he made two mugs, carrying them carefully into the lounge. He had not put sugar in hers, he thought that was right.
“Your place looks nice.”
“Thanks, I’ll give you the grand tour after your coffee. I’m sorry that there is not more furniture. Anne only gave me what she didn’t want, or couldn’t use.”
They were awkward with each other, like strangers, tongue tied, or both speaking at once.
“I see you managed to upset the Latvians. It was in the papers.”
He smiled wanly. “Well, it was more the Russians than the Latvians. They didn’t care for me much, just like you, Charlie.”
She changed the subject, looked at the house and left. He poured himself a whiskey, and sat for a long time, thinking about the past, and what had gone wrong. Venice, Spain, Gibraltar, the Rhine, Bermuda, Canada, New England and Washington. Where had they all gone? Had they ever happened? Had he ever really known this woman? His face was streaming with tears. He put down his glass and cried.
At the end of the year he went to Angola.
Chapter Sixteen – Episode 23