[Part 1 is here.]
Down the corridor and around the corner, I was confronted with a swollen, impatient queue, all pressing at what was evidently the hired bar.
“Biggy!” I heard a voice yelp. James appeared beside the bar for a moment, waving frantically at me.
When I reached him, I was pulled down so that we were both crouching behind some kegs. “This is a disaster!” James hissed. “What are we going to do?”
James explained that the agency barman had driven off to the 24 hour Asda to buy some more limes, leaving him in charge. He thought that he would be just pulling pints – nobody had told him about the cocktails.
“We have to make eight strawberry daiquiris,” he related. I followed James with caution – the fumes of drink were overpowering, and there was rum lying in puddles on the floor. Strawberries had been apparently pulverised by hand and then smeared on to a saucer. James was now tipping the resultant pulp into a blender.
“Woah, put the top on!” My voice was drowned out, but I had slapped down the lid just in time to prevent the queue from being doused in their daiquiris.
The blender lurched to a stop. James surveyed the pink substance inside without enthusiasm. “This will do!” He tilted the jug over the first of the glasses and everybody around the bar fell silent as a thick globule of the pink substance slowly collected on the lip. It dropped suddenly and missed the glass completely, curling like a pink turd on the bar top.
James scrambled away from the boos. “You will have to water it down!” I suggested.
“How? With what? Water?”
“This is disgraceful!” a woman in the queue raged. “I want my penny back!” The atmosphere at the bar was now so nightmarish that it was impossible to tell whether she was joking.
“I wish to complain!” another lady declared in a voice of unnatural clarity. “This mojito smells of… well, it smells of tuna!”
“What will I do?” James shrieked.
“Soda,” I resolved. “I’ll fetch some soda water from the kitchen.”
Back in the corridor I met Toby and he steered me away from the party. “Hey man, come and have a kickabout with us.”
It transpired that the black void outside our tank contained a garden. The open air erupted on to a lawn which would race for two hundred feet until it reached the sweet coolness under some hawthorn trees. You could distinctly pick out two amazing stars in the sky above us. Toby had shed thirty years, like a dog shaking off water, once he was running on the grass, exhilarated in the night air. His football was socked into the darkness but then the garden pounced out from all around us in the floodlights and I ran ahead so that the ball was bounding at my feet. It went up again and then it was under Pablo’s control, whilst he concentrated on some elaborate schoolboy trick. Above us the moon had materialised on the sky like a blotch of creamy mould.
“Your phone,” I called to Toby. His hands shot up to his breast pocket but then he froze. The ringing had stopped.
“Tori – a missed call,” he reported.
“Are you feeling guilty?” Pablo sniggered.
“No!” we both sang simultaneously.
The kickabout resumed, but uneasily. Finally the ball was propelled aimlessly towards the house and Toby was walking alongside us. “I suppose that we’d better go back.”
“We can return later,” I reassured him.
Inside there was nobody to be seen. The bar had been abandoned, although all of its bottles appeared to have been pilfered or handed out. Most of the chairs seemed to have been taken as well. There were raised voices somewhere within and we followed them around the studio until we arrived at the closed door of the conservatory.
When I opened the door, the noise leaped up like a fire and we slipped into it and then we were engulfed. For a moment, I felt like the sexton who had tumbled down into a cavern full of goblins. I flinched helplessly in greeting at a succession of glowing and jeering faces.
“Biggy,” Tori plucked me by the arm. “Meet the latest of our artists…”
I noticed Renata across the room and I was completely at a loss. It was as if all of the everyday conversation which I exchange with her had been left at home in a bedside drawer. We would meet as two remote acquaintances.
“Madame Kikimorovska – the fortune teller.”
This lady was currently engaged in studying somebody’s hand. She glared into it and seemed to jig it with frustration, as if it was a mobile phone on which she could not get a signal. A gap had opened amongst the spectators and I nudged myself back until I was smoothed into them. There was an atmosphere of consummate politeness amongst the spectators, although they would occasionally return significant glances when they thought that Madame Kikimorovska was not looking.
Madame Kikimorovska raised her eyes to the volunteer, and I followed them until I found myself gazing into James’ face. “You are a clever young man,” the palmist chuckled. “And you are doing some work with that great clever brain of yours?”
“I edit a website,” James mumbled, looking irritated and guilty.
“Give it up,” Madame Kikimorovska told him pleasantly. “It will not make you happy.”
James’ jaw dropped open.
“You should get a job where you actually do something…”
“A barman!” somebody yelled ruthlessly. The whole room collapsed like a house of cards, erupting into raucous laughter. Madame Kikimorovska did not understand the joke but she nodded along in agreement. “You could work in a pub – yes, that is the thing for you. You would be a very smart, very handsome young man behind the bar.”
James whispered an inaudible thank you as he was bundled away in the consequent applause. Madame Kikimorovska turned to face the room, smiling gracefully and with her eyes twinkling. She was a stout, hearty old lady – the sort who always makes boys blush by uttering indelicate, knowing comments about their love lives. The sort who will accidentally burst in on a boy when he is in the toilet and then remark with merciless disinterest as he cups a hand over his penis, “ah it’s nothing I have not seen before.” As grim and hairy as an ape, she squinted out from beneath a luscious chestnut wig which was several sizes too big. She seemed conscious of being overly glamorous, and so had packed herself and all of her shawls into the sort of tan trench coat which is used to distinguish television detectives. Somehow this made her look only more theatrical.
Next up was Toby. Madame Kikimorovska eyed him beadily and then glanced over his hand. “You have a very beautiful girlfriend,” she noticed. “A very special, beautiful lady.”
Toby looked affably sheepish. “Yes, you could say that…”
“I see a magnificent future for you… Children popping up all around you like rabbits… A huge castle in a lake…”
The room laughed along dutifully with this, but then Madame Kikimorovska raised a hand in warning.
“In this line here there is darkness – you see the junction with the main road? I see a man coming to the house.”
The room gasped. Toby’s mouth twitched but then he looked suitably responsible. “What sort of a man?”
“A man with buckets who does the…” Madame Kikimorovska pulled a pig-like face and flourished jazz hands.
“The window cleaner?”
“The windy-cleaner, that’s right. He is coming to the house every day. He is peeping in the windies.”
The room was dumbfounded. There were cries of delight and incredulity.
“Your wife is begin to lie across the bed in the nice panties…”
“My girlfriend” Toby corrected her quietly.
“She is undressing him with the eyes. She is smiling at him and wiggling her bum!”
By now everybody was in a state of insurrection. If any real window cleaner had made an appearance at that moment, he would have not gotten away in one piece.
“Presents!” Madame Kikimorovska announced firmly, clasping Toby’s hand in her hot little paws. “Buy many presents – every day – and your lady will never do nothing with this windy-cleaner!”
Pandemonium broke out and there was a general roar of joy.
Toby muttered thanks and he dissolved into his jacket to find a tip. Next Tori had led me up to Madame Kikimorovska and she took my hand, flipping up the palm expectantly.
An almighty shriek ripped through the party, wiping out every other syllable of noise. The man behind me dropped his pint with a shout of surprise, as if it was red hot. The fortune teller’s cry was harsh and curdled with strange, savage emotion. She jerked upright, casting the back of her hand across her forehead in a pose so stiff and melodramatic that it would have been thought affected, were it not for the pain clenched within her face.
“This is the hand… OF A MURDERER!”
She crumpled to the floor. The world had stopped and there was a moment of total, horrified amazement.
Toby caught Tori’s eye and he mouthed the word “ambulance.”
Madame Kikimorovska lay forlorn and shapeless at our feet like a gigantic soggy teabag. People were trying to prop her upright and somebody was slapping at her face. The room was now drenched with heat, as every gloating stranger swarmed around her. “Back!” Toby thundered, herding everybody out of his path.
“Get a grip!” Renata hissed, pinching my waist. Old ghosts were banging pots and pans in the cellars of my memory. A murderer?
Outside, we met James and Tori. “Err… interesting goings on in there, Biggy?” James stammered wildly. “I don’t think that woman was entirely sound in her mind, to judge from my reading anyway. A barman indeed!”
“We have been irresponsible,” Tori said in a voice of sad responsibility. “She’s a very old lady and that room was far too hot and noisy.”
“A murderer, Biggy?” Pablo asked gleefully.
There was the sound of an engine outside and then the apartment was being overrun by paramedics, all as meek and solemn as errand boys. Toby had found Tori and he was beginning to quiz her with great urgency. He would not look in my direction.
“I think that it’s a good time to end,” Renata announced. “James, would you call a taxi for us?”
“You’re going to Newington? I can drop you off en route to Holy Corner.”
“That is kind of you.” She had turned very slightly so that Pablo was now over her shoulder.
Tori was standing for a moment in our midst, appealing to the room for her handbag. “I’m going to have to accompany her in the ambulance. They say that Toby isn’t suitable.”
“We’re just leaving Tori. Sorry about…”
Tori gripped Renata’s shoulder. “No, I’m sorry that it had to end like this.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Still, it’s been lovely to see you. Goodnight James.”
“Goodnight Tori. There’s a taxi already on its way. Goodnight to you too Pablo.”
“Goodnight James. Goodnight Tori.”
“Goodnight my dear.”
“Goodnight? It’s virtually dawn.”
“Good morning has a horrible ring to it. I’m beginning an eight-hour shift in the morning.”
“Goodnight my friends. Goodnight to you all.”