Kamran took him and John out for lunch. They were in a Japanese restaurant having a bento box. The restaurant was in Mayfair; it probably cost a fortune and was a nice gesture for Amyas’s last day at work. But it was still an effort for Amyas to eat anything. He was sure it tasted amazing – he had been taken to this restaurant once before at the start of the year when a sales team at one of the investment banks had taken them out for dinner. He had been in awe of the food, the only sushi he previously had having been of the takeaway variety which cost four pounds for a few squares. They then stopped at Selfridges for ice-cream on the way back – the ice-cream at Selfridges food court was Kamran’s guilty pleasure. It had been an Indian summer that year as they walked in bright sunshine back to the office. All in all, it was a lovely way to finish his time working at the company.
Amyas went to the pub after work with the rest of the office. It had been a deliberately quiet affair. There were to be more redundancies, and Amyas’s friend Donny Tabasco was one of them. “Not too surprised. Andrea thinks they’re cutting her too. Dan in stock-lending, Gerry in trading, Joao from the equity team, all off.” Amyas was standing with Donny at the bar ordering a round, just out of earshot of the others. “They had to stop my meeting as Andrea burst into tears. I felt really bad. Thing is, I was going to hand in my notice in a few months anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I love the team but I’ve got my final exams coming up and I want to do a bit more than accounts. You’re coming to my leaving drinks, right?” Amyas said he would, though any plans going beyond that evening were not his priority. When he finished in the pub he would be back at home doing what he normally did on an evening: sitting at his laptop looking at Hannah’s Facebook page, double checking his messages, calculating how many days since she had last contacted him. He had meant to have been meeting Nick and Kate that night, but had cancelled. His night was just for him and Hannah.
33. July 2008, the return to London Bridge. We weren’t anything…
“So how’s your love life?” were the first words Hannah said to him as she pulled up a bar stool and sat down, her smile bubbly.
“Well, it could be better.” Amyas gave a small laugh. It was not what he expected to be the first thing she would say to him after two weeks. He also did not expect her to be so chirpy, so unscathed. His two weeks had been marked by a consistent, hanging regret, outwardly appearing patient, giving her time and waiting for that meeting. In answer to her question, he wanted to say the woman he loved was sitting opposite him. And he had not stopped thinking about her since her last words to him those fifteen days ago.
They were inside the London Bridge pub that she had taken him to when she had told him she had stopped seeing Raj and finally let him into her trust. He thought two weeks apart would do them both good. She said she needed to focus solely on her family, that her mum needed her around, so did her brothers, and she realised how much she needed them too. All the emotions buried after her father’s death had risen to the surface and she needed time to finally face them all.
Amyas also saw how he had let his own life revolve around Hannah. The whole of that year had seemed to be about her. He had friends, a good job, a really nice life. He needed to cement those wonderful things and decide where he wanted his life to go, independent of Hannah. In case it had to be independent of Hannah.
On a set of high stools Hannah sat with an orange juice about to start another night shift. “Yeah, it’s been really good thanks,” she said when Amyas asked how the last two weeks had gone. “A lot of time with Mum, my brothers, Mary, Carl and Raj. A bit of a Shepherd’s Bush love-in.” Raj… Amyas did his best to let the name go by, looking passive. “Sam’s going to move in with us down in Streatham, we decided. Well, him and Mum decided. All three Chambers kids under one roof… Could only end in trouble if you ask me. And I lose my dining room. But it gets him out of the squat and that makes Mum happy.” She gave that small smile of hers. He missed that smile. She was playing with the straw from her orange juice. “And we’ve convinced Mum to take a holiday. She got asked to supervise a school trip to South Africa. It’s actually a bit of a big deal as her class had won some kind of award. I forgot she’s actually a star at her job despite everything else. Shows how much I’ve been around recently.” In fact, Amyas thought, it said more about him as he had no idea her mum was a teacher. He gave Hannah his own encouraging smile. He felt this bittersweet warmth running through him: she did seem to be carrying less of a weight, albeit without the aid of him. “It’s her first holiday without my dad. It will be sooo good for her. And while she’s there I’m getting away too. I haven’t had a holiday in ages. It’s only Cambridge and just with friends from when Raj and I were together but he’s being a gent and driving us down and we’re going to have a long weekend.” Jesus, Amyas thought. He was too late. He tried to keep focused, let the wave of hurt pass unnoticed.
“Oh, I’m sorry for how we left things,” she said matter-of-factly. “I can’t believe I did it by phone! You must have thought I was terrible.” He half expected her to slap him on the arm and start laughing, she was being that jovial. In those opening exchanges, telling him of the recent events in her life she was relaxed, confident and witty, eager to relay her news with no sign of hardship or discontentment. It was as if she was speaking to a friend she had not seen for years and sharing anecdotes of old times. Not like two weeks ago she had broken his heart and could herself not stop crying.
“So, I got you something,” Amyas said. He knew the evening was over. He only had her company for an hour before she would have to leave for work, but they had hardly sat together ten minutes. He had been so eager to see her he had arranged the first opportunity. There was so much he needed her to know. But as they sat together in a, even for a Sunday, soulless empty pub where they could hear the wind as someone opened the door and the clinking of glasses at the bar, he knew he might as well get their meeting over and done with. She obviously was only there on obligation. From at his feet he picked up a small yellow hard-paper Selfridges bag. “Actually it’s a few things.” The most prominent item that could be seen was the top of a book. Hannah had this big curious smile, like it was Christmas for her. Amyas felt sick.
“I still haven’t finished the book you lent me,” he said, taking out the book out of the bag. And then he saw it. A wince? A flash of pain? Whatever it was, the smile that had been so fixed and prominent suddenly vanished. She looked hurt, as her eyes shifted away from him.
“… so as I still have your favourite book, you should have one of mine in return.” The book he handed her had a goldfish jumping between two bowls on the cover. It was John O’Farrell’s The Best a Man Can Get. He gave it to her because it always cheered him up and as such kept it on his bedside table. He noticed a similarity in its cover to the Douglas Coupland book Hannah had given him. She just held the book, staring at it. She then smiled, a very different smile to the one before. It was softer, less intensely cheerful, and more natural.
“Thanks. I really like this book,” she said. “I kept reading parts when it was by your bed.” Amyas then pulled out a black plastic cassette tape. In his handwriting on a white label were the words ‘For Hannah’. “A throw back from the Eighties I know, and I had to get Nick to set up his old hi-fi system, but if you are going to make a mix tape you might as well do it properly.” Hannah laughed. Each night they would spend in his flat he would play songs on his iPod that he hoped she would like. “It’s lucky for you retro is the in thing at the moment,” she said, smiling down at the tape. “Everyone seems to have a Walkman at work. I’ll be able to listen to it tonight.” Then out of the bag then came a series of sheets of folded writers’ paper.
“It’s a letter. Or more accurately four or five letters. There have been so many things I’ve been wanting to say to you these past weeks but couldn’t. I needed to give you space and wait so while I couldn’t see you and could not tell you everything I wanted to, I wrote it all down.” Hannah looked down at the letters. Her smile had faded again but this time she had the look of someone a little lost. She began to unfold one of the sheets and when she saw words quickly folded it back again.
“Actually, if I read this now I think I will cry. I better read it at home or if I get some private time tonight.” Hannah suddenly looked so tired. The bubbly, unscathed, carefree girl who had entered the pub had gone. She just looked at the letters and then at Amyas’s hand as he took hers, slowly rubbing his thumb along the side of his fingers. He then took her other hand. Her eyes were glistening, he noticed.
“I knew you needed space but just because I was not around did not mean that I was not thinking about you. There have been so many things I needed to say to you. So many things I still want to say.”
“What would you like to say to me now?” she said. He paused to look at her. Her head was still down but her eyes looked up at him. He gave a small, ironic laugh.
“That I wish I was there. That I wish I’d been there for you from the start and wish I could be there for you now, even just as a friend.”
“Friends,” she said, letting the word hang and looked at him with damp eyes. “I don’t know if I can do that right now. I still like you.” And as she looked at him, suddenly their eyes were closed and their faces moving together. He felt her kiss his bottom lip as he kissed her softly back. And then she was looking down again at her lap, his hands holding hers and him with his lips on her forehead until she brought herself closer to him and placed her head against his chest so he could hold her.
They had reached an impasse. The evening, their time together, had been emotionally exhausting and they left the pub together walking back to London Bridge station.
“I’m down there,” she said as they reached a set of arches.
“It was good seeing you,” she said and as they embraced he felt the softness of her hair against his cheek. He closed his eyes, holding her, hoping the moment could stretch on as long as possible. But as she let go and stepped away he felt a tearing at his chest. She turned and walked through the arches, disappearing into the dark and never looking back.
34. August 2008, we were parted…
Amyas tried to bury himself in work so as not to think about Hannah. He would succeed for an hour perhaps but if in a conversation with Donny Tabasco, or listening to Jordan and John Stamler bantering, he would suddenly have a sharp realisation of something missing. What should I have done differently? What should I do now? Was it a definite ending or was she having the same feelings for him as he was having for her? She said she still liked him. She had kissed him. The only thing he knew for certain was that he still wanted her. Nick had taken him for a beer and Amyas did his best to relay the positives saying they were just taking a break and Hannah needed time. Kate seemed genuinely upset when he told her. Amyas thought it would be a case of I told you so but she seemed childishly heartbroken. Nick even put his arm around her as she said, “she really liked you though.”
Even Joan was sympathetic when the four of them met for a pub dinner. “Sorry to hear about you and Hannah,” he said as they were ordering at the bar. No quip or joke. “Here, I’ll get it,” he then said as Amyas was about to pay for his food. The only person who didn’t seem to be outwardly melancholic was Amyas. He had formulated a plan. He would take it slowly. He would be positive and supportive to Hannah, sending her messages he hoped would cheer her up – not too frequently as to overwhelm her but just so she would remember why she had chosen to be with him in the first place. It could take weeks if not months but he needed to rebuild her trust. Slowly.
One thing that did irk him, however, was Hannah’s weekend away in Cambridge. And who she was going with. Raj was back in her life. He knew that was significant but he did not know what it meant for him and Hannah. Did she need Raj as a friend or was it more? That weekend she would be with her Cambridge friends, being driven there in a Porsche, probably mingling with people whose parents owned half of Surrey or did impressive, important jobs, like Raj did. In Amyas’s head Raj was luring her away with the promise of wealth and excitement. Amyas loved his own job but he was still relatively new to the world and it would be some time till he got to John Stamler’s level, let alone Kamran’s. He suddenly felt so ordinary compared to this Iago.
Amyas was sitting at John Stamler’s desk watching him value a company. His boss Kamran was taking a call from one of their bond salesmen, Andy Youngs. Kamran then looked over to them, muted his phone and asked if they could both join the call. Normally when dealing with sales people at the big investment banks, Kamran would handle the large trading deals or have high level conversations on the future of the market. John would talk to sales about potential companies they were looking to invest in, like any good analyst. And Amyas would be there covering for John and Kamran, information hunting on their behalf or following up on a trade one of them had initiated. It was rare for all three of them to be on a call with a salesman at the same time. The first voice they heard was Andy’s.
“Guys, I wanted to confirm it was alright with Kamran first. I have two tickets to the Joe Calzage fight in Vegas this weekend. We’re doing a client trip: it will be you and a few more hedgies, all good lads. We’ll pay for the tickets – six hundred dollars each! – plus two big nights out at the Vegas clubs. All you have to pay for is your flight and hotel room. How ’bout it?”
“Accepting the tickets shouldn’t be a problem as far as the gift policy goes,” began Kamran after Andy had rung off. “It’s nothing compared with what the equity guys get. The flights and hotel though… I doubt you would be able to claim them on expenses. You’ll probably have to pay for them yourselves.” John’s face immediately fell. John, who was not a boxing fan and notoriously frugal in any personal spending, looked to Amyas, expecting the junior and lesser earning member of the team to agree the trip was too decadent. John was used to flying around the world but normally with expense claims safeguarded in his wallet to be charged against some conference or business meeting. Even the gum he was currently chewing had been paid for by the company under some pretence.
Under usual circumstances Amyas would not have considered spending hundreds of pounds on a spontaneous weekend’s entertainment. Holidays with his friends usually never went further afield than Germany and he was on a budget, so where was the appeal in travelling halfway around the world to watch a boxing match with people he hardly knew?
Hannah would be in Cambridge that weekend, he suddenly thought. With Raj and all her Cambridge educated, over-privileged friends. Jealousy, resentment, betrayal, whichever emotion he felt he simply could not bear the vision of her laughing with them while he was stuck at home. But it was only Cambridge, it then occurred to him. Hannah had said she had not been abroad in years so if Raj would only take her as far as Cambridge what would she suddenly think if she knew he was able to go to Las Vegas for a weekend, on a whim? Suddenly the whole weekend seemed to have a lot more promise. This is what you’re missing, Hannah Chambers.
“I’m in,” said Amyas. “I’ll book my flight now.”
Amyas spent the flight reading the book Hannah had given him, Eleanor Rigby. As he read it he regretted not making more effort to complete it before. Hannah said she had re-read it countless times and when she gave it to him he could see how important him reading it was to her. It was about the reappearance of a child, now an adult, and the retelling of the mother’s pregnancy, how she had given the child away and how the rest of her life up until that point was one of isolation and loneliness. As Amyas finished the last page he suddenly felt haunted by the poignancy of it. That the most confident, vibrant person he knew would empathise with such a lonely woman. However, as the plane approached Nevada he knew he had to put such thoughts to the back of his mind and just live for the weekend ahead of him.
The first night in Vegas was a blur. He and John rushed to drop their bags at the hotel before practically jumping into a yellow taxi cab that took them to the arena. Andy Youngs met them outside with their tickets, rushing to get them both inside. “Shit, lads, what kept you?” he slurred. Amyas’s and John’s flight had been delayed when they transferred at Chicago so they had missed all the warm-up fights on the card. Andy said he and his clients had been drinking since they arrived in Vegas that morning, though with Andy’s inability to walk straight and bright pink face it hardly needed explaining. Amyas could not help a smirk. Not at Andy’s drunkenness. But how he used the word client. It made him sound like a prostitute.
The fight went all fourteen rounds and was decided on a split decision. Joe Calzage had won to the roars and exultation of the travelling supporters. After returning to the hotel to change into smarter clothing, Amyas found himself eating sushi at what looked an incredibly expensive restaurant where nothing had a price tag and the waitresses were all tall, blonde, beautiful and served food in stunning figure-accentuating dresses. He was then being poured glasses of vodka at a large reserved booth and sofa area in a Vegas club, The Venetian. The alcohol was flowing and that brought intoxication and groups of women.
“Are you from England? Oh I love your accent,” was said repeatedly to them by pretty American girls, who they in turn poured drinks and ordered champagne for.
Amyas kept drinking, listened to Andy’s slurred conversations, met Andy’s other hedge fund clients and smiled at the pretty girls. The club was loud and big, the music was thumping and suddenly the girls around them wanted to dance. The big dancefloor was crowded so one girl kicked her shoes off and climbed up onto the sofa, encouraging her friends to do the same. Amyas then found himself too on the sofa and using the top of the booth as a podium. He had forgotten how much he loved dancing and feeling the beat of a tune, no matter the style of music. And being surrounded by girls was a bonus. He had no idea how much vodka he had consumed. Every time he had been halfway through a glass it got topped up. And he was feeling happy, merry and every bit at one with the music as one girl turned and smiled at him, and he put his hands on her hips dancing close up and then having her turning back to him as she bent gently forward, grinding into him.
He woke up at midday, his head pounding and memory hazy. He tried to think back to why he felt so hungover. Then he remembered. He had stopped dancing with the girl to get some fresh air. Outside the club he realised he had left his shoes by the sofa when he had climbed on it to dance. The doorman would not allow him back in. In a taxi back to the hotel he received a call from Andy.
“Gambling or strip club?” Andy slurred. Amyas chose the former and was instructed to meet Andy at an address on Las Vegas Boulevard. He remembered arriving in a whirlwind of bright lights and people as if it was rush hour on Oxford Street. At one point he was convinced he was looking at the Eiffel Tower before being led through the great doors of another grand hotel and being immersed in table after table of roulette wheels, dice and card games, people shouting and cheering, and in his dreamlike state, being poured another drink.
Climbing out of bed, undressing out of the clothes from the previous night he had apparently slept in to put fresh ones on, he made his way downstairs to meet Andy, John Stamler and the others at an American diner – like something from films and television shows he had watched as a child – which was within their hotel’s expansive foyer. The only person looking remotely human was John. Not being a big drinker, he had stuck to water most of the night. Amyas had a vague recollection of John saying goodbye and going back to the hotel sometime before he kicked his shoes off to dance. As he tried to force down an omelette Amyas envied John and wished he too had shown at least some restraint. John would spend the day exploring Vegas while Amyas knew he would lose the day back in bed trying to sleep off the night before.
The next night began in a subdued way. Everyone was still feeling the effects of the clubbing, gambling and associated drinking. Like John and Amyas, most were to fly home the next day, though not all on the same plane. By the time John and Amyas had booked, all the direct flights were full. They were having to take longer, overnight trips leaving Monday morning and with the time difference, arriving and being due at work on Tuesday morning. In fact John and Amyas weren’t even on the same plane as each other. Amyas had booked his first, told John, and John had booked the one leaving four hours earlier so as to save fifty pounds on the trip.
The group of ten or so men Andy had assembled for his Vegas boys’ weekend, all except Amyas in their early to late thirties, sat around a dinner table slowly nursing beers before moving on to the wine. Amyas sat opposite John and next to Andy. When the wine arrived everyone had seemed to perk up. Andy was holding court. When he wasn’t slurring it was easy to see why he was a successful salesman. “Miles, this is Amyas,” he would say. “Amyas is the annoying generation of up and coming who will put us all into early retirement. Amyas, Miles runs the team at GHS Capital, when we’re back in London I need to take you both and Stamler out to Nobu so you can discuss trade ideas. Miles, Stamler is the guru of distressed debt. Hell, between the three of you I think we might have credit’s dream team.” It was all spiel, obviously, but it seemed to work. “Amyas, how much do you trade in CDS? We’re thinking of getting more involved.” Amyas was suddenly having a conversation with the head of investments of a major hedge fund where he was the one offering advice.
Amyas was also in awe of John Stamler. Still on water, he was laughing and joking with the group like he’d known them years. “Seriously?” he’d shout over to Andy. “I’m just saying there’s no harm in upping your game at times. If she gives you her digits, have a car service pick you both up, take her somewhere fancy, treat her like a lady.” Andy then cut in: “Yes, Stamler, that works right up to the point you then demand she split the bill with you,” to the amusement of the table and John’s, “hey, times are tough.”
Andy then led a far merrier group again through the huge hotel lobby to a roped off entrance. Apparently the hotel had its very own club so the quiet evening out Amyas had expected saw them being led through one doorway, then another, and then through a huge set of thick black doors, opened by an enormous bouncer, where the quiet of the hotel was abruptly left behind them and they were suddenly in what could have been a warehouse by its sheer size and volume, with a sea of dancefloor already full. Leading the way was a stunning blonde whose tight black dress showed off her legs. “My name’s Tiffany and I’ll be your hostess,” she had announced at the door. They bypassed the dancefloor and instead Tiffany led them up a set of steps to an upper level. They were on a balcony overlooking the dancefloor at another alcohol-laden table.
Amyas had never been able to get fully drunk on a consecutive night of drinking. One form of alcohol simply replaced another. He poured himself a drink and stood at the balcony looking at the people dancing below, suddenly having a wave of melancholy wash over him. What was she doing right now, he wondered? Would Hannah still be in Cambridge or would they be travelling back today? When he had returned to his hotel room earlier in the day to sleep off his hangover he could not keep his thoughts off her. How long did he have to wait till she was ready to see him again? She had made progress with her mum so how could he now get her to sit down with him and try to fix things? Staring down at the various groups dancing below, couples in particularly catching his eye, he then noticed the chatter around him had intensified. It was not just Andy’s male hedge fund clients drinking vodka and cokes at their private table. They had been joined by a large group of girls.
This was apparently a custom of Vegas clubs. In addition to a hostess, each table had a doorman who would approach groups of single girls and ask if they would like to join a private table. It worked for both parties. Men wanted to talk to attractive women and the groups of girls got free drinks bought by the men all night. Some of the girls, usually the prettiest, were paid by the club to keep the men buying alcohol. Soon the anticipated sedate night became a party. There was suddenly a huge number of them on the balcony, and not just their newfound female companions. Some other men, whom Amyas vaguely recognised, had turned up and were shaking hands and being slapped on the shoulder by Andy and the others. Amyas then recalled their faces from the boxing, and the gambling. Other salesmen were in Vegas with other hedge fund managers and everyone seemed to know everyone. The more men who joined, the more girls the doorman seemed to bring over. It had become a party. Everyone was laughing and smiling. Andy’s clients had their arms around the waists of girls, and girls had their mouths close to the men’s ears. Everything was easy.
Standing holding a drink, attractive women to his right and left, Amyas felt he was simply going through the motions. No matter how pretty the girls were, they just made him miss one girl all the more. “My girlfriend’s a nurse,” he said when he found himself standing opposite one girl. “She’s away with friends this weekend. That’s why I joined these guys…” He knew he was not being sparkling company and part of him wished he could just go to bed. But as he talked to the girl he was surprised to find her still attentive and not finding an excuse to ditch him no matter how boring he thought he was being.
She had light brown hair. She was perhaps plainer than the others but in a place so obsessed with glamour and escaping reality Amyas found that endearing. As they leant against the balcony overlooking the dancefloor below, Amyas realised the girl had listened to the whole of his Hannah-orientated monologue without her attention fading once. Realising how long he had gone on for, he thought it only polite to ask the girl something about herself: she was from California and only in Vegas for the night.
“My friend Janie’s all about partying and girls’ nights out.” She pointed to a strikingly attractive blonde laughing and capturing the attention of the rest of the group. “I’m not very used to it though. I kind of feel I might be holding them back.”
“You’re really sweet,” Amyas found himself saying. She lacked pretentiousness and had this quieter manner. It was both comforting and charming.
“Thank you,” she said and shyly looked away. “Listen, it’s a bit loud in here and I’m not all that into the music. Would you like to go for a walk or something?”
Yes. A girl likes me and she’s pretty, he suddenly found himself thinking. She looked so cute staring at him – there was this hint of nervousness and shyness about her as she looked at him waiting for his answer. She was slim, had pretty brown eyes, was Hannah’s height if not a bit taller, and had nice lips and cheekbones. Did a walk mean going back to his hotel room? As a gauge he smiled and lightly placed his hand against hers, allowing his fingers to stroke her palm. She held it and smiled at him. It was a perfect kissing moment. A one-night stand might be exactly what was needed to distract him from Hannah.
“A walk would be lovely,” he said. “But I have an early flight and said I’d spend some time with the guys.” He gestured to a few of the men he had hardly even been introduced to.
“Oh,” she said. He noticed her lip pout as she looked down and then away. It made her even more desirable. “It’s been nice talking to you,” he said as he leant slowly down and kissed her cheek. She gave him this sad looking half-smile and he walked away from the temptation. He glanced back to see her talking to one of her friends and them both leaving. Amyas poured himself a large drink from the table, took a swig and then joined the others, determined to cheer himself up and take his mind off women.
“Come on, it’s dead up here,” someone said and Amyas agreed. He was starting to lose track of time. He had no watch and his phone battery had died and he knew he really should leave to get some sleep before his flight. Most of the girls had left the balcony and those remaining were draped around, kissing a handful of the remaining men. John had left long ago, shaking Amyas’s hand and telling him, with a wink, to stay out of trouble. Andy had left too but he had walked away looking smug taking with him Janie, the striking blonde. Amyas finished his drink. He had been talking to a colleague of Andy’s, another salesman helping host the trip, whose name might have been Joe. There were two other men drinking with them but Amyas could not remember previously being introduced.
“Let’s go to the main bar, get some gin and tonics.” A stairwell led from the balcony to the main dancefloor and Amyas found himself part of a new group of four. On the edge of the dancefloor were more private areas with sofas and champagne. The music was a lot louder, more thumping. As they walked through the floor Amyas saw a podium with two girls, dancing, grinding each other, both wearing skirts that barely reached their thighs and one wearing knee-high leather boots. As he looked, one girl’s hands were tight to the other girl’s hips and her pelvis pressed against the girl’s small, perfectly curved rear, Amyas regretted not going for that walk with the sweet Californian girl.
Joe led the way through the noise, past a table of young East Asians laughing and taking turns posing for photos, pouring an enormous bottle of Grey Goose vodka into each other’s mouths. They then walked past a series of booths with some of the largest and most serious men Amyas had seen in his life. All were wearing t-shirts that emphasised the thickness of their chests and arms and none were smiling. “American footballers,” shouted Joe over his shoulder. At last they came to a normal bar. The volume had subsided now that the dancefloor was behind them and, ordering the gin and tonics, Amyas started talking to one of the two other men who had joined them from their balcony table. He was smallish and brittle of built with dark receding hair. Amyas remembered a brief conversation with him from the night before. He had not been at the dinner or at the fight, so Amyas assumed he was part of the other groups of clients Andy and Joe knew who also had been offered a weekend in Vegas. When the drinks arrived Amyas excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he returned the smallish young man handed him his gin and tonic, smiled and said, “Here’s to a good night.” The four raised their glasses and drank. For Amyas, then it all went black.
35. 2008, we were… he was… she was… the end of the beginning…
An outsider should imagine a kitchen. For poetry’s sake a large kitchen in a grand Georgian townhouse, the ingredients for toffee laid out on a pristine work surface. A chef pours the ingredients into a bowl with great care and precision, for the quantities and consistency are to be perfect. A large shallow rectangular mould is readied for the mixture. It is to be of width less than half a fingernail and the surface area of a window. The mould just fits into the furnace of an oven, large enough and accustomed to catering for an ambassador’s reception and assembly dinners, and when it is time, the toffee is removed. In radiance, a beautiful gloss surface is left to free-stand, upright upon the counter displayed as portrait. Swirls and patterns are so exquisite it is the chef’s masterpiece. Art and beauty bestowed upon the kitchen.
An ice pick with such force to its centre ruptures its core with a cascade of falling shards, sharp and jagged. There are pieces where something beautiful once stood. The shards can be arranged on the work surface as a sadistic puzzle to recreate its old form, but the cracks are obvious. It lies for if it were to stand it would crumble. It looks complete but is broken, beyond repair. Then shards are taken, piece by piece, leaving gaping omissions in the once masterpiece. More are removed and there are more gaps than shards. And then so many are lost that none remain. There is an empty space where Amyas once had a soul. The impact was immediate. The rest took time. That was what came unexpectedly. It is difficult to fix something that continues to break and is soon to be forever lost.
36. October 2008, when it’s over…
The previous night was his last session with Pauline. He was meant to have one more but she was going on holiday and they had arranged to do the session over the phone. He had no intention of keeping the appointment. He did not dread the session so much as fail to see its point. When she had got her acupuncture needles out and gave him a relaxation therapy class, asking him to lie back and placing countless needles in and around his ears, it had been the tipping point. He had already told her he was not working anymore, he did nothing during the day, he had nothing to feel stressed about so why did he need to relax? It, however, summed up the whole experience of therapy with Pauline. She was a nice person and easy to listen to but that was all it was: him listening to Pauline. She and her husband lived in Chelmsford, they once owned a car dealership, when that folded she started training as a therapist, she did relaxation therapy on the side and did sessions at festivals, she had two grown-up children… she simply would not stop talking. She was very sympathetic about Hannah, which he appreciated, but her advice seemed to have made things worse: “Speak to Hannah, tell her how you’re feeling.” Well, if not making the situation worse – Amyas may have done that on his own – the advice seemed to be just that. Casual advice. No deep insights about his behaviour or why he was feeling how he was feeling. He could have got the same ‘advice’ from the lady at the baskets-only counter at Waitrose – who called him a nice young man because he would always smile and say thank you. No progress had been made and they had hardly even spoken about Las Vegas. But then what was there to say?
Like everything else in his life, Amyas needed to go through the motions. Leaving Pauline’s therapy room at the Harley Street sham of a building (quack doctors renting the address to gain credibility), he felt relieved. It had been his last appointment of any kind. Even that one hour a week, knowing he had to travel on the tube and be around other people, was difficult. He would spend all day watching the clock feeling dread as the time got closer for him to leave the flat.
He could not find pleasure in anything. He started the day with coffee to make his head less heavy. He hated the taste of instant coffee but he could not be bothered to make the real thing. He just put in an extra spoonful and then washed it down with a cup of tea to counter the bitter taste. He’d then pick up the remote from the sofa and put it back down, not wanting the rigmarole of flicking through the channels knowing nothing would be on daytime TV. When he knew he was being made redundant he had thought he could spend the day watching films. He hardly ever got a chance to watch a film on weeknights when he had been working. Now he would have all the time in the world. But he couldn’t think of a single film he wanted to sit through. Amyas just found himself standing at his living room window looking out at the street and the parked cars and the leaves fallen from the trees, all an autumnal golden brown.
He’d leave the flat to go for a walk. He lived near Highbury Fields and Upper Street. He used to love that area. That to him was a sign he had made something of his life: living minutes from the big mansions, huge trees and wide green space. Now it was just getting the motivation to get out of the door. Everything was meant to have got easier with time. It had been months since Vegas. He had gone to therapy. He was not meant to be feeling like he did. He should be job hunting and figuring out where his life was going to go next. But instead there was just apathy. There was nothing in life he wanted.
Lunch was a farce. There was a café he liked just before Highbury Fields. They made the sandwiches there, all he had to do was choose the filling. But when he got within five steps of the door he would walk past. Going to the café would meant having to talk to one of the ladies behind the counter, say which sandwich filling he wanted, have all these people around him as he would do so, hearing every word he said, maybe looking at him, judging him. So he would skip lunch and walk alone.
He then would sleep alone, switching off the lights and closing his eyes, imagining Hannah. She would be lying in her underwear next to him, her back to him. She would be rubbing herself up against him, teasing him. He would be taking off her bra, kissing her neck. Her hand would be down the front of his briefs… He would open his eyes and fling himself onto his back, frustrated. He would cover his face with his hands, try to breathe in and out steadily and let the arousal fade away. I like to be taken from behind. I want you to be forceful with me, he would hear her say. He wanted her so much. As he lay breathing hard he would feel the knots in his stomach and chest reminding him of much he had screwed things up.
He’d walk around the flat with the lights out. He’d pour himself a glass of water from the kitchen. He’d then take it into the spare room. He would sit on the floor by the window, just like he did when he was with Hannah and it had been her smoking room. It would be around one o’clock in the morning and there would be that glow from outside, as London was never fully dark and there was always some light somewhere. He wished he had a cigarette. A cigarette may have helped ease whatever was wrong with him. He wanted to sleep so where was the insomnia coming from? He wished he could cry. One sharp burst of emotion. Tears for him and Hannah, and have that emotional release and reset everything back to normal. Perhaps a drink would help. A glass of red wine. A bottle. Something to ease that constant throbbing in his chest and let him be normal again.
This is not me, he would say looking out the window at the conservatory of the house opposite. I am not the obsessive kind. I have not tried to see Hannah, I have respected her not texting me, no matter how much I keep staring at my phone. The last thing I want is for her to call me a stalker. I would rather die than her think that of me. He would stay sitting at the window for hours some nights, waiting till he could finally close his eyes and not hear his thoughts echo around his head.
It started to feel better suddenly, three weeks after following the same pattern. He was still sleeping barely more than four hours but one morning he woke up and wanted to leave the house, rather than feeling he should. He was tired of not working, he wanted to have something to do again. He was bored and listless, all overnight it appeared. The fog of apathy had suddenly lifted.
He had phone calls to catch up with. Nick and Kate were worried. He had kept putting off meeting them, citing tiredness. They arrived at his flat with a bottle of wine, and the three walked to his local Chinese for a takeaway. “Oh, we’re still doing the advocating to MPs at the moment,” Kate said as Amyas asked what had been going on in their lives. “Campaigns, policies, anything so they will put vulnerable children in their new bills. Easier said than done,” she smiled though, slumped back into the plastic chair of the takeaway as they waited for their food. She looked every bit as tired as he felt. Nick took her hand. “I keep saying just call in a few private eyes. Dig up some dirt on the dodgy bastards. Westminster is full to the brim with sordidness, I’m sure half of them keep a dominatrix in tow and belong to some sort of club with a dungeon.” Amyas laughed, he could not remember the last time he had done so.
“And this young man has now got even more letters after his name. Officially just qualified.” Kate beamed at Nick. “Amyas,” Nick then said with a deep dramatic sigh. “She says it as if it is something to be proud of. When in fact it is confirmation I have sold out and become what that history and politics student back when we were living in digs and drinking red wine from the bottle would have been appalled by. A chartered accountant. And a local government chartered accountant at that. Sad, sad days.”
Vladimir Putin and Margret Thatcher also only had four hours sleep a night, he had read somewhere. It was probably urban legend. Amyas hoped time would cure his insomnia. But in those hours of sleeplessness Hannah was there exactly as she was, wearing the same underwear, making the same moans and movements. One night he did fall asleep early but woke up in a state of shock and panic. In his dream he was at a party – there were mostly men in suits so it must have been a formal work affair – and there she was holding court in the middle of a group, wearing a beautiful black dress. He had found her again. He was about to talk to her again. And then he had awoken, realising it was just a dream, it had not been real, she had not been there and he had not seen her. And it was like losing her all over again.
He returned to his office one last time to see Donny Tabasco. It was a combined leaving party for Donny, Dan, Gerry and Joao, all leaving that day. And a chance for those who already left to have one last night together. “Dude, how you doing?” Kamran grinned, giving him a slapping handshake. Kamran was wearing an Armani t-shirt, a pair of jeans which looked more expensive than any suit Amyas had ever owned, and a pair of Wayfarers on the top of his head. Not working seemed to suit him.
They went to the pub; the company had a tab at the bar, and then half of them stumbled to a nearby club where pink cocktails were two-for-one and Eighties music was playing. Amyas was glad he had decided to go. He was glad he no longer felt like he did – helpless, lost. He was drunk with old friends and it felt liberating. And when he arrived home he was smiling again, about to go straight to bed almost forgetting about his nightly ritual. But as he absently switched his laptop on, just to feed his habit and check Facebook for any messages, the name he had wanted to see more than any other popped up. Hey, how are you? Just wanted to see how you are and hope everything is getting better. Hannah
There was back and forth. It wasn’t what was said, it was what was unsaid. The words were mundane. Amyas said it had been a rollercoaster and Hannah said not to worry and soon it would become like a ride on the dodgems. Amyas was ecstatic. The first message had got him bouncing from room to room imagining what to say to her, what to ask her, how to structure the conversation. She was back. Now, how did he win her back?
The messages took place over the course of a week. What had she been doing, he wanted to know, just as why she had stopped all contact. But instead he thought it best to banter superficially and content himself with her answer of working and ridiculous shifts as usual. So he waited and eventually played his card: it would be great to see you. Would you like to meet up? The response was slower and had him putting on hold his job search to lie on his sofa, the laptop on the coffee table and keep refreshing his messages wondering why the silence again.
Yeah, that would be nice, she said. Though shifts have been a bit all over the place recently. Not sure when I’m next off. Amyas only let himself read the first part and immediately replied suggesting dates and times. He needed to see her again. He knew he needed to make it sound casual so he referred to it as his chance to have a fun night with Hannah Chambers. He wanted to repair the damage he had done. In Hannah’s mind the last image of him was the broken man who called her at his lowest. Now he was suddenly feeling better. He was no longer overwhelmed by the fog of depression. He was back to normal, he was out the other side of the metaphorical tunnel and if she would just meet him she would see that for herself.
It was Friday evening, he had spent the afternoon walking and really wanted a beer. Hannah had not replied. He felt embarrassed. He had scared her away. Why did he keep doing that, he chastised himself. “I’m meeting some friends at the Princess Louise in Holborn,” Joan had said. “Feel free to join.”
Amyas had met most of Joan’s friends over the years. They were all indie music enthusiasts and would go weekly to clubs and gigs playing alternative music. The nights he and Nick had joined Joan on were hit or miss. Some were in random hidden rooms of pubs playing upbeat songs that were impossible not to dance to. And others were of pure dirge, with a large group of people looking like they wanted to self-harm on the dancefloor.
But there were other perks. Sara was blonde, slim, by far the prettiest girl in the room and apparently single. “Hey, good to see you again,” she said smiling, kissing him on the cheek. They stood in the middle of the pub talking. Joan had bought a round and passed them drinks so they did not need to stop their conversation to go to the bar. It felt so good talking to Sara and have her smile and tell him about her life. Talking to a beautiful girl, drinking with friends, feeling the soothing bubble-effect of the beer, was exactly what he needed. “I better go talk to Edith,” Sara said, telling Amyas it was good chatting again, and Amyas smiled as she walked away.
“I’m off home,” Joan said as the bell rang for last orders. “I’m taking the early train to see my parents so don’t fancy a late one. Think the others will be going on somewhere though.”
Amyas ordered the first round in the club. He only really knew Sara out of those who stayed but that was enough. He was drunk and conversation was easy. They were on a dancefloor and he was trying to dance as close as he could to Sara. “You’re really beautiful,” he tried to say in her ear and ended up shouting. “Err, okay,” she said, giving him a confused expression. She then gravitated away from Amyas who was struggling to time his dancing to the music, feeling he may have had one beer too many to feel rhythmically at ease. Sara was dancing with two girls seeming like she was really loving the music, jumping and bouncing to the beat. Amyas was dancing with people he didn’t know, and couldn’t give a fuck about the music. It was relief when the crowd wanted to sit down.
“I tell you, we’re going to run out of oil in five years. I’m on these forums and the experts are saying we should have cut back twenty years ago. The government’s holding back all these reserves and there’s already an underground stockpile.” Amyas was sitting round a table in the back of the Tottenham Court Road indie club listening to what as far as he was concerned was total bollocks. Some fat guy with a beard had been talking bullshit about anything and everything. Amyas was finishing his he-had-stopped-counting’th beer and someone he had bought a drink for earlier was at the bar buying him another. There were about eight of them round the table. Sara was still dancing. Amyas had had enough of the conversation.
“What the fuck do you know, mate? You don’t know the first thing about oil. If it was all going to run out in five years I think things would be a lot worse than it is right now. You’re just reading some made-up crap on the internet and forgetting that everything on the internet is made-up crap.” By the time a beer had been put in front of him there was an awkward silence. No one was looking at him. Repeatedly saying to the bearded man, “what the fuck do you know?” every time he tried to justify his point of view, had not gone down well. Neither had telling him to fuck himself when he accused Amyas of being a biased self-interested investment banker – Amyas hated being confused for an investment banker. Sara was suddenly there holding a cigarette and lighter. The group around the table told Amyas they were going out to smoke. Amyas said he would hold the table.
He was sitting by himself, drinking his beer at the big table waiting for someone to come back. He felt a buzz having put someone in his place and not having sat back and let him get away with the bollocks. He also felt embarrassed. When he said the words “go fuck yourself” it was like they had come out of someone else’s mouth. He had never said that to anyone before. He had to apologise when the guy returned. If he returned. The music was far too upbeat for how he was feeling. He needed something calmer. Something more soothing. Out of his jeans pocket he took out his iPod. He put on a song from one of the Damien Rice albums. It was called Sleep Don’t Weep. He put in his headphones and just at his empty table listening to a slow, sad song. It was comforting.
The bearded guy had his coat on saying goodbye to people as Amyas walked outside. Amyas grabbed his hand and told him he was sorry, he had been out of order and hoped he could buy him a beer another time to apologise for how he had spoken to him. Amyas then walked away making his way home, wanting the walk to help digest the night. From Holborn he walked to Chancery Lane and up till he reached the start of Rosebury Avenue. Instead of continuing on Rosebury Avenue to Angel he detoured right, into Clerkenwell and found himself outside The Green: the bar where he and Hannah had their double date with Nick and Kate – their last date.
There was a bench nearby, which he sat on. It was quiet and still. The area was deserted. What was happening to him, he thought as he sat slumped, head in his hands. He had thought he was fine again. That he had ridden out the storm and was back to normal. He was the opposite of normal. He was high or he was low. He had not always been like this. Even before Hannah, a girl had never made him capsize like he was currently doing. He wished Vegas had never happened. Head still in his hands, his elbows pressed into his knees, he wished he and Hannah had never happened. He had existed before Hannah. Before Hannah he had been a happy person who loved life. Why could he not be that person again? Why was he descending into these spirals, unable to shake his emotions, feeling like a train was hurtling towards him and he was lost in its headlights? Why could he not go back to normal, and was he fated to live the rest of his life as he was?
37. December 2006, before we met…
Amyas kept his eyes closed hoping to extend his sleep further, but his thirst and a slight bloating of his stomach made him need to get out of bed. It had been a beautiful sleep: deep and soothing, the melatonin flooding his head, easing away the petty stresses of the previous months. He also did not feel the onset of a hangover. Moreover, he still felt full from the naan bread and kebab meat, the takeaway on the way back to the hotel, to go with the five other meals and reservoir of beer they had consumed that evening.
He walked across his hotel room to the window. He could see the river and the hills behind that had so much grandeur, a boy from the flat lands of West London could confuse them for the Alps. He thought how tranquil it would be to live in one of the scattered houses dotted upon the hillside, amongst the dense green, trees and vineyards with the clear blue sky above them. What an amazing view they would have. How beautiful it would be to wake up each day and look upon the town of Heidelberg with its historic cobbled streets, countless churches with spires and the castle, untouched since the lost siege three centuries before. With his hand against the cold glass of the pane, seeing his breath mist upon it, Amyas smiled recalling the previous afternoon when they had stood within those castle grounds and Dave had given him and Ollie a history lesson. Strangely it was probably the most moving experience of his life. He was standing opposite where cannon fire had collapsed the east battlements and the fallen gigantic rubble had lain unmoved. This huge tower lying before him, and the stone castle open like a doll house. Three centuries had gone by but the castle and its gigantic fallen battlement had remained exactly as it was from the day it had lost that battle. Untouched, unmoved, a monument to time gone by. In fact, that summed up what he loved about Heidelberg.
When they arrived at Frankfurt Airport, Dave led the way to the train station. Amyas knew no German so Dave and Ollie combined their knowledge. Ollie’s mother was German and he had spent each summer in an idyllic Bavarian village where they would lie out next to the lake sunbathing, swimming and barbequing. Dave had been an exchange student at the University of Heidelberg during the third year of his degree and when he returned to Ealing he could not stop crowing how everything in Germany, the beer, the licencing laws, the food, the drinking games, the bars, the women, was better than its English equivalent. Despite his love of London, Amyas found himself amazed at how taken he was by even just one day in a new environment. He also found it liberating to be exploring a new country with the friends he had known since his early teens.
Once at London’s National Portrait Gallery there had been an exhibit dedicated to the historical figures with associations to the London Borough of Ealing, the Queen of Suburbs. Amyas simply knew it as home. Despite it being a London borough he never considered it as London. It was the suburbs, it could have been anywhere. He grew up in a small semi-detached house on the outskirts, a half hour’s bus ride from the private school he had won a scholarship to attend. His parents were both in their forties when he was born, an unexpected blessing after having given up hope years earlier. His father worked for a consumer research magazine and would often leave drafts of articles and reviews strewn around the house, causing his mother to constantly curse at the untidiness and lack of space.
As Amyas stood at the window he felt an unfamiliar pang of emotion as he looked over Heidelberg. His parents had always talked dreamily of one day moving to the countryside and Amyas had assumed that the only thing stopping them was his school and scholarship. The new surroundings made him wonder what it would have been like to have grown up somewhere different, somewhere with hills, mountains and forests, instead of roundabouts, main roads and council flats. In one way it would have been beautiful, but given the option he would have changed nothing. Despite setbacks and screw ups, he was at an age where he had not yet learnt to regret.
He had spent his adolescence playing centre midfield alongside Dave in parks and school playgrounds, and Ollie would be his first go-to for recommendations in music, film and TV. They were his best friends growing up and even when school and then university ended he would end up back in Ealing sitting in a pub with Dave and Ollie drinking cheap beer and discussing ways to make money without actually getting a job, let alone a career. When he moved to London proper it was easy to forget that. There was Nick, Kate and Joan, new places, new people and when he got offered a new job on the front line of a brokerage it was even easier to aspire to grandeur, to neglect his roots and make less and less time for his old friends.
And then, as Amyas was concerned, the obvious happened. Working on the front line of a brokerage meant he could not see anyone let alone his old friends, being fixed to his desk all hours in a bubble of anxiety and stress with superiors screaming orders at him, laying adverse market movements at his door and making demands just for the sake of being demanding. At first it felt powerful. Making excuses of being too busy, too important and too much of a City bigshot to make time for other people. But within a month Amyas dreaded the sound of his morning alarm and felt ridiculous having thought it could have been the life for him. In six months the only joy he felt was when being called into his boss’s office to be told he was being made redundant. “To be honest I couldn’t really imagine you doing a job like that,” said Nick in the pub after. “But then I still imagine you sitting under an oak tree somewhere writing poetry for a living.”
And when he suddenly had his days free, taking stock of his life and wondering what was next, it was Ollie who would meet him at a pub at lunchtimes and in the early afternoon. “Never mind, just do a normal job next,” advised Dave when he joined them. “One with alright people and less pringles.” Amyas did not know exactly what Dave meant by pringles but the overall sentiment was not lost. Dave and Ollie were less impressed by Amyas, the Wannabe City Boy, than they were by Unemployed Amyas who would always be first to get a round in at the bar. To them Amyas would always be Amyas – their friend and drinking buddy, with no other expectations.
It was the first week of December when the three arrived in Heidelberg and the streets were filled with market stalls selling food and crafts. Temporary structures resembling wooden forts that served mulled wine were scattered across the town, and people sat at the top looking down upon the festivities.
“Is it like this all the time?” Amyas asked Dave in wonderment.
“What? It’s a Christmas market, Amyas. Takes place at Christmas.” Dave was in his element of superiority. “This is the best time to come though,” Dave continued. “All the food will be really fresh. Eloy said they only started the market on Tuesday. Today should be its first proper day open.”
It was Thursday and the three were staying till Sunday. Dave’s primary purpose for the trip was to visit his friend, Eloy, who had also been an exchange student at Dave’s time. Eloy originally studied medicine in Mexico City and after completing his degree returned to Heidelberg to complete his training there. He was now working as a doctor at the local hospital.
That evening Amyas and Ollie were introduced to a street full of bars, a young man’s equivalent to streets paved with gold. After each crisp and pure beer (with every beer Dave mention the strict purity laws in German brewing) they wandered back to the market, with its wooden huts lit up by fairy lights and people picking up and admiring hand-crafted Christmas figurines. Crowds bunched close together filling the town square, holding steaming mugs of wine, waiting to sample the range of eateries that included a large circular fire pit the size of a paddling pool with hundreds of bratwurst and pork steaks roasting, stalls with hotplates where batter was poured, and Nutella spread to make pristine crepes, and vendors pouring warm caramelized almonds into paper cones. At the end of the night once all the stalls were closed Dave said a Lebanese restaurant did the best kebab he ever had so they finished their pilgrimage there.
As Amyas brushed his teeth in the hotel bathroom, he caught himself smiling in the mirror. Dave had messaged saying he and Ollie were at breakfast. It was time to climb those hills.
That night they met Eloy. It was an easy friendship from the start. “You have to tell me what David was like at school. Was he always a player with the ladies?” Amyas and Ollie burst out laughing, largely just to see the look of annoyance on Dave’s face. Relaxed, engaging and constantly with a smile, Eloy was a perfect addition to the group. “I am sorry I could not join you last night,” Eloy said as they stood at a bar drinking demi-pils. “Where has David shown you so far? Have you been to Havana? Do you like cocktails?” Eloy led them to a Cuban bar off the main Strasse where Amyas and Ollie followed Eloy’s recommendation of the house mojito. “Oliver, your girlfriend she is English too? You have to bring her next time. But it is good to have a holiday with friends. Come, there is another good place near here. David broke many hearts there.” More laughter. “Shut up, tossers,” said Dave.
In a bar that had its own club behind glass doors at the back, Amyas taught Eloy some attempted breakdancing moves he had previously tried at house parties. As Eloy laughed and Dave and Ollie covering their eyes, a grinning Amyas got to his feet after a failed spin. A girl with long dark hair was standing across from him. She was also laughing but with a bright smile.
“So, does that mean you will come back? Soon?” the girl smiled. Amyas and the girl were sitting on the stone steps outside his hotel. Eloy had helped make introductions in the club. The girl had found Amyas’s attempts to speak German especially amusing. Amyas liked making her laugh. Dave and Ollie had gone to bed an hour before, just after the five of them made the short walk back from the bar. Eloy said goodbye too and though they had known each other mere hours Amyas felt sorry to have him leave.
The girl had a beautiful carefree smile. She had told Amyas in the club she was a student. Her apartment was not far from their hotel so it felt natural to walk back together. He didn’t know why but asking her up to his room felt wrong. Talking to the pretty German girl and seeing her smile was just as, if not more seductive. He had left her briefly on the steps outside the hotel and come back from his room with two bottles of beer. They sat in the quiet, under the amber street light talking about life, dreams, what they would do when they grew up, and how old they would be when they finally decided to grow up.
She sipped her beer and he held his upon his knee smiling, watching her lips lightly caress the glass rim. She gave a snort of laughter and quickly brought her hand to her mouth to stop a spill.
“Don’t do that,” she laughed. “It is rude to stare. You have not answered me.” She was still smiling and then smiled wider as he looked at her mouth. She let her eyes close as he leant gently to kiss her.
As he sat with Dave and Ollie at the bar of Frankfurt Airport, each having ordered alcohol-free beverages, Amyas could not stop grinning at how Sunday had arrived far too quickly. Despite the lack of sleep and alcohol-related dehydration, the trip had reunited him with friends he was in danger of losing and made him appreciate all he had going for him. He thought back to the girl and smiled again. Life was not all about career-climbing ladders. Quite the opposite. He was single, unemployed and if Nick decided to move in with Kate, potentially soon to be homeless. But he was suddenly loving every minute of it. He was enjoying being himself. And was looking forward to whatever was to come.
38. November 2008, we were.
I’m sorry for not writing back. I’ll be straight with you. I don’t think us meeting is a good idea. Right now your emotions are probably heightened and friendship with me is not what you need. I know I should have said this sooner but over the last few months I’ve been trying to get my life back on track and I know this may sound the harshest thing ever but I’m not the best person to offer you the support you need and may just end up leading you on and hurting you far more than you have been already.
I really loved the time we had together and I will always think of you as one of the kindest and most thoughtful men I’ve known. I know how amazing you are and how you are going to meet someone absolutely perfect for you. I do just want you to be happy.
39. December 2007, the night we first met…
He stood at the window watching the snow. It had covered the courtyard. The other bars and restaurants were closed and snow had settled on the tables, chairs and umbrellas, long deserted. He liked the icy coldness that the window radiated. It helped cool him down after his latest spell on the dancefloor. Hopefully that would be it. He loved dancing but he had reached the point where he was the happy, merry side of drunk and his limbs were ready for bed. “There you are,” said a voice behind him. Amyas turned to see Donny Tabasco, who patted him on the shoulder. “Nice drink. Very festive,” he smiled. Amyas looked down at the glass he was holding: a mojito with a sprig of holly.
“Amanda bought it for me. I don’t think she wants to go home.”
“That’s Americans for you. Never want the party to end.” They turned around to look back at what had become the impromptu dancefloor – office workers dancing to Material Girl by Madonna in front of a long bar. Amyas’s attention immediately went to a woman in a red dress whose arms were drooped around the neck of a tall young man who looked panic-stricken. Behind, a group of men were smirking. “Joao’s drawn the short straw of getting her in a cab,” smirked Donny too. “I think everyone’s now making a move.”
Amyas looked at the smirking men; Jordan, John Stamler and Dan. The office Christmas party had come to an end. Dinner had been at the most amazing steak restaurant. They then drank dry the bar of a posh hotel. And finally the ‘young ’uns’ as his boss Kamran had termed them before he left, had gone to a late bar off Regent Street. Donny and Amyas then returned to the window sipping their drinks, looking out at the peaceful winter scene.
“Could be a Christmas card.”
“A fitting end to the night,” said Amyas. He found himself smiling – a deep pure, satisfied smile. He was happy. Really happy.
“What you grinning about?” smirked Donny.
“It’s been a decent year,” Amyas smiled, taking another sip of his drink. “I didn’t think it would be after my last job but…” He paused, trying to express the sudden ball of euphoria in his chest in words. “Let’s just say it’s been good meeting some really decent people and making some really solid friends. None more than you, Tabasco.” Donny laughed, slapping Amyas on the arm, telling him he still had five minutes until he should start telling everyone he loved them.
“Anyway I’ll go check on the taxis. That’s the plus side of being an accountant for a bunch of traders. You control the purse strings. See you outside in five.”
The chuckling Donny Tabasco left Amyas grinning and gazing once more out the window. His coat. He should get his coat from the cloakroom, he realised, or else he’d freeze to death. Amyas turned sharply to his left and almost walked headfirst into a girl.
“Whoa!” they both said, suddenly face to face. Amyas was still grinning from his conversation with Donny and the girl seemed to have been giggling. “Sorry,” said Amyas. The girl looked up at him, smiling. Suddenly it was like someone had turned down all the pop and dance music in the background. The girl was beautiful. She was petite, long brownish, golden hair – at least from what he could tell in that lighting – beautiful fluttering eyes and pale pink lips. She had the most perfect smile: all soft edges and radiant. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I need to learn to look before walking randomly into strangers.” The girl laughed.
“It’s okay, it was my fault. I’ve been rushing around looking for my friend Mary. She’s got the ticket for my coat.”
“Yeah, I’m guessing you’ll be needing it. Looks like the Arctic’s descending.”
“True, but it is pretty.” She turned, looking through the window and then looked back at him, smiling.
“Well, I don’t think your friend’s down here. I think I’m the only one skulking about in these dark corners.”
“Skulking? Good word. Very Hugh Grant.”
“Thanks,” he smiled. “I’m sure if you stay in one place your friend will find you. How about skulking with me for a bit? Enjoy the view.”
“Are you chatting me up?” the girl smiled, half about to laugh.
“Of course, what better time than two minutes before this place closes and you’ve already told me you’re about to leave?”
“Some may say it’s the perfect time. The bar’s closed. No need to buy me a drink. Skip the small talk and just go have sex.”
Amyas could not stop himself grinning massively. He knew he was blushing. He could feel the warmth in his cheeks. The girl had kept a straight face but then suddenly a grin emerged too.
“But then I’ll miss out on the small talk. You seem quite good at it. Plus, I saw you on the dancefloor earlier.” Amyas remembered seeing a really attractive girl in a pretty grey dress and sexy black tights dancing across the room. At the time he was with his work friends and it seemed far too daunting leaving them to march up to a girl who was with her own friends and talk to her. “You dance really well. Very elegant.”
“Why thank you. That’s very nice of you to say. But it still doesn’t mean I’m going to have sex with you.”
“What about small talk then? At least until your friend finds you. I too have been told I’m good at small talk. And as no one has ever told me I’m good at sex, I’m more than happy to play to my strengths.” The girl burst out laughing. She stared at him, open mouthed. Her cheeks had turned pinks as she smiled brightly once more.
“Not many guys have succeeded in making me speechless before. Brutal honestly. I like it. I think you might have got yourself five minutes.
“Well I guess I should make the most of it. I’m Amyas, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Hannah.”
40. August 2008, Las Vegas
He remembered it was the sunlight that woke him. He had a vague reckoning that the sunlight should not have been as bright as it was through the hotel room window. As he stirred he felt a hand touching him. He was naked and the hand was attempting to arouse and pleasure him. He then realised it was a male hand. As he started he suddenly saw the time on the display below the television opposite him and realised his flight was due to take off in a matter of minutes. He leapt up, or tried to leap and tried to exclaim he was going to miss his flight but his head was all over the place. He instantly felt faint and his voice sounded strange and far away. He saw his clothes at the foot of the bed. Trying to dress, he noticed there was blood all over his shirt. He could not wear it. A man was now sitting next to him and it may have been at this point he realised it was not his hotel room. There was a white t-shirt also on the floor and Amyas would vaguely recall asking the man if he could take it. The man had dark hair and heavy, droopy eyes like the cartoon basset hound. All Amyas knew was he needed to go, get to the airport immediately. He was suddenly at the airport. He had kept his ticket in his wallet and his passport in his jeans pocket which would explain how he got through security because he was suddenly inside the terminal and at the gate. He was in time to catch his flight but he had to sit down. His body then shut down.
He awoke two hours later in great confusion and panic. Had he passed out? Had he blacked out? He could not remember the events that led him to the airport, he just remembered the flight he had to catch which had long departed. He carried himself to the boarding desk suddenly aware how groggy and woozy he was. His eyes were wide and he may have been a terrifying sight had Las Vegas not seen similar many times before. He found a voice that was as groggy as his head and told the assistant that he had blacked out when about to board his flight. Medical assistance was called. A paramedic checked his blood sugar levels finding nothing amiss and asked whether he had “consumed alcohol”. The paramedic had also seen it all before in Vegas and recommended that Amyas book himself into a hotel and “sleep off the alcohol”. The diagnosis had been shared with the airline staff who, despite losing the sympathy that came with concern, retained a kindliness.
“I thought you were sick,” said a middle-aged lady in an American Airlines uniform. “What I’ve done though is I’ve changed your ticket. This gets you back to London but the next flight is not till midnight.” Amyas said thank you, suddenly feeling dizzy and nauseous. He realised he had left the hotel without his bag or any luggage, and had not settled the bill. He had to go back to the hotel. The desert sunlight burnt his retinas and with all his effort he tried to keep conscious on the taxi journey.
“Sir, you covered everything when you checked out a couple of hours ago,” said an amused reception clerk at the hotel. Amyas was completely thrown. He had no recollection of this. He then told the clerk he left some luggage in the room and was directed to the lost-and-found where his bag was waiting for him. Amyas needed to lie down. He needed to pass out again but he did not want to be at the hotel. He wanted to leave as soon as possible. All he wanted to do was be at the airport away from where he was, the noise, the confusion, Vegas.
He thought water and something to settle his stomach might relieve the intense nausea, but just one bite of a banana and sip of Evian had him rushing to the bathroom. It was not going to be the only time he threw up in the airport bathroom. He had experienced hangovers many times and the pains of alcohol poisoning, but as he sat at the terminal he felt far worse than he ever had before.
It was then when he started to feel it. At first it was sudden, a great shooting pain as he sat, straight through him as if he was being impaled. He almost cried out, wincing and wanted to suck himself into a ball to stop the pain. When the searing lifted he gingerly got to his feet and made his way as normally as he could back to the bathroom to examine himself. It all felt different. It was not like it should have been. He then remembered where he had woken. He thought about the night before or more so, how he could not remember anything beyond that one point. The second he had drunk that gin and tonic, that was it. Nothing else. There was no gradual loss and no haziness that typically accompanied alcohol-induced memory loss. There was absolute perfect memory, each event, each second, and then there was nothing. Why had he not remembered checking out of the hotel, he asked himself? You do not get memory loss after you have woken up, challenged his mind. Nothing about what had happened or what was happening was making sense.
His mind would not stop picturing scenarios, hoping for innocent explanations. He could just be drunk. The morning could have been a harmless misunderstanding. It could all be harmless. But if it was harmless, why did he feel so suddenly terrified?
He lay alone on the hard plastic seats of the terminal for twelve hours. He knew he needed to tell someone he had missed his flight but it was the last thing he could face. In fact he could not face anything. He just lay with his eyes open unable to close them for what he might see, what he would feel.
The flight from Las Vegas landed in Chicago at the same time he was due in at work five thousand miles away, in London. He had to buy a new t-shirt for the one he was wearing – the one that was not his own but had been on the hotel room floor – was disgusting. He needed water. He was deathly white. He would be in Chicago for more hours still feeling the way he did and wishing he could sleep away what was wrong with him. He tried to lie down. He tried to sleep. He tried not to think. He tried not to think of the face he had seen as he woke that morning. He tried not to think of what that hand was doing to him, that he was naked while it was doing it. He tried not to think of the pain every time he sat. And he tried not to think how every incident would link with the next, and if anyone were to find out how humiliated he would be.
He thought of the girl from the club. He wished he had taken that walk with her. If he had been with her he would not have been in the club. All that might have happened, the reality of where he was and what he was enduring would never have come to pass. He then thought of Hannah. He thought of how much he missed her, how much he needed her and how much he wished he had stayed in London and never gone on that weekend. He thought of Hannah as he lay, as he eventually heard the boarding call. He picked himself up. He boarded the London bound plane. He was finally about to return home. But to what, he did not know.
December 2011, the end.
I don’t know if you will ever read this or even if I will send it, but I just wanted you to know how much I still think of you and miss you. It’s been well over three years but I find myself still remembering little things from when we were together such as how you used to hold your wine glass, how we used to sit in my spare room smoking and how you used to smile and laugh when I told a terrible joke. Those days were probably the happiest I’ve ever been and it is really important to me to tell you that as I say goodbye to you one last time.
I miss you, I loved you, and I really do hope you are happy and are having this amazing life that is full of fun, colour, brightness where you are surrounded by people who you love. You deserve to be happy more than anyone I have ever known and though I wish it had been with me I hope it is with someone wonderful and who appreciates how incredibly wonderful you are.
You are always going to be the one great love of my life and I really wanted you to know how much you meant to me.
All my love,