A Novel in Ten Parts
Starring (in alphabetical order): David Beckham, Björk, Tony Blair, George Bush Sr, Sarah Ferguson, Prince Harry, Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, Freddie Mercury and Mike Tyson
In memory of Shyam
All characters appearing in this work are, by definition, fictitious. Any resemblances to real persons are purely coincidental.
All haters are just confused admirers.
If you are reading this book, you are probably like me. Why would you care whether Rihanna left Chris, or Miley twerked Robin, or how much Kim and Kanye’s wedding cost? Celebrities are fools sold by fools to other fools. Why should we pay to feed their narcissism? Why should we waste our time? We are not fools.
But it isn’t so easy. Sometimes it’s only on our deathbeds that we atheists find we’ve been talking to God all our lives.
Oh yes, they get you in the end.
Sooner or later, we’re all starstruck, whether we like it or not.
You know this is true, because you’ve seen it. Don’t try to deny it. I know it, you know it, they know it. We’ve all seen it, for God’s sake.
Seen what? Don’t give me that. You know what …
The video. Yes, that video.
Over two billion views on YouTube. Google went offline for two hours. The subject was raised, quite seriously, during Prime Minister’s Questions. If he cares, you definitely care. It doesn’t matter why you care. You just do. When that video hit cyberspace, the planet held its breath and gave a collective sigh.
He lives, we said at once. He lives.
And everyone smiled, even the jaded and the cynical, the intellectuals and recluses, even those sweaty pink-skinned fornicating hacks themselves.
All of us.
Except, perhaps, for me.
When I saw that video I knew, beyond any doubt, that my brother was dead.
Go on, open your browser. Type those words. You know the ones. Scroll down and press Play.
My brother did this for you, so don’t tell me you’re not smiling. Don’t tell me you don’t care. That’s what I used to say.
It started with my father, all this controversy, and I hated him for it. When I told him I was getting married his eyes lit up like cathode rays:
‘Ameena …’ he murmured, before it dawned on him. ‘But we are against Muslims,’ he said. ‘Just like we’re against blacks. Please don’t embarrass us.’
It was the verb that hurt; ‘don’t upset us’ would have been better, even ‘don’t disgrace us’, anything but this.
I had to admit it. My father wasn’t backward or ignorant, he was simply selfish and mean. I didn’t speak to him for six years.
He’d asked to be removed from the hospital so he could die at home, in his bedroom. Ameena and I were living in the US, but we came at once and checked into a hotel. I went home and she went shopping, not knowing what else to do. The first thing my father said to me was ‘Ashish, either that wallpaper goes or I do.’
Dad was always an Oscar Wilde fan, though he always refused to believe me when I told him his hero was gay.
I sat on the bed and held his hand, and he said, ‘Where is Ameena? Where is my daughter?’
I was so amazed that all I could do was cry.
We were with my father when he drew his last breath, and I forgave him everything – it was so easy. His death brought the rest of us together, my mother, Ameena and me. We became a family. Forgiveness is the purest expression of love.
But then my marriage began to fall apart.
It wasn’t family that caused the rift: it was politics, a word I’ve come to hate. It began with 9 / 11 and ended with the day that George Bush Sr came to use the bathroom. But we’ll come to this later.
Ameena and I were never very political. In my youth I was a member of the Labour Party, and she had something to do with Greenpeace, and in New York she ran a women’s group in addition to her dental practice, but this was more therapy for lonely hearts than anything feminist. And as for me, I was buried in my work.
I’m a professor of linguistics and have read everything Chomsky ever wrote, except for his political tracts. I had them on my bookshelf, but never felt moved to hold them in my hand. I’ve even met the man, on three separate occasions, but we only ever spoke about grammar and genetics. I could tell you the name of the US President, the British Prime Minister and perhaps two other heads of state, and for an academic that’s doing quite well. There’s a professor in my university who thinks Mao still rules China. When I tried to correct him, he said, ‘Right, it’s that new guy now; what’s his name, Hong Kong?’
I suppose it’s a luxury to be like this, and it’s easier in America than in any other country in the world, though after 9 / 11 this began to change. It sort of shook everyone up, and when the apathetic become political overnight, they say the stupidest things. It’s inevitable. Imagine if everyone suddenly starting talking generative grammar over the dinner table.
My first realisation of this was when Ameena came home, not only in tears but shaking with anger. It turned out that she’d been waiting at the checkout, and someone had come up behind her and put four slices of bacon inside her blouse. What made it worse was that no one tried to help her. Some of them were even laughing. She’d thrown the bacon at him, sworn loudly, knocked a bottle off the shelf, and left, but on her way home a squad car pulled over and took her in for questioning. They let her go, but for three days she didn’t leave the house. By the fourth day Ameena had changed.
She drank more but also began to pray, and sometimes she’d go out with her head covered. All this gave her strength, which I was glad of, but she also began to talk about politics. Constantly. At first, I didn’t mind. I just listened. But as time went by it became more extreme. Ameena would go to demonstrations and when she came home she’d be so wound up that she would rant for hours. When I begged her to stop, she’d yell at me:
‘You don’t care about anything but yourself,’ she’d say. ‘Wake up, you idiot. Can’t you see what’s going on?’ And worst of all: ‘You’re not Muslim. How can you understand? You’re probably enjoying all this.’
Now this was simply unfair, whichever way you looked at it. Yes, I wasn’t Muslim, but my wife was, and I identified with her, which meant I identified with them. I tried to tell her this, but she told me to shut up and stop talking linguistics.
‘This is reality, Ashish.’
‘This is logic, Ameena. It’s the way I think.’
‘Fuck logic. How about a little solidarity? You know Michael Jackson’s become a Muslim?’
It was. It was on the MJ Shrine. But what did this mean?
‘Are you telling me you want me to convert?’
‘I’m telling you Islam is the refuge of the oppressed. Not that you’d know anything about that, Mr Professor.’
‘We’re not oppressed. The war’s thousands of miles away. We’ve got two cars and a house.’
‘The war’s here. Can’t you see that?’
I looked out the window.
‘And so what if the war is thousands of miles away? They’re killing babies in Iraq, Ashish. Are you telling me you don’t care?’
‘I thought it was Afghanistan.’
‘The sanctions, you idiot!’
She got so angry she went to my study and threw my Chomsky collection at me. After that I started reading them, the political ones, but I could never remember what I read. This made her angrier still until, by autumn, we were hardly speaking. It got so bad I even tried phoning Chomsky himself, but he never answered my calls.
By October I saw her perhaps two nights a week, but she was either on the phone or on the Internet, corresponding with ‘like-minded people.’ By that time, I had no idea what ‘like-minded people’ meant. My wife was becoming a stranger to me.
November came and my little sister was due to graduate university. She’d been living at home to cut costs because – this I do know – the government had introduced tuition fees. Ameena and I decided to fly to England for the ceremony. I was frightened she would change her mind, which would have upset my mother, but when the day came she was packed and ready to go.
Of course, they checked and double-checked our luggage, but Ameena said nothing, not even during the flight. I was silent too, not wanting to provoke her, and read Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky. When we landed, Ameena seemed more relaxed, confessing she was glad to be in England.
‘It’s fascist as fuck,’ she said, ‘but it can’t be worse than America.’
I nodded my agreement.
When we reached home, the talk was of nothing but Mala and her achievements, the atmosphere loving and jolly. Mala had decided to apply for a PhD, she informed us, in politics. Ameena clapped her hands at this, while I pulled a face and got told to grow up; I’m not sure by whom.
Ameena and I gave Mala the gift we’d brought her from New York, a brand-new Apple Macintosh PowerBook G4 with a 17-inch screen.
‘You can write your thesis on it,’ I told her.
‘It’s the fastest there is, honey,’ said Ameena. ‘Look at the screen. It’s great for DVDs.’
Mala mumbled ‘Thanks’, but left the computer in the box. Ameena looked at me. I looked at Mum.
‘She’s an anarcho-primitivist,’ said Mum.
‘What’s that?’ I said.
‘I don’t know.’
‘She’s against technology fetishism,’ explained Ameena. ‘She wants to get back to nature.’
I put my head inside a cushion and screamed, which everyone thought was a joke.
During dinner, we opened a bottle of champagne, and then a second. Ameena drank the most, but she seemed in good spirits, teasing Mala about boyfriends, sympathising with my Mum about road rage (this from a woman who regularly tailgated men she suspected of being Republicans), and smiling at my jokes.
After dinner, while my Mum made coffee, I made the mistake of switching the TV on, and there was the news. All of a sudden, Ameena’s eyes glazed over: her news face. And then my mother entered the room, with a tray of coffee cups. Seven minutes later, the two were locked inside a row, and Ameena was stone-cold sober once more. Statistics, analyses, and ‘hard facts’ flew from her over-articulate mouth, while my mother replied with patronizing quasi-demented non sequiturs.
My mother, you see, was in favour of the war. My wife was not.
‘I’ve read the dossier,’ Ameena said. ‘It’s lies, every inch of it.’
‘It’s because you don’t have children,’ said Mum.
‘Ten million protested worldwide in one day,’ said Ameena.
‘What about if you found yourself a hobby?’ said Mum. ‘Bird-watching, perhaps.’
‘If the guns didn’t exist in the first place, there wouldn’t be a war,’ said Mala.
‘Why don’t we all calm down?’ I said, glaring at my sister.
‘Shut up, Ashish,’ said Ameena.
‘Yeah,’ said Mala. ‘Shut up, Ash.’
Mala didn’t realise that this was my life now, these rants, all day every day. I stomped upstairs to smoke but was followed by my mother and told to go outside. I stood in the cold like a teenager instead of a thirty-eight-year-old tenured professor. I could still hear them in the street.
When I returned to the living room, the two of them turned on me, forgetting about their own disagreement. My mother was suddenly furious that I’d married a Muslim. Again. And my wife was angry at me for refusing to condemn my mother. Mala disappeared to her bedroom and spoke on the phone to her friends, which only vexed me further. How come she would use the phone and not a computer?
Angry now, I raised my voice:
‘Shut up, both of you.’
It worked. They both stared at me with playground faces.
‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ I said, and took out the letter (I had been saving it for the right moment, which, obviously, had arrived).
‘Dear Prof. Iyer,’ it read. ‘As part of the graduation festivities I should like to take this opportunity to invite you to attend the Vice-Chancellor’s dinner on the evening of June 9. We should enjoy the privilege of honouring you in your hometown, and do hope you will accept. Our prodigal sons are few, but unrivalled in stature.’
A handful of academic superstars would be present, and of course Ameena was invited. It confirmed the heights I had scaled in recent years with my papers and my tenure at such a young age. My mother was very proud, turning the letter over in her hands as if expecting to find a cheque enclosed. Ameena seemed happy too.
‘I’m sorry I got so flustered,’ she said. ‘An evening out sounds like a good idea.’
I opened some duty-free whisky, and even my mother accepted a thimbleful, but then Mala returned and revealed the identity of the after-dinner speaker.
It was George Bush − Senior.
Ameena’s head seemed to rotate on its axis.
‘I forbid you to go anywhere near that man,’ she said, and at once tried to tell my sister to boycott her own graduation, which brought my mother to her feet.
‘Ameena, what has that man ever done to you? All he’s done is his job and look what he’s achieved. Now we can sleep in our beds without worrying about nuclear war.’
Ameena’s reply was unintelligible. I couldn’t even tell which language she was speaking.
‘Tell me, Ameena,’ my mother continued, ‘who do you like? You don’t like Bush or Clinton, you don’t like Reagan, you don’t even like Thatcher, or Major or Blair. You don’t like anyone.’
‘I like people,’ said Ameena. ‘That’s the point.’
‘Which people?’ said my mother. ‘Saddam Hussein. Or Osama bin – ’
Ameena stormed upstairs and I was left with my mother who glared at me as if to say, ‘You started this.’
We argued all night, my wife and I. She called my mother the most terrible names, words I can’t bear to repeat, and I lost my temper.
‘She’s my mother,’ I said. ‘You can’t speak about her like that.’
‘Look at you, Ash,’ she said. ‘You’re defending her while she defends murderers and rapists and genocidal – ’
‘What are you talking about? This is my mother. We don’t have to agree with what she says. This is parents.’
‘But you do agree with her, don’t you, Ash? You also think that Bush is a “nice man with a lot on his plate”.’
‘I told you, Ameena. I don’t know anything about politics.’
‘It isn’t about what you know, Ashish, it’s about who you are. And if you go to this dinner and sit beside that man, it’ll say something about the person you’ve become.’
‘I’m an academic, Ameena, and this is a university like any other. We have to do these things. It’s a privilege, actually.’
‘Privilege. So that’s what you are, a defender of privilege, like General fucking Franco.’
‘That’s the Spanish guy, right?’
‘Go to hell, Ashish.’
‘Meena, I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to fight with my Mum.’
‘She called me a fucking terrorist.’
‘She was only angry. You both were. Think what you called her.’
‘This is the bottom line, Ash. You can go to the ceremony, but go anywhere near that dinner and our marriage is over. I don’t care what else you do.’
I didn’t sleep well, but the next morning I decided to forget about Ameena and think about my sister. This was her day, after all.
The ceremony was very sweet.
My mother cried and there were hugs and kisses and photos. Mala looked lovely, and I even found myself missing Ameena, wishing she were there. And then I saw Bush.
He was chewing something, tobacco, I concluded, and wore a bored but, I had to admit, powerful expression, as if nothing could dent his will, not even bullets. I felt an epiphany twitching at the base of my spine.
Ameena had lost respect for me because I was vague and dithering and didn’t stand by my opinions, didn’t have any opinions to stand by. But at the end of the day, what did it matter where I stood, so long as I stood like a man? And how did a man stand? Like the former President in front of me, with legs braced, muscles tensed, and a jaw set like a vice. He had the courage of his convictions, and so would I.
When the ceremony was over, Mala went off with her friends and my mother went home. I stayed. I had a dinner to attend.
I was given an office to change in, and when I’d struggled into my dinner jacket I joined the dons for a pre-reception reception. There was champagne and canapés, which I enjoyed, and I spied Steven Pinker across the room and sought him out. He was very appreciative of my analysis of sign language and primates, and suggested I turn it into a book, to which I smiled and explained that ‘the popular thing isn’t really my thing.’ We didn’t speak much after that, but I didn’t care. The guest of honour had arrived, resplendent in silver cummerbund and presidential cufflinks.
I was introduced to him in a line-up, and we chatted about my subject and the history of the city. ‘Yeah, I knew a linguist once,’ he said. ‘A cunning one.’ We both laughed, though usually I hate this joke.
‘Bet your wife loves it,’ he continued.
‘She does, actually. Except when I get tongue-tied.’
Bush slapped my back and I spilt my drink.
‘Great meeting you, partner,’ said Bush. ‘We’ll hang out later, OK?’
‘Take it easy, George,’ I replied, and shook his hand in a virile sort of way.
Being used to sycophants, he probably found me a breath of fresh air. Thinking this made me feel important, something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
At dinner I sat with some physicists, but I managed to keep my end up, making a few salient points about the effect of mantras on neurocellular patterns, playing up the ethnic thing, but not too much (which is always the best way). The most gratifying part was when a blonde biologist asked me to sign a paper I’d written. She’d brought it specially, she said.
I winked and wrote, ‘With love, your cunning linguist.’
Yeah, I’d probably had too much to drink, but she blushed and gave me her number, which I tucked inside my cummerbund.
After dinner, the former President made his speech to great applause and some booing, which he took in his stride. Someone shouted something about how Clinton was the only real American in Washington and simultaneously Bush’s bow-tie came loose and fell into his plate.
‘At least I was never caught with my pants down,’ he quipped, and the room roared its approval.
When the speech was over and coffee served, I sidled my way over to him.
‘Shame about that heckler,’ I said. ‘I guess a man in your position has to be careful.’
‘Hardly,’ he replied. ‘After Reagan was shot you wouldn’t believe the security we get. Half the people in here are agents.’
‘Really?’ I said, scanning the room.
‘You’d never know. They’re experts. But make one move and they’ll shoot you between the eyes before you know it.’
I made a joke of pretending to hit him with my coffee spoon, and we both guffawed.
‘So where is it you’re from?’ he said.
This was the question I’d been waiting for.
‘Well, I was born here, but now I live in your country.’
‘Good man,’ he said. ‘Good man. We need people like you.’
‘Oh, I love it there,’ I enthused. ‘I’m even learning baseball.’
‘I thought you boys liked cricket,’ said Bush.
‘Nah,’ I said (though I do love cricket). ‘I’m an American now.’
‘Ever been to Texas?’
I shook my head.
‘You should. There’s nothing like Texas. Check out these boots.’ I looked. He was dressed like Clint Eastwood. ‘They’re for snakes. That’s why they’re cut so high. I don’t go anywhere without ’em.’
And with that, George Bush invited me to Texas. He’d send a plane for me, he said. I was so astonished I couldn’t think of a reply.
‘Aah, this coffee stinks,’ said Bush. ‘Let’s have some bourbon, or some of that Scotch you guys are so famous for.’
I ran off to find a bottle, but when I returned Bush was getting ready to leave.
‘I’ve got to be in Edinburgh tonight,’ he said. ‘Wanted to drive there myself, but security wouldn’t let me, so I thought I’d sneak out and do it anyway. Fuck ’em. Plenty of time to get old.’
‘Damn right,’ I said.
‘Everyone thinks I’m so boring, you know. Old man Bush. Mr Dry. Mr Dour. But it’s all PR. That isn’t me at all.’
‘No, I’m sure.’
‘The hell with it,’ said Bush. ‘You want to join me? I’ll drop you home and we can have a nightcap in the car.’
‘That’d be great,’ I replied, hardly believing my ears, and, together, we edged towards the corner of the room.
For an old man, Bush was surprisingly nimble. He was strong too, his arm vicelike around my bicep, and I imagined him wrestling buffalo back at the ranch. In an instant we were out the door and running through the corridor, laughing like schoolboys. We could hear men following us, running and shouting from behind, but we pressed on, down the stairs, out the fire escape, and into the night.
Bush led me to an underground car park I’d never seen before.
‘For VIPs only,’ he said, and unlocked his Mercedes, throwing the whisky onto the front seat.
As we pulled away, we saw two agents running towards the car. I blew them a kiss.
We took the long route to my mother’s house so we could better enjoy the whisky, and on the highway we flung the glasses out the window and passed the bottle between us. Bush told dirty jokes and we sang along to Bruce Springsteen on the radio.
‘Born in the USA!’ sang Bush.
‘Born in the USA!’ I echoed.
‘Hey,’ I said, drunkenly. ‘Isn’t this song kind of anti you guys?’
‘Who cares?’ said Bush. ‘My son got it wrong. If you’re against us, you’re still with us, ’cause you got no fucking choice, and that, my friend, is politics.’
‘Politics, yeah,’ I said. ‘You should tell my wife that.’
‘Women. This is their idea of politics.’
And with that, George Bush took out his penis and dangled it in front of me.
‘Right on,’ I said, and did the same.
‘Nice pecker, man,’ said Bush.
‘You too, George.’
We went on drinking and singing until the bottle was empty and flung into a field and the car came to a halt outside my mother’s house.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘this was great. And I’ll see you in Texas, buddy. You’ve got my number.’
‘Yeah, sure,’ said Bush. ‘I’ll call you. Now you go in there and give the wife some politics.’
‘Will do, and thanks a lot for the lift.’
‘No sweat.’ said Bush. ‘But hey, you mind if I use your bathroom first? Got to get rid of some of this Scotch.’
‘Gee, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘My wife isn’t the biggest fan of yours.’
‘So what?’ said Bush. ‘Rodeo style, man. Dig those heels in. Ride that cow.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Sure thing. Come on in.’
So in we went. Ameena, I thought, would probably be in bed anyway.
My mother was waiting for me in the kitchen.
‘You haven’t been drinking, have you, Ashish? Oh …’
‘Mum,’ I said. ‘This is George Bush, from America.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Bush,’ said Mum.
‘Call me, George,’ said Bush.
‘Will you have some tea?’
‘That’d be fine, ma’am. Just fine.’
‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
‘The bathroom’s upstairs,’ I said.
‘Ashish!’ said Mum, after he’d gone. ‘Have you gone mad?’
‘I’d thought you’d be pleased, Mum. I brought him to meet you.’
Mum looked happy at this, then turned sober.
‘But Ameena, Ashish. We made up this afternoon, but she’s still not happy with you. I told her forgive and forget, but I don’t see how she’ll forget this.’
‘Where is she?’
‘In the bedroom. Go see her, then get him out of here or she’ll never forgive you.’
‘Right,’ I said, and went upstairs.
In the bedroom, Bush had removed his boots and belt and was lying on top of my wife. He had a handkerchief pressed against her mouth.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I shouted.
‘Pipe down, partner.’
There was a pair of dumb-bells on the floor. I lifted one and smashed it against the former President’s skull. It seemed to bounce off, so I hit him again. It broke in two, but this time he stopped and looked up.
‘Get off my wife!’ I said.
‘Moses and Jesus on a yacht. Don’t get irregular on me, pal.’
‘Just get off her!’
‘All right, all right. Hold on to your bananas.’
Bush pulled up his trousers and went downstairs. Ameena was unconscious. I stroked her hand and phoned the police. I didn’t tell them who the intruder was, just that he was dangerous, and a rapist.
When I’d finished, I remembered I’d left my mother alone and hurtled downstairs. There was no one in the kitchen. Panicking, I ran into the lounge.
George Bush was drinking tea on the sofa and crying. My mother had her arm around his shoulders.
‘Poor thing,’ she said. ‘He needs therapy.’
‘He’s an animal!’ I shouted. ‘He needs prison, that’s what he fucking needs.’
‘Ashish, mind your language,’ said Mum.
‘Ameena was right. You’re nothing but a criminal and a murderer, George. A criminal against humanity.’
‘Criminal?’ said Bush. ‘Name one. Name one of my crimes.’
‘Granada,’ I said, remembering my Chomsky. ‘You killed thousands.’
‘That was Reagan,’ said Bush.
‘If we don’t know we shouldn’t judge,’ said Mum.
‘You know what your problem is?’ said Bush. ‘You people never let go of the past. What do you want? You want me to bring the blacks back to life? They’re dead, man. Let it go.’
‘But my wife, you wanker. You – ’
‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’
‘But you tried to – ’
‘That was the past,’ said Bush. ‘You have to forgive.’
‘It was ten fucking minutes ago!’
Bush paused, putting his thumbs together as if meditating, and spoke to me softly, like a hypnotist.
‘This is all ’cause I’m white, isn’t it?’ said Bush. ‘Admit it, Hashish. It’s OK. We can talk about it. Is this a white thing?’
I could not think of a reply.
‘Ma’am,’ said Bush. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’
‘I’ll get you an ashtray,’ said Mum.
‘And a little more tea. With lemon, if you have it.’
‘What the fuck?’
‘Ashish, mind your language.’
But Mum had left the room, to make George Bush his tea. I ran after her.
‘Mum, go and check on Ameena.’
‘In a minute, Ashish.’
‘Mum. Just do it.’
‘I have to make the tea.’
‘I’ll do that. Just go, Mum. Ameena isn’t well.’
Once my mother had gone, I lit a cigarette, trying to decide what to do, but while I stood there, George Bush entered the kitchen.
‘Hey there, partner.’
‘Don’t come any closer, motherfucker. The police are coming.’
‘You’re being unfair, Hashish.Unforgiving. That isn’t the American way.’
He took a couple of paces towards me. I pulled the bread knife out of the drawer.
‘I’m warning you, George. I’ll stab you.’
‘Born in the USA,’ sang Bush, opening his arms and smiling.
‘Read my lips,’ I said, and lunged with the knife.
Before I knew it, Bush had pinned me to the linoleum, my arm twisted behind my back. I struggled, grasping for a weapon, and found the ironing board, which came clattering to the floor. I fumbled for the iron, and swung it behind me as hard as I could.
There was thud, and then the grip on my arm became loose. Shaking him off, I stood above the former President, who was on his knees, his face covered in blood, hands held out as if in prayer. As I hesitated, my mother seized the iron and slammed it against his forehead. The former President collapsed to the floor, and remained there.
I don’t remember much after that. We just sat there, my mother and me, numb and exhausted.
When the police arrived they put me in handcuffs and called Special Branch. A plainclothes officer sat beside me on the sofa.
‘It was self-defence,’ I told him. ‘I called the police, not him.’
‘There was a teacup with his fingerprints on it, Sir. It was still warm. Who made that tea?’
‘Before or after the alleged crime?’
‘So you’re telling me a man rapes your wife and you make him tea.’
‘No, it was my Mum. Listen – ’
‘No, sonny, you listen. This is the way it’s going to be. We’ll remove the body, and tomorrow you get on the next flight to America and don’t say a word to anyone about this ever again. Is that clear?’
‘But George Bush – ’
‘That isn’t George Bush, you idiot. It’s a lookalike. You think the real George Bush would come to some shitty university in the middle of nowhere?’
‘Well – ’
‘Well, nothing. That there is an actor, which is all by the by, ’cause officially nothing happened here. We cannot afford to damage our relations with America. Breathe one word of this, you’ll be in Guantánamo Bay before lunchtime. You got that?’
‘Now go upstairs so we can clean up this mess. Jesus Christ …’
I went upstairs. Ameena was awake and sitting on the bed with my mother, who held her in her arms. I sat beside her and she leant her head against my shoulder. The three of us sat like that until the police had left and no trace of Bush remained.
We never speak about it, even now, but it saved my marriage, that night. I understand now. I understand everything my wife was trying to tell me.
Politics is about love, not opinions. My father taught me that, and if George Bush had done the same with his son … but he didn’t, and that’s the point.
Today, when I’m confused about politics, I remember that night. Not what happened before, only that night, the three of sitting on the bed, while the world spun in confusion around us.
What’s on Your Mind?
First of all, it is sad and painful when anyone dies of cancer in their early fifties, but I’m troubled by the reaction to Steve Jobs’s death. It feels like success is our only real value, that consumer goods and design have taken the place of art, that we care only about style and cool, about our possessions instead of our relationships. I really don’t see how having ten different Apple products makes us happier, no matter how sleek or clever they are, and I don’t see how Steve Jobs, an entrepreneur and design / innovation manager, can be compared to Einstein, Moses, or Edison. RIP Steve Jobs, but let’s not forget that all you did was sell consumer goods to a debt-ridden, addicted population. If you did change the world, I have to wonder if it really was for the better.
Like Comment 9 October at 07:52
Mala, you have a point for sure, but speaking for myself, what I admire about Jobs and his products is the humanity behind the design, rather than just the design itself. It’s the same humanity that leads to great music, literature, or social movements. I can honestly say that these products have allowed my own humanity to better express itself and I cannot believe the same isn’t true for you. You have an iPod, I’ve seen it. And did you write this on a Mac?
9 October at 08:21 Like
Mala, I think it is way too soon for comments like this. Did you think, for one minute, about Steve Jobs’s wife and children, or the Apple family he has left behind? This man changed the world and left his mark in the hearts of minds of, literally, millions of people. Please have more respect. RIP Steve. We miss you.
9 October at 08:33 Like
Hardeep ‘thin Jim’ Singh
@Christian Seleko. Christian, you are quite right. We all love Mala, but this is unacceptable. Both Jobs and his products defined our generation. Now he is gone it feels like there’s no magic left in the world. Apple will continue to develop and release wonderful products, but I wonder if anyone will ever capture our imagination the way Steve did. Rest in peace.
9 October at 08:48 Like
Omg, Mala, what has got into you? Can’t you see people are mourning? Take this down or get off Facebook all together. You spoiled my breakfast. RIP Steve. And sorry.
9 October at 8:58 Like
Mala, GFY. I mean it. My son saw this.
9 October at 9:21 Like
If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs, you wouldn’t even be able to write this, you ungrateful b**ch. You probably wouldn’t even be able to recognise the world around you if we removed his contribution from it. That’s right, we’d be back in the Stone Age. Smart alecs should think twice before making comments that hurt innocent people and mock the very individuals that allow them to live in a free society. Steve Jobs was a million times the person you are, Mala. Grow up and get a life.
9 October at 9:24 Like
there is a love called let go, there is a genital called whisky, there is a king called Robert II
9 October at 9:29 Like
Da Vinci, Edison, Jobs. Goebbels, Nixon, Iyer. Enough said.
9 October at 9:34 Like
Thank you to the two who PM’d me to say they agreed. To everyone else, if this is indeed a democracy, then I can write what I like about Jobs or, for that matter, his family. The truth is, I wish them all well. Death is never easy, especially a premature one from disease, but I resent people telling me I don’t have the right to make my point out of some sort of misplaced respect for the recently deceased. Let us not forget that Apple products are made in exploitative sweatshops, and second of all, I’m sorry, but Steve Jobs was no Edison or da Vinci. He was *not* a scientist or an inventor. He was an innovator at best, and a CEO. My point is that we are worshipping innovation and design at the *expense* of science and art. We’ve made a cult around image and branding. Let your friends and families put magic into your lives, not a bloody phone.
9 October at 9:54 Like
@Claire Yahlty Don’t insult me, Claire. I am not your enemy. @Frank Sorrell How dare you compare me to Joseph Goebbels, responsible for millions of deaths! I hardly think a post on Facebook can be compared to the Final Solution. Sorry, Frank, that’s just plain ignorant. @David Kohli. David, GFY2. Your son can think for himself. You should try it.
We, the Apple-using Community, Believe that Mala Iyer is a Bitch and Should Apologise to the Late Genius Steve Jobs and his Family and Friends
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Seriously, isn’t there a law we can nail this woman under? We have laws in Britain, right? Cos surely she can’t get away with this? I mean, if you say something bad about the Holocaust, not that I would want to, they put you away for life. And God forbid anyone say anything about gays or blacks. But celebrities, even ones who were practically saints? It feels like someone turned out all the lights in this world and it’s getting darker fast. I just feel so powerless.
Like Comment Follow post 13 October at 15:32
Hiroki Kawabata, Jim Tale and 42 others like this.
Who else wants to meet tomorrow night? Message me for location.
Like Comment Follow post 13 October at 16:21
Charles ‘Xavier’ French
Does anyone know why the MacBook Air does not have an optical drive? The Air SuperDrive costs £60, which is reasonable, but can I rip audio CDs with it? And can I use it on my MacBook Pro?
Like Comment Follow post 13 October at 16:35
Charles, understand that this group was set up for the exclusive purpose of holding Mala Iyer to account for her despicable behaviour, and not for the purposes of general discussion re: Apple products, software etc. But in answer to your question, yes, you can rip audio CDs, but you can’t do anything with Blu-ray. And no, it will not work on your MacBook Pro, not due to the current requirements but rather to the custom daughterboard (which is swappable).
13 October at 17:03 Like
Charles, the MacBook Air can also read CDs and DVDs wirelessly from a PC or Mac. I really wish it had an optical drive too. It’s a flaw, which is inevitable in any groundbreaking product or technology, or maybe they thought it a worthwhile sacrifice in order to keep the notebook thin and sleek. I must say, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of equipment I have yet laid eyes on.
13 October at 17:22 Like
The whole point is that Apple are phasing out technology they know will become obsolete. This is what they have always done, like with the 5.5" floppy drive, and now with the Ethernet port, FireWire port, microphone socket. These are not ‘design flaws’. This is simply indicative of Steve Jobs’s legendary ability to predict the future. RIP Steve. Just roll with it.
14 October at 10:24 Like
Could somebody please repost MI’s original post? Anyone still friends with her? (We need at least one person, or we won’t have access to her page.) Let us not forget that this is a group and requires each and every member to take responsibility and share in the labour burden. Many thanks.
Like Comment Follow post 14 October at 13:11
Point taken, Peter. Yes, it does feel as though many of us are not pulling our weight. But my question is, and sorry if this comes across as defeatist, can anything actually be done? I firmly believe justice will out in the end, but for the moment, this does seem hopeless. Yes, we can all PM that ghastly woman, but will it have any effect apart from bloating her already swollen ego? I can’t be certain whether she’s even seen this group. Wouldn’t she have posted something? I don’t know, it just seems fishy to me. Perhaps she’s no longer on Facebook. Or perhaps she just doesn’t care. Either way, I think we need to consider alternatives. Apologies for the vague post. Just ‘thinking out loud’.
14 October at 23:42 Like
@Sheila Giggins Are you thinking what I’m thinking … ?
14 October at 23:45 Like
In all probability. Don’t really want to be the one to say it.
14 October at 23:47 Like
Then I will. Strongly suspect she works for Microsoft.
14 October at 23:51 Like
Can I suggest we all take a step back here? These are serious accusations and probably not appropriate for the Facebook platform. We can discuss in person at the meet.
15 October at 00:01 Like
What’s on Your Mind?
I’m sorry, but this has gone too far. A few days ago I posted a perfectly reasonable critique of the response to the recent passing away of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Instead of my right to free speech being respected, I have been the recipient of hate messages, including emails to my personal and work addresses, including from anonymous, or pseudonymous, ‘haters’. It has also been brought to my attention that there is a Facebook group dedicated to abusing me, on which I have been called names and even threatened. Obviously this is not acceptable, and I have emailed Facebook about the problem, demanding they remove this group. To any of my so-called ‘friends’ who leaked my original post, kindly unfriend me. To those of you who have been supportive, and there have been several, I thank you, but too many people have turned against me in recent days, many of whom I considered genuine friends. Frankly, I have been
Like Comment 15 October at 10:19
shocked by the reaction to what I maintain was a perfectly *innocent* post. I am a PhD student and used to the spirit of free inquiry and debate. What I am not used to are these deliberate attempts to silence me through threats, intimidation and abuse. I do not take well to being publicly called a bitch or being compared to murderers and Nazis. This kind of behaviour is as immoral as it is idiotic. I never met Steve Jobs but I am sorry that he died and I do wish his family and friends the very best. But I continue to believe that it is my democratic *right* to say that Apple products are over-rated and that the outpouring of grief over his death is misplaced and hysterical.
Like Comment 15 October at 10:26
Hardeep ‘thin Jim’ Singh
Mala, you are not doing yourself any favours with these posts. Simply apologise and let us all move on. I, for one, do not like having to read these updates and don’t want to be continually dragged into the mire of this debate. I’ve always had a lot of respect for you, but I’m sorry, Malaji, in this instance you are simply wrong. Do the right thing, apologise, then kindly shut the f – up.
15 October at 10:35 Like
Lucy Manningtree and Ola Martin like this.
i love all the animals, for they never compete in any eating contest, they never kill when they are not hungry, they never sleep with the girls they don’t love (for you never know what love is) and they are no Christians. but we, human beings, are better than them anyway, for we drink, and we get drunk, mamafishermamamamiiiiiiiiiia
15 October at 10:42 Like
Mala Iyer likes this.
Mala, I agree that many of the responses to your post were distasteful, over-hasty and sensitive, but this is often the way with grief. Please allow me to explain how I am feeling, and perhaps from this you will gain an insight into the emotions of others. Six months ago, I converted to a Mac, and I can honestly say it changed my life. All I ever wanted was a reliable computer that didn’t freeze, make loud noises, delete my important documents, overheat, or break into pieces. Now, finally, I have it. A month ago a friend of mine sent me Steve Jobs’s ‘Find What You Love’ speech at Stanford University. I felt inspired and motivated by his words and his message. I am deeply saddened by his passing as I know he had so much more to contribute to this world. Here is to remembering Steve.
15 October at 11:02 Like
Lucy Manningtree and Hardeep ‘thin Jim’ Singh like this.
An hour ago my laptop was stolen from the Grand Café on Oxford High Street. The thief left a note saying, ‘Next time buy a Mac.’ Wtf is wrong with you people??? These are broad-daylight hate crimes, and that was MY PROPERTY. How dare you!!!! I have taken the matter to the police who are investigating the ‘I Hate Mala’ Group. Facebook have not yet responded to my complaint, but as the police are now involved, I hope they will take this matter as seriously as I do. To whom it may concern, I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THIS!!! You cannot wilfully attack me because you disagree with my opinion about a celebrity. Yes, CELEBRITY, not SAINT.
15 October at 13:48 Like
Frank Sorrell and David Kohli like this.
We, the Apple-using Community, Believe that Mala Iyer is a Bitch and Should Apologise to the Late Genius Steve Jobs and his Family and Friends
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I, Maya Iyer, publicly and unreservedly apologise for all the offense I have caused Steve Jobs’s friends, family, admirers, and second family at Apple. My comments were motivated by malice, ignorance and stupidity, and I fully retract all the slanderous comments I made about Mr Jobs and the Apple Corporation whom I recognise have made outstanding contributions to humanity. I can only hope to accomplish one iota of what they did and am truly humbled by this experience would like to thank everyone who has intervened to help me see reason. I sincerely apologise and will make amends in any way possible. Mala Iyer.
Like Comment Follow post 15 October at 14:32
Peter Cummings, Jim Tale and 42 others like this.
Mala, I am delighted and relieved that you have come to your senses. The adolescent spirit of contrariness, while valuable at a certain time in life, has no place in the adult world where real feelings and real people are concerned, particularly those so recently deceased. You have caused deep, deep hurt to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and the pain you are currently feeling is, I am afraid, nothing compared to the pain you have caused. In future, please try to consider the consequences of your actions. We are all in this world together, and creating a harmonious society was the life’s work of men like Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Please refrain from ever causing such discord again. You have been warned.
15 October at 14:57 Like
Hear hear, Peter! But tell me, how are we to accept the sincerity of Ms Iyer’s ‘apology’? Many people crack under pressure, especially those whose character is weak. I for one am not convinced.
15 October at 15:02 Like
Shahid, may I suggest we do not presume to know what is in another’s heart. Mala had no right to doubt the sincerity of Apple’s much-loved CEO, but neither do we have the right to pre-judge her. As far as I am convinced, her apology is genuine. I cannot forgive her, but I am prepared to accept that she has apologised. Do try to find it in your heart to do the same.
15 October at 15:40 Like
You are a bigger man than I am, Peter. Peace be with you.
15 October at 15:45 Like
Peter Cummings likes this.
OMG!!!! Shame on you, Peter. You are a tough, street-smart guy, and you can’t see through this rubbish? Come on!!!! If that’s a genuine apology, we might as well give Gaddafi the peace prize. I know b.s. when I see it, and this stinks to high heaven. If she’s really prepared to make amends, then let her make a donation to Apple and upload the receipt. I’ll believe *that* when I see it.
15 October at 16:01 Like
Bitch just trying to make friends. LMFAO.
15 October at 16:09 Like
Richard Clivesdale likes this.
Sorry to harp on about this, but am I the only one who sees a more dangerous level to all this? Insincere? Obviously! But insincere in what way? I know this is an open group, Richard, but do I have to spell it out???
15 October at 16:15 Like
Sheila, I just don’t know. I’m sorry if I’ve wasted everyone’s time, but I’m only trying to be fair. And surely everyone, no matter how misguided, deserves a second chance.
15 October at 16:33 Like
Free Ai Weiwei, free Tibet, free porn!!! Every motherfucker deserves a second chance, but does every second chance deserve a motherfucker? Weakness is not necessary in life, cowardice is. You know it’s true. You know it’s you. Uhohuhohuhoh …
15 October at 16:34 Like
Sorry everyone, but I believe her and, unlike Peter, I can forgive her. Welcome, Mala.
15 October at 16:50 Like
Peter Cummings and Stephanie Weather like this.
May I propose we close this group then? If it’s over, then let’s move on. @Sheila Gribbins Even if she is, so what????
15 October at 16:54 Like
OMG, you people are such IDIOTS! Quite clearly, I DID NOT WRITE THIS APOLOGY! My laptop was stolen by some fanboys in turtlenecks while I was logged in to Facebook. Do all you losers have nothing better to do than this? Why don’t you go down to the Apple Store and buy yourselves a fucking life?!!!??
15 October at 16:57
Ms Iyer, the Apple-using community are not impressed by your foul language, and flagrant callousness over the death of one of the great inventors of our times. Kindly refrain from posting again on this site. We, as a community, are in mourning, and the least you could do is to respect that. I did, btw, go to the Apple Store this morning, but I did not buy myself a life as I already have one. It is you who are missing out, and sour grapes are best eaten with humble pie. RIP Steve, and if you are watching us, I am truly sorry.
15 October at 17:12 Like
@Mala Iyer Post on this site again and I call the police. Shocking.
15 October at 17:30 Like
Yeah, post on this site again and I’ll stick you like a pig, you fucking whore. Pieces of shit like you should be dead.
15 October at 17:38 Like
Richard Clivesdale, JD Richey and 12 others like this.
@Mark Wycliffe Is that the best you can do? Pathetic!!! Why don’t you grow some iBalls?
15 October at 18:04 Like
JD Richey likes this.
Smash those cameras, security cameras. Do them in like pigs in a vat. Brick them, skewer them, kick their nuts out, take a bat to their snooping skulls. Come on let’s do it, let’s spill some aluminium blood oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah.
15 October at 18:10 Like
What’s on Your Mind?
My arm post-hospital
Mala Iyer added 2 new photos to the album Mobile Uploads.
Like Comment Share 5 hours ago via BlackBerry
Omg, Mala, honey, what happened? Are you all right? xxx
3 hours ago Like Add Friend
Mala, call me as soon as you see this. Mum’s upset. What the hell happened? Call! We love you.
2 hours ago Like Add Friend
Shocking, but oddly beautiful. Where did you have it done?
58 minutes ago Like Add Friend
I didn’t have it done anywhere, Christian, can’t you see that? Two men broke into my flat and did this to me. @Ashish Iyer Called Mum. She’s all right. Why the hell did you show her the picture? Yes, I’m OK. Will call later. I have to be at the hospital till 9. Phone off till then.
40 minutes ago Like Add Friend
Sorry. Please call as soon as pos. Want us to fly over?
32 minutes ago Like Add Friend
@Ashish Iyer Will call tonight, don’t worry. No, I don’t need you to fly over. I can take care of myself. But thanx.
We, the Apple-using Community, Believe that Mala Iyer is a Bitch and Should Apologise to the Late Genius Steve Jobs and his Family and Friends
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Listen up, all of you. Yesterday, at around 3 in the afternoon, two men broke into my room in Brasenose College, Oxford. I think they were the same ones who stole my laptop. They were all dressed like Steve Jobs, anyway. They tied me to a chair and branded my arm with the Apple logo. That’s right, BRANDED. I’ve described them to the police and as two of them (and I KNOW they are in this group) were dumb enough to put their masks on *after* I’d let them in, the police will find them soon enough. But what I really what to say is this. To all of you who told me I had no right to my views, to all of you who called me names, who joined that vile hate group, who posted abuse on my page … YOU DID THIS. Don’t say you didn’t, because you did. You know who you are.
Like Comment Follow post 16 October at 11:01
‘Ajay, we’re having a baby.’
That’s all she said. So I kissed her and hugged her and thought, ‘What the fuck do I do now?’
I had lost my job the previous evening. I was going to break the news that morning, but morning comes and she tells me this. So I smile the fakest smile I had, which, in her equally demented state, she didn’t pick up on, and I go upstairs and put on my uniform.
Pizza Hut had my moped, but I made a big show of wearing my helmet and rattling my keys. They had my wage packet too. Dismissed for theft. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that. The truth is, I didn’t do it, but that doesn’t matter now.
We kissed again at the door. There were tears in her eyes, terror in mine. I thought about seeing a movie, but I had twelve pounds, no job, and a baby on the way, so I just wandered around Mile End. When the sun grew colder I took the tube to Ealing Broadway. I didn’t get off. Just waited for it to go back.
I thought about them firing me, about how unfair it was. But most of all I thought about how I was going to be a father. I was angry, and desperate, and trapped in a train with a bunch of people who had nothing better to worry about except which restaurant to go to that night. I hated Pizza Hut, and I hated them.
At Shepherd’s Bush I got off and wandered into the Westfield Mall, staring through glass at stuff I couldn’t afford. I tried telling myself I didn’t even want an iPad, but who was I kidding? I could see the Apple kids swarming out of the shop in droves, barely able to walk beneath all the hardware they were carrying. I didn’t even have a mobile anymore: I hadn’t paid the bill. There was a cinema upstairs and I looked, but the price of a ticket was worth thirty-two nappies. Anyway, it was James Bond, and I hate James Bond. There were army recruiters in the lobby, probably hoping someone would come out inspired enough to want to kill people for themselves. I thought about it for a second. One of the recruiters, with red hair and bristled arms, saw me hesitating:
‘You interested, mate?’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘I’m gonna be a father.’
‘No problem! Lots of us are dads.’
But I got back on the tube.
At Holborn I picked up a discarded Evening Standard and began to flick through it.
One article in particular caught my eye. A man, a black man, had been arrested on two charges. First, destruction of public property. He beat up a security camera. Took a bat to it. Smashed the shit out of it. They captured him on film, so he couldn’t complain, but it’s the second charge that was the sick part. Get this … racially aggravated crime. How could it be racial? It was a fucking camera, for Christ’s sake.
Their logic: he was black; he was angry; he was guilty; it was racial. Fucking idiots. They had to drop the charge, of course. A camera doesn’t have an ethnic origin.
I look around me and there are only suits on the tube – we’re in the city now – and occasionally we make eye contact and I can see them laughing. They know I’m desperate, they know I’m a pizza boy, and they know I’m a Paki, and they think it’s funny. So I think about the man in the paper and I tell myself: Ajay, whatever you do, make it count. If you’re going to break the law, use your head, don’t just smash up a fucking camera.
And here’s what I came up with.
I would get off at Liverpool Street and I would go to a bar and wait in the toilet until one of them’s all by himself and I would pretend I had a knife, make my meanest face, and take all the cash he had.
That was Plan A.
I didn’t know there would a B, C and D. Not then.
So I’m in the bar, sitting on a sofa by the window. The place is crawling with suits and I’m in my uniform, but nobody gives me a second look. A man and a woman are sharing an armchair to my right, spilling white wine. Their conversation makes me sick. Four-wheel drives and conservatories. It strikes me that a female suit might be an easier target, but I banish the thought.
Two men approach my sofa and sit with their legs apart, taking far more than their legitimate two-thirds sofa space. I feel like throwing up. There I am, all bunched up in the corner, practically thanking them for letting me exist. So I stand up. It’s time.
I flex my arms and go downstairs, to the toilets.
I was expecting a couple of fountains in here, maybe an ice sculpture, but it’s just a toilet. There’s two suits at the urinal, one of them talking on a mobile phone. I stand by the sink, combing my hair with my hands until only one suit is left. He zips up his fly and comes to stand beside me.
Red-hair, five-foot-seven. Glasses. No beard. Looks weedy. Good.
I forget about threatening him and go straight for his jacket, pulling it open and reaching for his wallet. He doesn’t seem surprised. Just stares at me, then grabs my arm. I try to kick at his shin but he’s already jammed my face against the mirror. And now he’s twisting and twisting. My arm is about to break.
‘Let him go,’ says a voice from behind us.
‘Nah, mate,’ says the suit. ‘He’s trying to nick my wallet.’
‘Yes, friend; I saw,’ says the voice. ‘Leave it to me.’
The suit cranes his head, lets go, says, ‘Sorry,’ then legs it like a greyhound. I fall forward against the sink, turn, and look.
He’s wearing jeans and a grey silk shirt, a thick gold watch on his wrist. He has a tattoo on the left side of his face, curving round his eye like a scimitar. He’s looking at me without any emotion. Just looking. I may have pissed myself; I cannot tell. I can’t seem to feel anything anymore.
‘Open your eyes, man. I’m not gonna hit you. You think just because I’m Mike Tyson I’m gonna hit you?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘No, sir.’
‘Look at me,’ he says. ‘Look at me without looking away.’
I am about to burst into tears, but I try.
‘I’m not gonna hurt you, OK? I just want to ask you a question. What is it you were trying to do back there, with that guy?’
‘I dunno,’ I say. ‘Maybe get his wallet.’
‘And then what?’
‘Take his money.’
‘And then what?’
‘Feel better,’ I say.
‘Come on upstairs.’
We sit on the sofa, Mike and I, and this time no-one encroaches on our space. He has bought me a martini. I can’t see the suit from the toilets; he’s probably run, which is what I would have done, had I been able to.
‘So Pizza Hut said you stole it?’ says Mike.
‘But you didn’t?’
‘Because you’re not a thief.’
‘So what were you doing downstairs?’
‘That doesn’t work,’ says Mike. ‘You’ve gotta do what’s you, what you’re really good it. I used to rob people in New York, but that wasn’t what I was put on this earth to do. When I’m in the ring, I’m a god. You got to be a god too.’
‘I can’t fight.’
‘Yeah, no shit.’
I look at my shoes.
‘So use your head. Life’s a spiritual battle, not physical. Every fight I won was over before I got in the ring. You have to outsmart them …’ He waves at the suits. ‘If you don’t, they ruin you, like they did Michael Jackson. You know what happened to Michael Jackson?’
‘They told him he was a wacko, a weirdo, a freak. And what happened? He messed up his whole face. He died. All because he listened to them. They’ll tell you you’re a thief and an animal, and if you don’t use your head, you’ll become a thief and an animal. In prison I couldn’t believe some of the things I saw people doing to each other. And all ’cause they listened to the shit they heard about themselves.’
‘My wife’s pregnant,’ I tell him.
‘That’s why you need to stop all this. ’Cause believe me, there’s a lot worse things could happen to you than losing your job. In Reading gaol by Reading town / There is a pit of shame, / And in it lies a wretched man / Eaten by teeth of flame. You can’t let yourself be that man. You’ve got to win your fight, for your wife and for your kid. Fill your heart with love and your head with thoughts. Be a man of soul, not a fool.’
‘You got it?’
‘I’ve got it.’
‘All right. You take care of yourself, Ajay. Remember what I said.’
‘Yeah. Hey, thanks, Mike.’
I had just enough money left for another martini, which I sipped as I thought about what Mike had said. He was right. I’d been stupid. You have to outsmart them … That’s what I’d been telling myself. Don’t just smash up a fucking camera.
So what could I do? What could I do?
But then … Plan B fell on the floor, just like that. A suit had dropped his wallet, and not one of them had noticed.
I stood, shivered, and drained my glass. The liquor helped.
Silent as a cat, I padded my way across the floor, dropped my keys, fell to my knees, took the keys in my left hand, the wallet in my right, and put them both into my trouser pockets. Operation accomplished, I headed for the bar, reluctant to change directions. My plan was to hang around, look at my watch, then bolt, go home, and see what I’d landed.
But that never happened.
Plan C was waiting for me, leaning against the wall. The suit whose wallet I had in my trousers was attacking his body like a monkey in a zoo. He started shouting in this squeaky voice.
My fuckin’ wallet’s gone. I’ve lost my fuckin’ wallet.
His mates tried to calm him down, though not one offered to buy him a drink.
Some fuckin’ wanker’ll have it, as well. You just know it. It’ll be some fuckin’ wanker.
How, I told myself, am I supposed not to hate these fuckers? They hate each other. They hate themselves. So far as they’re concerned, the next man is always a fuckin’ wanker.
His mates told him to look for it, but he wasn’t having any of it. It didn’t occur to him that it could still be on the floor, where he’d left it. He got himself so worked up that he left, just like that.
I left too. Plan C.
I would follow him home and knock on his door. I’d say, Sir, I found your wallet, and out of the goodness of my nature I came to your aid. And he would say, Good Lord, you are indeed a prince among men. You people put us to shame. You make savages of us, you really do. Do come in, my friend, and teach me how to live. And I would go in and drip regal splendour all over him, and when I left, he would feel like shit, and I … ?
I would go home and tell Preethi. I would tell her that whatever happened we would walk this earth like children of God. Our child would be proud and tall, a fighter, a lover, a saint. And my wife would know that I was still the man who had won her heart all those years ago. Mighty, righteous, above all that material shit. A man of manners. A man of morals. A man of soul.
So I follow the cunt. It’s easy enough. I was afraid he would jump in a cab, but he doesn’t. He walks fast, cursing the fuckin’ wanker who’s got the only thing he’s ever cared about.
His place is in Bloomsbury, in a quiet mews.When he goes inside I slip in after him. I half-expect a doorman to put his hand through my chest, but all I see is a row of mailboxes, all neatly numbered and stuffed with letters. He’s about to take his mail but he changes his mind – he’s too pissed off – and bounces upstairs like a petulant child. I follow, like there’s rose petals under my feet.
I hear the door click shut and I wait a few minutes before I knock. He looks seriously pissed off. Before I can open my mouth he tells me he didn’t order any fucking pizza. That’s what he said, fucking pizza. I hold my temper, and give him his wallet. But the words don’t come out right. I rush it and mumble because I’m nervous. His eyes light up as he takes the wallet, looks inside, counts his money (two fifties, three twenties, and a five) and … I’m waiting for it … but it never happens. Not even a thank-you, let alone a reward. I can fuck off as far as he’s concerned.
I’m his boy, his delivery boy. Today it’s wallets, tomorrow it’ll be anchovies with extra cheese. A pizza boy … a colonial wallet wallah.
I follow him in. He looks surprised, but what can he do? He can’t turf me out after I’ve given him the happiest moment of his putrid little life.
And you know what he does? He pours himself a beer and doesn’t so much as look at me. Doesn’t offer me shit. Not even water. I’m standing there, shaking with the humiliation of it all, and he doesn’t even notice. He’s turned on his Bang & Olufsen and he’s drinking his beer and he’s waiting for me to leave. So I sit down.
The phone rings and up he gets and starts telling Jeremy, or whoever the fuck it is, about the stock market, so I stand and go to the kitchen and get myself a fucking beer. And then I think, While I’m here, I may as well have a look around. I’ve never been in a place like this.
So I wander about the apartment, and yeah, it stinks of money, and I’m in the bedroom looking at this painting of a Porsche Cayenne when my eyes run over the dressing table and I stop. Plan D. Jack … fucking … pot.
There is a gold bracelet lying on the dresser. It is studded with diamonds. They are very big. The man – he still hasn’t told me his name – is talking on the phone. I think, Don’t think; do it! and I pick up the bracelet, give it a kiss, and put it in my pocket.
I check to see if the outline is visible in my trousers, then go back to the living room. He is off the phone now, and when I say I’m going he looks happy, the smug bastard.
But just when I’m about to leave, the door opens and his wife walks in. And she’s Asian. She’s fucking Asian. And she’s, you know, fit, long hair, enormous eyes, good body (not that I cared; I wouldn’t do that to Preethi) and she introduces herself – ‘Hi, I’m Gopi’ – and I tell her what happened, and she says, ‘Will you have some tea?’
I’m struggling, fumbling, mumbling like a fool, and she offers coffee, beer, food, and at last I ask for tea. She looks at him and he, the wanker, goes off to make the tea, cursing under his breath. Glad to see she wears the trousers, at least, but I mean, why did this stunning creature have to marry this, this … ? It makes me sick. I could see the look on his face. Look at me. I’m an ugly fucker with nothing going for me but my prospects and I’m with this gorgeous Paki bird and there’s nothing you can do about it!
I’m bristling. I can feel the anger in my blood, but this girl is so lovely, so gentle, that I find myself enjoying her company. We talk about films, and parents, and a little about food, and my tea comes and I glare at him and he fucks off into the bathroom and I tell myself, Ajay, this girl is deprived. She needs a man who’ll understand her, and she’s gotta come home to thisbastard.
I don’t feel resentment. I just feel sad. I want this girl to be happy, but she’s miserable and I can feel it. But at least I can relate. At least I understand. I suggest she comes round sometime to meet Preethi (telling her, with my eyes, Don’t bring that fucker if you can help it), and then I remember.
I’ve got this poor girl’s bracelet in my pocket, and with every second it sits there, I’m losing the fight. I’m letting Preethi down, I’m letting my child down, I’m letting Mike down.
So now I have to get the bracelet out of my pocket and back to her. This won’t be easy. She’s staring at me, chatting away with this childlike voice and each word is like a drop of dew, floating through the air until it hits my heart and turns to acid. I’m writhing in pain, so it’s no surprise when, a few minutes later, she asks if I’m all right and can she get me anything. I say no, then realise, too late, I should have said yes − I’d do anything to get her out of the room so I can dump this damn bracelet some place where she’ll find it.
I’m sweating like a camel now. My eyes are wide open. I know I look insane, but there’s nothing I can do. I try to listen to what she’s saying, but it’s all words now, words, words, words. Each one makes me feel worse.
At last I succeed in easing the thing out of my pocket. She’s still talking, and I’m smiling and nodding, and I start to push it under the sofa cushion, but my fingers are running with sweat and, as if trapped inside a dream, I watch it fall to the floor, roll across the carpet.
It’s lying there, right by her foot, but she doesn’t notice. When I come to my senses I say, ‘Could I have a glass of water, please?’ She smiles and says, ‘Yes, you don’t look well.’ I say something about the flu, and she goes to the kitchen.
I throw myself on top of that bracelet, go back to the sofa and lift up the cushion, but then I think: What if it’s months till she finds it?
The poor girl will drive herself sick with worry. So I consider the bookcase, and then the cupboard, and I’m turning the bracelet round and around in my hand when, before I know it, she’s back in the room, with my water.
I rub some over my face and gulp the rest down without stopping for breath. She’s looking at me with tremendous concern, and I’m ready to cry now. The whole world hates me. I hate myself. But then I have an idea, and I say, ‘You know what, I’ve got to go. But can I use the toilet first?’ And I think, I’ll just leave it on the sink. Easy. Easy as pizza.
But the fat fucker’s still in the bath. And she asks him how long he’ll be and he says, like the irritable twat he is, ‘Don’t know. I just got in, didn’t I?’ And I smile and say, ‘Oh, never mind, I’ll go in the pub round the corner,’ and she looks really apologetic, and we hug, we actually hug, and I hold her tighter and tighter but when I feel her growing tense, I let go, wipe my eyes, and leave.
The door closes behind me. I shut my eyes and lean against the wall before climbing down the stairs. When I get to the bottom, I see Plan E.
The mailboxes. Why didn’t I think of them before? One for each flat. All open. Just trays, really. I see theirs at once and thank God for saving me an eternity of self-loathing. I’m reluctant to drop the bracelet in there, though, just like that. As that fucker in the bathtub would have said, ‘Some wanker’ll nick it.’ So I pick up an envelope, tear it open with my fingernail, take out its contents, and drop the bracelet inside.
In my hand is a slip of paper. It is from the landlord.
Owing to the recent spate of mailbox thefts I have installed a closed circuit television camera above the main door. Apologies for the inconvenience.
I turn, and look. There it is, hard and cynical, white and clinical, staring at me with its shiny eye. I stare back, hating the world, hating the fucker who’ll watch that tape and think I’m a thief. I clench my fists, shut my eyes, and when I open them the world is red, as if drenched in blood.
There’s a fire extinguisher in the corner by the door. I walk over to it, swing it over my head, and smash it into the camera’s side, four, maybe five times. The camera falls, wrenched from the wall. It watches me with its broken eye, sneering. I raise my boot and crush its ugly head.
Bowing to an invisible audience, I open the door and leave the building.
My sister, Angeli, took me to see Quantum of Solace, to ‘cheer me up’. I told her 007 was a repressed psychopath with a terror of intimacy: two-faced, lying, spying … the British psyche in a nutshell. Angeli made the wanking sign.
‘It’s a film, Ravi.’
I pointed to the British public (we were in the Westfield mall).
‘The whole world’s a film to them, Angie. Not even that. A trailer, an advert.’
‘They’re people, Rav. They just want to have a little F-U-N. You should try it.’
The irony is that she’s the one with the First from Warwick. I’m the virgin who dropped out of uni in his second year. But I stillthink I’m smarter. No, not smarter. I just think. Angeli says I’m too identified with the mind, but that’s only because she read that Eckhart Tolle book.
Two men in camouflage were talking to a pizza delivery boy. It was a recruitment display for the army. Angeli, in her short skirt and lipstick (we were only at the mall, but that’s her), made a beeline for them. She likes men in uniform, though this didn’t apply to pizza men.
The first of the recruiters was nearing thirty, had ginger hair, a two-day stubble, and a permanent smirk. The other was about twenty-five and looked like a blond Forrest Gump. I wanted to give him a hug. Not sure why.
‘So what brings you here, boys?’ said Angeli.
‘They’re recruiting,’ I told her.
‘We’re just here to provide information,’ said ginger-hair, ‘in case anyone’s considering it.’
‘Bit manipulative, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Standing outside of James Bond, making out it’s all glamorous.’
‘Course not. We’re all for telling the truth about the forces. We don’t want people with their heads in the stars.’
‘So what’s the truth?’ I said. ‘Why should I join the army?’
‘Well, I tell you now, it isn’t for the money,’ said Ginger, laughing.
‘It’s the lifestyle,’ said Forrest Gump.
‘You see the world,’ said Ginger. ‘You meet new people.’
‘And then you kill them,’ I said.
They both laughed.
‘We were in Iraq,’ said the younger man. ‘We’ve seen all sorts.’
‘Have you ever killed anyone?’
Angeli made the wanker sign (distinct from the wanking sign).
‘No, it’s fair enough,’ said Ginger. ‘All I’ll say is there are things I’d rather forget. And that’s all I want to say about it.’
On it went. They were honest. Forrest Gump said he’d had enough; he was going to join the fire service. I got a little heated up; told them the war was illegal. They seemed to agree.
‘But if every soldier refused to fight ’cause he didn’t agree with the government, there’d be no more wars.’
‘Duh,’ I said.
‘But we all need to defend ourselves. Do you leave your doors open at night? What would happen if you did?’
‘But what about attacking people?’
‘Even if we don’t agree with everything we have to do, we still need an army. Just like we need police. And it’s not all Iraq and wars. The army do all sorts.’
They seemed to enjoy the discussion.
‘We’ll be in the pub tonight,’ said Forrest. ‘Why don’t you come down? We’ll thrash this out some more.’
I was used to spending my evenings on the Internet smoking weed. If I did go out, it was with people who wouldn’t ask me questions like ‘What do you do?’ But I had no choice. I was with Angeli, who never said no to invitations. She took their numbers.
It was a military pub, between Elephant & Castle and Kennington. No one had hair longer than an inch or so, and everyone wore bicep-revealing T-shirts, despite its being winter. I was probably the only one without a tattoo (Angeli had three that I was aware of).
Ginger and the younger one were at a table with two other guys. They cheered when they saw us. I liked them, though I’d expressed my reservations to Angeli on the way home (‘They kill people for a living,’ etc). She’d been texting at the time, hadn’t bothered to reply.
‘So you made it,’ said Ginger, whose name was Paul, slapping me on the back.
‘Drink?’ said Forrest, whose name was Andrew.
I asked for a pint of bitter, the most masculine thing I could think of. Angeli had a Bloody Mary. They introduced us to the others. I learned that the reason so many squaddies shaved their heads was because of drug testing: a single hair reveals your entire narcotic history.
‘They can take it from your armpit, though, or your leg,’ said Andrew, ‘so you can’t really get away with it.’
‘Unless you shave your legs.’
I hung my head, wishing I hadn’t spoken, but to my surprise everyone laughed heartily. Angeli had no choice but to join in, though she whispered, ‘Tool’. I ignored her and made a second joke, about how you might be able to tell your entire sexual history from a single pube. This time they literally fell about laughing, slapping the table and upsetting drinks.
And so the night went on. I became funnier still, and despite her boob tube and false eyelashes, Angeli receded into the background.
And then Hugh walked in:
Hugh was dressed in Harris tweeds and had a pocket watch, briefcase, and flat cap. His hair was side-parted, precise as a salute. He was about the same age as Andrew, twenty-five tops, but they all deferred to him, quietly pulling their chairs away as if they weren’t good enough to sit at the same table. Hugh accepted this as his due and, unlike the others, made straight for Angeli with ill-concealed lechery.
‘Did you say your name was Angel?’
‘I’ll call you Angel anyway.’
‘Then I’ll call you Sergeant.’
They began to talk about Wimbledon and I watched Hugh’s fingers trailing over her shoulder. A short man in a parka came behind them and stuck his hand into Hugh’s overcoat, pulling out an envelope. I began to protest, but Andrew shook his head. On cue, Hugh yawned and said:
‘Going to a party. Come with?’
Angeli purred in response. Of course, I had to go too. I couldn’t leave her alone with the Sandhurst rapist.
‘Hugh’s the real James Bond,’ said Paul, as we stood to leave.
‘Not quite,’ said Hugh, and twinkled.
We all said goodbye, but there was betrayal in the air. Angeli had pulled rank. I think this is the phrase.
Hugh’s car is a vintage MG, a beauty in cream with brown leather interior. I’m in the back, constructing a flaming back-flip and listening to T. Rex and Angeli’s inanity. I light the spliff and inhale before passing it along. Hugh acknowledges my virtuosity with a thumbs up. Rolling is one thing I do really well.
I do not know where we are. Heading east, I suspect, near the King’s Road. I close my eyes.
I’m running through a desert. The sun is warm on my face. I see water and palm trees.
And now rain splatters against Hugh’s reinforced windows and he has kissed my sister’s hand and called her ‘Ma’am’ with a rakish laugh.
We’re in Chelsea, by the river. Hugh is talking about why he doesn’t have a mobile phone. I’ve texted Angeli twice in the last minute:
Wtf are you doing?!
This guy is the prince of all dickheads.
She turns it off, saying, ‘Stalkers’.
Hugh skids into a ‘parking spot’ at Chelsea Harbour. Half the car is on the pavement, parked diagonally. ‘Someone’ll move it,’ he says, though I see no valet.
‘So what do you do?’ says Hugh.
‘I’m trying to be a man,’ I say, and remember Paul and Andrew, my fond and nurturing friends.
‘How’s that going?’
‘What about you, Hugo?’ I say, coughing snake venom.
‘I’m in the army, son.’
We have arrived at a boat. The three of us walk the plank.
It’s large in here, larger than I thought a boat could be. There are four bedrooms and a conservatory. The floor is thick with Persian rugs. A collection of guns gleam from a cabinet by the far wall. I see Miró, Renoir, Henry Moore, and what may be a van Gogh. There are only four or five people in here. Most of the party is on the roof, or up on deck. Angeli is lying on an embroidered sofa, her fingers trailing through a cheese plant’s leaves. Her feet are in Hugh’s lap. I sit cross-legged on the floor. They want me to leave; I can sense it.
‘So you were in Iraq too, were you, Hugo?’
Angeli lights a joint, blowing smoke at the stucco ceiling.
‘Back from Basra a couple of years ago.’
‘How was it?’
‘It was hot,’ he says. ‘And we kicked the shit out of a lot of people.’
Angeli’s eyes meet mine. There’s sympathy, but then she blinks and the fog returns.
I get up, the spliff in my hand. Arabian Nights. The Duke of Marlborough. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Nick Drake: A Biography. And now I’m outside in light rain. Champagne glasses, blonde ringlets, legs and perfume. I duck under railings and descend some glistening steps. A smaller deck, empty except for shadows. I sit on a white bench. My back is sodden.
‘Good enough to share?’
The shadows contain a boy. He extends his hand, a white filament in the gloom. I pass the damp and flaccid joint. Clouds sweep like grey snipers.
‘Thanks a lot, bruv.’
Red hair beneath the hood of his windcheater, Timberlands and neatly pressed jeans; a pink button-down collar. Standard private school attire.
‘Henry. You know Neville?’
‘No. I know Hugh.’
‘Army man,’ I say. ‘Kicked the shit out of a lot of people.’
‘Not Hugh Mainwaring?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I don’t mean to be rude, bruv, but he’s fucked up.’
It sounds like, ‘Focked op’.
‘Yeah, he’s with my sister.’
I still have Hugh’s hash. Moroccan black. About an ounce. I roll two large joints, then toss the rest into the water.
To my left, I see Angeli descending the stairs. Henry averts his eyes as her skirt blows skyward.
‘Hi, Ravi,’ she says, looking well and truly hammered.
‘This is Henry,’ I tell her.
Henry gives a mock salute while the wind blows back his hood. Red hair ruffled by an invisible hand.
‘Oh my God,’ says Angeli. ‘Oh my God.’
‘No, not God.’
Prince Henry of Wales, commonly known as Harry, fourth grandchild of Queen Elizabeth II, younger son of Charles and Diana, third in line of succession to the thrones of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, handed my sister the joint.
And then Hugh descended the stairs, panzer-like …
‘My Dark Angel … my Aphrodite.’
I gave the joint a foetal suck while Angeli stole a wistful glance at the hoodied Prince.
‘Your Royal Harry,’ said Hugh.
Harry looked away, into the battered river.
‘Harry’s got a double, darling,’ said Hugh. ‘A lookalike. He’ll have sent him off an hour ago, if I know my boy. The paparazzi’ll be halfway to Balmoral by now. Am I right?’
‘Look, Hugh,’ said Harry. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but Ravi and I have something rather urgent to discuss.’
‘Oh, sure,’ said Hugh. ‘Just came for the filly here. It’s time to shake our booties.’
Angeli loves dancing, but I swear if Harry hadn’t all but told her to go, I’d have had to prise her off the deck with superglue remover.
Hugh slapped Angeli’s arse. I half-stood, my legs weak from weed.
‘Hugh’s got a blue in boxing,’ said Harry, with a mock-laugh.
I looked at him hard and sincere. His lazy Windsor eyes said, Yes, it’s true.
Hugh led my sister to the steps. She gazed at the Prince over her shoulder. This time he looked back and glimpsed her knickers in the muffled smoglight.
‘You got a girlfriend, Harry?’ I said.
He laughed. ‘Don’t you read the papers?’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘I’m not a monarchist,’ I said. ‘Think it’s all one giant scam.’
‘Valid,’ he said. ‘And welcome. Fresh air, in fact.’
‘I’ve got no opinion on you personally,’ I continued. ‘It’s the institution.’
‘I can respect that. I want my friends to like me for me, Harry, not what I represent. Shame, though: I never know who’s real.’
‘Look,’ I said, remembering my rationality. ‘That’s all very tragic, but aren’t you some sort of racist?’
‘So you do read the papers.’
‘Well, are you?’
‘Well, so long as you’re asking, yes, I am, but no more than the average punter. But I can tell you there’s no malice in my heart. I abhor the BNP. I’ve got Asian friends. But look, if you’re in a fight with someone, you’ve gotta say whatever hurts them the most. And if you’re going into war, you’ve got to be tough. In the army we bully each other. We bust each other’s balls.’
‘So you’d call me a Paki?’
‘If I wanted to toughen you up, yes, I would.’
‘Then I’d call you a spoiled prick of a posh boy.’
‘Well, first of all, ouch, never heard that one before. And second of all, it’s conversations like this that make me want to hang out here by myself. I thought you were different, Ravi boy. But you’re just news of the world.’
‘No, I’m not. I really don’t care, your Royal fucking Highness. I’m just making conversation. Smoke this.’
He blew Morocco’s finest into the Chelsea wind.
‘I’ll never be King, you know. All I can do is be a man. And that’s all I’m trying to be.’
‘Me too,’ I said. ‘Me too.’
The night has flown. The sky is brain-grey. Harry and I have drunk a bottle of brandy and our minds have intertwined. I’ve told him I hate my father, and he wept and said he wants everything but what he’s got. We are profound, he and I, like Sufis. We know life is not this, but we know not what it is.
‘Let’s go upstairs,’ says Harry. ‘There’ll be something to eat up there.’
‘Cool.’ I say, then hear the splash.
The third in line is floundering. I search in vain for a life buoy, but he’s made it to the side, reaching for my hand. Heavier than he looks, this beer-drinking scrum-half. I haul him over, a ginger tuna. He looks shocked, freezing, but happy.
‘Happens all the time,’ he says.
I laugh. This Prince is the most bored, pathetic loser I have ever met, and in this lies his magnificence. We are ancients, he and I, fools groping across centuries of ignorance.
In Neville’s bedroom, he changes his clothes. I find a bag of pills in the desk drawer – White Doves – and we drop a couple, too drunk to care. He’s wearing denim now, from top to bottom.
‘Time to face the enemy,’ I say, and squirt him with Cool Water.
The living room is empty save for four snoring couples in sleeping bags on the floor. Bowls of olives, sheep’s cheese, salami and crackers lie on tables or upturned on the carpet.
And there, like background music, is the sound of coitus: tepid stuff, a rust-sprung mattress and a soprano gasp, but I know the voice. I’ve known it since childhood.
‘Sorry, mate,’ says the Prince. ‘Hugh’s a dick, I know.’
‘And it’s in my sister.’
‘This’ll cheer you up.’ He points to the gun cabinet. ‘Ever fired one of these things?’
I shake my head and he hands me an 1869 Smith & Wesson six-shot revolver in black and brass. It is the first time I’ve ever held a gun. It feels hot and hard, a live prick twitching in my fingers.
‘Not bad, eh?’
We exit once more into the Chelsea drizzle. On the roof, Harry fires a shot into God’s pallid face. He hands me the gun and I do the same. It’s like ejaculating by proxy. I holler to the skies.
‘Yeah, baby,’ says Harry. ‘You like that?’
‘I like,’ I say, shooting an angel through the greying dawn. ‘I like.’
‘How could you, Ravi?’
It was the following morning. My mother was in my room. And then my father, or almost, poking his head and torso round the door like a store dummy come off its hinges.
‘Where is she, Ravi? Where did you leave her?’
‘It’s all right, Dad. Chill out.’
‘Chill out. Chill out. What if she’s chilling out? What if she’s lying freezing in a ditch in her bloody mini-skirt?’
‘This whole room smells of alcohol. Chi!’
‘Clean up, clean up, clean up. All those tissues, put them in the bin. Pick up your clothes.’
‘No time to look for a job. Time to go out spending money on drink.’
‘Your sister could be dead somewhere, or worse.’
‘Worse? What could be worse than being dead?’
‘SHUT UP, RAVI.’
‘Just go look for her!’
‘Get up, get up, get up.’
I pulled the covers over my head. Behind me were mud walls and dunes. Someone shot a flare into a sky, the colour of Afghan hash.
Angeli was back.
‘What did you tell Mum and Dad?’
She lay down next to me.
‘Are you angry?’
‘All right. I’ll see you later, yeah?’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’ll see you later.’
I could hear her changing in the next room, singing along to Missy Elliott. I hoped she wasn’t meeting Hugh again, but of course she was. It would go on for a couple of weeks, and then he’d propose a threesome with her cousin or try to show her a Kama Sutra porn site and she’d come home crying and my parents would blame me.
I allowed myself a little smirk.
Prince Henry of Wales dropped me off in a Bentley the previous night. The decoy hadn’t worked: the paparazzi were still there so we crossed the harbour by dinghy and a flunkey met us on the other side. I drank hot chocolate with marshmallows in the car. We didn’t hug goodbye, but the handshake lingered. He even texted me from the palace. Sortd Ravi boy. A wickd nite. Hx. There was no number above the text. The half-blood Prince was watching his back.
I spent the day watching interviews with the Royals on YouTube. The one with Ant and Dec was the best.
WILLIAM: I don’t want to be liked by someone just because of who I am. What I do with my private life is really between me and … myself, basically.
I think Harry was the smarter of the two. If I murdered his brother, he’d be King … and what would that make me?
But I’d probably never see him again. I’d just be a lovesick Republican pining for my night of royal pleasure.
When I went to bed it wasn’t even eight o’clock. There just didn’t seem to be anything worth staying up for.
Morning came with a bang and a whimper. The whimper was from Angeli.
‘You little whore!’
I’d never heard my father use that word before.
‘I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. Can you believe it, Mira?’
‘I can’t believe it.’
‘I can’t believe it.’
‘Dad – ’ said Angeli.
‘Shut up! YOU JUST SHUT UP!’
So the golden girl was turning to plastic …
‘This is your fault, Ravi. How could you let her do this? How could you?’
‘Dad – ’
‘It’s in four of the papers. Four!’
‘Dad – ’
STUDENT’S SEX ROMP WITH PRINCE OF MALES.
EXCLUSIVE: MY STEAMY NIGHT WITH PRINCE CHARMING.
HARRY’S GOT A WHOPPER! DUSKY BEAUTY REVEALS ALL.
WHO WASN’T IN CHELSY LAST NIGHT? HARRY AND THE HOUSEBOAT PRINCESS.
‘She wasn’t even with Harry,’ I said, turning on the television.
‘SHUT UP, RAVI! No one asked you.’
My phone rang.
‘And change that bloody ring tone.’
‘Ravi boy – ’
‘Harry,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
My parents froze, ice statues. My father’s hand was raised as if he were a figure skater. My mother was fixed in mid-scowl.
‘Look, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what happened – ’
‘I do. Your little sister decided she’d make some money.’
I looked at Angeli, whose eyes had filled with tears.
‘She’s sorry, mate, really she is.’
‘Oh, Christ, tell her not to stress. The press say all kinds of shit. To tell the truth, Ravi boy, I’m rather pleased about this. After all that palaver with the racism, this makes me look, well, you know.’
‘I hadn’t thought about it like that.’
‘So what are you two doing tonight?’
‘Nothing, so far as I know.’
‘Well, how’s about I send a car for you? Say about nine?’
‘Great. What shall we wear?’
‘Whatever you like. But no swastikas, you hear?’
‘Ravi boy, what can I say – you’re a legend.’
‘See you, Harry.’
I went back to the television, ignoring them all. It took them about a minute to beat it out of me. When they did, my mother beamed like a spaceship.
‘We’d better take you to the hairdresser’s, Angie.’
‘Don’t you think that’s a little hypocritical, Mum? You were calling her a whore ten minutes ago.’
‘That was your father.’
‘Where are we going?’ said Angeli.
‘I don’t know. He just said, “out”.’
She looked frightened. ‘I’m not sure I want to.’
‘You’ll go,’ said my father, rolling up the Sun and glaring.
Angeli bought a new dress that afternoon. She went to the salon too, had the hair on her head styled, the rest of it plucked out. It was the most painful three hours of her life, she said. My father bought her a bottle of Chanel No. 19 and some shoes. I wanted to buy him a dozen gold rings and a purple pimp suit.
My mother put on make-up just to meet the limo. Harry wasn’t in it, of course, so she curtseyed to the chauffeur, who was probably used to it.
Angeli didn’t talk as we purred through Mayfair, only when we reached Dover Street.
‘I don’t know why I did it, Rav. I was just drunk and … I wished it had happened, that’s all.’
She looked ready to cry. The stylist had spent an hour on her make-up. I took her hand and said, ‘I understand.’
The club was called Mahiki. As we climbed out of the limo, bulbs started flashing. Angeli, Angeli, give us a wave, darlin’. My sister kept her head down but I turned and smiled, though when I heard the word Paki I raised two fingers and the photographers cheered.
Mahiki was Hawaiian themed, everything bamboo or carved wood. The waitresses wore hula skirts. Tiki masks leered. Everywhere legs, boobs, perfume, champagne. A maître d’ took me by the arm and led us to a table at the back.
‘Ravi boy … ’
He wore pink nail polish on his right hand. His low-slung jeans revealed matching Batman boxers.
‘And my mystery lover. How ever are you?’
‘I’m so sorry, your Royal Highness …’ My dad had looked up ‘the correct way to address a Prince’ on the Internet. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
‘Oh God, forget that. The papers are poison and a little got into you.’
‘I’m so, so sorry.’
‘Look,’ said Harry, ‘I’m very privileged and I know that and I’m grateful for it and I’ll take whatever shit comes with it. But for tonight, let’s just have a laugh, all right?’
‘All right,’ I said.
‘All right,’ said Angeli, blushing.
‘All right,’ said Harry.
Four hours later and I’m halfway through the finest night of my life. Angeli and I have already met Cheryl Cole, Kate Moss, and most of the cast of Glee. We drank something called a Volcano and Angeli danced with the Saturdays while the Prince and I paid court to Victoria Beckham.
‘I’m very sorry about David,’ I told her, perhaps ill-advisedly, and we left by walking backwards with short little bows.
‘At least she comes out these days,’ said Harry. ‘For months she just stayed in at nights, terrified.’
‘Poor woman,’ I said.
But it was not a night for mourning.
The Prince and I did the limbo with a grey-haired Matt LeBlanc while Angeli snogged a Blue Peter presenter before joining us at our table. In the toilets I found a line of cocaine on the cistern and snorted it through the casing of a Biro. Harry brushed the tell-tale grains from my chin and we laughed like two lost cowboys at the edge of the world.
‘Hey,’ said Harry, slamming his fist onto the table. ‘Shall we get out of here?’
‘Why? I love it here.’
‘But it’s always the same,’ said Harry. ‘Come with me and I’ll show you something epic.’
‘Sure,’ I said, trusting him. ‘I’ll tell Angeli.’
‘No,’ said the Prince. ‘No girls … it’s all right, we’ll come back for her.’
I turned my head, looking for my sister. Russell Brand was giving her his phone number.
‘OK,’ I said.
‘Sorted. Come on then, Ravi boy, let’s do this!’
We left through the back, walking past crates of booze. The staff all acknowledged Harry, formal but affectionate, and he dispensed Royal smiles like pennies from his fist.
We were bundled into an Audi with tinted windows. It was only then that I realised the weight in my jacket was Neville’s gun, from the boat. I was about to tell Harry, when I realised he wouldn’t care. It’s only us, the middle classes, who worry about such things.
We arrived at a rather conservative-looking building with a statue of a man on a horse outside, shooting a pistol into the sky. It seemed to be a gentlemen’s club, though of the military variety.
‘Best you don’t know,’ said Harry, when I asked its name.
We entered through the kitchen once more, and into a service elevator, descending to floor C beneath the basement. Two butlers in bowler hats bowed and handed us frock coats and hand-painted masks. The Prince helped me tie mine while the double doors were opened to reveal a room the size of a tennis court.
A man stood in a boxing ring in the centre of the room, spotlit and bare-chested in shorts. Around the ring were forty other men dressed like us and smoking cigars, drinks in hand. Blindfolded cigarette girls groped through the crowd.
Though short, the boxer’s legs and arms were like trunks. His face was square, eyes slanted, hair longer than the average crew cut. I was taken by his eyes, so focused and calm.
‘He’s a Ghurkha,’ said Harry. ‘You know Ghurkhas?’
‘Best soldiers in the world. Pride of the army. But this one’s the best of the best. He’s the real James Bond.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘I told you. James Bond. Seriously. Watch. Hey, dhai, dhai! What’s your name?’
‘James Bond,’ said the Ghurkha.
‘Why is everyone wearing masks?’
‘Tradition, Ravi boy. We like our anonymity in here. Look around.’
I did. Rows of masked faces stared unblinking.
‘Not a clue, eh? You wouldn’t believe me if I told you their names. Makes the Mahiki crowd look like B-listers.’
The lights dimmed on all sides except for the ring, which glowed brighter.
‘Showtime,’ said Harry.
There was no announcement, no drum-roll, only the sound of barking from behind us. The crowd made way for the butlers, who led in three muzzled Alsatians, large, sinewy, and growling.
‘It’s all right,’ said Harry. ‘They’re not interested in us.’
At ringside, the butlers unfurled a ramp and dragged the dogs into the ring. A referee climbed in too, in black shorts and a jockey’s shirt.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ringing a bell. ‘One round of unlimited length. Bond vs. the dogs. Floreat Brittania.’
The Ghurkha stuck out his chest, legs braced. The dogs advanced towards him, free of their leashes, step by murderous step.
‘What the fuck?’
‘Hush, Ravi boy,’ whispered the Prince.
The dogs fanned around him, teeth bared. The Ghurkha splayed out his hands and moved into a crouch, poised and concentrated, eyes flicking from side to side. When the first dog pounced he was already there, meeting the beast in mid-air, twisting its neck to leave him glassy-eyed on the canvas. The other two stiffened while the Ghurkha returned to his crouch. They stepped back, and this time he hurled his weight forward, landing with his hands on their backs and pressing so hard that their feet splayed out beneath. The dogs tried to turn their heads to bite, whimpering, snarling, but instead their bellies sank until, with a crack, he slammed their heads together.
And now all three were dead.
The Ghurkha saluted. The crowd applauded. The butler brought a stool and a tall glass of rum, which the Ghurkha downed.
‘What’s your name?’ shouted Harry once more.
‘James Bond,’ said the Ghurkha, panting.
‘See?’ said the Prince.
The butlers carried the dogs out of the ring. There were bloodstains on the canvas.
‘Show’s not over, Ravi boy. Look behind you.’
The butlers were pushing a wheeled cage. Inside was a grizzly bear, seven feet tall.
‘Beauty, isn’t he?’
The Ghurkha, shiny with sweat, had crossed the ring to watch. Using pulleys, the butlers hoisted the cage over the ropes. The referee returned.
‘Our second match. One round of unlimited length. Bond vs. the bear. Floreat Britannia.’
The referee unlocked the cage then jumped clear. The Ghurkha stood in the centre of the ring in his usual crouch.
‘Here we go,’ said the Prince.
The bear was already out of the cage. On all fours, it seemed to be looking for an exit. The Ghurkha blocked its path, unleashing a war cry with his hands cupped around his mouth. The bear clambered onto its hind legs. Two feet taller than the Ghurkha, it took short ballet steps forward, arms outstretched. The Ghurkha did the same, and the two collided, burly arms around one another.
Man and bear danced, crushing, balancing, straining. I saw the Ghurkha’s face, white bone, red skin, his ribs beginning to crack. Fighting for air, he pulled free of the embrace and smacked the bear across the chops. Blood and saliva flew, bright against the lights. The bear lunged forward and grabbed the Ghurkha’s throat. He fell to his knees, eyes bursting.
The bear had been shot. I could see the wound, the blood flowing. He fell to his side, not quite dead.
The recoil knocked me backwards. I held the gun aloft while the room stared.
‘Mate,’ said the Prince. ‘What in fuck’s name are you doing?’
‘Shut up,’ I said. ‘Just shut up, Harry.’
The Ghurkha was sitting up now, rubbing at his throat.
‘Let him go,’ I told the room. ‘Just let him go.’
‘Ravi, seriously, are you mad?’
‘James Bond,’ I said. ‘Let him go or the Prince gets it!’
I pressed the gun to Harry’s head.
‘You’re being mental, Ravi boy. Even I can’t stop them now. They’ll kill you.’
‘SHUT UP, HARRY. JUST SHUT UP.’
Keeping the gun to his head, I walked the Prince through the crowd and towards the exit. The Ghurkha followed, expressionless.
We left by the double doors. Made straight for the service elevator. When the doors began to close I pushed Harry out.
‘Your choice, Ravi boy,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t like to be you by morning …’
The Ghurkha was breathing heavily. His neck and torso were bruised. At the top I hurried him out the way we had come. The waiters stared. I brandished my gun.
Outside it was raining hard. We ran into the street. I raised my hand for a taxi.
The next thing I knew my face was on the pavement, hands cuffing me from behind. When I lifted my head I saw the Ghurkha on his knees, staring at me. He did not look surprised.
Here I am, staring into the bright Afghan night. A ten-foot mud wall stands between me and a thousand RPGs. I too have seen men die.
I met Paul a few weeks ago, he of the ginger hair. He’s in a different regiment, but he gave me a cigarette and we swapped stories.
‘Never thought I’d see you out here,’ he said.
‘You sold it well,’ I told him.
Paul grinned. ‘Never knew I was so convincing.’
It was either this or jail. I believe the Prince cut me the deal himself, so I should be grateful.
At dawn, I’ll shit into a hole, wash, shave, and fill sandbags before our ‘hearts and minds’ patrol. Every day I hear rumours that they’re pulling us out of here, but every day I’m still here.
Yesterday I got a postcard from Angeli. She’s a lawyer in a London firm now. She only ever sends her love and tells me she’s thinking of me. My parents are proud, apparently.
I light a cigarette and stare up at those fistfuls of stars. At least you can’t see this in London. I stare until it feels like I’m up there too, floating in that heavy sky.
Our hero has fifteen tattoos.
On his back: his sons’ names, a winged cross, and the words Guardian Angel.
On his left arm: a picture of his wife, her name in Hindi, the words Forever by Your Side and Ut Amem et Foveam (So That I Love and Cherish).
On his right arm: the Roman numeral VII, two angels, a classical design, the motto In the Face of Adversity, and Perfectio in Spiritu (Spiritual Perfection).
Running from his nipple to his groin, a Chinese proverb that translates as: ‘Death and life have determined appointments. Riches and honour depend on heaven.’
His body was his work, a work of art, but its glory is long gone, thanks to Malini and me.
But no, my wife is not to blame.
I am a proud, proud man. I have a scar running from my eye to my chin. I made the mark myself after I painted my last portrait: Krish and Gopi B – from Bloomsbury, who requested a five-foot-by-three oil of their Porsche Cayenne − ‘Remember what it feels like to let go?’ – to hang on their bedroom wall.
But this was how I paid my bills.
My name is K− and I am a political miniaturist. My works are vast, spacious, sweeping, panoramic − oh yes! − but with detail so tiny I can fit all humanity on a shrinking white canvas. The closer you look, the finer a story you hear:
Hiroshima: 6th August 1945: twenty seconds before impact.
Banks, restaurants, offices, cafés, brothels, railways, dentists, hospitals, schools; children, parents, invalids, lawyers, thieves and priests. Above them all, three aircraft cross-sectioned: the Enola Gay, the Necessary Evil, and the Great Artiste. Colonel Paul Tibbets, smiling, crying, erect. It has been my habit to strip away surfaces as I please. X-ray upon X-ray. Skin sheared. Walls removed. Life in all its allness. You can even see his semen.
New York: 9 / 11.
Similar to Hiroshima, but we cannot see inside the plane.
London: 7 / 7.
Sex, everywhere sex. London’s whores in basements and castles. Royals piercing bleeding mouths. Parliament and palace laid bare. In a Liverpool Street hotel, Netanyahu is on the phone. In Downing Street, Blair is too. In Russell Square a bus spews arms and legs.
They didn’t like this one, and I was punished. ‘A propagandist.’ ‘An inciter.’ ‘Crudity of style.’ ‘A heavy hand.’ And then – nothing. They simply left me alone.
We lived off one salary after that. I became aloof. In my anger I cut tiny drawings all over my body, the pain loudspeaking to my brain in protest. I cut a whip into the sole of my left foot, a flame into my right. I was going to remove my toe when Malini intervened:
‘I’ve been to the doctor −’
And soon we had no income at all. Like these folk …
Manchester is not a city I would visit by choice. Like wool against my skin, the air is damp, and it smells of beer. Whalley Range, a name like a public school joke, stinks of human filth. I have read the history: controlled by Quakers, no pubs allowed, the sinners abused in their homes and look! Weak, proletarian genes, soaking in their own inebriated piss. Yes, I am a bitter man.
College Road. Second gear.
This is not a moral, but only fact: mere foolish, inelegant pride is irrelevant beside that serial killer with the blackest of hearts who goes by the name of cancer.
To put it less adamantly, I needed the money. We needed it.
But pride is a curious thing.
Speed bumps the size of camels. I splutter onward and to my right it looms like a metaphor. A building like this does not belong here.
From behind iron gates higher than two men a spire lances the festering sky. This building belongs in Oxford, not here.
I have read about it. They used to train priests here, who then died of dysentery in Africa and Asia. The university bought it from the church, the GMB union bought it from the university, and its activists used it to learn how to yell at their overlords.
But then it was sold, again.
They say he never goes out, that he drinks, smokes, snorts, spends days on the Internet ogling the blue-eyed blond he used to be. And used to love. As did we all.
When he first entered our lives, my words to Malini were affected and false.
‘He’s a fake.’
Whatever did I mean by that?
Only dissimulation. I was in love with him, you see; but only after I destroyed him did my heart speak to my brain with any real clarity.
We were all in love with him back then, and it’s got nothing to do with red-tops or the ignorance of the masses; it was essential to the soul. He stood for the reason we once had gods; why we still mourn for them now, from time to time …
That first night I may have paid him a tribute, hot against my oversheet, my cancerous wife asleep in pain. I saw his face and gasped in devotion …
But in the morning I was an artist once more, feigning cynicism and anger.
To my surprise, I had a new commission. The brief was as follows. In honour of the forthcoming Olympics, twelve artists would paint portraits of the same subject. Whoever was deemed to have ‘best captured the spirit of the man who so aptly captures the spirit of the Olympics’ would receive £120,000 and their painting would hang for twelve months behind glass under twenty-four-hour lighting in Trafalgar Square.
They could afford only twelve hours of sittings, divided into three sessions, each of four hours, in which all twelve artists would work concurrently. No photographs were allowed. The work could be continued in private, however, so long as the final deadline was met.
We convened in a derelict warehouse in Leytonstone, spruced up for the occasion. Twelve easels fanned around a light-filled space. There was plenty of champagne, which no one touched. Most of us believed we were too good for this nonsense and lost no time in announcing this. Others attempted to justify themselves with words like ‘postmodernity’ and ‘irony’, but all that was forgotten once he arrived. He was exactly twelve minutes late.
The room went silent at once.
Darkness settles nervously, as if it could recede at any time. I doubt even the locals care that he’s here. The houses on either side seem ordinary enough, a mixture of settled middle-class and aspirational. I think there was a consensus to exclude him from the media, the modern equivalent of a public stoning.
But this is where he lives. I can hardly believe what I’m looking at. A brass plaque with a single word, archaic as a pagan carving.
And now the gates are opening, very slowly. First gear.
I clutch at my awful heart, but it’s a false alarm. I, at least, still have my health.
Down the gravelled entryway, alert to signs of life. No lights in this house: a cross between a cathedral and a castle which feels like a tomb. It would be impossible to make a joke within these grounds; the darkness would snuff it out at once.
But there … a lamp breathes colour into the air. I see roses, blue-grey in the thickening dusk, and to my left a fountain. Beside the lamp is a wooden door with an iron handle. I park and lock the car. Attached to the door is a note, which I open.
K− Make yourself at home. I won’t be long. David.
When I first met him, David Robert Joseph Beckham, born in 1975 in Leytonstone, was unassuming, charming, modest, and − yes, I dare, I dare! − beautiful beyond belief. His hair had gentle highlights, less obvious than in his youth, and his eyes were little tablets of bliss, begging to be swallowed. He was dressed simply, in a black V-neck sweater, Versace jeans, and loafers. None of his tattoos were on display. He seemed shy, nervous, excited.
The lighting in that room was all natural − most of the ceiling was glass – but in here I can’t even find a light switch. There’s an oil lamp on the kitchen table which throws a golden disc sufficient to illuminate a pair of mugs, two wooden stools and a bottle of wine. I sit. And wait.
My portrait was all about the eyes. They were slightly too large, and the rest of him was out of focus, the colours dulled. But I worked a long time on that hazel shade of brown …
I have bowed. It was not my intent.
He wears a grey woollen overcoat, a black dustman’s hat, and grey jogging pants. His feet are bare. He has put on sunglasses, thick and black. Only the voice is the same.
‘You must be K−.’
‘Mr Beckham, it’s very kind of you to see me. I know my letter was a little strange.’
‘Not really.’ He laughs, less high-pitched than I remember. ‘There isn’t much I find strange anymore.’
‘Mr Beckham, would it be all right if I asked you some questions?’
‘Anything you like.’ His face in the lamplight is smooth as slate. ‘I don’t even have electricity in here. I don’t know or care what they’re saying.’
They’re not saying anything!
‘It’s just, could you, would you, describe what happened to you after the portraits were hung? When did you start to feel … different?’
Malini started to feel different pretty quickly.
It began with a pain in her abdomen that had her screaming for most of the night. An ultrasound on her right ovary revealed a ten-centimetre cyst which they removed in emergency surgery. Two months later the pain was back, and the doctors removed an even larger cyst, but this time they took the ovary too. A month later they told her she had ovarian cancer.
In my paintings, I began to draw people missing bits of skin or flesh. A critic called me ‘sick’.
We were told the cancer was in its early stages and hadn’t detectably spread, but it was aggressive, so she would need a cycle of six Carboplatin chemotherapy treatments after a course of IVF treatment in case the chemo made her infertile.
All in all, Malini spent twelve hours under anaesthetic, thirty hours in chemo, and missed a year of work.
It was hardly a time for artistic principles.
‘It was the speech, you know, at the party. Everyone was staring at me, but I couldn’t stop talking. They thought it was a wind-up, even the papers.’
I smile. All that had happened was that at the press conference when the portraits were unveiled, David Beckham stood up and, with cameras flashing like a Blitzkrieg, started talking about Iraq.
‘When we voted for Blair we thought the swords would turn into ploughshares, but he set fire to Baghdad and it just wasn’t right. I don’t understand how he could kill so many people. I just can’t understand it −’
When he started crying, his minders intervened and led him away.
It made the papers, but mainly as a joke. BECKHAM HATES BRITAIN. And: WHAT’S SARONG WITH WAR? A couple of left-wing journalists applauded him – ‘he’s growing up’ – but most people dismissed his words as attention-seeking, myself included. I assumed his publicist had written it, directions included (sobs profoundly).
But then he turned up at an LA Galaxy game with a full beard, and after the game – in which he scored from inside his own half for the third time – he told the world he was refusing to shave out of ‘solidarity with my Muslim brothers’.
There was talk of ‘Islamo-chic’ and ‘the compassionate footballer’.
‘I got some hate mail, but I’ve always had hate mail. I don’t usually read it anyway, but I felt stuff, K−, stuff I’d never felt before. And, yeah, you can say compassion if you like, but there was also anger. I’ve never been angry that like.’
To put it mildly, David Beckham went wild. He grew his hair long, and his beard seemed to go on for miles. Galaxy let him go, but not before he’d told them, and the United States, to go to hell.
So he came back to Britain, told the press he wanted to be ambassador to Iran. He met the Prime Minister too. But he was too far gone by then. The establishment couldn’t see any advantage in him. They were simply embarrassed.
To her credit, Victoria Beckham defended him at every opportunity.
‘David’s just standing up for what he believes in, can’t you see that? Cunts.’
She would spit that word, dark with malicious love. I know this love: I’ve seen it in myself, every time I took Malini for her treatment.
But then he went further. He declared that Britain was a fascist state, that reparations had to be paid to every country ever colonised, to all of its ethnic-minority citizens, starting with the Muslims who’d been raided or searched. He went on a tour of the ‘free world’: Cuba, Libya, North Korea, any country that would have him, urging solidarity against imperialism.
‘I just knew what to say, K−. I would open my mouth and everything felt … right.’
By then the nation hated him, more than any other public figure. His picture was on the front pages every day, though never with out-and-out vitriol: it was always ridicule, painting him as insane, a laughing stock. Comedians devoted entire sets to him; every broadsheet turned into Private Eye. He was a satirist’s, and a psychiatrist’s, dream.
‘Well, it did hurt, K−. If you thought someone was mentally ill, would you laugh at them? Would you? But that was all anyone did. It was so cruel, like the way kids are cruel. I can still hear that laughter sometimes. That’s why I’m glad it’s silent in here. The walls are thick.
‘And then Victoria left. That was the hardest.’
I pour us both a little wine.
It happened after a journalist hacked into his mobile and published pictures of her nude and wearing a hijab. She couldn’t take it anymore. To her credit, she insisted, near screamed from the rooftops, that she would always love him. She constantly referred to him as ‘my David’, but she said it was breaking her heart to see him like that.
In any case, I don’t think he had any need of her.
He was going to another level.
The day before the Olympics began, Beckham announced that if all Anglo-American forces did not withdraw from Iraq in the next twenty-four hours, he would kill himself in public. He didn’t say where he was; all we knew was that in twenty-four hours’ time, David Robert Joseph Beckham’s life would end.
So we waited.
I thought he’d do it at the opening ceremony, but Malini doubted it. Once he appeared, the world would simply turn off its cameras and − in any case − he didn’t need television. He could do it anywhere and stream it live on the Internet. In any case, she said, it was obvious where he was hiding.
She tossed me the car keys.
We drove there together, to that warehouse in Leytonstone with the glass ceiling. Malini was correct. Dressed in a black judo suit, David Beckham was sitting on the floor, staring into a laptop. There was no water up there. Even from across the room we could smell him.
As we walked towards him, he told us it was too late. He had swallowed the poison. An estimated 1.5 billion people would watch him froth and choke his way to paradise. The camera − he gestured at the wall − was already on.
Malini started running at him.
In response, Beckham did a delicate little chassé, like sidestepping a tackle, but my wife − so thin after her treatment, but still so alive − stopped, pivoted like a gymnast, reached into her jacket, and stabbed David Beckham in the eye.
He pulls off his sunglasses. The right socket is bare. It looks smooth, like snakeskin.
‘I suppose that’s when it all ended,’ he says. ‘I remember everything, though not what happened afterwards, not so well. When I think of it, it feels like a movie I wasn’t really concentrating on. It’s funny.’
‘But, Mr Beckham. You have to know why I’m here …’
Those legendary feet may soon be dribbling my head around the room. But this is what I came for.
When I’d finished my portrait, I added something extra, in miniature, so tiny you could only see it with a magnifying glass. But even then you’d have to know what you were looking for.
It was painted inside a highlight in the iris of his right eye. Smaller than a grain of rice:
David Beckham in a small house in Iraq with his family: Victoria, Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz, and Baby Harper. A mortar explodes between them, fired from a tank. We see the screams on their faces, a noose of fire tightening around them.
I have a friend who is a vet. He removed a malignant tumour from a dog. When I told him I wanted it, he knew me well enough not to ask why.
I crushed the tumour with a pestle and mixed it with paint.
It’s made of cancer, that little drama.
The thing is: when I saw him at that reception, when he cried and had to be taken away, I could see it in his actual eye. I don’t know how it happened. Like a sixteenth tattoo, my miniature had stamped itself around that tablet of bliss.
It was Malini who insisted we find him, though I had no idea she planned to do that. Cancer-free, Malini is in prison now. One and a half billion people watched her stab the world’s most famous footballer in the eye. But the world doesn’t hate her. She’s no Myra Hindley. They’ve simply forgotten, as they have forgotten the man in front of me.
Beckham isn’t speaking. He’s still looking at his shoes. I count to a hundred, then stand and walk to the door.
As I’m opening it, he says, quietly:
‘Thank you, K−. Thank you both.’
‘Thank you for what?’
From outside I hear a child laughing, and there is silence.
Only when I’m in my car do I begin to understand. The wrought-iron gates have closed behind me and through them there’s a stonewashed black sky, the lonely silhouette of the spire. Perhaps a hundred people will walk past here tomorrow and think … nothing.
I drive away, down this dark, deserted street.
All the world laughs, and it laughs at me …
I’m such a narcissist.
The cameras swivel at her.
Ten million people know her face. They know her better than I do.
Who am I?
I am ‘the husband’. Not once has she mentioned me by name, to my knowledge − even I do not have enough hours in the day to know for sure.
I am a quant. A Cambridge First in Mathematics, and a PhD in mathematical finance. I develop models for pricing, hedging and managing risk. I identify new ways to sell essentially worthless products for relatively high sums at zero risk. My work is bold and elegant, without soil or sweat. My life is – or at least used to be – clean, like the sleek angles on a new Ferrari. A bold, golden couple, shafting London like Cupid’s vengeful cousins, we did not seek love − we were too happy. All until Gopi pushed the button marked DESTRUCT.
Trained to monitor minute fluctuations, I didn’t see it coming. I missed the big crash.
Standard corporate procedure says I should have dumped her like a bad habit, and the fact that I did not makes me a liability. At work they study me for signs of impending meltdown, just as I watch her on that window always open on my laptop. The live feed. www.bbliveuk.com.
Her brother, her real brother, said it was her only way out.
‘From me, you mean.’
‘From both of you.’
‘So what is it she’s looking for in there? A new man?’
‘So it’s vanity?’
‘Course not. She knows everyone comes out looking like a prick.’
‘It’s reality, Krish. She’s looking for reality.’
Yeah, in there. In there with those denizens of kitchen sinks and DSS queues who hide their drugs in hooded tops and dream of marrying footballers. The spray from the nation’s arse. The ones who removed the ‘Great’ from Britain and replaced it with ‘Little’. Allow me to introduce you, ladies and gentlemen, to the ones with whom my wife spends her days and nights:
1. Shanice. A black woman from Essex, a hairdresser who refers to herself as a ‘stylist’. She had two-inch-long nails when she came in, each painted with the flag of a different nation. She cut them in Week 3 and cried. On Fight Night Shanice called Gopi an ‘uptight, snobby cow’. Gopi responded with: ‘Your hair looks like yak’s fur’.
2. Kurt. Wears thongs of many colours, and each morning stands nude on the bed and swings his hips singing, ‘Shake your bon bons.’ Kurt is a restaurateur and successful. Has three flats in the West London area. Does not speak much to Gopi, but takes her side in arguments. Probably scared of her. Gay.
3. Camilla. An ongoing debate in the House: is she really posh? Did she really go to school with Kate Middleton? With one exception, they all concluded she’s a fake, but we, the public, know this isn’t true. Camilla is related to the Spencer family. She seems to enjoy the uncertainty. Perhaps she too is in search of the fabled ‘reality’. Blond with a horsey face, she runs her own PR company and moonlights between London and New York. She and Gopi had a ‘race row’ when Camilla used the word ‘coolie’. Shanice took Camilla’s side, saying, ‘Cut me, we both bleed’ and ‘I’m not offended by the N-word.’ Good television.
4. Dragon. Karate instructor and tattoo aficionado from Newcastle. Lost his temper in Week 4 and kicked the sink till it came unstuck and smashed. Security had to come in and restrain him. Was drunk. Rambled about Camilla and how ‘at home she’d be with a footballer’. She has said, in confidence, that he is ‘quite sweet’.
5. Gary. In love with Gopi, poor hapless fool, and a builder (for God’s sake) from Cardiff. When Gopi sits up in bed in the morning in her pyjamas, Gary touches himself beneath the duvet. That is all there is to say about Gary.
6. Karim. Former tax collector from Manchester with strong political opinions. Karim is roundly ridiculed by the Housemates, who find him monomaniacal and lacking in humour. He likes no one, becomes angry when drunk and isolates himself. Could be a psychopath.
7. Gopi. Former barrister from Oxford, and resident of Bloomsbury, London. Attractive, with razor-sharp boardroom legs, responds with occasional flirtation to Gary’s advances. Says negative things about her husband from time to time. Would suspect her of being chav-fucked were I not able to see it all.
There were five others, now evicted, hungry ghosts who prowl the fringes of society telling of how their fifteen minutes wrecked their lives and reversed their karmic paths.
And now it is 8:58 p.m. Here we go.
INT. – BEDROOM – DAY
Day 37, 10:04 a.m. All of the Housemates are in the bedroom.
Someone is crying in the dark. The lights come on and a Big Ben alarm bell follows. CAMILLA is rubbing her eyes and sobbing. GARY mouths to KARIM, ‘Is she OK?’
You all right, Camilla?
No, I’m not.
CAMILLA leaves the bedroom.
INT. – DIARY ROOM – DAY
CAMILLA sits in the DIARY ROOM CHAIR (designed as a large toilet) and sobs.
Take your time, Camilla.
Camilla nods, her hand over her eyes, and continues to cry.
INT. – BEDROOM – DAY
Look, I’m not being funny, but I swear she waited till all the cameras were on till she started crying.
Why would she?
Public sympathy, and all that wank.
She looks really upset.
Course she is. But it’s still a game show.
There’s no way, Gary, that you can know what’s going on inside her.
So you’ve been inside her, have you?
Just come here and say that.
Stop it, both of you.
INT. – DIARY ROOM – DAY
Camilla, Big Brother can see you’re upset. Could you explain what’s wrong, please?
(Sighs.) I’m just so sick and tired of being judged, Big Brother. (Blows nose.) It’s like I’m in a loop, being nominated, surviving, being honest, being judged, being nominated, surviving. The Housemates all hate me ’cause I’m honest, but the public knows I’m telling the truth.
Big Brother understands that living in the house can be emotionally demanding, and at times a great strain. But Camilla, talking to your fellow Housemates is often the biggest help.
But you confide in someone and then … like Shanice is supposed to be my friend, then she says I’m the kid at school who follows her around all the time ’cause she’s black. (Sobs, face in hands.)
INT. – BEDROOM – DAY
(Whispering to KURT in the adjacent bed.) Has Gopi gone?
I think she’s in the bathroom.
Camilla’s probably in there talking about us.
I don’t get it. It’s like she needs constant drama.
It’s a way of coping. I just have a wank under the duvet.
GARY laughs, but looks nervous.
INT. – DIARY ROOM – DAY
Big Brother is always here if you need to talk, Camilla.
Super. Cool. Thank you, Big Brother. (Blows nose.)
INT. – LIVING ROOM – DAY
11:15 a.m. The Housemates have assembled in the living room.
Today, as some of you may know, is Gopi’s birthday.
Did anybody else know about this?
You should have told us, darling. Happy birthday. (Hugs Gopi.)
Yeah, happy fuckin’ birthday! I can’t believe it. (Stands and hugs Gopi hard, kissing cheek.)
Gopi, please look at the screen.
A television SCREEN appears on the far wall. Gopi’s BROTHER and SISTER-IN-LAW appear on the screen.
Hi, Gopes. Lots of love and happy birthday. Have fun and be happy. You’re doing wonderfully!
(Blows a kiss.) Mwah! Happy birthday, sweetheart. Have a great day!
SCREEN fades to black. GOPI’S MOTHER appears.
Laughing My Fucking Ass Off, I myself pour a drink. These solo laughs, for the walls, for the shadows, can take on lives of their own. They are my friends, my laughs. I say, Fuck Me – Gopi’s Mum said I Love You.
Laugh says, You’re Envious, Krish.
I say, You Don’t Know Me, Laugh.
Laugh says, I Know I’m Not Real, Krish. But There’s No Mirth Inside You.
I do not laugh again.
It was as if she had been reading from an autocue.
‘Just to say have a good time and we’re all cheering you on. I love you.’
Perhaps she was reading from an autocue. Stupid fucking bitch.
Shadow says, Now Krish, When Have You Ever Said It?
I Don’t Need To. We Don’t Believe In That Shit.
Bang & Olufsen says, Now, Children, Can We All Pipe Down, Please? Look!
Gopi is crying. My dear, unloved wife is crying. To put it mildly, Gopi is not the sort of woman who cries. I haven’t seen this since I found her listening to a jazz version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the living room. I found out later that the pianist was her first boyfriend, a maths student at Oxford who came out three months into their relationship. I saw him on Jules Holland once, wearing a feather boa and Cuban heels. She has never mentioned him and we have never talked about it.
My wife is heading, as they all do, to the Diary Room. Better sit down, Krish. It’s getting emotional in here.
INT. – DIARY ROOM – DAY
Gopi, Big Brother hopes you liked your surprise and understands if you feel emotional. If she there anything you would like to talk about?
No, thank you.
Why are you crying, Gopi?
For reasons you couldn’t possibly understand.
Big Brother understands it can be distressing when one is suddenly confronted with loved ones.
(Laughs long and hard.) Idiot.
You may stay here as long as you wish, Gopi. Today is your day.
GOPI leaves the DIARY ROOM.
INT. – LIVING ROOM – DAY
GOPI enters and stares. BJÖRK is standing on a silver dais in the centre of the LIVING ROOM.
(Sounding like an electric violin.) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Gopi. Happy birthday to you.
GOPI and BJÖRK hug.
EXT. – GARDEN – EVENING
(Standing on the rockery.) Declare Independence! Don’t Let Them Do That To You!
I know Gopi has all the albums and went to some concerts when she was at uni. But mostly I remember a flaming argument in which I called Björk ‘bar music’ and Gopi said I was an ignorant pig. We had sex and went to bed and she said, quite distinctly, ‘I love her.’
I can’t remember if I have had dinner or not.
I am at my desk with coffee. This is the forty-eighth floor. From my window I can see the little people, scurrying. I not only make money, I create it. A vertiginous genius, I and a few hundred others hold all the secrets of this binary universe. Will Gary fuck my wife? Or will Björk declare Gopi independent with a bottle of Pernod against her stair-mastered thighs? Frankly, I’m too high to care.
At 12 p.m. I go to the gym and swim forty lengths. My shower is cold as Himalayan snow. After mussels and Hoegaarden, I return to find a note on my desk. Chris, come ASAP. Top floor. WB.
Walter Bentley is my boss, a man who cannot be measured in money. He calls me Chris, probably believing I’m as white as he is. This happens: I am half Anglo-Indian, like Sebastian Coe, and half Parsi, like Freddie Mercury. If it were anyone else, I would correct them, but Walter Bentley can rename me every day of the year if he so wishes. He is, quite literally, a god.
Hands damp, mystic sensation in my chest, I prepare to mount Sinai.
We are in the restaurant, eightieth floor. London sweats beneath, heavy and squat. Flouting the rules, Walter lights a Marlboro with one of those long, splint matches. He sips heavy Burgundy but doesn’t offer me any. Walter disapproves of employees drinking at work. His hero is J. Edgar Hoover.
‘Have you heard?’
He does not wait for an answer. Sliding a laptop across the table, he presses Play. It’s a video.
‘Fuck,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ says Walter. ‘Fuck.’
‘What do I do?’
‘Get over there now. They’re expecting you.’
‘You mean – ?’
But Walter is already walking away. He has other worlds to save. I watch the video again, unable to believe what I’m seeing.
INT. – LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
We’re not terrorists. We’re just fucking Icelanders, you know?
It’s like Thatcher with the Falklands.
Iceland was never ‘virtually bankrupt’. I can tell you that for certain. He was lying.
Course he was.
Brown is the colour of poo. That’s what they’re chanting in Reykjavik.
I don’t understand. It’s up to the Prime Minister, isn’t it? It’s his job.
He used the Anti-Terrorism Act to freeze Icelandic assets. It caused a run on one of our banks. Everyone tried to get their money out but they couldn’t, ’cause the money was in Britain and Gordon Brown wouldn’t let it out.
And all the while he was throwing money at British banks.
Why bully Iceland? I’d like to see him try it with Germany, or America.
It’s actually a clear violation of international law.
And I’ll tell you something else, Gordon Brown, keep ‘giving’ money to banks, but whose money are you giving?
So we all have to take our money back. Declare independence. We should all buy gold and keep it in the cellar. We don’t need banks. And we don’t need you, Gordon Brown. Brown is the colour of poo.
Brown is the colour of poo.
Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The control room. Four hundred producers watch live footage from twenty-eight cameras and sixty microphones trained on the ‘contestants’. Even the live feed has a ten-minute delay to allow them to edit out slander referring to non-Housemates, but with reference to the Brown affair, they thought it would make better television to leave it in. ‘Politicians are fair game, after all.’ Unfortunately, this missed the point, a point that Gopi would have been aware of from the start. These people, in their fraternal idiocy, have televised the call to apocalypse.
Ten million people heard her say it, and now they have their orders. They are already withdrawing their money. Millions upon millions. If we don’t stop this, the banks will start to run like diarrhoea from an elephant’s sagging crack. The Nordics’ revenge.
I still can’t believe what that shrieking munchkin said. Iceland’s GDP is $12.59 billion, and they’ve been lending like they’re Fort Knox. The IMF, EU, every bank in the civilised world won’t touch them with an icepick. Brown was telling the truth: leveraged to the hilt, they had to pay. The global derivatives market weighs in at $600 trillion, and those Icelanders couldn’t resist ’cause they were tired of being small. The Napoleon complex. Or should I say Hitler. Sooner or later, D-Day’s going to get you. But pop stars know nothing about finance.
Gopi and the munchkin haven’t stopped drinking for twenty-four hours. On and on they go, their inane hormonal chatter. The other chavmates have left them alone. All those years at Oxford, Princeton, White & Case, for this …
EXT. – GARDEN – DAY
(Lighting a cigarette) I didn’t used to get humans. I liked mountains, sea, kids, animals. I found grown-ups dark and chaotic. Or just silly, always trying to ‘make sense’. But I like them a bit more now. They might find me weird; I might find them weird; but there’s lot of weird things in nature so you start thinking, ‘How can something be weird if it’s natural?’ I think everything fucks up when you say, ‘I don’t want to be natural; I want to be like this’. I mean, can you imagine a rock not liking itself, or a horse? At some point you’ve just got to declare independence and say no, you can’t do that to me. I won’t let you.
Can Gopi please come to the Diary Room?
They fix a mic to my lapel and I talk into a camera.
‘Gopi, this is Krish.’
‘Krish! Wow, how are you, Krish?’
‘How am I? Do you realise what you’ve done, you two?’
She looks ridiculous, wearing a striped hooded dress and Adidas hi-tops.
‘We can’t do much in here, Krish.’
‘You’re causing a run on the banks, Gopes. People are doing what she told them to do, making their own currencies with paper and ink, buying gold, keeping it under their beds. If it goes on any longer, we’re all fucked.’
‘Wow. That’s just so … cool.’
‘For fuck’s sake, Gopi. This is serious – ’
‘OK, Krish, I’ve got to go. Look after yourself.’
‘You’ve got to tell people to put their money back, Gopi …’
Gopi has left the Diary Room.
INT. – LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
All the HOUSEMATES except for GOPI are in the living room.
I’ll go and get Gopi. She’s hardly said a word since Björk left.
Leave her be, Gaz.
Yeah, you’ll be the last person she wants to see.
Had any luck with Camilla, Dragon?
DRAGON gets to his feet and aims a kick at GARY’s head, missing by inches, and follows it up with a volley of punches.
Can Dragon please come to the Diary Room?
DRAGON gives two fingers to the CAMERA.
Come on then, Dragon. Let’s have it.
Don’t, Dragon. They’ll pull you out.
Can Dragon please come to the Diary Room?
DRAGON goes to the door and kicks and punches it repeatedly before exiting. The HOUSEMATES sit in silence until GOPI walks in, carrying her SUITCASE.
Well, I’m out of here.
Love, no. Don’t say that.
Need a hug?
Do you know who I was just speaking to? The Prime Minister.
What the fuck?
He told me that we’ve thrown the country into turmoil and I have to tell everyone to put their money back in the bank and if don’t before morning then I’ll be evicted under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
But it wasn’t you who started it; it was Björk. She should fucking apologise.
Well, she won’t and neither will I.
Just do it, Gopi. Stay. You’ve got a real chance of winning this. I’m not just saying that.
(Suddenly bursting into tears.) I just don’t want you to go, Gopi.
I drove back to Mayfair and went for an early dinner at Ithaca’s with two Brazilian escorts. Usual sort of thing, tanned with long legs. Can’t remember what we talked about. One of them had been watching the House. I told them Gopi was my ex-wife.
Two bottles of Chablis later, I leave the Porsche outside the restaurant and we’re in a cab heading home. Near Tottenham Court Road, a woman in a leopard-skin skirt throws mud at the windows of HSBC. The ATMs are empty, but the chavs are revolting still.
The girls try to go down on me in the cab, but Mr Happy is miserable. They have to help me into the flat. When I finally get the door open a man with a shaved head greets me from the other side. I know this man.
‘Hi, Krish,’ says Gopi, from the sofa. ‘This is Gary.’
Gopi’s wearing that dress, the one with the hood that the munchkin gave her. She doesn’t seemed fazed by the girls, but I tell them to make tracks, stuffing fifties into their hands.
Oh my God.
It’s not only Gopi and Gary but Shanice, Camilla, Kurt, Karim; they’re all here, rolling spliffs, drinking wine, lying on the carpet.
‘What the hell is this?’
‘The revolution,’ says Karim.
‘Get the fuck out of here,’ I tell them. ‘All of you.’
‘Aw, don’t be mad,’ says Shanice. ‘Pull up a pew.’
‘Let’s all just calm down,’ says Gary. ‘We know this must be a shock.’
‘Fuck off!’ I say, screaming now. ‘Get out of my house.’
On the way out, Gopi hands me the bracelet I gave her on our first anniversary. I read the engraving. THE WORLD IS OURS.
And now I am alone. Again.
Laugh says, She’s Gone, Krish. And You Know It’s Forever.
Shadow says, It’s Lonely Here. I Wish They’d All Come Back.
Bang & Olufsen says, Forget Them, Baby. All You Need Is Me!
EXT. – BOREHAMWOOD – THE CATWALK OUTSIDE THE BIG BROTHER HOUSE – NIGHT
DAVINA is in a glittery black dress, holding a microphone. The CROWD chants, ‘Davina! Davina!’ and someone yells, ‘Gary!’
Ladies and gentlemen. The winner of this year’s Big Brother is … Dragon!
DRAGON, wearing a black kung-fu suit, appears at the top of the stairs. Mist rises around him. Fireworks explode. The crowd screams as he leaps the last four stairs before executing a flying kick and landing neatly on his feet. He saunters over to DAVINA and lifts her into his arms. Confetti flies all around them.
Dragon, we love you!
Dragon, how do you feel?
(Puts her down.) I knew I’d win. I knew it.
And in the strangest-ever circumstances. Six spontaneous walk-outs. What do you make of that?
(Raises his arms above his head.) Wooo! Wooo!
Is there anything you want to say to your fans, Dragon?
I search for the whisky. Have a feeling Kurt had it when he left. Find the window instead and pull it open. Pavement twenty-eight floors down says, Do It Krish, Make Me Happy.
I go back to the living room and stare at the screen that glows brighter and brighter. A burning bush. Behind the images, I see my face reflected.
This Isn’t Real, I tell myself. This Isn’t Real.
‘Honourable members …
‘The Oxford Union, in conjunction with OU Asia Society, is privileged to have Mr Swami Saint with us today.
‘Born Sanjeev Ravindran, and raised in London, Mr Saint read mathematics at New College …’ – a cheer and several boos – ‘ … graduating in 1990. After spending three years waiting tables and playing in cocktail lounges, he signed to EMI records, cutting his first LP, Shades of Mind. The rest, as they say, is history …
‘Adopting the pseudonym Swami Saint, Mr Ravindran is one of the most successful jazz recording artists in Britain, famous as much for his diamond-studded sandals and designer turbans as for his technical virtuosity and precise, invigorating compositions. He has toured all over the world as a solo pianist, and with his trio, Solar 3. He has made fourteen albums and collaborated with a dazzling array of artists from Brian Eno to Courtney Pine. Aged 47, Mr Saint has already accomplished more than many musicians do in a lifetime. New Musical Express described him as ‘the ultimate jazz fashionista, without whom the music world would be as drab as cold tea on a November morning in Staines.’
Laughter, though not much.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Swami Saint.’
The President shakes my hand. From the way he was reading off a card, I suspect he has no idea who I am. I do not want to do this. I also have no idea who I am.
‘Thank you, Mr President. Thank you, members. It is my great privilege to be here. I apologise for being somewhat underdressed but, technically, this isn’t a performance. Let’s think of it rather as surgery without anaesthesia, a way to get inside my head. What the President did not mention was that I actually began to study for a PhD in the macrostructures of sound embodied in classical Carnartic and Dravidian musics. I gave up when I realised quite how much work it would entail, but it was a thoroughly excellent opportunity to catch up on a good deal of music I might otherwise have missed.
‘Music, you see, is dearer to me than life itself; all kinds of music, not only jazz – though this is my expertise. Indeed, I consider myself more a listener than a musician, one who has tried his hand at composition and muffles his own inadequacies behind a thin veil of flamboyance and extraneous idiocy.’
They are not laughing, these Oxford students. Near every one of them is South Asian, which could well mean they aren’t jazz fans. Perhaps they’ve come to be inspired. That old cliché: ‘If he can do it, then so can …’ But you can’t, you can’t. It takes talent, darlings.
Oh, I loathe myself.
On and on I drone, a good fifteen minutes before going to the piano (a beautiful black Steinway, polished to a mirror) and demonstrating how I work my variations and crossovers from simple three chord melodies. I talk about John Coltrane and ‘My Favorite Things,’ show them how even advertising jingles and nursery rhymes contain all of free jazz inside. ‘It’s like Blake said,’ I say. ‘To see a world in a grain of sand.’
I am losing them, I can tell. These idiots.
‘And so the essence of music, like the essence of life itself, is time. The notes do not matter if they aren’t played at the right time, in the right order. To quote Bananarama, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way …” ’
That was a stupid joke. I thought it might work on undergraduates who subsist on a diet of Pot Noodles and Countdown, but it’s entirely possible that none of them know who Bananarama are.
I step forward for my applause. Lukewarm, but who cares? Now I can get out of here. Damn you, Frankie, I should never have done this.
‘Mr Saint has very kindly consented to answer your questions for twenty minutes, after which there will be an opportunity to …’
Oh Christ. What is wrong with this one? He has a fucking flag draped over his back, and he isn’t even asking a question. He’s beat-boxing. And now, ‘Om … Om … Om.’ What the fuck? He’s speaking in Hindi. I have no idea what the hell he’s saying, but everyone is laughing.
‘Mr Saint, or should I say, Mr Ravindran, my question is very simple. You’re an Asian musician. Your name is Swami Saint. You wear turbans and salwars in your shows. But what is so Asian about your music?’
I have replied, cold, cutting, to the point. The outfit is flamboyance, showmanship, performance. I wear the colours that appeal to me. What makes clothes ‘Indian’ or ‘ethnic’? It’s only a style. Why fixate on this and not the music? Why is Bowie never asked this question?’
‘Because he isn’t Indian, sir, and he isn’t making millions by parading his ethnicity.’
‘How do you know he isn’t? Hasn’t he sold Englishness for years? Isn’t that what helped him across the Atlantic?’
Yes, I merely add a little colour to an otherwise drab and dreary world. A cup of tea on a cold morning in hell.
‘No music is Asian,’ I tell them. ‘No clothes are Asian. Art does not have an ethnicity.’
And here is another one, of the female variety: she’s wearing a sari with a bindi. It’s a Tuesday evening in Oxford, love. You’re going nowhere.
‘What did you mean when you said that fusion music is the “mating grunts of mongrels”? Are you trying to say that hybridity is invalid? Do you actually think you’re superior because …’
Four hours later and I am sitting at a bar. I have sat here before. No, I used to stand behind the bar. This was my first real job. From five to seven I mixed cocktails, and from seven to midnight I played piano. ‘Sometimes When We Touch,’ ‘Goldfinger,’ ‘Under My Skin.’ The usual stuff. Fifteen years ago, but the place hasn’t changed. It used to be called Blues, and now it’s Bellinis, which is what I’m drinking.
I worked here for three years, beginning in 1990 when I was in the fourth year of my maths degree and at my loneliest. My trio, the Mandelbrot Set, had broken up. Sean and Anand had moved to London, a barrister and a researcher for the Economist. I was in mourning, ranging from inconsolable to hateful. When my father died and I went home for the funeral, my mother said I should drop out; she cut me off financially; said she couldn’t afford it. So I worked here every night, often till early morning, trekking back across Magdalen Bridge in the cold.
I did not cry when my father died, but I did write a variation on the funeral march. Each note plunged like a suicide from a high ledge on a breezy day. At the end it sort of spiralled until the edges broke and the entire structure disappeared. That’s what I thought death must be like. No more structure.
People always say you have to feel, but for me thinking’s more important. That’s jazz. Thinking your emotions. It’s a different way of feeling.
My father didn’t even know I played in a jazz band.
I can hear Sarah Vaughan.
You meet a lot of people when you work behind a bar. I did not like to chat, but it was part of my job to listen.
He started coming in the spring of 1990. It was the end of my first bar shift, my mind limbering up to play. Gaunt, bone-thin, the colour of piano keys left out in the sun, his face bore several small burnished bruises. He wore a wig too, though I did not know it, and a false beard, thick and black. Aquiline nose, big teeth, and when he sucked at his cigarette a longing came into his eyes. A homesick child in a conservative suit and hat. He returned twice that week, and the next, always ordered a bottle of Moët and drank it over two hours, staring at those spirited temptresses behind the bar who winked and lifted their liquid skirts.
‘Do you know, I don’t think I’ve sat alone in a bar for twenty years.’
He introduced himself as Farrokh. His voice was well schooled, but with a clear Indian lilt. I imagined him squatting on the banks of the Ganges in a dinner jacket, handing out hundred-dollar bills to cats.
‘I can be impatient, but I never bitch about people. I never moan. It’s so fucking tedious, dear. There isn’t time to moan. But now I have to ’cause it hurts so bloody much and I can’t bear to shatter their dreams. Would you mind?’
I shook my head.
‘I’d love to cry now, darling. Would you mind if I did?’
I conveyed that I would not.
‘The thing is, you can’t ever let them see you cry. You have to pretend. You have to be the spectacle they want to see. Don’t try to be you: it isn’t worth it. You is only the you that you want to be. Be who they want, or better still, be who they need and they’ll love you for it and you can love them in return. But for God’s sake, don’t trust them. Oh Lord, what on earth is this? Verdi?’
It was. Va, pensiero. In 1901 at Verdi’s funeral the crowd spontaneously broke into the chorus. And now Farrokh was singing it too. His control, his pitch, it was all quite perfect, and he sang across four octaves, a range no jazz singer I knew could match. When I closed my eyes I saw fireworks, soaring so high and bright they looked like planets in the sky.
When he had finished I opened another bottle and set it in front of him. I would pay. I would find the money.
Farrokh stayed for my set and ate his dinner in a dark corner. At around midnight he joined me at the piano and sang a Hindi song. There were only a handful of people left, and he sang so quietly I doubted they could hear. But then it started.
‘Fuckin’ hell. That’s – ’
‘It fuckin’ is. I’m telling you.’
‘Get me out of here, darling.’
I had to elbow a man out of the way who was pawing at us while his wife clawed at her camera, trying to remove it from its case.
‘My car’s over there.’
A driver was waiting on the pavement in a peaked cap and a moustache. I helped Farrokh inside. He was weak, and as he raised his leg I saw him wince before yelping like a terrier.
‘It’s all right, love. Come here.’
Farrokh kissed my cheek and hugged me hard. ‘The thing about life is, you’ve got to enjoy it. Enjoy it, you hear me? Or it’s pointless. The rest doesn’t matter. I’ve never been fashionable, you see. They just love me.’
I watched him leave. His black Ferrari tore a hole in the dying Oxford night.
‘Mr Saint, you claim to be above politics, and yet you’ve said, a dozen times, “I am a citizen of the world; I do not consider myself to be Asian.” Isn’t that a very political statement?’
‘Then why did you call your album Karmic Visions?’
‘Do you wear Indian clothes at home, or only on stage?’
‘Are you a part-time Asian?’
It has turned into a lynching.
‘You say you take things from many cultures; you say you like Afro-jazz and samba, but why not take something from our own culture? When are you going to play some Asian music?’
‘Oh for Christ’s sake, fuck off.’
Sometimes you hear your voice from outside of you: you know you will regret it, but it isn’t you speaking anymore.
‘What the fuck have you ever done? Go back to your studies, you little shit.’
Silence in the debating chamber. I stare him down, my arms outstretched. A self-hating, vigilante Christ. No time for losers, ’cause we are the champions …
‘Fuck all of you. You came here to hear me. Me.’
I am at the piano and playing. Schubert, I think, blending into ‘Toxicity’, my own composition, and now some variations on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
On and on I play. They are leaving the hall. I can hear someone shouting expletives. A sock falls from the balcony. The chamber is only a quarter full, but some were up there nonetheless. It is cold in here, cold and vast. When Malcolm X spoke they mocked him too. I wish I had worn a turban. Then they couldn’t see me. I mustn’t let them know who I am.
You can’t hurt me, I’m famous.
People in glass houses should build fucking castles.
‘Mr Saint, Mr Saint, please. We have to lock up.’
But it’s all right. There are eight, maybe twelve, left. They are nodding, tapping. Their minds have left their heads, swirling like cigar smoke on the ceiling.
I will, I will rock you.
‘Sir, the Society would like to invite you for dinner, if you still …’
‘Of course I want dinner. Do I look like I don’t want dinner?’
‘Of course. Sorry, Mr Saint.’
‘Then let us proceed.’
My God, I sound like a queen bitch, but I don’t know how else to talk to these folk. Why are they so fucking obsessed with being Asian?
It was November 25, 1991, that I figured it out. I was, as it happened, with Sean, and we were waiting for Anand. It was our first reunion since the break-up, and we were fighting. I called him a sell-out. He called me a queer. I said that both of them abandoned me because they were too afraid to be themselves. Then Anand came in with the newspaper, saying he’d quit the Economist and was moving to Manchester to become an anarchist. I laughed at him and he threw the papers at me, but I saw the headline even as it arced through the air.
Freddie Mercury had died of AIDS aged 45. Born Farrokh Bulsara, he had attended St. Peter’s boarding school near Bombay, then St. Mary’s in Mazagon. Few knew he was gay. Even fewer that he was Indian. At the eleventh hour he recorded songs with only a drum machine, knowing he’d be dead when the rest of the group finished the tracks. But I think he enjoyed it, I think he enjoyed it all.
‘Why aren’t you more Asian, Mr Mercury? Why aren’t you less gay? Why don’t you sing in Hindi, in Parsi, in Farsi; why don’t you whistle out of your crown? Why can’t you be more, more, more, more?’
But he wouldn’t have spoken in a debating chamber. He hated interviews, especially after the NME ran the headline ‘Is this man a prat?’ He learned from that. He was probably a Thatcherite, though if you’d asked him he would have said he had no politics. Maybe that’s why people loved him, this ‘lover of life, singer of songs’. When he was at college he was found in a pub with his head in his hands. They asked him why and he said, ‘I’m never gonna be a pop star.’ And he stood up, stretched out his arms, and said: ‘I’m gonna be a legend.’
We are in the restaurant now. Jaipur Kitchen. ‘Asian food’, I suppose, to distinguish it from mere food. I try telling them I’m South Indian; that this isn’t what we eat at home, but it’s another black mark against my name. They’re like the fucking Gestapo. If only I had a piano. There’s a sitar on the wall. I think about taking it down. I was trained on the violin. Been playing since I was three, mainly Carnatic, though I wouldn’t tell these fuckers. My God, they’d eat dried horse shit if they thought it was from India.
He kept it from the world, but it’s so obvious now. I can hear it in his voice, the accent too. He drinks Moët & Chandon … I can’t even say if I like his music. Rock isn’t usually my thing, but was it even that? More like rock opera with disco-funk, and then they had an album called Jazz, which had nothing to do with jazz. I should do an album called Sitar.
‘Sir, sir …’
I have walked out of the restaurant.
Fuck you all, you Asian Asians. I’m going to Bellinis.
It was 1994, the night Kurt Cobain killed himself. His suicide note:
‘It doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.’
I was twenty-five and at home alone when I heard about it. I started pitching things out the upstairs window, books, records, a portable television. In the kitchen I threw eggs, bottles of milk, china cups, at the refrigerator door. I hit my head against the sink and chipped a tooth.
When my mother came home I told her I’d gone out to smoke and some village boys had rushed the house and gone berserk.
‘Why didn’t you smoke out the back? Why didn’t you lock the house?’
‘There are bats out back,’ I said. ‘They scare me.’
Six weeks later EMI would call, but at that moment I was a palpable failure. I had moved back home when I couldn’t stand the bar anymore. I needed time to compose. But my mother smelt weakness and went for the kill. She was like that. She’d wanted to be a musician.
When my deal came through I went to London and met the executives. They took me around their offices: finance, marketing, the basement. I left with an armful of CDs and a parting thought.
‘Your average punter can’t tell a bog-standard session musician from a virtuoso. There are only a handful of people who know how good you are, a handful. Think of all the mediocrities who people routinely mistake for geniuses. Don’t get me wrong, you’re the real thing, but the public has to believe it. And they don’t believe their ears; they believe their eyes.’
The turban came a little while after that. The sandals and salwar too. The turbans were usually Afghan-style, but embroidered with gold, once even with a lion’s mane. I’ve worn cholis and petticoats, all manner of scarves and earrings. Even a sarong. When I was prettier, I was a little like a musical David Beckham: a virtuoso with a sense of style. But I seem fated to go down like Beckham. They say he lives in Manchester now. Perhaps that’s where I should go. Wall myself in like the Selfish Giant.
But at least Beckham stood for something.
‘’Scuse me, you’re Swami Saint, aren’t you? I was at your talk today.’
I hold out my drink for her to spit in. It’s a joke she doesn’t get.
‘I thought it was really unfair, all that crap about being authentic. You just keep on doing what you’re doing. How many of them could play like you?’
She touches me on the arm. She has a scar on her left bicep: it looks exactly like the Apple logo. They just get weirder and weirder.
‘Thanks for stopping by,’ I say, lacklustre, cold, needing a cigarette.
‘My pleasure, Mr Saint.’
I step outside and onto the pavement where pools of streetlight glow like urine splashes. I light my cigarette and breathe in hard. My lungs feel red. From inside I can hear Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’. I always wished I could sing. The piano … it feels like I’m trapped inside it, a prisoner of those colourless keys. When I want to soar all I hear is sadness. I’ve never played outdoors. Or on the dunes, like in the movie Shine. That’s what I’d like to do. That’s what I’d really like to do.
I step into the road. Cars swirl like songs around my ankles. Somewhere a man is shouting. Rain slants down my neck. Oh wouldn’t it be lovely …
A man takes my hand. He has aged, but his eyes are still bright. ‘It’s all right, dear. Come out of the rain now.’
We are back in the bar. He is smoking. You can’t smoke in here, but he’s smoking. Of course he is. He’s the Queen.
He can’t be.
‘We’re older now, darling. We’ve come a long way.’
I look into his eyes. It is.
‘Yes, love. Sorry I’ve been gone.’
‘I needed you, you know.’
‘You did, you really did. You forgot to enjoy it.’
‘I don’t know where I went wrong.’
His parchment skin, once so smooth, is wrinkled, but his lips are still full, his fingers long and elegant, made for the piano. He used to be insecure about his playing, but no one played quite like him. The wig and beard have gone now, a half-inch of stubble in their place. He wears a short military jacket with a white handkerchief and starched blue linen pants. His shoes are white and stainless. He has a cane in his hand, gnarled and made from transparent plastic. Quite the ensemble.
‘You forgot, dear. It’s only a game. You took it too seriously.’
‘I know, Farrokh. I’m sorry.’
‘Listen.’ He takes my chin in his hand and lifts my face till my eyes meet his. ‘Forget it now. Forget it. Let it go.’
I try to smile, but my eyes are crystal with tears. He takes out his handkerchief and dabs at them. I let myself fall and he holds me. We stay like this, frozen in space.
‘Let’s go to the piano,’ says Farrokh.
‘But it can’t be you,’ I say. ‘I read it in the papers.’
He is already walking away. His stride is effortless, lusty; he bounces on his heels, beats time with his hands.
At the piano, he takes my hands and places them on the keys.
I begin to play, I know not what, and he sings in that natural baritone that drifts from tenor through falsetto, singing in no language at all, harmonizing with the piano. It is perfect. I want this moment to last.
But I stop.
‘You’re dead,’ I say.
He is about to speak, but he’s choking on his words. How could I have been so cruel?
‘Let’s have a cigarette,’ he says.
Through the bar we exit onto the street. Couples stare, but not at us. The sky is reddish, strange for this time of night. Streetlamps crane their necks.
‘Look,’ says Farrokh. ‘Look.’
I do. Two police cars are in the street, blinking blue. An ambulance stands behind them. The cars have stopped. The road is blocked.
It is me. My body is spreadeagled on the tarmac. My head is bust in, a single strike from an indifferent bonnet. My legs are unharmed, though. Those socks were silk, a present from Anand.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
‘Let it go now,’ says Farrokh. ‘Enjoy it.’
‘Did I waste it?’
‘Of course not, dear. You lived it to the full.’
‘So what comes now?’
I do. I was right. The sky is empty of stars. There is no more structure.
‘A last drink?’
‘It’s all a show,’ he says. ‘Just a show.’
I follow him back inside. This time the room stands and applauds. I take a bow, and Freddie steps backwards into grainy shadow. This is my night.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Sanjeev Ravindran.’
‘I’d like to start by saying something very simple.
‘Thank you to you, our Party, our members, our supporters, the people who, week in, week out, do the work, take the flak but don’t often get the credit.
‘Thank you, the Labour Party, for giving me the extraordinary privilege of leading you for these past twelve years.
‘I know I look a lot older.
‘That’s what being leader of the Labour Party does to you.’
‘Fuckin’ fascist,’ said Karim, and threw his sock at the television.
‘Get out of Manchester, you warmongerer,’ said Bobby.
‘There’s no other country this could happen in,’ said Tahir, stubbing out a roll-up on his palm.
‘It’s mediatised homo-slaughter,’ said Salil, the critical theorist.
‘Try him,’ said Karim. ‘Take him to The Hague. Give him the chair.’
‘May every child he’s killed return and give him the clap,’ said Bobby.
We were still sober, though it was early in the afternoon. It took us until seven to move to the pub.
The enemy had won. Two hundred and fifty thousand Iraqis gone, and no one punished.
‘That’s what they call us,’ said Tahir, a whisky burp. ‘Prophets of hate.’
‘They don’t call us anything,’ I said, a warm flush of beer blinking out my logic. ‘We don’t matter.’
‘Bullshit,’ said Karim. ‘Bullshit.’
‘Everything,’ said Salil.
‘Fuck all of us,’ said Bobby. ‘We did this.’
‘There is no we,’ said Salil. ‘Can’t you see that?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I see it.’
Did we really want to stop the war? I asked myself. Or did we just want to string the Bliar up by his blalls?
Sometimes politics is despair with a will.
We weren’t terrorists. We didn’t have the –
‘Balls to democracy,’ said Salil. ‘Failure is a must.’
‘Fuck you, Salil,’ said Bobby. ‘Reactionary shite.’
‘Everybody outside!’ said Tahir. ‘It’s happening.’
We were in a pub opposite the Palace Hotel. That’s where the delegates were staying. Labour partying hard.
We spilled onto the street, refuse from a fateful hand.
Our quarry was blinking in streetlamped silence on the other side of the road. Eleven metres, a penalty kick.
‘Suck my sock, you fascist.’
‘Get out of Manchester, you warmongerer.’
‘We don’t want you here.’
‘Come on, Mr Blair. Kill me too.’
‘You don’t have the blalls, not when we can see you.’
‘Shame on you.’
‘Shame on you.’
‘SHAME ON YOU.’
The Prime Minister stared at us with a mirthless smile. Gentlemen, my name is democracy.
I could have tackled him, rugby style.
But I didn’t. I was afraid.
When his limousine arrived, they took him away.
But those last thirty seconds … there were white boys at the bus stop. Not only boys, people, families, just waiting, ordinary lives, the stasis between work and TV. But they started shouting too.
‘SHAME ON YOU.’
‘SHAME ON YOU.’
‘SHAME ON YOU.’
Maybe there is no justice.
But there are moments.
And this was a moment.
When the Bliar blinked in the harshness of Manchester’s drizzling dark, he was as afraid as we were.
The limo left. The driver was a working man, too. Shame on him, but it was not his fault.
‘Get back in the pub.’
It was the police. Three of them.
How long had our moment lasted? A minute? Five?
Blair had stared at us, a slight, mirthless, smile. He could have had us shot.
In Britain a security camera clocks you every thirty seconds.
‘Get back in the pub, right now.’
‘Why can’t we stand on the street?’
‘We were only exercising our democratic right to protest,’ I said, suddenly drunk again.
‘Yes, I know, just get back in the pub.’
‘There’s a war on!’ shouted Karim.
But we went back inside. We were triumphant, most of us. But a fog was clouding my mind. A million dead, and shouting was all we had.
Our drinks were waiting for us, frothing and bitter. I rolled a cigarette and washed my lungs with smoke. How I loved that impending cancer. How I wanted the whole body to die in toxic grime. The world had gone on too long. Sin had balled us all in its fist.
‘What?’ said Salil, standing and twisting his snake-thin frame. ‘What the f – ?’
‘Yer f’kn graezy braun scoom.’
‘Come on then!’
Six men rose from the other side. Beery, doughy faces, red veins popping from drink and frustration. This, too, was Bliar’s fault, but now was not the time for talk.
We faced them. Five brown versus six of the other. I had never been in a fight. But I wanted them to hit me. Because I didn’t stop the war.
‘There are two things you don’t talk about in pubs. Religion and politics.’
‘So what were you talking about?’
‘Women. So would you be, if you weren’t so fuckin’ …’
‘Shame on you.’
‘Kiss my sock, you blying – ’
They threw us out, the landlord and those men (it was a biker bar, I would learn later: apparently such men dislike displays of dissent).
We went back to my place after that. Bought whisky and brandy, a bottle of each. But even that was not without incident. A star-crossed evening, though the clouds had inked out the sky with their greasy, Mancunian thumbs. This city was never pretty. Even the rain tasted of hard, honest pain.
‘Sorry, lads, but you’ve lost all credibility.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ said Karim.
‘Let me get this straight,’ said Jim the White Man, who owned the Off-Licence. ‘You were in a pub, right? Then you left the pub, and you shouted at Blair. Am I right?’
‘That is correct,’ said Salil, statesmanlike.
‘And what do you call that?’ said Jim the White Man, stroking his long, orange beard.
‘A good fuckin’ night out.’
‘Wrong, gentlemen,’ said Jim the White Man, handing me Famous Grouse. ‘I call it hypocrisy.’
‘What the fuck?’ said Tahir.
‘Yeah,’ I said, and laughed. ‘You own a fuckin’ liquor shop, Jimmy.’
‘Don’t swear,’ said Jim. ‘It’s haram.’
‘What kind of idiot becomes a Muslim in this day and age?’
‘I’m a Wahhabist,’ said Jim. ‘Some day all of Britain will follow.’
‘You sell booze for a living, you – ’
‘Don’t swear,’ said Jim. ‘Just because I’m a white man, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid.’
He said the last part in Urdu.
‘Fuck off, Jim,’ I said.
‘Walaykum salaam,’ said Jim. ‘Bismillah.’
‘Let’s get pissed.
Twenty minutes later we were standing on College Road outside that weird Gothic-looking hideaway. This is the last I remember of that night.
When I woke the next morning there was a litre of whisky parked right where my brain should have been. And there was a cat in my flat that had slipped in through the kitchen window, making a sound like a grown, dysfunctional woman. I spent fifteen minutes trying to catch her, letting her tap raw alcohol from my veins with her claws. Once I had got her outside, I collected my mail and made two cups of coffee, one for me and one for my hangover. It was my father’s birthday. I had to be in London by lunchtime.
I vomited twice. An old Mancunian custom in times of distress.
My father had an OBE for his services to British industry. He wrote an occasional column for the Financial Times. Dad was seventy years old, wearing a bow-tie and talking loudly about Arundhati Roy. ‘As vain as a beautician!’ he said, and slapped my brother-in-law hard on the back. My sister smiled and looked afraid. I had left my weed in Manchester. Unarmed against my parents, I drank champagne and tried to be funny – the clown, the reprobate, the one who’ll come good in the end when he learns what ‘being a grown-up is about’ (my brother-in-law said this while he showed me his iPad).
My mother described Blair’s farewell as ‘moving’. She was a retired QC who hosted fundraising dinners, but sometimes they all looked the same, my family. I was a bottle of champagne down, and last night’s whisky was still breaking over my skull. I told them what happened, may have done a small dance routine at the end for no other reason than to convince them that I was, indeed, quite mad and there was no need to take me seriously. But damn them, they always did.
‘So Jimmy the White Man told us we were hypocrites,’ I said. ‘And he was selling us booze at the time.’
‘You’re not hypocrites,’ said my father. ‘You’re idiots.’
‘Just immature,’ said my brother-in-law. ‘That’s all it is. You haven’t been in the system long enough.’
‘He doesn’t want to be in the system,’ said my sister. ‘That’s the point.’
‘Then why were you shouting at the Prime Minister?’ said Dad. ‘Why were you buying whisky? Why are you drinking champagne?’
‘It’ll all change once he’s earning,’ said my brother-in-law.
‘He is earning,’ said my mother.
‘Just not very much,’ said my sister.
‘And what he does earn he spends on dope.’
‘He thinks it’s noble to be poor.’
‘He doesn’t even play his “music” anymore.’
‘I just thank God he wasn’t arrested.’
‘It could have been in the papers.’
‘I wouldn’t be able to show my face.’
‘We know the Blairs, for God’s sake.’
My parents did meet the Blairs once, at a fundraising dinner, but it was Cherie and their son Euan.
‘And what about Charles?’ said my brother-in-law, meaning Saatchi. ‘I’m sure he’d have plenty to say about it.’
He leaned towards me with his ‘send me your CV and we’ll work something out’ face.
‘I hope you realise,’ said my father, ‘that this could go on your permanent record.’
‘Yeah,’ said my brother-in-law. ‘What if you wanted to run for office one day?’
‘I’ll sort it out,’ said my father. ‘I’ll call Anthony.’
I had no idea who Anthony was, until, three months later, I received a letter.
Dear Mr G –
Your father, Chandrakant G – , was kind enough to write to me explaining your part in the act of dissent following the Prime Minister’s speech in the city of Manchester. He has informed me of your rather impressive credentials and, following a short consultation with the Prime Minister, it is my pleasure to request your presence at an informal drinks party at Number 10 Downing Street to be attended by a select group of celebrities and newsmen. The Prime Minister would be delighted to use this opportunity to address your concerns personally, and has charged me with the task of assuring you that your opinions on matters of policy are of value to him.
Please find the invitation enclosed, and accept our good wishes and sincere hopes that you will attend.
Mr Anthony Carmichael (CBE)
Private Secretary to the PM
I screwed the paper into a tight little ball and would have eaten it had I not been so close to vomiting (it had been another night of whisky). But when I told the others about it, none of them scoffed. Instead they gave me that look – as if they were about to eat me and donate my bones to the party.
‘This is an opportunity,’ said Karim.
‘A godsend,’ said Salil.
‘You have to go,’ said Maninder. ‘Just go, and go, and go …’
And so, on a January evening in 2007, I stood outside 10 Downing Street in the rain wearing a suit jacket, black silk shirt, and skin-tight jeans.
They frisked me, but so fast it was like a gentle, formal embrace. I was on time, which, at the Prime Minister’s house, meant late. I recognised several faces, Trevor McDonald, Billie Piper, Dawn French, Gurinder Chadha, and there, in a woollen Nehru jacket with his famous round glasses and bevelled fingertips, Eric Clapton. When he saw me staring he gave me a gentle, jaded smile and – I don’t know why – I flashed him the peace sign. He turned his back and I might even have left had not a hand grasped my elbow:
‘Mr G – . It’s Anthony Carmichael. We corresponded. How nice to meet you.’
‘Smashing,’ I said, executing an unconscious Transylvanian demi-bow. ‘Good of you to come.’
‘Well, I tend not to miss these functions,’ he said, smiling.
‘Quite,’ I said, not recognizing my accent. ‘Good to meet you, I mean.’
‘And you. How are things in good old Manchester?’
‘Oh, she’s fine,’ I replied. ‘Quite a hardy old girl.’
‘Excellent. And look, not to be abrupt, but could you come this way for a sec?’
He led me to an alcove. For a moment I thought he had a knife, but it was a silver case of calling cards.
‘Call this number when you get a chance, will you? The thing is, we’ve had a look at you, as we say, and we rather like what we see.’
Did they want to have sex with me, Tony and Tony?
‘I mean, we ran a check, and your record is really excellent. Worcester Grammar, Oxford First, the Economist …’
‘Only for a few months,’ I said. ‘I quit.’
‘Well, yes,’ he continued. ‘But you’ve been writing, haven’t you, on those e-zines and what else? You’re a talented analyst. The treasury quite concurs with your prediction of a correction in 2008 …’
‘Crash,’ I said, sure of myself once more. ‘A crisis of capital.’
‘Well, exactly. And not only your economics … your social commentary is right on the proverbial money. You are, I dare say, quite the voice of the contemporary Asian electorate. You understand their concerns. You sum up their struggles.’
‘I went to Oxford,’ I said. ‘I’m hardly representative.’
‘But you went because you’re bright. Isn’t that the point?’
‘Actually,’ I said, hoping Eric could hear. ‘My first love was the guitar.’
‘Anyway, here’s the thing …’
Mr Anthony Carmichael (CBE) offered me a position at an ‘independent government think tank’ on a starting salary of sixty thousand pounds.
‘I need to think about it,’ I said.
The next hour passed in a haze. I spoke to Clapton in the end, who told me, ‘Tony’s a shit guitarist,’ and complained about the ban on fox-hunting before leaving early. I don’t remember much about what happened after that, except that on the stroke of eight the Prime Minister entered the room and the amphitheatre fell to its knees in applause.
Hands were shaken, smiles were smiled, and he glided through the room with that face that launched a thousand missiles. The moment he passed me, I undid my Versace shirt and faced him, saying, perhaps a little too softly, ‘Shame on you.’ He looked at me and, for a split-second, at my T-shirt which bore a picture of Blair with horns and the caption WORLD’S NUMBER 2 TERRORIST, then continued walking.
I did up my shirt and left.
Four days later Karim called.
‘Better you see for yourself,’ he said, and hung up.
I went to the newsagents. It was on page 4.
YOUTH APOLOGISES TO PRIME MINSTER – ‘I WAS MISGUIDED.’
Over five hundred words of teeth-grinding prose, I learned that I was one of the ‘Manchester Five’, who, in vulgar and offensive terms, had abused the Prime Minister on the street, ‘much to the horror of local families and passers-by who were “clearly shaken by the incident.” ’
‘ “The F-word was used several times,” said eyewitness Clare Butcher. “So were sexually offensive terms like ‘queer’ and ‘homo’. I was with my daughter at the time and these men had clearly been drinking. Most Mancunians are not like this. Most respect the right of elected officials to stand in the street like anyone else. But there’s always a few who spoil it for the rest.” ’
‘Mr G – ,’ the piece continued, ‘was escorted to the capital at the Prime Minister’s personal expense in order to put his case before him “in a manner befitting of a free citizen”. “They spoke for some minutes,” said Anthony Carmichael, an aide of Mr Blair’s, “and the youth was much edified by the experience. ‘I was misguided,’ he told me, and when asked if he had learned from the experience, he replied, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ ” ’
I spent the following months watching TV, playing my guitar, and smoking weed in my flat. Once, Karim and Salil banged on my door.
‘We know you’re in there. Open up. It’s all right. I WAS MISGUIDED.’
I put on my headphones and squatted on the floor with a duvet over my head until they left. I stayed like that all night, even when the cat came in and pissed behind the fridge. The next week I gave up my flat forever and moved to London, driving a taxi and living in Dalston as I had after graduating. I remained in a permanent fug, not speaking to my customers even if they bad-mouthed me or threatened to vomit. But all they had to do was look at my eyes and they’d fall silent. My irises were red. I looked a bit like the devil.
If ever I saw so much as a photograph of that Tory-kissing, guitar-wielding, attention-seeking, mass-murdering fundamentalist, my nose would begin to bleed. I took freezing showers and gave up alcohol. Nothing helped.
In early September I was parked outside a nightclub in Islington at 2 a.m. The Bluebird, I think it was called. I was listening to Radio 3, my face pressed against the steering wheel, but then I heard two words, clear and distinct like trills of birdsong.
My head snapped up. There they were, on my side of road, two lithe, tawny boys in designer low-slung jeans. One had a mobile phone in his hand the size of a brick.
‘Yo, Blair,’ he said again, and threw the phone across the street.
I watched as it arced and dipped towards a boy standing on the other side beneath a streetlamp with his pants undone and his Y-fronts gleaming. He tripped as he lunged forward. The phone splintered against the lamppost.
‘You’re such a retard, Euan!’
The boy picked himself up and I got a good look at his face. Bum-fluff on his upper lip, two earrings, frosted highlights on top of a mousy mane. The phone was lying in two pieces beside him. He put them inside his jacket before turning his back and pissing against the wall.
‘Hey,’ said the other boy. ‘Oi! Taxi!’
I thanked God for his kindness, his providence, his sense of timing and wit, and pulled a U-turn before coming to a halt in front of the Prime Minister’s son, who was zipping up his fly now.
I rolled down the window.
‘Get in,’ I said, with a Luciferian grin.
Drunk, eyes staring into a darker world, he opened the back and slithered inside. I pressed the accelerator.
‘What the fuck?’
‘Pipe down,’ I said, thinking of De Niro, and at the next set of lights put the car into neutral, leaned over, and handed him the bottle of whisky I kept in the glove compartment for emergencies.
‘Relax,’ I said. ‘We’re going to a party.’
I drove for a while, playing Sade while he drank and pressed me for details. ‘So where is this party? Will there be drugs?’ He was close to passing out already, and by the time we reached the M6 he was all but unconscious. I was elated, higher than a cluster bomb over Baghdad.
I pulled over to tie his hands and feet with strips of oily rag, knotting his sweater over his head. He murmured, but nothing more.
I drove all night until I crossed the border, and continued on to Edinburgh where the sun was rising, fine and dry. I hadn’t been this way in years, but I still remembered the house. It stood alone atop a hill, once the residence of crofters, now a yuppie country home, used for two-week family holidays and vacant the rest. The key was beneath the mat, and Euan was still snoring in the back. I half-dragged him inside and he muttered, ‘Thanks, mate,’ until, when the hallway lights came on, he stared me full in the eyes, and said:
‘Is this where the party’s at?’
‘You missed it,’ I told him. ‘This is where we’re sleeping.’
‘Seriously, bruv,’ he said. ‘I appreciate this. I so need a fucking wank.’
I helped him up the stairs and into the bed, giving him a large brandy, which he downed. From the garden shed I selected twelve meters of twine and, and hour later, strapped him securely to the mattress.
I lay on the floor until dawn. I do not know whether I slept.
At eleven I walked upstairs wearing a ski mask and slapping a ski pole into my empty palm.
‘You’ve been kidnapped,’ I said.
I hoped I looked intimidating and not like Eddie the Eagle.
‘DON’T GIVE ME THAT,’ I said, donning a Middle Eastern accent for no rational reason. ‘You know why, you little prick.’
‘I don’t. I swear I don’t. Unless … look, mate, seriously, it wasn’t my fault. That wasn’t me – ’
‘Shut up,’ I said. ‘Just shut your mouth.’
I thought about hitting him, but he looked too fragile. I remembered he had won $50,000 scholarship to Yale after a ‘bidding war’ between the Ivy Leagues. A scholarship for the son of a millionaire.
‘It’s about your fucking father,’ I said.
‘What about him?’ said Euan, sullen and teenaged.
‘He’s a criminal,’ I said. ‘He has to pay.’
He raised his head as far as he could, suddenly hopeful.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘My dad’s a cunt. I fuckin’ hate him.’
‘Bullshit,’ I said.
‘No, for real. He’s a wanker. I hate him as much as you do.’
‘I highly doubt that.’
‘I do, I do. Look, I don’t know what he’s done to you, but, for fuck’s sake, when I was seven he made me eat a pack of cigarettes.’
‘Because he caught you smoking?’
‘Because I failed geography.’
‘What’s that got to do with smoking?’
‘How should I know? He’s crazy.’
‘Yeah, well, he’s a criminal.’
‘He is. He fucking is. He should be in jail.’
‘Look,’ I said, standing and trying to find my cigarettes. ‘Just shut up, will you. You’re doing my head in.’
‘He thinks I’m stupid,’ continued Euan. ‘He thinks just ’cause he’s so important I must be an idiot. Keeps going on about how lazy and irresponsible and pointless and ignorant I am, like nothing I do will ever match up to him ’cause he’s a fuckin’ god and I’m a sack of shit. Can you imagine how that feels?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I can.’
For two hours, Euan and I discussed our fathers, the constant criticism, the humiliations, the ‘Nothing is ever good enough’ and the ‘When are you going to grow up?’, which actually meant, ‘When are you finally going to do what I tell you?’
‘And the answer is never, ’cause I’m never gonna surrender.’
‘Yeah, I’m not you, Dad.’
‘And don’t compare me to you, ’cause we’ve got fuckin’ separate lives.’
‘I don’t have to continue your work.’
‘Everything I do is NOT ABOUT YOU.’
‘Just leave me the fuck ALONE.’
‘Yeah, fuck you, Dad, fuck you.’
On and on we went. We even shared a spliff. When Euan threw up in the toilet I massaged his neck. We went downstairs and talked business, thick as war criminals.
‘Here,’ said Euan, pointing to the armchair by the window. ‘The light’s better.’
‘It’s too pretty,’ I said. ‘It’ll look like you’re on holiday.’
‘No, it won’t,’ said Euan, and before I could stop him he’d picked up the poker and hit himself on the forehead.
That blue blood flowed freely down his face, a bruise blooming like a carnation. This boy had it worse than I did.
‘Right,’ said Euan, ‘let’s do this thing.’
I turned the camera on.
‘Stand there,’ he told me. ‘Right there. So you get the wall behind me.’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘Daddy,’ he began. ‘Daddy, I’m frightened … They’ve got me these … brutes. They say it’s all your fault. That you have to apologise. I tried to tell them. I tried to tell them you had nothing to do with it, but they won’t listen. They’re gonna take my …’ – sob sob sob – ‘my thumb, and then my fingers, one for every day you delay. I’m sorry, Dad. I let you down. I’m always letting you down. They say you got to go on TV and apologise. I’m sorry, Dad …’
I turned the camera off. Lying ran in the family, and this boy was brilliant.
We shook hands, lit cigarettes, and stared out the window into the wintry Scottish light.
An hour later, we posted the recording from a service station off the motorway. I addressed the package to Anthony Carmichael, marking it URGENT.
When we returned, Euan lit the fire and made dinner with vegetables from the garden. I opened a bottle of Chablis and, like lovers, we made toasts to each other. After dinner we sat in armchairs and bickered over which movie to watch. In my playfulness, I flung a lump of coal at him which missed and exploded on the wall behind. And then I noticed:
‘You bastard,’ I said.
‘What, what is it?’
‘How could you, Euan?’
‘Jesus Christ, how could I what?’
‘How could you betray me?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The armchair by the window, all that bullshit about “the light”.’
Euan Blair had positioned himself in front of a postcard that was pinned to the wall behind him. ‘Do visit us in Iowa! Regards, Catherine and Edmund.’ And then the address. The address of the house.
MI5 would be on their way in the morning if the parcel had made the last post.
‘Fuck you, Euan,’ I said, and picked up the poker.
‘Calm down, man. Please. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘You’re not worth it,’ I told him. ‘You and your father, worthless, lying scum.’
‘Mate, no, you’ve got me all wrong.’
I tossed the poker into the fire. Fuck it, I thought. He really isn’t worth it.
I left the cottage without another look.
At Glasgow I cleaned out my bank account, then took a train to the airport, leaving the car in a parking lot. I paid in cash for my flight. I pay in cash for everything now.
Probably I’m paranoid. The cops must have called off the search by now, or, more likely, they never came for me in the first place.
A couple of years ago I looked on the Internet and discovered Euan Blair looks remarkably unlike the boy I trapped in that cottage four years ago. And at the time of the kidnapping he was at Yale, spending the taxpayers’ money.
I still have no idea who I actually did bundle into my cab. My suspicion is it was a drunken teen whose name happened to be Euan. Maybe his nickname was Blair. It would make sense. Euan Blair had become something of a high school hero after his arrest for being ‘drunk and incapable’ in the West End.
But none of this even mattered back then. The important thing, to my mind, was that I was a fugitive. The important thing was that I left.
If you wanted, you could probably find out where I am, but really, who cares about a guy who lives in a village in the middle of nowhere where he sings to goats and rarely knows what day of the week it is? I trouble none here, rarely shout at all, except over silly, trivial little things which I forget an hour later. I am, I suppose, a man with no ambitions, no real achievements to his name, and no desire to change the world. My old life feels like a dream, and with this tale complete, I literally have nothing more to say except for ‘Thank you’.
Thank you, Mr Blair.
‘So you’re telling me,’ says Clive, back from the bog, ‘that you’d shag her?’
‘Course I would.’
‘Fuckin’ hell, Vish.’
‘It’s not for fun, you dickhead.’
‘So you’re close?’ says Clive.
I can feel his envy.
‘So close I can smell it.’
‘What’s it smell like?’
I mime putting my finger up my arse and push it in front of his nose.
‘Vishal,’ says Clive. ‘You haven’t even met her yet.’
‘I’m meeting her in two weeks.’
I chug my pint.
‘Fuckin’ hell,’ says Clive again. ‘And she believes every word?’
‘Not bad,’ says Clive, understating my genius by a factor of a million. ‘How dumb is she?’
I nod. But it wasn’t stupidity that brought this about; it was loneliness. This is my art: I can fathom people’s deep longings, their frailties, and I become what they want me to be.
I am a journalist. You know the paper I write for, and you probably have some oinky patronizing opinion about both it and me. But let me tell you this: I am the only person from my family ever to see his name in print, and the only Asian on the team (and we’ve had two staff crunches in three years). They respect me because I make the impossible happen. That’s why Clive stares at me in that drooling, semi-lustful way, why he’s at the bar now, though it isn’t even his round. He’s paying tribute. If you pushed him, he’d probably tell you he wants to be me. I’m the one who crashed Harry’s houseboat, hacked into Beckham’s mobile. That’s how good I am.
I won’t tell you her name, the one we were talking about, not just yet. But she thinks I’m a doctor (for fuck’s sake), and if all goes smoothly, I’ll have a front-pager, and a beauty at that. It has taken me a month to win her trust. I’ve shared about a hundred of my ‘intimate secrets’, the price of hours with a notepad, trimming and refining. I told her I was a widower in mourning, said I still loved my wife, to which she replied, on cue, ‘I still love my husband’.
Well, she didn’t say it. She typed it.
That was the tip-off we paid for; that she likes to ‘hang out’ in a chat room, that she goes there because she is seeking to meet a ‘gentleman’.
But instead she met me.
It all works on tip-offs, this business. That’s how I got Harry. A one Hugh Mainwairing, smarmy little shit, texted to say it was a decoy who’d left the houseboat. So I staggered in with a posh-cunt accent claiming to be Dodi’s brother.
Everyone’s got a friend who’ll sell them down the water, the lady in question too. And look where it’s got me …
We’ve had cybersex three times now, which I’ve done with other women (at least, I hope they were women) but this was the weirdest: coy, reluctant, prudish and slutty all at once. Sometimes she would get me excited, talk all dirty, and then act like a cunt, saying, ‘And now I’m taking off my false leg’ or ‘Now I’m slipping off my hearing aid’. Got so mad I told her to fuck off once, but she relented and got on with it. That worked to my advantage too in the end: a touch of verisimilitude.
Clive’s back from the bar with the pints. I have to be up early tomorrow, so I won’t drink too much. Got an appointment at Cupid’s Chatbox.
Tomorrow is the big day, in more ways than one.
‘So where is she now?’ says Clive, staring at disembodied tits as they sway to and fro across the room.
‘Thailand,’ I say.
‘So she’s definitely not coming.’
‘She can’t. She wasn’t invited.’
‘Poor bitch.’ says Clive, but I don’t like that kind of talk.
‘Deserved it,’ I say. ‘Silly bitch.’
‘Yeah, well …’
Clive can’t better me, he’s just not good enough, so suddenly he’s grown a conscience and he’s trying to infect me.
‘See you, Clive.’
‘What? Vish, what are you doing?’
‘Can’t stand around talking to losers. Got preparation to do.’
‘Yeah, well, your pint.’
‘Have a good night, Clive.’
‘Yeah, you too. All the best with it, Vish. All right?’
I leave him jilted at the bar, thinking Paki cunt. He’ll stand there for another hour talking to tits who don’t want to be anywhere near his gob, and then he’ll go to Soho. Clive suffers from ennui and other non-sexually transmitted diseases. He doesn’t realise that if you want to get somewhere in life you have to be on it all the time. You have to live it. Clive thinks it’s a job. He’ll be in bed with a hangover and a sticky tissue while I’m cyberporking the Red Lioness. That’s the rather fat line between greatness and mediocrity.
Cupid’s Chatbox, April 29, 2011, 10:48 a.m.
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king_pin58: Hi Red. Still hot in the tropics?
red_lioness: Sorry King, I’m not in the mood today.
king_pin58: Oh sweetheart, what’s wrong?
red_lioness: Just missing home, that’s all.
king_pin58: When you’re feeling blue, all you
red_lioness: King, are you near a TV?
king_pin58: sure, I’m at home.
red_lioness: Turn it on will you.
king_pin58: it is on.
red_lioness: are you watching it?
king_pin58: not really.
red_lioness: watch it. Tell me what you see.
king_pin58: No TV in Kamalaya?
red_lioness: Not even a radio.
king_pin58: What are you wearing?
red_lioness: Please king.
king_pin58: OK OK. Well, it’s a nice day for it.
red_lioness: Oh, I thought it would be. What are they wearing?
king_pin58: Will’s got a red tunic, Irish guards uniform apparently. He’s waiting in the Abbey with Harry.
red_lioness: What’s Harry wearing?
king_pin58: Black uniform, gold braid, red cuffs, medals on left breast, a rope round his shoulder.
red_lioness: A rope?
king_pin58: What’s a wedding without a good lynching?
red_lioness: Don’t be cynical please. Go on king.
king_pin58: The public’s cheering from outside, all waiting for Kate. Nobody’s seen the dress yet, they’re saying. Someone’s holding a picture of Diana.
king_pin58: If that’s what floats your boat.
red_lioness: Doesn’t sound like you’re a Royalist king?
king_pin58: They’re not what they used to be.
red_lioness: Neither are you, I’ll bet.
king_pin58: The proof is in the pudding.
red_lioness: It’s been a long time since someone anyone got married at Westminster.
king_pin58: Has it?
red_lioness: Not since Andrew … March 17, 1986.
king_pin58: Kate’s arrived.
red_lioness: what’s she wearing?
king_pin58: A bikini.
king_pin58: Sorry. A white dress
red_lioness: OF COURSE IT’S A WHITE DRESS
king_pin58: You can see her nipples if you look closely.
red_lioness: See you around king.
king_pin58: Sorry, baby.
red_lioness: Can’t you just repeat what they’re saying?
king_pin58: It’s by Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen. That mean anything to you?
red_lioness: That means a lot to me. Go on.
king_pin58: Kate helped design it. lace appliqué bodice, padded at the hips, narrow at the waist, inspired by victorian corsetry, the train is three metres long. Rumoured to have cost 250 grand, which has to be bollocks
red_lioness: No it doesn’t
king_pin58: Harry’s saying something to William in the abbey and he looks like he’s shitting himself. Can see the guests now. Cameron and Clegg, wife looks like she’s wearing a sari. Charles, Andrew, Beatrice and Eugenie
red_lioness: oh, how do they look?
king_pin58: definitely. Eugenie’s in blue, Beatrice is in beige. suits her.
red_lioness: it does, doesn’t it?
king_pin58: Even Andrew’s looking all right for his age.
red_lioness: Most handsome prince in England.
king_pin58: Used to be.
red_lioness: What are the girls doing?
king_pin58: waiting, keep whispering to each other, look excited, like kids.
red_lioness: I’m here. Go on.
king_pin58: She’s walking down the aisle …
Two weeks later, in the lobby of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, I gulp brandy to calm my nerves. No smoking in here. My last spliff was sixteen hours ago. Still, she’d expect me to be nervous. Might find it endearing.
I begged her to send me a picture, but she made out she was some kind of horse-face and I’d run a mile. Obviously she didn’t want me to know who she was. Arrogant bitch thinks the whole world’s got a pre-formed opinion about her, which is semi-true, but still arrogant. She’s even famous in America now. People hug her on the street. So she wants me to get to know the Real Her without all the headlines and palaces and forty grand in cash. Except the Real Her is all those things, the things she claims she doesn’t give a toss about. Well, get a job in Tesco’s you stuck-up cow, see how the Real You gets on in there.
Drink is almost finished. I slug the olive. Looks like a Martian’s bollock. Can see my face in the mirror behind the bar. Not exactly Prince Charming. Hair receding, pot-belly, eczema, hands like trotters. ‘All the better to scratch the pork, what?’
I nod. Take a second look in the mirror. Face beginning to flush. Hair needs a comb. Red thinks I’m a doctor. Officially, I think she’s a rich divorcee from the Home Counties, which she is, but more besides.
I told Sylvie about it. Indiscreet, but I trust her. She was wearing a black basque, lying face down on the bed while I licked out her ear (not sure if she likes this, but she always purrs and wiggles). I started telling her about my Batman fantasy, which she thought was clichéd, and then I started on about Red. Sylvie’s a sort of confession box. When I’d finished I lay foetal and had her hold me. I asked her if I was doing anything wrong.
‘Of course not,’ she said.
‘It’s your job, isn’t it?’
Should have gone for a facial in the morning. Least I’m showered, Lynx and Obsession. Smell’s the most important sense, anyway.
Holy smoked galoshes, Vish. There’s a redhead staring you down in the mirror!
She’s in an easy chair behind the bar. Legs crossed. Black stockings. A high cut, sleeveless dress. Hair hanging beneath the shoulders. She’s lost weight. Actually quite pretty. And I think she’s clocked me. I told her, ‘Asian, Mid-Fifties, Grey Suit.’ Yep, she’s clocked me all right. A half-smile. Uncrossed legs. Pops a sweet into her mouth. More girlish than seductive. Can almost see her as a child. Stand up, Vish. Smile. I said Smile, not bow. Leave the drink. Fucking leave it. Walk. It’s George Clooney time.
‘King. How nice to see you.’
She does not stand to meet me.
‘You look lovely, Red.’
‘You too, King. God, it sounds ridiculous calling you King.’
We shake hands, very formal. I lean down and kiss her check. Smells good. Musky, not floral.
I sit beside her.
‘It’s strange, isn’t it?’
‘This. After all the things we’ve said – ’
‘You mean things we’ve done.’
I laugh and – ever so casually – place my hand on her stockinged thigh.
‘And here we are. Not knowing what to say.’
‘Here we are.’
‘Did you book the room, Vishal?’
Christ, didn’t expect that. But this is the aristocracy.
‘Then be a gentleman and give a lady a hand up.’
I lift her to her feet. She’s actually pretty light. Maybe that’s why she asked me to help her up.
We cross to the elevator, step inside. I hit the third floor.
‘Sarah,’ I say. ‘Are you … who I think you are?’
She kisses me as the doors close, full and flush, takes me by surprise.
‘Been drinking, have we, King?’ I nod. ‘No, I’m not who you think I am. But yes, I am the Duchess of York. Surprised?’
‘Flabbergasted, more like.’
‘Well, you must have done something right, ’cause you’re about to go to heaven with a Princess. How do you feel about that, King?’
I pat my pocket, gulp, and say, ‘Awesome.’
She laughs. My God, she’s putting her hand on my belt, pulling me closer. I hope she can’t feel the microphone.
SARAH: Wow, that’s big.
VISHAL: Emperor sized.
SARAH: You expecting anyone else?
VISHAL: It’s nice to be comfy.
SARAH: Then lie down, King. There you go. That’s right. And take this off. And this. Just relax, King. It’s all right. Now close your eyes. Breathe deeply, OK? But keep them closed. Get ready for something extra special.
SARAH: Open your eyes.
VISHAL: What the –
SARAH: Got ya. Hold still. No, no, don’t struggle or I’ll do your balls.
VISHAL: I can’t see.
SARAH: It’s all right. It’ll come back.
VISHAL: Jesus fuckin’ –
SARAH: Calm down.
VISHAL: Why the fuck?
SARAH: You know why, Vishal Advani. You know exactly why.
VISHAL: I don’t. I fuckin’ swear I don’t.
SARAH: Don’t try to struggle. You’ll only chafe your wrists.
VISHAL: I CAN’T FUCKING SEE! WHY CAN’T I SEE?
SARAH: You’re the doctor, King. You tell me.
VISHAL: Fuck you.
SARAH: Your sight will come back in about a minute. Just wait.
VISHAL: Yeah, a bit.
SARAH: So you’re not a doctor, Vishal?
SARAH: Then what are you?
VISHAL: A comedian.
SARAH: That’s not funny, honey.
VISHAL: Aaah! Stop it. STOP IT. I’m a journalist, OK? I’m a fuckin’ journo.
SARAH: Ha ha!
VISHAL: Wha … what are you doing?
SARAH: It’s only milk, you big baby. It’s good for your eyes.
VISHAL: You can’t keep me here. It’s assault. You want another scandal?
SARAH: Frankly, King, I care two pins about scandals. You can write what the hell you want about me, but I love myself and you can never, ever change that, no matter how hard you try.
VISHAL: [softly] You’re a joke. Sarah, you know that? A joke.
SARAH: Just keep talking, Vishal. ’Cause when I let you go – if I let you go – it’s yourself you’ve got to live with.
VISHAL: And who’s gotta live with you? I pity any fucker who has to wake up with two tits stapled onto a hot dog.
SARAH: Comments like that used to hurt me, Vishal. I used to cry when they called me the Duchess of Pork and Fat Frumpie Fergie. You probably wrote that yourself, didn’t you?
VISHAL: So what’s this? Revenge?
SARAH: This is closure.
VISHAL: How did you know?
SARAH: How did I know? For God’s sake, the village idiot could have spotted you. Youwere obvious, Vishal.
VISHAL: Then why play along? You got nothing better to do?
SARAH: Because, believe it or not, I started to rather like you, you pitiful thing.
VISHAL: [snorts] Wish it was mutual.
SARAH: Maybe it was. You were so very kind to me during the wedding. And you were sweet about the girls, telling me everything I wanted to hear, doing it so gently. I can’t believe that was all feigned.
VISHAL: Look, what do you want, Red?
SARAH: Maybe if you took a break from hating yourself for a while you could see we’re already friends. The bond’s there. Maybe that’s why you’re hurting so much.
VISHAL: I’m hurting ’cause you sprayed mace in my eyes.
SARAH: You’re hurting ’cause you came here to betray a friend. And I did you a favour by stopping you. And now I’m going to do you another favour.
VISHAL: Just so you know, I’d rather fuck a giant turd than –
SARAH: This isn’t, and never was, about sex, King.
VISHAL: Could have fooled me, Miss SloppyGob –
SARAH: [laughing low] I turned it over to my PA for the dirty talk. She had a good laugh at least. Said you were quite inventive.
VISHAL: Fuck you.
SARAH: And when they kissed on the balcony you were kind enough to say you remembered how ‘cute’ Fergie looked twenty years ago. That was the word you used, wasn’t it?
VISHAL: It’s my job to lie to fuckwits like you.
SARAH: Our jobs say something about who we are.
VISHAL: Least I’ve got a fucking job.
SARAH: I used to have more than a job. I had my own company. And now I’ve lost it. I’ve lost it all. You know why?
VISHAL: ’Cause of people like me.
SARAH: NO. It had nothing to do with you. It was because I didn’t like myself. I wanted to sabotage my life. Can you understand that? Do you like yourself, Vishal?
SARAH: Then you leave me no choice.
[Sound of an aerosol]
VISHAL: Jesus Fucking Christ. STOP.
SARAH: Then answer my questions.
VISHAL: Then ask a fucking question.
SARAH: Do you like yourself, Vishal?
SARAH: Why not?
VISHAL: ’Cause I’m a fat ugly bastard who nobody gives a shit about.
SARAH: What about your parents? Don’t they love you?
SARAH: Are you sure?
VISHAL: Don’t patronise me. You don’t know a damn thing about me.
SARAH: How do you know they don’t love you?
VISHAL: How do you know they’re even alive?
SARAH: I don’t.
VISHAL: Look, just untie me and we can forget this happened.
SARAH: Don’t make me do it again, honey. Neither of us want that.
VISHAL: Sadist bitch.
SARAH: Last chance.
VISHAL: My Dad died and left us with no money.
SARAH: And then?
VISHAL: And then my big brother spent seven years in a med degree, bled us all dry while I stayed at home and watched our windows get smashed in by twelve-year-old white boys. And when I came home from school with shit on my back my Mum’d slap me and tell me I was useless. So I left as soon as I could and didn’t go back and now she lives with my brother in Crawley and when I do go there she tells me my wife left me ’cause I’m too fat. That sound like love to you?
VISHAL: No. So take these off and let me go.
SARAH: We haven’t finished.
VISHAL: I have.
SARAH: Was it OK for your mother to tell you you were useless, King?
VISHAL: ’Cause I was.
SARAH: Whose words are those?
VISHAL: Whose do you fuckin’ think? Mine.
SARAH: Are you sure?
SARAH: What else did she say to you?
VISHAL: Said she wished I’d just fuck off and leave ’cause she was sick of doing everything for me.
SARAH: But you did leave?
SARAH: But wasn’t it her job to cook for you and wash your clothes?
VISHAL: Not really, no. Could have done it myself.
SARAH: Don’t most Mums cook for their sons and wash their clothes?
VISHAL: She didn’t have a husband, did she? Didn’t have the time.
SARAH: Was it all right for her to say she wished you’d leave? Is it all right for a mother to say that?
VISHAL: She said she wished I’d died instead of my dad.
SARAH: And was that all right?
VISHAL: You weren’t there.
SARAH: That’s why I’m asking you.
VISHAL: She worked all day at the mental hospital. Sent her mad, surrounded by ’em all the time. And then she had to come home to me.
SARAH: What was so terrible about you, Vishal?
VISHAL: I used to steal money for fags. Didn’t help. Stayed in my room or went out and got wasted. Just made it all worse for her. Would have been better if I’d left or fuckin’ died. But I didn’t have the balls.
SARAH: Even if she couldn’t help it, Vishal, it wasn’t OK that she said those things. It wasn’t OK that she wasn’t kind and loving to you, like you were to me in the chat room. Lots of teenagers steal money for fags or get smashed with their friends and grunt when they come home. It’s normal.
VISHAL: We weren’t normal.
SARAH: Is that your fault?
VISHAL: I was selfish.
SARAH: So was I. So was she. Do you think it’s selfless to say hurtful things to her son instead of loving him? Is it?
VISHAL: She was depressed.
SARAH: Does that make it all right?
VISHAL: My Dad was dead.
SARAH: It wasn’t all right, Vishal. Don’t make excuses for her. Say it. Say it wasn’t all right.
SARAH: Don’t do it for me, King. Just do it for you. Say it wasn’t all right. Say it.
VISHAL: You can’t make me.
SARAH: All right. I can’t. But you have to understand that she had no right to do those things to you. It was her pain, not yours. Don’t excuse it, Vishal. Just forgive her. Forgive yourself.
VISHAL: Can I go?
VISHAL: [shrieking] I WANT TO GO!
SARAH: Do you know what forgiveness is, Vishal?
VISHAL: [almost crying] No.
SARAH: Forgiveness is when you give up the hope that you can change the past. Can you change the past, Vishal?
SARAH: But you can change the way you look at it. You can tell yourself it wasn’t your fault, that it wasn’t fair. You can love that child who was so hurt. Can’t you, Vishal?
VISHAL: We didn’t all live in Buckingham fuckin’ Palace.
SARAH: Yes, I had what every girl wanted. But you know what? All the time I was there I said to myself, I Don’t Deserve This. I Shouldn’t Be Here. I’m Stupid and Ugly and Pointless. And I wrecked it all for myself. It wasn’t the press. It was me.
VISHAL: But you’re taking it out on me, aren’t you?
SARAH: I’m not. I wouldn’t do that. I don’t need revenge. I don’t blame anyone. Just tell me this, Vishal. What were you going to do with the tape after this? Sell it?
SARAH: Like with Charles and Camilla?
SARAH: Can you imagine all the pain that would have caused?
VISHAL: Thought you said you didn’t care.
SARAH: But what about my girls? It would have cut them to the core.
SARAH: So two gorgeous, sweet-natured girls who’ve done no harm to anyone would have been made to suffer horribly because of you. Doesn’t that bother you?
SARAH: Why not?
VISHAL: ’Cause that’s what I do.
VISHAL: ’Cause it’s my job.
SARAH: But why do you have to do it?
VISHAL: ’Cause somebody’s got to.
SARAH: How did your father die, Vishal?
VISHAL: What’s he got to do with it?
SARAH: Vishal, please, how did your father die?
VISHAL: Got knocked off his bike by some cunt overtaking.
SARAH: I’m sorry.
VISHAL: It’s not your fucking fault.
SARAH: I’m sorry that had to happen. It must have been hard growing up without a father. And without a mother, in many ways.
VISHAL: Yeah, I’m fucked up. I get it.
SARAH: Do you ever think that maybe you do this job to hurt yourself, because you think that’s what you deserve, for people to hate you and think of you as scum?
VISHAL: I had no choice. It was this or nothing.
SARAH: There’s always a choice.
VISHAL: What would you know? You think all those paparazzi you hate go home to palaces?
SARAH: I’m just saying we choose our lives. There are no victims, only volunteers. I think you blame yourself for your wife leaving, and your mother being unhappy, and for being bullied at school. I think you’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of hate so you think you’re hateful and ugly and can do no better than being a gutter journalist who rips people’s lives apart. But that simply isn’t true. You’re beautiful, and wonderful, and you always were.
VISHAL: No, I’m not.
SARAH: Look, I’ve untied you now. I’m not afraid of you. You know why? Because Vishal Advani is a good man. Vishal Advani is a beautiful prince of a man, a loveable king who’s starting his life again.
VISHAL: I want a drink.
SARAH: Have some milk. It’ll do you good.
VISHAL: Look, I’m sorry, OK? Is that what you want?
SARAH: You don’t have to apologise. I should be thanking you. You gave me the opportunity to do something right for a change. I’ve hurt people too, Vishal. I’ve hurt so many people.
VISHAL: Yeah, well, that News of the World guy was a cunt.
SARAH: I invited him into my life. Any idiot could have told me it was a set-up. But I was so desperate, and so broken inside.
VISHAL: And now you’ve turned into Oprah.
SARAH: I’ve still got troubles. I haven’t had a boyfriend for almost ten years. Have you got a girlfriend, Vishal?
SARAH: Do you have any friends? Real ones?
VISHAL: Yeah, I’ve got Sylvie.
SARAH: Who’s Sylvie?
VISHAL: My … a prostitute. I see her once a week.
SARAH: I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, Vishal, but she’s not your friend. She may like you, she may not, but I very much doubt it’s friendship. Real friendship’s when you confide in each other. Does she confide in you?
VISHAL: Fine. Then I don’t have any fucking friends. All right?
SARAH: Aren’t you forgetting something, Vishal?
SARAH: Aren’t I your friend? Haven’t you confided in me?
SARAH: Then why don’t you freshen up a little and we can go downstairs and have some dinner? What do you say?
SARAH: And what about the tape?
VISHAL: You have it.
SARAH: I feel like I’m meeting you for the first time now, Vishal. I really do. And you’re meeting me too. And I’m glad we met. Aren’t you?
SARAH: My name’s Sarah.
SARAH: Pleased to meet you.
‘So, you get any oink oink, wink wink?’ says Clive, back from the bar.
‘She didn’t show,’ I say.
‘You sad fucker,’ says Clive, spilling beer onto his pants and not noticing.
‘I waited two hours at the hotel,’ I tell him.
‘So what now?’ says Clive.
I am getting a text. And now another. And another. My whole fucking phone is jiving and beeping like a spastic robot. Clive takes out his phone and puts it on the bar. It’s doing the same. Texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook. I look around the pub. Full of journos in here. Sounds like a Happy House party. Everyone’s saying the same thing.
‘What the fuck!’and ‘Jesus Christ!’ and ‘This Can’t Be Real, Can It?’
But I already know it is real. If it was a hoax, it wouldn’t have taken over the entire pub.
Clive holds up his phone so I can watch the video too. It looks real to me. And I’ve spent hours poring over pictures of this man.
‘Jesus, Vish,’ says Clive. ‘We’ve got to get out there.’
‘Get out where?’
‘Bahrain,’ says Clive, peering at the screen. ‘He’s in Bahrain.’
People are already running for the doors, barking into phones. I can see Derek from theMirror. He’s got a boner, I swear.
‘Vish,’ says Clive. ‘Where the fuck are you going?’
‘For a piss.’
‘Well, hurry the fuck up. We’ve got to get to the airport.’
‘And then I’m going home,’ I tell him.
‘Get your stuff. Yeah, I’ll meet you there, OK?’
‘And then I’m going to bed.’
‘Bed?’ says Clive, as if he’s never heard the word.
‘Yeah, for about a week.’
‘What the fuck?’
‘I need to think, Clive. I don’t care about all this. I don’t care about Bahrain. I don’t care about the video.’
Clive looks like he’s going to throw his glass at me, but he turns bright pink instead.
‘Stop fucking with me, Vish.’
‘I mean it, Clive. I couldn’t give a shit.’
‘Well, that is bullshit. ’Cause even if you do go to bed, someone’s gonna get the pictures and someone’s gonna print them and then you’re gonna wake up and read them and think, fuck, that could have been me, and then you will give a shit. I promise you that.’
‘Maybe, but maybe I’ll smile too. You ever thought of that?’
‘Fuck off, Vish.’
I do. Right out of the pub and onto the dark street. But I don’t go home. I just walk, for as long and as far as I can. I put my wallet and iPhone into my briefcase and leave it on the steps of St. Bride’s church. Sarah and I never did have dinner. I left as soon as she untied me but sat drinking at the bar for an hour in case she came down. She didn’t. When I tried calling the room it was engaged, so I went home.
I’ve been walking for hours now. Crossed the river and crossed again at Waterloo. I can’t remember where I was, but I was staring at a statue of a man and a horse when a truck stopped opposite and four men started unloading a giant box covered in a tarp, sweating and straining. The wind blew hard and lifted the tarp’s skirt for a second. I’m sure I saw a tiger in a cage. Well, almost sure. Alcohol psychosis: it’s a funny thing.
It has started to rain. I had an umbrella, but I left it in the pub. I’m in Trafalgar Square, thinking about Soho and glory holes. The rain is getting harder, but it’s warm, like a golden shower, and I turn my face to it and let it fill my nose and eyes. I head down the Mall, looking only at my feet until the road widens and I’m at the palace gates, staring at that flat, grey building.
I wonder which room she used to live in. There she would have had ladies-in-waiting, butlers, drivers. The middle of London and she could walk for miles and see only birds and trees. Thousands of people would have queued just to see her wave at them. And she pissed it all away.
I start to walk back, see a taxi, and flag it down. I say, ‘Fleet Street’, but I get out at St Bride’s, where the sky is a little lighter, a watery blue-grey. My briefcase is still there, on the steps outside the church. Looks like no one’s even touched it. Wallet, phone, notebook, all there. The taxi’s idling on the curb so I sit on the steps for a while, open my briefcase, and pull out my phone. There’s a whole bunch of messages, four from Clive, and one from Sarah. I stand up, a drenched, sodden mess.
‘Heathrow airport,’ I tell him the driver.
‘What time’s your flight, mate?’
Clive was right. You can’t not give a shit. Nobody does; even the ones who say they don’t ‘cause they say it so loudly that it has to be bullshit. And Red can say what she likes about the press and people like me, but she fucking loves it and she couldn’t live without us. Without us she’d just be Sarah, and I’d just be me, and none of us want that. So maybe we can’t change who we are, but I think she was right about one thing – all this shit that’s happened to us … it’s not our fault. It just happened, like the rain, like the sun that’ll rise in about an hour. It happens whatever.
I listen to her message. Her voice makes me smile. This is about as close to happiness as I’m ever gonna get.
I am lunching at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin with two economists and a law professor. The waiter is talking to a couple at the table beside us.
‘Michael Jackson ist tot!’
The Dutchman translates.
‘Who would have thought it?’ says the Norwegian.
‘I suppose it was inevitable,’ says the law professor.
‘I still say conventional economics cannot be expected to regulate a crisis,’ says the Dutchman.
‘Gentlemen,’ I tell them. ‘Please excuse me.’
Through the revolving doors I tear off my tie and am an economist no longer. I call Jay from my iPhone, letting it ring until a recorded voice tells me something in German which I presume to mean: ‘The other party is hiding in his room, too suicidal to answer.’
To my left, atop the Brandenburg Gate, a winged woman embodying Fame drives four horses into the stationary morning. Across the street, a pony-tailed Arab lifts his head out of the sunroof of a limo, blowing smoke and groaning with pleasure. I wonder how Jay found out. Who called you? What were you doing when you heard?
Someone is dancing in the paved island in the middle of the road. He’s wearing a diamante glove, but he looks like Bruce Willis. Two girls with their arms around each other wail like sirens. The living call to the dead. I punch my iPhone again. It drones on, an ICU flatline …
‘Varun, are you all right?’
Thomas Richter: gave a paper on GDP-growth prospects for oil-exporting African countries.
‘Your hands are shaking.’
I look him hard in his dollar-coloured eyes. There is a human in there. Catch me, Tom, I’m falling …
‘There’s been a death in the family, Tom.’
‘How can I help?’
Economists: too efficient for emotions.
‘Can you book me a flight?’
‘Go get yourself packed.’
I hurry to my room. When I return, Tom has booked me a taxi, printed my flight details, settled my bill, and ordered me a whisky.
In the taxi I dial Jay’s number again. I call at five-minute intervals until I board the plane and the stewardess brings me an Irish coffee. I put my head in my hands, which are shaking. The pilot makes an announcement over the public address. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the following newscast has just been relayed …’
‘Are you all right?’ says my neighbour, who, I notice, is wearing a nun’s habit.
‘I’m worried about my brother,’ I tell her.
‘Was he a big fan?’
‘His whole life.’
‘He’ll be all right.’
1978, Children’s Day, Leigh Village, Lancashire. Jay is seven, I am ten. The only Asians for miles around, and our mother has entered us for the fancy dress competition. We’re feeling self-conscious and shy, but Mum has worked for weeks on our costumes: ruffled shirts, golf shoes, Afro wigs, flared pale-blue tuxedos. We are the Jackson 5, we two. Jay is Michael, I am Tito.
The judges come and we sway to the left, shimmy to the right, and do the splits (easy for both). Behind the judges, boys glare at us with slit-eyed hate. We look down at our shoes. (‘Jungle Bunnies,’ ‘Golliwogs’). ‘Smile,’ says Mum.
At home, in the evening, we dance to ‘ABC’ on the sofa. ‘First prize!’ shouts Dad, over and over, and Mum puts the trophy on the windowsill where all can see. We sleep in our tuxedos. We have earned it.
Jay wears his all day the next day, and then again. I catch him in his bedroom miming to ‘I Want You Back’. He does not stop when I enter.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Practising,’ says Jay.
‘Practising for what?’
He does not answer, but it goes on every day.
Sometimes I join him, playing a tennis racket while he swoons at stage front. He shouts at me when I make a mistake so I threaten to throw his records out the window and he cries.
1979. We are given a VCR. Dad watches racing and Westerns; I like Hammer Horrors; Jay likes Off the Wall. He mimics Michael’s falsetto. Jay has gone solo now, dismissing me the way Michael did his brothers. But I have lost interest. Dad shouts at him. ‘You’re wasting your time! Read! Write! Think!’
‘He should take dance lessons,’ says Mum, ‘if he’s serious.’
He does. Jazz, tap, ballet. But he quits them all. To Jay, this isn’t dancing.
1982. Jay wears sunglasses now, white socks and slip-on shoes. He has a white glove too, one of Mum’s, but he only wears it in the house. I buy him Thriller for his birthday on tape, but he has it on vinyl already. He stole it.
Later that year, he joins me at St Werburgh’s Grammar School for Boys. I am a fourth year, filled with sebum. I search for him at lunchtimes but he does not want to eat with me. To my surprise he traipses the halls in groups of four and five, a clone of his white and secular peers except that his trousers are too short and his socks sparkle. In his second term he sets up a Michael Jackson Club. It consists of him showing off his moves while the socially crippled stand around him saying, ‘You’re so good at it!’ and ‘Can you teach me?’ He is a minor cult figure, a homoerotic symbol of twelve-year-old fantasy.
1984. I am in my late teens. I spend my nights sleeping on floors having lurid, adolescent, dope-fuelled dreams. I return to the house with red and slitted eyes, belching last night’s intoxicants, and see a cheque for £20 and a brass trophy. Jay has won a talent show. He lip-synced to ‘Billie Jean’ while grabbing his crotch and throwing his hat into the geriatric crowd. But Jay has failed maths. Dad throws the trophy over the hedge. When Jay leaves, Dad says, ‘Go be a hermaphrodite then.’
I take Jay to the Bald Eagle, our first time together. Lemonade for him, a pint for me. I mix our drinks. ‘Are you gay?’ I ask him. He almost cries, then says:
‘I just love Michael.’
I touch his hand. ‘It’s OK.’
At home, Jay’s trophy is on his bed with the cheque and a note.
‘Well done,’ it says. ‘Love, Dad.’
1986. I am at the University of Cambridge, reading economics. I spend Christmas at my girlfriend’s house in Brighton while her parents are in France. In the summer I go to Spain with four others. We wear shorts all day, drink wine, take acid and mushrooms, go to music festivals. I return home in August, for the first time in eleven months.
‘I was playing hockey,’ said Jay. ‘It got broke.’
This may be true, but Jay has had a nose job. His hair is long, his skin – though I cannot be sure – looks lighter.
We go to the Bald Eagle and people stare at his silk shirt and black fedora. He is wearing make-up; his eyelashes are long. Jay is a freak here, where teenagers are white, northern, post-punk new romantics. They listen to Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth, Metallica. But Jay is listening to Bad. He shows me the cover and I say:
‘Why, oh why, is he dressed like that, Jay? Sorry, mate, but he looks like a knob. I mean, who told him to do that? Just give me a name.’
Jay spits into my face, and leaves.
1989. Jay’s grades are poor, but he scrapes a place at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. My father is relieved. I am at Harvard doing a PhD (International Economics: Financial Integration in East Asia). I visit him in his halls, but end up sleeping in his empty room. His flatmates say they do not know where he is. I wait for him all day but he never comes.
1991. Jay has dropped out of university and moved to London.
‘I’ll give him this,’ my father tells me. ‘He’s making a living.’
I assume Dad is deluding himself, broken by Jay’s fate. I go to see for myself.
‘I do everything,’ Jay tells me at his bed-sit in Bethnal Green. ‘Weddings, bar mitzvahs, private parties. I’ve supported Björn Again twice. I’ve got a run of solo gigs starting now. Come see.’
I do. He is billed as M-Jay, his dates scheduled around Michael’s Dangerous tour. The fans view them as warm-ups for the real thing; or as a consolation prize for the ticketless. I go on a Saturday night. There are perhaps sixty people in attendance. The set is identical to Jackson’s, but without effects, dancers or live musicians. Jay spends two hours in make-up, then lip-synchs. Even for me, it is difficult to tell the difference. Some of the ‘fans’ scream from the front. One even faints.
1992. July 31. Jay takes me, Mum, Dad and my girlfriend to Wembley to see the real thing. We do not need to queue. Our seats are VIPs. My father enjoys talking with the people around him. He has been deprived of South Asian company in darkest Lancashire, but now he meets a dentist from Southall and six Jains from Tottenham. He speaks faltering Hindi, accepts samosas and mithai. Then the video screen lights up:
DANGEROUS: WORLD TOUR
Footage from crowds in Koln, Tokyo, Rio, Paris, Dallas, Atlanta, Rome. Our crowd unites with them in a global scream, swaying, frothing, ready to break. The sound of marching. An army moving towards us. He is coming, he is coming. Jay is smiling, moving, dancing like one used to the drug. Seventy-two thousand hands rise and point. Our egos float above us. ABC. First Prize! Diamante socks. So good at it. DANGEROUS. Arms outstretched, spread-eagled, two words on the screen: BRACE YOURSELF.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
There! says Mum.
We stand on our seats, starstruck.
Michael does not move. Wind blows his hair. Minutes go by. The dentist is crying, the Jains are screaming. It’s a miracle. The feeding of the seventy thousand. Am I screaming too? I am, I am!
Over three hours we are transported to another dimension of pleasure, perfect and magnificent. I had forgotten just how good an entertainer Jackson is. I even cry during ‘Heal the World’. When ‘ABC’ begins, Jay turns to me and smiles and I cry again. After the final number I make an honest resolution to take a look at myself and then make a change. I think Mum and Dad do too.
Jay takes us to a party at a hotel, a special event for fans. Amidst tablecloths, wine waiters and sandwiches, I meet ordinary men and women who have devoted their lives to a single human being. Of the two hundred and fifty people there, Jay seems to know all of them.
‘We met in Leeds, didn’t we? You had a banner, right, from Bad? You spray-painted it? When Michael sees these things it helps him. He can see all the love, all the effort.
‘You went to Neverland? I’m gonna go, sure, but – have you met Sally? – Sally went three days and spent it all standing outside the gates. I mean, she said it was fun, but she didn’t get to go inside. It depends on what mood he’s in. She said she envied the birds ’cause they could go in whenever they wanted. Lucky birds …’
On the way to our hotel in Earl’s Court, Dad becomes gruff, disapproving. ‘Bit over the top, I thought,’ and, ‘All that screaming, like in a zoo.’ But in the lobby, Jay plays his trump card.
‘I’m going to LA,’ he says.
‘What?’ says Dad. ‘Whatever for?’
‘They’ve invited me. They want me to try out.’
‘Michael’s lawyers. They’re considering me for a double. You know, like a decoy.’
‘Well done, Jay,’ I say later from my hotel bed, my brother on the other side of the room.
‘You had a good time, didn’t you, Varun? I mean, at the concert.’
‘Jay. It was fucking brilliant.’
1993. After my PhD, I consult for the World Bank out of New York. I propose to a girl called Marta at the top of Rockefeller Center. I call my parents and leave a message for Jay. When he calls back he says:
‘I’m in, Varun.’
‘I’m a part of the team. I spoke to him on the phone.’
‘His voice is deeper than I thought.’
‘That’s great, Jay.’
‘He was stressed, I could tell …’
A ten-minute monologue about Jordie Chandler, a name I have never heard.
‘We all knows he’s lying, but Christ; the police went through his diaries.’
Jay sighs, heavy with grief.
‘Good speaking to you, Var. Who knows, maybe I can stop over on my way from LA next time.’
He hangs up before I can tell him my news.
1994. At our wedding Jay wears a red faux-military jacket with jet-bead trimming across the shoulders. He has had more surgery and walks with a slight hunch. His skin is much lighter than mine, which did not used to be the case. He does not look like Michael, not without his make-up, but he does not look like Jay. At the reception I hear a friend of Marta’s saying, ‘Who the fuck is that?’
1996. Marta and I have moved to London. I am lecturing at the LSE; she is a legal officer. We live out West, on the opposite side of town from Jay, but we go to his live show in the autumn. It now includes special effects, professional lighting, and a team of back-up dancers.
Afterwards, Jay takes us to another party. I tell a young Italian girl that I’m a fan of Pulp. She swears at me. Word spreads that there is a Jarvis Cockerite in the room. A fat American with a Dangerous hat tells me to apologise.
‘Who fucking cares?’ I say.
‘We do,’ says the American.
‘You don’t know these people. They’re just celebrities.’
‘Michael’s not a celebrity to us. He’s the centre of our lives. That might seem stupid to you, but try to respect it.’
‘Michael is someone we choose to love,’ says the Italian girl.
‘You don’t know him.’
‘Come on, Varun,’ says Marta.
Jay walks over, the elder statesman.
‘Your friends are idiots,’ I tell him.
‘He was using obscenities,’ says the American.
‘So were you,’ says Marta.
‘I wouldn’t know Jarvis Cocker if he slapped me in the face,’ I lie. ‘I was just proving a point.’
‘He’s jealous,’ says Jay. ‘All the haters are. Jealous and pathetic. If they could sing like Michael, or dance like Michael – ’
‘Or look like Michael,’ says the American.
‘It’s racism,’ said the Italian girl. ‘They can’t stand to see a successful black man.’
‘He isn’t even black.’
Marta wrenches me towards the door.
‘Of course he’s black!’ says the American.
‘He’s proud to be black,’ says the Italian.
‘He got a skin disease,’ shouts Jay. ‘Everyone knows it but you, Var.’
Two weeks later I call to apologise, but Jay puts the phone down. I try the week after, but the result is the same. In December, Marta goes to Jay’s flat. When she returns she tells me she found him drunk and crying. She explains that Jay was due to visit Neverland next year but his invitation was cancelled.
He was doing a decoy job in London. Wearing a face mask and a hat and surrounded by bodyguards, all he was supposed to do was walk twenty metres from the car to the Carlton Hotel. But when Jay saw the fans outside he lost his head. He plunged forward, shaking hands. Someone pulled his hat from his head. A girl kissed his cheek. He did a couple of dance moves before the bodyguards pulled him away and into the hotel.
Jay was told to wait in a room on the twenty-first floor. A lawyer arrived and told him he was fired. They watched while he removed his make-up and changed, before escorting him out via the staff exit.
‘It was my job to protect him from haters,’ said Jay. ‘Who’s going to look after him now?’
‘Go see him, Varun,’ says Marta. ‘Don’t call. Just show up.’
I do, but Jay isn’t there. He has moved out.
1999. No one has seen Jay for three years. He emails my parents – ‘I’m OK, hope you are. Jay’ – but never calls. Dad gets an ulcer, but then Marta falls pregnant, which cheers him up.
When the baby arrives, so does Jay.
‘I’ve been in San Diego.’
‘What the hell were you doing there?’ says Dad.
‘I’ve got friends all over the world, Dad.’
Jay is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He has grown a beard, and talks in an ordinary male voice, a tenor. He has started wearing glasses and looks, finally, more like Jarvis Cocker than Michael Jackson.
‘Have you been performing?’ says Marta, stroking his hand.
‘Retired?’ says Dad, who has done the same. ‘At your age?’
‘You didn’t do anything wrong, Jay,’ says Marta.
‘I’m sorry for what I said,’ I say. ‘I was jealous.’
‘I know,’ says Jay. ‘This isn’t about you.’
‘What about money?’ says Dad.
‘I’m fine,’ he says. ‘Flush.’
‘I’m running a website. We’ve got a hundred thousand members.’
‘Do you have a girlfriend, Jay?’ says Marta, while my father is in the kitchen.
‘I did,’ says Jay. ‘It’s one of the reasons I came back.’
Later that night, Dad tells me Jay has grown up and tries to talk to me about possible careers for him. I tell him Jay is as fanatical as ever, but now he’s a fallen devotee, flung from the garden. Dad refuses to believe me.
2000. Jay moves to a new house in Northumbria. I try to visit once after a conference in Newcastle, but he does not answer the door (though I can see a light on at the top of the house). Foolishly, I swear at him through the letterbox. I do not tell Marta this. In any case, she has less time for Jay now; we have our own helpless thing to take care of.
From our new house in Highgate, I try his number once a week, then once every a month, then give up entirely. From this point on my hotline to my brother is via his website. He updates it every two to three hours, policing the forum, adding new headlines, poems, fan reports, interviews, videos, quotes, updating the events schedule.
2003. Mum dies in a car accident. A hit-and-run. Jay comes to the funeral and we hug like two world leaders at a summit. He sits by himself but stays at the house for five days, speaking only to Dad. When he leaves Marta and I talk about moving up north, but the idea trickles into nothing. We are too selfish, too modern. Dad comes to stay with us but cannot bear London and soon leaves. He calls two weeks later to tell me that Jay’s ‘losing it.’
‘How?’ I say.
‘Check his website.’
I do, and learn that a journalist called Martin Bashir has made a documentary which apparently paints Michael Jackson as an unstable pederast who ought to be locked away. If Jay hated Jarvis Cocker, his feelings for Bashir are a hundred times worse. He has filled page after page with vitriol, making what are essentially death threats. It is chilling, no-holds-barred stuff.
In November, Michael Jackson is arrested on charges of child molestation and giving alcohol to minors. Jay’s website closes temporarily but re-opens in the new year. I call him several times but he does not answer the phone. Eventually, Dad tells me he’s not there anymore.
‘Jay’s in California,’ says Dad. ‘For the trial.’
2005. Every evening, at 10:30 p.m., Jay uploads his video diary onto the MJ Shrine. We see him with his friends, hundreds of them. They link arms in the street and sing, ‘You Are Not Alone, Michael’. Jay carries a banner saying, UK SUPPORTS MICHAEL: CHILDLIKE IS NOT CHILD MOLESTER.
Jay wanders Santa Maria, filming other groups: BOSTON SUPPORTS MICHAEL; TEXAS LOVES YOU MICHAEL; THE PARIS BRIGADE: STOP PREJUDICE!
His beard is gone, his hair long and crimped. He talks into the camera in full regalia with make-up, sunglasses, a billowy white shirt, and a yellow armband:
Day 7. The whole world loves him and appreciates what he’s done for us. It’s only a tiny minority who are trying to tear him down. Stellar humanitarians are always attacked by evil. It was the same with Martin Luther King; the same with Diana; the same with Mandela. Tom Sneddon’s gonna get his butt kicked; you all watch this space. I’m with my true family here. It’s like an army of love, but totally peaceful. We know he will be free.
Cheers from behind him. ‘Go Jay, go Jay,’ they yell. Someone takes the camera and we view him with his ‘true family’. A mousy blond girl ruffles his hair. An obese black woman envelops him in a hug until all I can see is his sparkly glove. They chant:
‘NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE! NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!’
On several days, Jay gets himself into the courtroom. Places are allotted by lottery, I learn. He describes it for us, what Michael is wearing, his demeanour; is he depressed? Upbeat? Weary? He interviews hundreds of fans. One of them, a Spanish woman, sits on the floor with a beer between her thighs and a fedora on her head. She looks tired, and teary:
We’ve been presented as freaks by the media, but we’re just normal people with jobs and families who think there’s something wrong with the damn system. I had to travel six thousand miles to get the facts. Is this fair? The news should give the facts. But they don’t. Sometimes I come out of court thinking it was a perfect day for Michael, then I turn on the TV and I wonder if we were even in the same room. The good news doesn’t sell. Satan is in that courtroom with his lies, and we ask that the truth come out of the mouths of Michael’s lawyers and everybody who’s being questioned today. Michael is a loving, compassionate person, and that woman … [sobs]
[Jay, offscreen: It’s been a long day …]
On one occasion Jay points to a house and says:
The landlady over there, she kicked out her tenants who’d been living there for a decade, and rented the room to the news media so she could get more money.
Jay is living rent free, staying with a woman named Patricia, along with nine others. Patricia is matronly and about fifty. We see inside her kitchen where she cooks spaghetti for her Family of Love. When she hugs Jay there are tears in her eyes:
He means the world to me, this boy. What’s happening to Michael has broken his heart, but he’s so dedicated. We all love and support each other here, as we love and support Michael. I’ve made fifty, sixty friends this week, more than in my whole life. We’re a community, you know. Kerry over there quit her job as a kindergarten teacher after thirteen years to move out here for the trial …
In March, Jay uploads a video of a group of women from Arkansas with banners reading, WE SUPPORT THE VICTIMS: THOSE ARE MY private parts.
They keep yelling the slogan through home-made loudspeakers. The Army of Love confronts them.
‘You’re making Michael look bad,’ they say.
‘We’ve been on Oprah,’ says the enemy. ‘You can’t keep silent about – ’
‘Oprah loves Michael.’
‘How do you know?’
‘How do you know?’
‘THOSE ARE MY PRIVATE PARTS.’
‘Go home with your private parts.’
In Patricia’s living room, Jay analyses the confrontation:
I guess they mean well. They’re just wrong. They’ve got a good cause, but they believe what they read in the media, and that’s really sad. They’re in the wrong place: they should be where convicted child molesters are let out on parole, not here. This is a trial. Anyway, I talked with some of them and they seemed pretty nice. All of them have got Michael’s albums and DVDs [laughs]. I’ll talk to them tomorrow, see if I can bring them round. Otherwise it’s really sad.
On June 13, 2005, Michael is found innocent of all charges. There is a party on the street, and then in Patricia’s garden. Jay uploads the final entry of his diary:
The biggest wish of my whole life came true today. I had to try not to cry, ’cause we weren’t allowed to make any commotion in the court or we’d get arrested. I saw Michael dab his eyes with a tissue. I guess he’s pretty happy. The media was so against him. I’m really proud of the jurors: they followed the rules and were honest and real about it. I’m so glad Michael’s free now, and he can get on with his life. I guess we all can. We can all get on with our lives now.
It is the last time I hear Jay’s voice.
2006. Dad dies. We call and write and email Jay, but he does not respond, and does not show up for the funeral.
After this I make no effort to see him. Marta, pregnant again, says, ‘What if he doesn’t know?’
I toy with this idea, then give up.
‘Course he knows,’ I say. ‘Fuck it. Let him be with his true family.’
2008. Once a week, I check Jay’s website, then once a month, then even less. I check only to see if he’s still alive, which he is, though he no longer posts videos of himself. He’s living in a house somewhere in rural Northumbria now. When I think of him, it is usually with hatred, so I try not to. I work harder. I get a call from Anand, who jacked in music to work at the Economist, then jacked that in too. He’s living in a village in the Mediterranean somewhere. Keeps goats. I wonder what life is for.
2009. Marta tells me she has tickets for This Is It. I have no idea what this is. When she tells me, I start shouting. She does not mention it again.
In June I go to Berlin for a conference, something about rebuilding trust in experts after the crisis.
‘Michael Jackson ist tot,’ says the waiter to the couple at the table nearest us.
The waiter has bleached blond hair, sharp as a tennis ball.
‘What did he say?’ I ask the Dutchman, though I already know.
‘Michael Jackson is dead.’
At Heathrow, while the plane taxis on the runway, I dial Marta’s number.
‘He hasn’t called,’ she says at once.
‘You’d better get there quickly,’ she says.
‘I will,’ I tell her. ‘Right now.’
‘My God, Varun – ’
I hang up.
‘I hope your brother’s all right,’ says the nun. ‘It sounds like he just lost his way, that’s all. But I’m sure he loves you.’
I take a taxi to Northumbria. On the way I call Jay at least twenty times, then give up. The driver has the radio on, and tributes to Michael pour in; they play all his hits, including ‘One More Chance’. When I ask him to turn it off he grumbles, so I start explaining about Jay and get about halfway when he asks me to stop. As I step out of the taxi and into the clotting light, he says, ‘He needs a job, if you ask me.’
Jay’s cottage is surrounded by fields, lost in a hundred-year trance. A place to find a face-chewed, neck-strung man. All the curtains are shut. I wonder if children are afraid of him? Does anyone even know he lives here?
I knock on the peeling door and yell, ‘Jay!’and then, ‘Fire!’ before going round the back and pitching a rock through the window.
I cut my arm climbing through and fall onto a sofa older than me, which vomits dust and lowers me to the floor. My brother has a musical burglar alarm: ‘You’ve been hit by, you’ve been struck by …’ I don’t think he has it to deter burglars. Every aspect of his world has been Michaeled. It’s a clash of civilisations, the old gods must be forgotten or destroyed.
There’s nothing down here except the sofa and two hard chairs. I can hear mice. The kitchen looks abandoned. Scum and grime coat the surfaces; grass and leaves cover the threadbare carpet.
It is different upstairs, cleaner. A royal-blue carpet, a bathroom with a full-length mirror, and a sink filled with wigs that look like dead animals. On the floor is a sports bag full of lipsticks, blushers, foundation and eye shadow. Above the tub hangs a life-size picture of Michael from the Dangerous tour, a signature in the right-hand corner. I open the door to the bedroom.
Dark in here, but I can see Jay sleeping, his entire body covered by the duvet. Clothes are tossed over every inch of the floor. I open the curtains and sit on the bed.
No sound of his breathing. No rise and fall. The words ‘sleeping pills’ come to mind. I say his name, then fall to my knees and shake him. He is cold. I pull the duvet off the bed and cry out in shock.
It’s not Jay. Just a life-size mannequin of Michael Jackson. He’s wearing the red suit from Blood on the Dance Floor.
I stare at him, then swear and spit, and before I know it I’m on the bed, wrestling, punching, kicking. Hard to say who’s winning, Michael or me, but his suit is torn and I’ve head-butted him several times and now I lift him above my head and hurl him at the window, which does not smash.
Michael lies on the floor, that pale, diseased skin, those lips like a bloodstain, that sliver of a nose. Dangerous. When I look up I expect to see Jay amused at my celebrity death match, but no, I am alone in this ghost of a house, talking to a fibreglass doll.
‘I hate you, you fucker,’ I say. ‘But I love you too. And I love Jay too. Though God, I wish he was normal. But what is normal? You’re not normal, are you? You’re weird, and weird is OK. Weird is good, even. We’re all weird. At least you had the guts to be you, Michael, but please, find my brother. Please, Michael, please.’
And then I see it. Protruding from the dummy’s wound of a mouth is a piece of paper, folded up like a stick of gum. I fall out of the bed, grab it with both hands, and pull. It gets longer and longer, till at last it comes free and I spread the pages out on the floor.
Dearest Varun –
We will never meet again, at least in this life. I know this will come as a shock to you. God knows I’ve caused you enough pain.
It’s hard to know what to say to you. I suppose I should begin by saying sorry. In spite of everything I’ve said and done, you will always be my brother and I love you. I’ve thought of you every day, but somehow I could never gather the courage to call you. I suppose it was my pride, because I know you’ve always thought I was mad, that my love (obsession, you would say) for Michael was more like an illness. I know you wanted to send me to a psychiatrist, the same way they once used to send gays and communists, but please, Varun, understand that I don’t blame you for any of this. We all live in our own worlds. How can we ever see anything else?
Even though you thought I was crazy, you always loved and supported me, Varun. You gave me money when I needed it, you came to the concert, you met my friends, you listened to all Michael’s albums even though you didn’t want to. When Dad died, the reason I never came was because I thought you wouldn’t want me there. But of course this was silly. You always accepted me, no matter what. It was I who rejected you, and for this I am truly sorry.
I know you can’t understand this, but the only other person who truly accepted me was Michael. I was thirteen when I knew I would devote my life to him. Have you heard the song ‘You Are My Life’? That’s the way I feel. I’m so lucky to have been able to serve him all these years. He really believed it was possible to heal the world, and so many of us believed it with him. Maybe we are crazy, but sometimes being crazy is good.
A few years ago, as you know, I made a terrible mistake and let Michael down, and I paid the price for it. If you look in my desk you’ll find a letter from him telling me he forgives me. I wrote to him about a hundred times until he replied. Of course he did. Michael hates to see a soul in pain. But you see, Varun, it wasn’t enough that he’d forgiven me. I had to redeem myself. Maybe you’ll never understand this but I needed to make the ultimate sacrifice, and I did it gladly, for him. This was not his idea. I need you to know this. He would never, ever have agreed to it, not in a trillion years. It was out of his hands and out of mine. I was simply able to help. There are darker forces at play here, but about this I will say no more. It is inviting trouble if I do.
So forgive me, Varun, and take care of Marta and of my website, if you can. All the log-in information is in a file on my computer. There are so many people who could do it, but I want you to, because I know it will bring you the greatest joy in the end, and you’ll bring so much joy to others, which is what you truly deserve.
I love you my brother, always and forever …
PS Check Michael’s inside pocket. He left you a gift.
I do. It is a cheque for twenty million dollars. But from Jay, not Michael, and made out to me.
I use the website to search for Jay. There are over 100,000 members, probably a million if you include those who post as visitors. Countless others stumble upon it just because they want to see a video of ‘Billie Jean’ and end up here instead of YouTube. If Jay can be found, this is the way to do it.
I post a Wanted poster, and I get several responses, but mainly of sympathy and support, plus about a hundred adverts for all things ridiculous. But no one has seen my brother.
Marta and I meet hundreds of people on the website, in the forum and chat room, many of whom were like family to Jay. They are familiar with sides of my brother I did not know existed. Yes, he had girlfriends, possibly boyfriends too, though no one will give me a straight answer on this.
People from all over the world upload pictures and videos of him or send them directly to my inbox. I watch hours of concert footage. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s Jay or Michael on that stage; that’s how good Jay was; though over time I notice little signs, the tiny mole on Jay’s upper lip, the way Michael points his fingers when dancing, how Jay’s curls always swing to the left. But assuredly, Jay is a master. It must have been a blow to Michael to have to fire someone so good.
2010. As the administrator of the MJ ShrineI receive regular requests for video uploads, call-outs for ‘fan meet-ups’ in Florida or Liverpool, queries about unreleased material. Due to my interaction with Jay’s friends on the forum, I am able to satisfy most of these requests. I become a switchboard until, slowly, I start to take the initiative myself, alerting members to Janet’s new tour or Oprah’s interview with Paris, or Navi’s gig in Germany. I try to tone down, if not expunge, the revenge stuff, redefining the rules of the forum to emphasise this.
It does not matter how Michael died. Let us remember how he lived. Whether it was by accident, design, or negligence, we have to go on living and go on loving, and not become haters. This is what Michael would have wanted.
I believe this, too.
As a direct result of my posts, the vitriol quietly, quickly, dries up. It is with this act that I am accepted as a core member of the fan community, a virtual nation that seems only to have grown with his passing. I even let a pair of fans sleep in our guest room when they come to London. They’re my family too now, at least of a sort.
As for my career, I renegotiate my contract to a 0.5, then 0.25, and then to teaching only a single course. I stop writing papers and, in twenty months, attend only two conferences. I cancel my subscriptions to the Economist, the FT, and the Journal of Economic Theory, and I stop listening to Radio 4, preferring music, much of it by the King of Pop. It’s fair to say that I am falling in love with Michael, and in doing so I am honouring my brother.
This my life now, the website, Marta, our two boys, both of whom ask, ‘When is Uncle Jay coming back?’ to which I reply, ‘I don’t know,’ which is almost the truth. After all, I have no evidence, no rational reason, for believing anything. But there is my gut. My instinct. My heart. And they are stronger than reason. It was Jay who taught me that.
Sometimes I meet him in a dream. When the wind is cold and cruel I awaken and cry for him in the middle of the night. But on kinder days he stays and we talk and I wake up happy. ‘These lonely nights are hard to get through,’ someone writes in the forum. ‘I will keep you in my eyes by making you a dream.’This was written about Michael, but it’s how I feel about Jay. It’s how I feel about both of them, in fact.
At night, sometimes, I look through the skylight and it’s as if I can feel Jay, glowing brighter than them all, and then I wonder which one of us was the fool. I’d like to think the only warmth we need comes from within, but we need stars to remind us that we can shine too, even when our worlds are dull and broken. And maybe this is why we cling to them, even though we know they aren’t real.
2011. Five in the morning and Marta has woken me. I reach for coffee, but there isn’t any. Her face is thick with tears and horror.
‘Are the kids all right?’
She kisses my cheek.
‘What is it, my love?’
She pushes her iPad into my lap.
I look. It’s a YouTube video.
‘THIS IS HIM,’ runs the strapline. ‘NOT A HOAX.
‘A video taken on my cellphone in Ishbiliya Village, Bahrain. REPEAT: THIS IS NOT A HOAX.’
There are 7,034,544 hits.
‘Google was down for two hours,’ says Marta. ‘This hasn’t happened since …’
I press play.
A middle-aged man is shopping. Thin, fair-skinned, lithe, supple. He wears sunglasses, a white jalabiya, a thin turban around his head, and a handkerchief around his mouth to keep the sand and dust at bay. As the camera zeroes in, he removes the cloth and the sunglasses. We can see his face now. Those lips like a bloodstain, that sliver of a nose, those perfect hands, the way they point as he laughs at some joke we do not catch.
This is it.
This is Michael. He lives. He lives.
And then I see Marta’s face, the horror and the tears. She was always faster than me.
‘Var,’ she says. ‘Don’t you see?’
I watch it again, but she takes the iPad from me and googles ‘Michael Jackson’s body’.
I look at the pictures.
June 25. The day of his death.
She scrolls to the comments, of which there are thousands.
‘So who the hell is this?’
‘It’s a fake, you idiot!’
‘How can it be a fake?’
‘It’s not a fake. It’s a double.’
I go back to the pictures and stare. The tears come and I wipe them away, but they come again. It’s too late. I’ve seen it. That mole on his upper lip.
‘We will never meet again, at least in this life … I needed to make the ultimate sacrifice.’
Twenty million dollars. But Jay would have paid for the privilege. I open the bedside drawer and pull out his letter, his suicide note, as it turns out:
‘This was not his idea. I need you to know this. He would never, ever have agreed to it, not in a trillion years. It was out of his hands and out of mine. I was simply able to help. There are darker forces at play here, but about this I will say no more. It is inviting trouble if I do.’
Darker forces? I wonder what this means. His creditors? His record label? They say he’s made a billion since his death, wiping out his debts manifold. But I do not care. The truth may come out in the end, but my brother is gone, and this is forever.
I think back to when we were kids. First prize at Children’s Day. Dancing to ‘ABC’ on the sofa. For three years, Jay got his wish. For three years, in that coffin, he was Michael Jackson.
I go to the Shrine and find an old video of Jay on stage in Camden. I watch it over and over until Marta takes the computer from me and enfolds me in her arms.
Fiktion, Berlin, 2014
Project Directors (Publishing Program)
Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann
Project Director (Communications)
Maxwell Simmer, Version House
The copyright for the text remains with the author.
Fiktion is backed by the nonprofit association Fiktion e.V. It is organized in cooperation with Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, and financed by a grant from the German Federal Cultural Foundation.
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Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann
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