THE CUT-GLASS DECANTER
Maybe it was the bachelor party.
‘Nick! Welcome to Cheapside! To the heart of the City of London!’
Myles was in a corner booth with two other men in suits. Nick had expected a crowd of his friends. These were colleagues.
‘Sam, Chan,’ he introduced them. ‘This is Nick, soon to be B-I-L, BIL.’
‘Brother-in-law, old son, once you and Kirsty get hitched. What can I get you, BIL?’
‘Half of bitter, please.’
‘Nick, this is fairyland. Pull up a toadstool and try the fabulous cocktails. I recommend a Metropolitan.’
He sank into chunky leather while Myles went to the bar. Sam and Chan studied him.
‘Looking forward to Myles’s wedding?’ Sam asked, head tilted back, eyelids half closed. ‘Social event of the year,’ he added without waiting for a reply.
‘All of us posing in our monkey outfits,’ said Chan, whose shirt and tie were the same dense black as his suit.
Nick was glad he’d left his kit to collect next day. Carrying a big fibreboard case into this upmarket establishment would have been embarrassing, an admission he didn’t own a wedding outfit. The place was pleasantly quiet, with carpets for feet to sink into and cool jazz at low volume. Soft furnishings muted the conversation of groups of other men in suits.
‘How do you like The Gilded Goat?’ Chan asked.
‘Now Gelded Goat since they cut our bonuses,’ said Sam. ‘So you’re Kirsty’s partner. Nice tits if I remember.’
‘Too far apart for my taste,’ said Myles, setting down a tray of cocktails.
‘I bet BIL couldn’t wait to get his hands on them.’
‘And by the time she said, “S-s-stop,” it was too late.’
Nick struggled to get up. Chan put a hand on his knee.
‘He means no offence. We are crude men. Please relax and drink. The wedding is not until Saturday, so we have a day to recover.’
Nick sank back and sipped his cocktail. It tasted good, soothing. He drank deeply.
‘Where do you work, Nick?’ Chan asked.
‘I’m a graduate student. Finishing an MA.’
‘He’s writing a thesis.’ Myles grinned and pushed back his fine blond hair.
‘Faeces?’ Sam echoed. ‘Shouldn’t play with your faeces, BIL.’
Nick tried to join in the laughter. He was the first graduate in his family and his parents stumbled over ‘thesis’. His mother, a hairdresser, called it ‘your report.’ His father, site agent for a building firm, jokingly said, ‘Your bill of quantities.’
The conversation turned to people he didn’t know, then Brexit, which they discussed in esoteric terms which gave him no clue to their views. The subject moved on to waterboarding, which they thought was a good idea. The drinks came fast. Nick realised his round was overdue. He interrupted a scathing attack on the Harold Crowden Equity Fund to ask what people wanted.
‘Don’t worry, Nick old son,’ said Myles.
‘It’s my round.’
‘You’re our guest.’
‘It’s your bachelor party. I insist.’
He took their orders and went to the bar, staggering a little. The round came to £143.72. His card refused payment. He felt sick, self-conscious in his canvas jacket and chinos among all the suits, as he wove his way back to the corner and confessed his shortcoming.
He had no clear memory of arriving back at his flat in Crouch End, just a foggy impression of a taxi ride.
Or maybe it was the wedding present.
They chose it a month before. Kirsty liked a hand-cut crystal ship’s decanter for £125 with a panel on which to engrave Myles and Angela.
‘Nicely made but old fashioned.’
‘Ha. What do you s-s-suggest, then?’
He scrolled down and found a clear glass decanter which swelled to a wide base. ‘This? £115.’
‘D-d-dartington crystal admiral’s decanter? Why admiral’s?’
‘Wide bottom for rough seas I suppose.’
‘It’s not them. You and I like things ultra-s-s-simple but their taste is more . . .’
Kirsty sighed. Her face was flushed, which Nick found disturbing.
‘Listen,’ she said wearily, ‘Angie isn’t a bit like me. You should know, having met her.’
‘I can’t say we struck up a lively conversation. I was very polite, though.’
‘Polite with an undertone of disapproval. It shows, you know. What you think is a smile is sometimes more of a sneer.’
He sniffed. ‘I don’t think Angie noticed. She was only half listening. Looking around for something more entertaining. Her phone, probably.’
Silence fell. Kylie’s expression was blank. Nick thought of those unpainted masks sold in Venice. After a long pause he asked, ‘Did you tell her about my Mum’s offer? A free styling at her salon?’
‘Yes, I told her.’
Kirsty’s expression had reverted to flushed. ‘She said, “Ah, so his mother’s a hairdresser.”’ Nick could tell she was trying hard not to mimic Angie’s tone of voice. She went on, ‘She asked where it was and I said Swiss Cottage and she seemed to think it was a long way.’
‘Two Tube stops!’ He sighed again. ‘Okay, Kirsty, I get that my taste wouldn’t suit them,’
‘Our taste, Nick.’
‘What about Myles’s taste? I’ve hardly met him.’
Kirsty shrugged. ‘I’ve known him a year and still don’t know him.’
‘He flirts half-heartedly. I don’t think he finds me very attractive.’
Nick laughed. ‘His taste is crap then’
The compliment fell on stony ground. He moved closer to her and held her cold hand, which from being rigid gradually responded. He scrolled back to the cut-glass option.
‘You’re right about this. Chacun à son goût and all that. And the engraving’s a good idea.’
The sour note crept back in when they discussed how to pay.
He said, ‘I’m broke till next month. Could you pay and I’ll owe you my share?’
‘Can’t you use your credit card?’
Nick laughed bitterly. Kirsty said, ‘Forget it then, I’ll pay for it all.’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
They ordered it on her card, gift-wrapped.
‘Delivery options?’ he asked.
‘The h-h-house will be full of people and dogs and s-s-stuff, and I’ll have my hands full for the wedding. So can they send it here to your place? You can bring it on the day.’
‘I suppose,’ he muttered.
He hoped she would stay the night as she often did, but the magic had evaporated and her kiss when she left was perfunctory.
Or maybe it was the boat.
‘Look it up online, Nick,’ Kirsty said on the phone. The tension between them had begun to ease in the fortnight since ordering the present. ‘There’ll be a b-band and expensive c-catering.’
‘Where does it start from?’
‘Kew. There are s-s-so many people I want you to meet. Especially Aunt Leonora. You’ll love her. She’s coming from New Zealand just for the wedding, and she’s dying to m-m-meet you.’
Nick had already heard that Leonora rode racehorses, painted lurid pictures, made risqué carvings, and used to sing in opera. And said what she thought.
He looked up M. V. Seren. She was slim and elegant, with a low-sided profile and a hull of varnished wood. An open-sided canopy ran most of her length, with a steaming funnel poking through amidships. The photograph showed riverside willows bursting into leaf. Highlights caught the ripples on the water, breaking into golden flakes the reflection of her name.
Seren, Welsh for star . . . and wrong. Kirsty put him right a few days later.
‘Serene, Nick.’ She studied him anxiously. ‘Does that upset you?’
‘You’ve gone funny.’
‘I realise my thesis must be splattered with errors.’
‘Mrs Rao will find them. At least you g-g-get help these days.’
They were both suddenly lost in thought. Nick reflected that her stammer neatly balanced his dyslexia.
He asked, ‘Kirsty? What are you thinking?’
‘Oh, being m-m-married. We’ll always support each other, won’t we? N-n-never let each other down?’
He kissed her. ‘Of course.’
She smiled and as always he noticed how even her teeth were. His were so uneven he tried to keep his mouth shut. Once when he pointed out the contrast she said, ‘I’d love you with fangs like Dracula.’ Sometimes he watched her stretched on the bed half asleep, long and pale-skinned, shoulder-length hair black against the white pillow with loose strands across her cheek, and was moved beyond words.
When they told her parents they planned to marry, her mother, looking bemused, murmured, ‘If that makes you happy, dear,’ and carried on talking about diet supplements, which she marketed online. Her father, a quietly-spoken solicitor, took to engaging Nick in conversations of the ‘ain’t it awful’ variety about weather, celebrities, and the merits of various wines, which they could enjoy without conflicts of opinion.
Kirsty found M .V. Serene to show him. He was always surprised by her rapid navigation online, but after all, she was a programmer. The blurb said, ‘One of the most luxurious Thames party boats. The sun deck holds a hundred and fifty guests.’
Kirsty laughed, head on his shoulder, hair tickling his chin. ‘You might know Myles would settle for nothing less.’
‘Is he paying?’
‘Your Dad should pay. Doesn’t that hurt his pride?’
Kirsty laughed. ‘He says, “If the silly b-b-bugger wastes ill-gotten gains on what might not last, good luck.” He says he likes talking to you.’
‘And I him. ’
‘You can chat on the boat on Saturday.’
Nick tried to imagine the conversation. They studied Serene, blunt and boxy, functional like a ferry.
Or maybe it was the formatting. This was the day before the bachelor party.
Nick wanted to add images to the text of his thesis. It took him a whole hour to insert just one. When he tried to drag it to the right size and position, handles appeared then vanished. Rectangles of dotted lines appeared, changing shape, like ghosts unable to affect the material world. ‘Format picture’ was no help either. It was like handling jelly.
He decided to write a caption instead. ‘Text box’ perhaps? The image disappeared, and only random clicking brought it back. All right, he decided, the caption could wait. He could print the draft to see how it looked. RGB colour, CMYK colour, or lab colour? A message appeared: ‘Some PostScript specific print settings will be ignored since you are printing to a non-PostScript printer.’ He printed anyway. The images looked washed out. It was time to phone a friend.
‘When d-d-does it have to be in?’ Kirsty asked.
‘Damn. It’s just . . . Big Sister is having a w-w-wedding-dress panic. And you know what Angie’s like.’
‘Then I’ll have to wait.’
‘Are you sure? You’re more forgiving than I would be. And I know how really important your p-p-project is. To get you a good job. It’s our f-f-future.’
Then silence. One of those odd pauses that punctuate the calls of couples.
‘Let’s just get the w-w-wedding out of the way,’ she said. ‘Three days and it’ll be over.’
‘Have you ordered your morning suit?’
‘Sure I need one?’
‘Of c-c-course! Nick! You’re part of the family now.’
‘I’ll go to Cambridge Circus and do it tomorrow.’
Or maybe, the morning after the bachelor party, the conversations.
He woke at 9.30, disoriented and dry throated. With great reluctance he slid out of bed and stood unsteadily, shaking as if standing in a Tube train. It took all his concentration to make coffee without spilling grounds. He sat looking out of the window. Rapid cumulus clouds made alternations of bright sunlight and contrasting gloom, as if at the flick of a switch. Great weather for the trip upriver if it lasted till next day, after which Kirsty would be free to format his illustrations. Today he had only to collect the suit.
But that wouldn’t fill the day. Surely there was a way to move things forward? He decided to run the draft of his thesis past Mrs Rao, mistakes and all. He took a W7 bus to Muswell Hill and walked to her street, hoping the sunshine would cure his hangover. Behind the low garden walls of respectable semis, azaleas and rhododendrons were in bloom. Ornamental cherry trees had strewn pink petals on the damp path like confetti.
But what was her house number? He couldn’t remember. Luckily he saw her hurry out with a suitcase, barely acknowledging him. He waved the envelope with the printout.
‘Stick it in the car,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Though God knows when I’ll read it.’ She threw a mysterious cardboard box into the boot. ‘Mother’s ill. I’ve got to go to Leicester.’
‘It has to be in by—’
‘I know when it has to be in, Nick. I wish you’d shown it me before.’
He was speechless. Hadn’t she said a few weeks ago there was no hurry? She carried on trekking to and fro. He wanted her to make him coffee as usual. Each time she passed she studied his face, squinting into the sun, as if expecting some adverse reaction.
Nick suddenly realised why he forgot her house number. Seventy-seven, a palindrome, the same in both directions. Unreal and insubstantial, as if it might sink into the morass of malformed numbers like pi and 3.33 recurring.
‘Next week perhaps,’ Mrs Rao said.
He took the W7 south to Finsbury Park, meaning to join the Piccadilly Line for Cambridge Circus. But waiting on a platform that seemed to exude grimy sweat, among silent strangers in dull clothing communing with their phones, he stared across the tracks at the curved wall with its ads for operas, timeshare apartments, secretarial services, and other things he couldn’t afford. He pictured Myles grinning in the morning suit he owned and didn’t need to hire. And instead of staying on for Leicester Square he got off at Kings Cross and took the Hammersmith and City to Whitechapel, because he’d realised how to make progress: discuss the binding of his thesis.
There was a pleasant air of bustle as he came up the wide steps onto Whitechapel Road. A Somali woman was selling alstromeria. He nearly bought a bunch for Kirsty. He headed to the binders’ office in a quiet side street. In the tiny reception area, very quiet, everything was dark brown and somehow timeless, as if the spirit of the old East End still hovered.
He rang the bell and a man in his fifties appeared. He had a friendly face, rounded and lined, with a hare lip. He led Nick into an office with an ancient cast-iron fire surround. The fireplace smelt of soot. There were stacks of card, paper, and string, and reassuring smells of dust and glue.
‘I’m Bill Lloyd,’ he said.
The ‘B’ had an empty sound, like a puff of wind. They discussed the binding and it seemed straightforward. For the first time in days Nick felt relaxed. Perhaps he’d buy alstromeria on the way back. They discussed gold-leaf lettering.
‘The title is Urban Interruptions.’
Lloyd smiled. ‘I get those all the time.’
‘It’s about chapels and churches in ordinary streets in Wales and Venice. All you see is the façade—you don’t realise the bulk, and walk by without noticing.’
‘Tales of the Unexpected?’
They both laughed.
‘And my name, N. A. Bodley.’
‘Not N. E. Boddy? Sorry, working here makes you a bit doolally.’ Again the distorted ‘b’ on ‘bit’. ‘That was a joke about anonymity.’
‘So my thesis should be anonymous?’
He laughed. ‘Why not? After all, who designed Westminster Abbey? Who composed The Ash Grove?’
Nick thought, When Kirsty and I are married we can talk like this all the time.
‘In a sense,’ Lloyd added thoughtfully, ‘your thesis is mine too. I’m part of the culture that produced it.’
‘I’ll acknowledge you for the binding.’ He realised he’d said something crass. ‘Sorry. That’s not what you meant. You were talking about ego.’
‘Egos are like palaces. Beautiful, but high-maintenance.’
The afternoon slid by. Lloyd answered phone calls but always came back to the discussion where they left it. They compared the unknown craftsmen and musicians of the Middle Ages with the celebrity names of the Renaissance. Nick showed Lloyd his illustrations. Instead of nodding politely as might be expected the man bent to look closely, then fixed him with a look.
‘All these chapel façades have something in common, Mr Bodley,’ he said.
‘Yes, yes, but something else. They’re all symmetrical. Balanced. You must find that satisfying.’
‘Ah. Yes, I do.’
Nick felt unusually appreciated. They talked on. When he noticed the clock on the wall it read 4.05 pm. He left the tea Lloyd had poured and rushed out.
A District Line to Embankment came at 4.25. He began to panic—he should have taken the Hammersmith and City again and changed to the Central at Liverpool Street. At Embankment he ran down the escalator and took the Northern to Tottenham Court Road, then realised he should have got off at Leicester Square. It was 4.53. Sweating in the sunshine reflected from the buildings, he hurried to Cambridge Circus with a pounding heart.
The hire shop was closing. They’d shut down their computer.
‘It’s not a problem, sir,’ the assistant said. ‘We open at nine. Collect it then.’
Nick stood in the street breathing deeply. He hadn’t messed up. Everything would be fine.
Or maybe it was the ideas.
He woke at 7.15 beset by restless thoughts. If he tried to settle them they scattered like unruly sheep. He knew he ought to shave and dress in time to collect the suit and come home to change, but first he had to herd the thoughts and pen them in.
He went over the events of the last few weeks. He imagined meeting Leonora. She would have what his academic supervisor called ‘a good crap-detection system’. She would see right through Myles, then turn to him, Nick, for a brilliant conversation while Kirsty looked on approvingly. He relaxed. He remembered the early days with Kirsty, strolling hand-in-hand along the South Bank past jugglers and souvenir sellers. Smiling and looking into one another’s eyes. Realising they’d escaped the greyness of being alone.
As for the suit, it occurred to him that instead of trekking back to Crouch End he could go straight to the church in Kew and change in a vestry. What else was a vestry for? And he wouldn’t have to traipse across London dressed like some ridiculous ringmaster.
He woke again on the dot of nine. Going to the bathroom he caught his pyjama sleeve on the door handle. Before he could stop myself he kicked the door, cracking one of the panels. The rush of anger scared him. He shaved quickly, hand shaking, pulled on jeans and sweater, and rushed out. At the 91 bus stop on The Broadway a realisation hit him like a punch in the stomach. He’d forgotten the wedding present.
The thought of arriving without it made his skin crawl with horror. He hurried back to his flat, seized the package, then headed back to the bus stop. The package had no loop for carrying so he had to hold it under his arm. He alighted from the 91 at Holborn, walked to High Holborn, caught a 38, and arrived at Cambridge Circus at 10.30. Damn! The hire shop was busy. It took half an hour to collect the kit. Standing in the queue, twitching, he couldn’t believe he’d got himself into that position.
He rushed out, caught the Piccadilly from Leicester Square, and changed to the District at Hammersmith. At one point on the escalator the package nearly slipped from under his arm. Filled with anxiety, he put down the heavy case with the morning suit and moved the package to the other arm. The journey seemed unreal, the train’s emergence into the light, the trees and buildings and sunshine and sky like a mockery of what should have been pleasant. But gradually they calmed him. Nothing bad could happen in such a setting. Even if he missed the preamble he’d be there in time for the vows. The vicar would already be in his cassock, so the vestry would be free.
The train arrived at Kew station at 11.49. He walked to the Green, sweating. His calm evaporated. People would be wondering where he was. Would he have to walk down the aisle in jeans, or was there a back entrance? He felt ridiculous with the box of kit under one arm and the present under the other.
The little church with its glowing brickwork was an island in a green sea. Uninhabited, apart from a verger in the porch vacuuming confetti.
‘Where’s the wedding party?’
‘At the river.’ The verger, a small ancient woman with neatly coiffured white hair, looked up at him with a blank expression.
‘What? How could it finish already?’
‘We only allow an hour. It started at eleven.’
Eleven. Palindromic. Unreal.
‘Not twelve? Oh my God. Can I change here?’
‘If you think you won’t miss the boat.’
He dashed straight to the Thames, trying to hold on to his burdens. But where was Kew Pier? He stood on the towpath, confused, and a cyclist swerved to avoid him, cursing. Joggers passed, then a woman walking a dog.
‘Kew Pier?’ he asked her, breathless. She stared. ‘The pier for the boat?’ he insisted. She pointed towards Kew Bridge. He hurried along the path. In the shade under the bridge it was cold after the sunshine. When he emerged the light dazzled him.
And there she was, Serene, under way upstream. He turned back under the bridge to follow. When he emerged into sunlight she was already fifty yards ahead, gaining speed. He ran along the muddy path, dodging dog-walkers and joggers. He tried to call out but was hoarse.
Up on the sun deck, leaning over the rail watching the churning wake, were Angie in sunglasses and a froth of white, and Myles in top hat and tails. Nick waved. They waved back. Perhaps they’d stop the boat? No, it carried on. They must have thought he was some anonymous well-wisher.
Somewhere on board Aunt Leonora’s piercing eyes would be searching for him. He saw Kirsty’s father standing alone, champagne flute in hand, gazing at the distance. By the starboard rail were two figures in peach bridesmaid dresses. One was Kirsty. She was leaning over looking down. Her shoulders were heaving and he thought for a moment she was laughing at something in the river. The other bridesmaid had her arm around her. He felt in his pocket for his phone but in the rush he’d left it behind. Kirsty’s number was stored on it. He knew the digits, but not in the right order.
Then he saw a rower about to launch a single scull. He ran to him.
The man stopped and looked at him. He thought with a shock it was Sam, that colleague of Myles he met at The Gilded Goat. The same bullet head and buzz-cut hair.
‘I can help you?’ the man asked, and Nick realised he was foreign.
‘Can you catch up with that boat?’ He put down the case and pointed upstream where Serene was about to disappear round the bend in the river. ‘And deliver this?’
The man looked from the package to the boat, then at Nick. He frowned and shook his head very slowly.
‘I row alongside I damage my oars. Do you know how much they cost?’
Nick glanced at them. They weren’t spoon shaped like normal oars, more like lopsided shovels.
‘Nice idea though’ said the man. ‘Good luck.’
His accent and the unexpected oars made Nick aware of a wider world. Jostled by joggers and cyclists he felt like throwing the present into the Thames, but suddenly a canvas shopping bag, abandoned beside the towpath, caught his eye. It was big enough to hold the wedding present and had a long loop which he draped over his head, leaving both arms free to hold the fibreboard case.
Serene was out of sight now. Nick turned from the river and very slowly retraced his steps, faint with hunger. He thought about the future, and the future reared up to meet him.