A Quiet Redemption

1

Tony always thought you could tell a lot about a girl from the way she sneezed. Samantha had the softest sneeze he’d ever heard – she expelled what must have been a tiny amount of air in an abrupt, barely audible, “hnn” followed by a faint, “choo.” She would actually say, “choo,” something which had baffled Tony ever since he’d met her on a summer’s evening, the twilight air hanging heavy with pollen which aggravated her hay fever. He couldn’t tell if it was a natural action or an affectation she’d picked up. If it was the latter then he couldn’t for the life of him work out why anyone would wish to sound so wilfully cartoonish. He brought this up a few times over the years and she insisted she had no idea what he was talking about. He suspected this to be a lie.

Yet when he first heard it he found it adorable. He looked upon her as one might a startled kitten. He found himself smiling with every, “bless you.” It was only after they’d been together a while and the happy veneer of early courtship had begun to wear away that it had started to annoy him. It began to represent what he perceived to be a certain falseness to her character. He reasoned that the act of saying, “choo” post sneeze couldn’t possibly be involuntary and therefore authentic and this became the most obvious representation of how she herself was somehow not authentic. As he spent more time with her he began to think of other idiosyncrasies of hers as being inauthentic, and then even aspects of her personality and her taste in things. He began to see her as merely a product of the friends she kept and the media products she consumed. Unlike him, he thought, who had allowed his opinions to evolve through exposing himself to a wide range of different avenues of cultural expression and had chosen passions through logic and diligent reasoning. She was just too easily influenced, he thought; she didn’t agonise over things in quite the same way he did and in his mind that made her somehow less than him, a prejudice brought into sharp focus with every delicately enunciated, “choo.”

In recent times Tony found himself lurching between these two view of her; one moment he saw her strange sneezing habits as a symbol of how sweet and lovable he found her and then the next a symptom of some innate insincerity. It was the former version of her he was trying to focus on whilst slumped in the back of a black cab trundling through the streets of Madrid. It was the fourth night of their holiday, and things were not going well. He stared out into a warm wet night through hazy drunken eyes, the rain crashing hard against the window as foreign lights and lives drifted by. He was trying to think well of her, despite the argument they had been having when they had abruptly parted a few hours earlier. However in his sleep and alcohol addled state he was having trouble staying on the matter at hand. He was a man prone to feeling distanced from other people, a sensation seemingly compounded by the foreign nature of his surroundings. The streets and the people walking them felt so disconnected and unreal to him that he thought the side window of the cab may as well have been a movie screen. He let that idea linger a moment; he could almost hear the creaking and groaning of a projector and see the misty beam of light shining past him onto the window. He wondered if the people huddled under awnings and strolling beneath umbrellas that glided through his periphery were extras in his movie or he in theirs. He’d liked to have thought of himself as leading man material but felt he lacked the requisite confidence and gravitas. Perhaps he was the director, he thought. He wondered if he were to shout, “cut!” they would all stop moving and look his way expecting notes on their performances.

The alcohol was making his thought patterns even more scattered than usual – these ideas popped into his consciousness unbidden and then dripped away again like the rain streaming down the car window. He made a vain attempt to collect them and focus as he rested his head against the seat, watching longingly at the bars and the restaurants passing by. What it was he longed for he couldn’t quite name. Whatever it was it’s identity seemed to hover on the edge of his periphery and sit lightly on the tip of his tongue. Ever present yet never quite there.

Despite the way his evening had gone he was enjoying his journey. Or he was enjoying the periods between the sporadic bouts of lucidity at least – he couldn’t completely forget that his journey was taking him back to his hotel and an inevitable fight with Samantha. But he’d always enjoyed the act of travelling. Which is not to say he enjoyed visiting and experiencing new places; it was the dizzying inertia of the journey rather than the destinations that appealed to him. The simple act of moving without moving. He sometimes thought he could happily spend the rest of his life gazing through a car or a train window at whatever happened to be passing by. It wasn’t even the scenery that interested him; ugly or beautiful, giddily surprising or yawningly ordinary, it didn’t matter. Simply being a passenger was enough.

The cab driver had tried to start a conversation with Tony a couple of times after he had slouched out of a bar and into the back seat. He’d had trouble focussing on what he’d been saying: something about comparing the quirks of the various nationalities of passenger he’d ferried around town or the changes Madrid had seen in recent years. One or the other; Tony wasn’t sure. He’d tried to be responsive but his eyes, aided and abetted by the alcohol, had drifted of their own accord to the window and the city lights shining through it. His usual urge to force an attempt at politeness had been quietly defeated. Sleep was creeping up on him. His eyes wavered in and out of focus. The street lights above refracted through the streaks of rain on the window and became luminous smears against the night sky. He hoped the journey would never end. But inevitably the hotel in which they were staying scrolled into view and the thought of Samantha sitting seething in their hotel room appeared in his mind. He felt his stomach drop. He briefly considered paying the driver to just aimlessly drive him around the city for a while to avoid his well earned scolding. But he was just sober enough to realise how ludicrous that would be.

And so, an awkward exchange later and a fistful of Euros lighter, he stood suddenly awake before the hotel steps. He breathed in deep and tried to stand up straight and defiant as if trying to stare down Samantha from the pavement. As if by projecting himself as suddenly proud and dignified he could rise above the ruthless listing of his failings he assumed Samantha had ready for him. However there was a dissenting voice in the back of his head offering him a way out – he pictured himself walking off in the rain, languid and directionless. Perhaps he’d stop off at a late bar somewhere along the road and get another drink. He rather liked that image, however his better instincts had set his feet in motion towards the hotel steps before temptation had the chance to change his mind. Before he knew it he was stepping into the elevator, his heart starting to pound hard against his ribs. He had no idea what he would say when he reached his room. She’d walked out on him after all, leaving him in some bar across the other side of the city, but he couldn’t claim any higher ground. She’d left in disgust at his attempts to drink himself unconscious. This was not an uncommon occurrence – it was an all too familiar end to an evening. But the wait for the argument that followed never ceased to fill him with dread.

He couldn’t find a way to articulate his reasons. Some nights his mind just seemed to be full of poison. Self admonishments and callous insults for a litany of failures over the course of his adult life seemed to spontaneously blurt out from his subconscious at a unique mental frequency which reverberated around the inside of his skull. It created it’s own feedback loop, each and every harsh word echoing and coalescing into a self abusive wall of sound that would slowly drown everything else out. All new voices and ideas had to swim hard against it’s relentless tide so as not to be beaten back and ignored. He drank to try and quieten it at first, and then when the alcohol had loosened him up he tried to talk over it. But even when he did get loud enough the noise didn’t go away. It continued, just as caustic and ragingly sad, humming along in the background like an air conditioning unit or a faulty refrigerator. It became backing music that coloured any words spoken, no matter the content, tone or timbre, into something miserable and hateful. But he didn’t feel he could ever explain this to Samantha. He was afraid to let her know that he carried this inside him. So he let her think he was just a selfish drunk. For this deception he thought himself noble. Something of a martyr.

The light for his floor blinked into life and the doors slid open. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if there was anywhere else he could feasibly go, any excuse he could make to himself not to have to walk back to his room. But he knew the best he could do would be to grant himself a temporary reprieve which would only make the situation worse. He pictured her sat waiting in their room, coiled like a viper, ready to unleash it’s venom at the first sight of it’s prey. He stood paralysed for a moment until the elevator doors started to close again. He grabbed them instinctively, pushed them open and walked slowly towards his room.

He arrived at the door and searched his pockets for the key card. After a few moments he remembered that Samantha had taken it from him before leaving. He knocked lightly on the door and waited for a response. None came. He tried knocking a little more forcefully, assuming Samantha was punishing him by pretending not to hear his attempts at getting her attention. He tried calling through the door.

“Sam? Sam? Let me in, yeah?”

Still no response came. He knocked harder again and called her name a little louder. When there was still no sign of a reaction from inside his previously apologetic demeanour stiffened. He felt a little annoyed. He was wet, drunk, half asleep and just starting to realise how much he craved the warmth of a bed. He started mentally shifting roles from guilty party to victim.

“C’mon, Sammy, babe. Don’t be like this.” He hammered on the door. The wait was becoming unbearable. Now he just wanted to argue, be chastised, go to sleep and shove this night to the back of his mind with a thousand others he hoped never to remember.

“Seriously, you’re just being childish now. I’m sorry yeah?” Still nothing. He turned around, leant his back against the door and slid to the ground. He sat slumped against it whilst fumbling in his pocket for his phone. He had to squint through his blurred vision but muscle memory helped him find her number. He tapped ‘call’. He expected to hear her ringtone through the door, followed by either a brief, angry exchange or for her to send him a busy signal. Instead the phone just rang with no answer. He began to get worried. She’d told him she was coming straight back, though he supposed her and Gavin could have stayed out a bit longer. Perhaps his punishment would be her staying out and getting wasted for once instead. A taste of his own medicine. But he remembered that Gavin had assured him that he’d make sure she’d get back to the hotel. He tried calling him to see what had happened, but again got no response. He tried to think about the most likely scenario and decided they must have gone to find the girls instead, probably so Samantha could tell them all about how he’d ruined her night. Once she was safe with them Gavin would have likely headed back. He assumed Gavin would be back in his room now with a bottle of red wine watching something mindless on the hotel television. He decided the best course of action would be to go round to his room to share whatever alcohol he had or, if necessary, waking him up for a trip to the hotel bar until the girls returned. He’d have to apologise to Gavin for spoiling his evening but he was sure he’d be forgiven with the promise of a few drinks. Then he would just have to wait for his uppance to come.

When he got to the corridor of Gavin’s room he noticed that his door was propped open. As he got closer he tried to make out what was keeping the door ajar. Eventually he manage to focus enough to identify the item as a woman’s shoe laying unbuckled on it’s side between the door and it’s frame. How it had come to be there was made obvious by the sounds seeping through the door and turning Tony’s stomach like some noxious gas. His mind struggled to resist joining the dots – he knew he did not want to see what he was about to see. But against his better instincts he was already in motion. He gingerly pushed the door further open. It took his mind a while to process the scene. Samantha was bent over the edge of the bed, naked apart from a bra, the cups pulled under her dangling breasts, her muddy blonde hair matted to her face with sweat as Gavin stood behind her, gripping her hips, pounding into her from behind. Tony stood there for a moment unable to move, watching her flesh ripple and judder under Gavin’s forceful strokes. A maelstrom of emotions swirled inside him fighting for dominance, ultimately cancelling each other out and leaving him dumbfounded. He knew he should make himself known, that he couldn’t just stand there and watch this betrayal unfold. That each second of inaction, of witnessing, was a fresh scar on his mind. With one hand holding the door open he knocked hard with the other. Gavin stopped abruptly and both of them turned to him.

“Oh, fuck, Tony..” Samantha started, breathlessly.

“Oh shit, fuck!” Gavin added. Samantha pulled herself off of him and crawled across the bed to grab the bedsheets, fumbling to push her breasts back into her bra as she went. Gavin grabbed a pillow to cover his erection whilst rubbing his face as if trying to awake from a bad dream. Tony looked from one to another, his mouth moving as if to try to start a sentence. He was unable to make a sound. He felt light headed and ready to pass out. He spotted his room key in an ashtray on the sideboard. It took all his strength to make the step into the room and grab it. He then turned, dragged the shoe propping the door open with his foot into the room, and left slamming the door shut behind him.

“Oh fuck!” Gavin yelled. He hit the wall behind the bed with the side of a tightened red fist. Samantha sat back on the bed, shaking her head in disbelief. She started to cry silently. For a minute or two neither of them moved or said a word, her occasional sobs the only sound in the room.

“Don’t cry, Sam…it’ll…it’ll be alright,” Gavin said after a time. Samantha looked up at him with angry wet eyes.

“How the fuck will it be alright?”

“Well, I mean…”

“What? He’ll just…get over it? Just like that?” Gavin had no response. “Oh god, what the fuck was I thinking?”

“For fucks sake…this isn’t happening.” Gavin started pacing the room and idly started looking around for his underwear.

“Yes it is, Gav. It really fucking is. How could…” Her sentence trailed off as if her lips and tongue struggled to get around the scale of what had happened.

After a while, Samantha said:

“How could you do this to him?”

“Me?!”

“Well it was your idea, wasn’t it. You kissed me! You’re supposed to be his best friend!”

“And you’re his fucking girlfriend! You don’t kiss back!”

“I can’t believe you took advantage of me.”

“Took advantage? You have to be fucking kidding me!”

“Yes, took advantage! I’m drunk and I was pissed at him for being such a -”

“- a pisshead? A bit hypocritical isn’t it?”

“I only drank so much because I was so mad at him. He was drinking himself stupid again…”

“So, what? You thought you’d fight fire with fire? That’s always productive.”

“Y’know you were a lot more sympathetic when you were trying to get into my knickers.”

Gavin exhaled sharply, staring at the ceiling, trying to keep the shameful rage he felt from boiling over. “I’m sorry, it’s just…a fucked up situation.”

“No fucking shit.”

Neither of them spoke for a while. Neither of them had any idea what would come next. Samantha wondered if there was any chance of rescuing her relationship. The holiday was a write off, she reasoned, but they had a few days left without any real world concerns to interfere with them talking things through. She wondered if she was capable of making a mistake like this at home or if the distance had somehow made her more reckless. And whether that distance might help in saving them – that once they were back in their own flat this would seem like something from another life altogether.

Gavin, however, had other concerns.

“Y’know, the worst part is I didn’t even fucking cum,” he said, wearing his best playful smile. He hoped the veil of humour might protect him from reproach.

Samantha looked round at him wearing an expression of pure disgust.

“Is that supposed to be funny? Is this a joke to you?”

“Ok, too early for laughs I guess.” He started putting on his jeans.

“Wait…you were serious, weren’t you? You want to carry on?”

“No, no that would be too fucked up…wouldn’t it?”

Sam stared at him for a moment, dumbfounded. Then she threw a pillow at him with as much force she could muster.

“Jesus Christ what is wrong with you?! Your best friend is probably in fucking pieces because of you and you’re still thinking with your cock!”

“I was fucking kidding, calm down!”

“Yeah, right. You can finish up once I’m gone. Don’t you dare look at me to help. I feel sick enough thank you..”

“Oh, what, so now I repulse you? You didn’t seem too repulsed a minute ago!”

“Yeah, you repulse me! I repulse me! What have we fucking done.. he doesn’t even have his best friend to turn to. You were supposed to be the dependable one..”

“Yeah but you’ve been with him what, five years? You were -”

“Six.”

“-six, six years! You were supposed to be dependable too. He fucking loves you. I mean..”

He trailed off, not entirely sure how he intended to finish the sentence he’d started. And as the two shamed lovers argued over who should burden the most blame Tony took a seat in the hotel bar. He ordered himself a drink, and as he did a smile began to spread across his face.

2

As Gavin and Samantha continued to bicker and point fingers at each other 4 floors above him Tony stared into a slowly settling pint of Guinness, watching the brown bubbles swirl round in a manner not unlike the way the evenings alcohol swirled in his stomach. He wondered why he’d ordered it. It suddenly seemed like a terrible idea. He should have bought a short, he thought, something less dense that would go down with less hassle. He rubbed his weary eyes and as he ran his hand down his face he felt that he was still smiling. Fuck it, he thought, I just found my best friend balls deep in my girlfriend. He got the barman’s attention with a red eyed stare and some limp hand waving and ordered a whisky chaser. Normally he wasn’t the type to want a chaser, being more than capable of getting drunk on beer alone, but still he knocked it back in one gulp. He told the barman to keep them coming and felt pleased with himself. It was a cliché he’d always wanted to find himself in, though as the vicious perfume of the liquor attacked his sinuses he wondered how anyone could drink like that without retching. He managed to stall a disgusted shudder until the barman turned his back to pour another.

Fuck it, he thought, I just found my best friend balls deep in my girlfriend. The phrase amused him. He found himself snorting with laughter. He stopped himself; he didn’t want to appear too crazy, although he quite fancied telling someone of his woes. He wondered if he could worry the barman into asking him about his troubles. Do people actually do that, he mused to himself, do people just pour their hearts out to sympathetic barmen while they run up a tab? Would he keep pouring and listening, nodding with a sorry smile at appropriate moments, until they got to a, “don’t you think you’ve had enough, pal?” moment? Or is that just some Hollywood lie? Would he instead just hear the dishevelled guest at the end of the bar laugh madly to himself and quietly ask the doorman to take him outside?

He was never much of a gambler. He stayed quiet.

For six years he had loved Samantha, and for two or three of those he had hated her every bit as much. A part of him wanted a clean break, to never see her face or hear her name again. But another equal part of him couldn’t bear to even consider this thought seriously. In his minds eye he could see a road stretching out over the horizon. A highway that reached out into eternity, leading to anywhere and everywhere, a road that seemed to suggest all of life’s possibilities, a million scenes and situations he’d never experienced and could barely conceive of experiencing. Myriad potential futures all infinitely brighter and more vivid than the one he saw for himself whilst stuck with Samantha. And he longed to be on it.

As he had so often in his life he found himself feeling sorrow for all the mistakes he had never bothered to make, the ghosts of regrets he felt where more worthwhile and real than the actual regrets he carried with him. On his worst days he saw Samantha as a tether keeping him from setting out on the road in his mind. But following the scene that burned in his mind from room 413 he felt the beginnings of a joy, of a freedom, starting to grow in the pit of his alcohol sodden stomach. He couldn’t stop smiling. Of course he knew that behind the release he had started to feel lied a betrayal he would have to face up to at some point. But he pushed that feeling down for the moment and let the joy rise above it. 4 stories above him blame and recrimination were being tossed around and he knew some of it would find it’s way to him sooner or later. But whilst Samantha and Gavin tried to satisfactorily divvy up the guilt, Tony took a gulp of his Guinness and wondered who to thank.

Who came onto who he wondered? He tried to picture the seduction but as he did he felt his heart plummet and a queasiness overcome him. The ugly reality of the situation, the image he saw when he walked into room 413, was something he just couldn’t bear yet. He tried to think of the bigger picture again, this event as a turning point in the grand narrative of his life. He tried to consider it a necessary evil. But he was beginning to realise that often necessary evils are not to be looked at too closely if one wants to remain convinced that the ends justify the means.

He searched for something to take his mind off of that image. Often when his mind started racing in a direction he didn’t like Tony started to imagine potential futures for himself. Scenes from a hypothetical life where his suffering was over and he’d used it as grist for his work. The nature of said work changed depending on his mood: some days he was a film director wowing the critics with moving portrayals of his sadness. Other days he was a songwriter; he could almost hear the ringing chords and mournful strings swoop and soar against his suddenly perfect baritone. Some days he was a prizewinning author; others a lionized playwright. In his mind he was all of these things, but he only ever had one subject he wrote about: himself. And in most of these imaginings it wasn’t the writing he was thinking of; it was him discussing his great works in hindsight. He’d give thoughtful interviews to adoring chat show hosts and broadsheet journalists. They’d want to know all about him; his motivations, his influences. What it was that inspired these tales of woe. They’d treat his sadness like a firefly in a jar. He’d be polite but guarded, keeping hidden more than he gave way, leaving them with a few pithy quotes and humourous yet profound aphorisms, but ultimately remaining an enigma.

In his minds eye he wasn’t sat at the bar wrestling with the idea of Samantha’s infidelity. He was waiting for a journalist to arrive to interview him. He tried to capture the rhythm and tone of the piece they’d write about him.

It doesn’t take long to spot Tony Hunter in a bar. He wears a certain dishevelment with an ease and elegance that many men couldn’t manage in the finest of tailored suits. At first glance you might not make much of the man sat on a bar stool, folded arms rested on the bar top, clad in a crumpled black shirt, off colour chinos and well worn brogues. But something will nag at you. Something about his demeanour exudes a graceful melancholy that carries a weight that can permeate even a crowded bar room.

He smiled and drained a couple of mouthfuls of Guinness, congratulating himself on the quality of his mental prose. He thought of a perfect closing line as the barman delivered his second whiskey:

And so he leaves, and the room feels lighter…less even. And as his silhouette shrinks from the hotel doorway we can’t wait to read about wherever it is that he’s going.

He was getting ahead of himself, he though. He skipped backwards, and imagined questions being asked of him in a soft, playful female voice.

“Of course your first movie, ‘Killing the Dream,’ was inspired by events from your own life.”

“That’s right.”

“Is it true that the famous scene of the protagonist interrupting his wife and her lover, his best friend, was based on something you yourself experienced?”

“Well, yes. That isn’t something I like to discuss, as you can imagine. It was a long term partner rather than my wife. A few details are different. You only want art to imitate life so much. Any more and it becomes unbearable.”

He was distracted by the sound of voices behind him. He turned for a moment, worried his musings were about to be disrupted by a vulgar crash of reality. He was grateful to find it was no one he knew.

“That must have been an incredibly shocking and traumatic thing to witness. How long did it take you to come to terms with this? And how did your feelings surrounding the event shape the story?”

“To be honest it didn’t take me all that long. I’ve always been something of a pessimist, with a very low level of faith in humanity. I always assume such betrayals are inevitable. But of course it came as a shock. It took a little while to come to terms with. As for how it shaped the story…well, it was the story. The thoughts and emotions that crystallised after that moment, those were what I hoped to capture for it. The contradictory nature of grief and mourning…moments of almost enjoyment that can come with it. One thing about seeing the worst in everything is that when the worst comes you at least have the satisfaction of being right. If nothing else. And I’d always felt I had a great work in me somewhere, I’d just spent far too much time idling around not using my talents. I suppose I was somewhat like a stuck ketchup bottle needing a good shake. And seeing your beloved with your best friend…well, that’ll shake you up all right.”

Tony’s daydreaming was broken by Vicki’s shrill shriek of a laugh suddenly cutting through the bar. She and Chloe had returned from their night on the town and had come to pick up a bottle of wine before going up to their room.

All five of them had gone out as a group in the afternoon and had been split up and reunited a few times over the course of the day. When the idea of this holiday was initially discussed between Tony and Samantha it was as a holiday for just the two of them. But, to Tony’s surprise, she had started inviting other people. She talked up the idea of a party holiday, something he wasn’t in favour of. He knew that she knew him well enough to know this and suspected it was to avoid being alone with him. The party had swelled up to 12 at one stage before the inevitable atrophying of travellers due to the twin evils of money and time. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. He invited Gavin as he was the only friend he knew who would take him up on the offer and didn’t want to be embarrassed by travelling alone whilst Samantha took two friends.

“…and they’re all so touchy-feely on the continent, aren’t they? Did you see how he was pawing at me?”

“Pawing?”

“Yeah, he could stop touching me with that big grin on his face. I’d have told him to buy me dinner first I thought he’d have known what I was saying.”

Tony braced himself for being engaged in conversation. He knew Chloe would want any exchange to be as brief as possible. She was the stronger of the two personalities so he assumed she would get her way. She had never liked him, which suited Tony fine. Vicki however had always been much warmer to him and if she got her way they might stay for a while. He liked her but hoped she wouldn’t. He wanted to return to his thoughts.

“He was gorgeous though, wasn’t he?” Chloe said, giddy and drunk. Tony pretended not to hear them as they approached the bar.

“He was, yeah.”

“He was trying to get me to go back with him I think.”

“You were tempted a bit, weren’t you?”

“Mmmmmaybe a little…”

“What are you like you slapper!”

“Oi, I’m on holiday, aren’t I? Nothing wrong with a bit of holiday romance. It’s not like it’s real, is-”

She stopped mid sentence and Tony knew he’d been spotted. He took a deep breath.

“Oh, hi Tony,” said Vicki. “What are you doing down here on your todd?” He turned around to greet them wearing his best against-the-odds smile.

“Oh, hi you two. Uh..how’s it going?”

Chloe ignored him. “Where’s Sam and Gavin?”

“That’s…uh….that’s a long story. How was your night?”

“What do you mean ‘a long story’?”

“They’re…they’re not back yet.”

“Are you alright hun?” asked Vicki.

“Yeah, yeah fine. I’m fine.” Tony wanted to change the subject but couldn’t think of a thing to say. He wanted to ask about the men they’d been talking about but felt too awkward to know how to start. He always tried to sound natural when forced into speaking but light conversation always stuck in his mouth like peanut butter, his cadences and phrasing sounding off and forced to his ears. He spent so much time in his own thoughts that whenever he was called upon to speak his tongue always felt tired and clumsy. As far as he was concerned life was just something that just went on around him and he never really saw it as his place to get involved with it. The outer world played out like a movie and he was merely a critic pulling it all apart in his mind. And as much as any critic if somehow thrust into the scene of a movie he or she were judging would be entirely lost and unsure how to act, so he was whenever people tried to interact with him. A critic may have seen enough acting to be able to become broadly involved in the scene, perhaps uttering enough clichés and bluffing through back and forths to appear broadly competent, but it wouldn’t take long for that façade to wear away and leave them stood dumbfounded. They could never lose themselves in a scene. And neither could Tony. He couldn’t forget himself, even for a moment. Even whilst thousands of miles from home, free from all burdens and responsibilities, he still couldn’t shake his usual detached feeling as he silently criticised his performance.

“Are you sure? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, seriously. How was your night?”

“Better than yours by the looks of it,” said Chloe. Vicki gave her annoyed look but stayed quiet.

“Yeah, I imagine it was.”

“Get a bit tipsy, did we?”

“Leave him alone Chlo, he’s upset.”

“Who says I’m upset? I’m fine. And reasonably sober as it happens,” Tony mumbled.

“Yeah, you sound it.”

“I always sound like this. I’m just a bit…awkward.”

“Yeah, we know.”

“Chlo!”

“Anyway, I need to go to the ladies. Get the wine in Vicks, yeah?”

Cloe swayed on her way towards the ladies room, leaving Tony and Vicki alone.

“So how come she didn’t go off with this guy then?” said Tony, wanting to change the subject.

“Oh, you heard that?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she says she didn’t want to off without me..”

“Ah, right. That’s nice of her.”

“Not really, that’s not why she didn’t.”

“No?”

“No. I probably shouldn’t tell you this but…”

“What?”

“She’s…still a bit stuck on Gavin.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah. Don’t tell her I’ve said that, she’d kill me.” Tony waved his hands in a gesture he hoped signified her secret would be safe with him. “I only mention it because I’ve been meaning to ask you..does he talk about her at all?”

“You’re playing cupid, eh?” He couldn’t think about Gavin without feeling his muscles tighten and his jaw clench.

“Haha, well you know…I just thought they made a cute couple. And she keeps mentioning him. She won’t admit she still likes him, but…”

“Well, I dunno about cute. They suited each other though.”

“Yeah, I thought so.” Tony was glad she wasn’t picking up on the bitterness in his voice. He didn’t want her to think ill of him.

“Gavin though…well, he isn’t very smart when it comes to women.”

“Hah, no he’s not is he? I’m not sure what she sees in him to be honest..”

The longer the conversation went on the less comfortable Tony felt. He could swear his skin was tightening. He felt a little proud of himself for maintaining a conversation for so long, before chastising himself for being pleased with such a tiny achievement. He just wanted to get back to drinking in peace. He knew he wouldn’t be short of people paying attention to him when they found out what had happened. He wanted to enjoy the time until then as much as he could.

“Do you think he’s still interested then?”

“Actually I think he’s kinda into someone else at the minute.”

“Anyone I know?”

“It’s…well, it’s a long story.”

“Another one? You’re full of stories aren’t you? Always so mysterious. Clo’s not gonna be happy if she finds out, but she’ll probably not give up without a fight…what’s wrong?”

Tony’s eyes had glassed over. He tried to hide it but let out an involuntary whimper whilst breathing in. He put his head in his hands and tried to wave her away.

“Tone…where are Gav and Sam?”

“They’re upstairs.”

“What are they doing…” Tony looked up at Vicki through tear drenched eyes and she knew.

“Oh my god…I can’t believe it. Did you…how do you…” She trailed off. Tony looked up to see Chloe on her way back. He did his best to straighten up.

“Don’t tell her, ok? I don’t know what to do yet.”

“Hey guys, what’s with the deep and meaningful?” asked Chloe.

“Ah, y’know…rough night,” Tony replied, as clear as he could.

“Yeah, it sounds it…aww Vicks, you haven’t got the wine yet!” she leant over the bar and waved at the barman. “Excuse me, can I have a bottle of house white please?” Vicki smiled at Tony in solidarity. He tried to mirror her.

“Well, shall we take these upstairs then?”

“We can’t just leave him here..”

“Why, he’s just got pissed and they’ve had an argument. Same as every week.”

“Chlo!”

“What? It’s true isn’t it? He’s just a fucking pisshead.”

“Leave him alone, he’s having a bad night.”

Tony looked around, embarrassed. He resented the way people would have conversations about him whilst he was there, and he hated himself for not feeling able to interject. He spotted Samantha looking in at them through the glass door at the entrance of the bar . He weighed up which was worse – sitting there as a conversational tennis ball between Chloe and Vicki and having to face Samantha. He got up.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled.

“Where are you going?” asked Vicki. Tony ignored her, knocking back the last of his Guinness and walking towards the door. As soon as he’d gone through it and stood face to face with Samantha he realised he had no idea what to say. He settled on, “hi.”

“Hi Tony.” They stood in silence for a moment. Eventually she added, “I don’t know what to say to you right now.”

“Well, that makes two of us.”

“Gavin wants to speak to you.”

“…what?” He stared at her for a moment, incredulous.

“He wants to talk.”

“That’s..that’s all you’ve got to say to me?” She nodded, staring at the ground. “He’s already got you running errands for him? He always was a fast worker.”

“It’s not like that-”

“-isn’t it?”

“I just…I don’t know what to say to you yet.”

“So instead, after what I just saw, all you’ve got to say is that my best friend who I just caught fucking you fancies a chat? Really?”

“Don’t, Tone, please…”

“How could you Sam? With Gav? Of all the fucking people in the world it had to be fucking Gav, didn’t it?”

“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry…” she said between sobs, and as much as he didn’t want to Tony believed her. To maintain the anger he felt he needed to think of her as cold and calculating, worthy of hatred, deserving of leaving. But she looked so small and fragile he couldn’t keep that up. I just got cheated on and I already feel guilty he thought to himself. He took a deep breath to gather his resolve. He heard the door behind him open and turned to see Chloe and Vicki standing wearing matching expressions of concern. Tony realised that to Chloe the scene would look like she was the injured party, something she’d be quick to believe.

“I’d better go see what he wants then, eh?” he said before she could interrupt. He walked past Samantha without looking at her, as if she was a piece of furniture, an obstacle to avoid. That’s the least she deserves, he thought, without conviction. He could hear Vicki consoling Samantha behind him as Chloe bluntly demanded an explanation. He got into the lift and couldn’t help but smile to himself that the thought that Chloe was about to find out she too had been betrayed. He wished he’d been able to tell her himself.

Once he reached Gavin’s floor Tony stepped out of the lift and stood for a while. He had no idea what he was going to say to him. He’d had a similar conversation once before. Gavin had delivered a drunken confession of infidelity from some years after the fact. Tony had forgiven him then. He’d told him it didn’t matter. Which, in some ways, it didn’t; for Tony people existed almost entirely in the present. Though he brooded over the past a lot of the time it was his own actions and failings he trawled through. He wasn’t really interested in other peoples motivations. This time however it was different: the heat of the moment was still unbearable. He was to walk into the conversation with the betrayal still laying fresh and bleeding before him.

He found himself standing before Gavin’s doorway and he hesitated. He felt he should be ready and willing for an argument. That he should have a telling off ready on the tip of his tongue. But instead he felt afraid. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and knocked on the door. After a few moments it opened and Gavin stood in front of him, head bowed. Tony walked past him wordlessly.

“Thanks for coming up,” Gavin said.

“Yeah, well…” He walked into the hotel room and stood with his back to him, looking round, unsure where to put himself.

“Uh, take a seat?” said Gavin whilst opening the mini bar.

“Nah, I’d sooner stay stood.”

“Fair enough. Beer? I wouldn’t normally get anything out of one of these things but given the circumstances…”

“Well, it is a special occasion.”

“Tone…”

“Or am I supposed to forgive you for spending a few quid on a beer for me? Are we quits now?”

“I don’t know what to say to you Tone.”

“Well, that was worth me coming up for then.”

“Look, I don’t blame you for being pissed at me-”

“-well that’s, fuckin’, gracious of you-”

“-but I want you to know I didn’t mean it to happen. I never meant to hurt you.”

Tony had no response. It sounded like a stock answer, like it was just something Gavin was just expected to say. Rehearsed lines, clichés so worn they were completely devoid of meaning. They were barely even words now, just noises. He felt like he was on a straight to TV movie set: as he turned to face Gavin he half expected to see cameras and boom mics and a bored looking director waiting for him to say his lines so they could get the whole thing over with. He felt cheated.

“What does that even fucking mean?”

“What?”

“You ‘never meant it to happen.’ You ‘didn’t mean to hurt me.’ That’s just…that’s just bullshit. You knew. You fucking did it anyway.”

“I didn’t. I never wanted…”

“Fuck off.”

“I don’t blame you for making this easy on me.”

“Well, that’s good, so long as you’re not blaming me. I’m not the one who fucked my best friend’s girlfriend after all.”

“Look, she was drunk and upset after you got fucked up again..”

“-well it’s nice of you to comfort her so…so…thoroughly. Um, thank you?”

“Come on man, be reasonable.”

“Really? Fucking really?!”

“You left me to look after her man, on holiday out here-”

“-I’m not sure time zone is a factor in this man-”

“-and we were drinking-”

“-you don’t look that pissed to me-”

“-well…shit like this sobers you up, y’know? You should know man – you should be unconscious the way you were putting it away. But, yeah…we were drinking and she was crying on my shoulder and it just happened. It just…happened.”

“Stop saying that! Nothing just happens! If you were sober enough to have sex you were sober enough to know you shouldn’t have sex with her. Stop telling me it just happened.” Tony was pacing around the room – the anger he knew he was supposed to be feeling finally taking him in it’s teeth. “In the back of your mind you knew you shouldn’t be doing it. Doesn’t matter how pissed you were. You knew. At some point you just thought, “fuck it.” All the years, all we’ve been through, you get a chance to get laid and you think, “fuck Tony. Fuck him!”

He fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.

“You can’t smoke in here..”

“Fucking watch me!” He walked over to the sideboard where Gavin had left his souvenir ashtray. He patted down his pockets for a moment.

“You need a lighter?”

He couldn’t help but smile to himself. Of course I do. I can’t even throw a strop without help.

He looked over at Gav. “Gimme.” He caught the lighter and lit up.

“You’ll probably set the fire alarm off.”

“Who the fuck cares.” It felt good doing what he wanted for once. Not asking permission. Just following any whims that came to him. For a moment at least, until the slightly tragic nature of his minor rebellion dawned upon him.

“What do you want me to say, Tone?”

“You can start with, “have another beer.”

“You haven’t finished that one!” Tony smiled at him. Gavin sighed, grabbed another bottle from the mini bar and passed it over to him.

“Cheers. Since I guess it’s not possible for you to unfuck my girlfriend that’s about all you can do.”

“Jesus Tony.” he got up and opened the window whilst Tony stood smoking, swaying lightly, tapping ash into the ashtray on the sideboard.

“Hey, I only just bought that!”

“So? This is what it’s for, isn’t it?” Gav sighed and gave up.

“Look, Tony. It’s not like this is entirely my fault.”

“Ah, so it’s Sam’s fault.”

“It’s no one’s fault..”

“Of course it fucking is!”

“It just happened!”

“Fuck off!”

“I wish it didn’t but it did. I’m sorry.”

“You’re fucking sorry! Fucking sorry!” He jabbed out his cigarette. His mind went black for a moment. The next thing he knew Gavin was narrowly dodging an ashtray hurtling towards his head. It crashed against the wall behind him and shattered. Tony’s anger sapped away, along with his new found rebellious streak, when he saw the look on Gavin’s face. They stared at each other for a moment. Tony tried to maintain an indignant look about him, but his mind started to panic. He thought Gavin might turn violent and knew that violence wouldn’t end well for him.

“What the fuck?” said Gavin eventually, breaking the silence.

“Oh shit, I…”

“You broke my ashtray!”

“I’m sorry…” Tony said, and immediately hated himself for apologising so quickly and easily.

“You could have killed me!”

“Oh come on man..”

“You could! That was fucking heavy!”

“I missed. You’re fine.”

“Yeah, luckily!” Gavin paused and looked down at the remains of his souvenir. “I can’t believe you threw an ashtray at me!”

“Calm down, you know I can’t throw for shit.”

“You could have fucking killed me!”

“You fucked my girlfriend!”

“That’s no reason to kill me!”

“Don’t be so melodramatic for fuck’s sake.”

“You could have smashed my skull in! What the fuck were you thinking?!”

“I wasn’t thinking..” said Tony, realising his mistake immediately.

“What was that you were saying? About knowing what you’re doing in the back of your mind and thinking, “fuck him?” Is that what you thought then? “This could kill him, but fuck him?”

“No, of course not..”

“That’s a bit extreme don’t you think?”

“Yeah but that was just a split second, whereas you and Sam…I don’t wanna think about how long you two were…anyway what are we talking about, it went nowhere near you!”

“You could have killed me!” said Gavin. Tony looked at him and realised he was smiling. He was enjoying this.

“This is going nowhere,” said Tony, heading towards the door.

“Oh yeah, just try to kill a guy and walk away, that’s just your style that is.”

Tony laughed. He tried to stifle it but he couldn’t. He was amused, he wanted to laugh, but he felt like he’d lost. He looked around at Gavin who smiled at him, looking him in the eye as if they were sharing the joke. Tony tried his best to harden his face and left.

He didn’t know where he was going. He just knew he couldn’t stay in that room. They were edging closer towards a reconciliation and him forgiving him, or at least telling him he had for an easier life. He thought the least Gavin deserved was a little more time spent uncertain. He wished he was strong enough to do worse things to him. He felt disgusted with himself. The stress, the lack of sleep and the nights alcohol combined to leave him feeling delirious as well as miserable. A common feeling, he realised. Even when I’m not in the middle of a damn soap opera I go to bed hating myself . He couldn’t help but wonder whether he kept coming back to this feeling because the sensation he felt when the flailing strands of his thoughts latched onto some horrifying idea of his life, feeling as if a trapdoor had opened up beneath him and he was falling inexorably, staring upwards into darkness – that feeling was the closest he’d ever come to the feeling of being alive.

That would be a great opening line, he thought. When he got around to writing his story, be it in text or on celluloid, that was how he’d start it:

“I’m always somehow keeping myself from falling, from hitting rock bottom. And I can’t decide which would be worse – the thought of it finally happening, or the thought of it never happening.”

He set off back towards the bar, hoping to find it empty again, and found himself swaying through the corridor. He fell sideways into the wall and struggled to prop himself up with his shoulder. So he decided to do the sensible thing instead. He dug his hand into his pocket, found the key card to his room and decided it was time for bed.

Once he’d fumbled with the lock and opened the door he undressed quickly, yanking his trouser leg over his shoe before it occurred to him he was perhaps undressing in the wrong order. After he’d stripped down to his underwear he took a moment to stare out of the window at the lights below. He let out a long sigh and felt embarrassed at how melodramatic it sounded.

“It’s a big world,” he thought. “How come it’s so easy to consistently find yourself in the wrong part of it?”

Another good line, he thought. I should be writing these down.

“All my life I’ve thought of myself as a man on the verge of…something. Of becoming something more. That I would one day step out of this life of mine and create something beautiful. But instead I hide behind quiet eyes whilst raging at the world. Sometimes I worry…I worry that if I don’t get around to the act of creating that something then the anger will spill out from me in some other way, that it’ll become just too much for my fragile frame to contain. There’s a fuse attached to me like a tail that’s been burning away for my whole life. Sooner or later I’m gonna explode outwards, a human bomb, and woe betide anyone unfortunate to be around me when it happens.”

“Oh yeah? What are you gonna do?” a voice asked him. Another female voice. They were always female.

“Well, I’ve been promising myself a breakdown for a good many years now. A full blown job. Drugs, drink, whores. Maybe I’ll have a stint of being homeless, or maybe I’ll get myself sectioned. I dunno. I don’t want to go off the rails a little, I want to fly off them like the train crash from some big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Explosions, the screech of metal against metal as I slide jackknifed toppling nearby trees and pedestrians and cars and whatever else is around at the time. No survivors.

But it just never feels like the right time.”

He stared out in the Spanish night wondering where he could possibly go or what he could possibly do to start anew. The gnawing sensation that he should be doing something else was always with him. As for what it was he drew nothing but blanks.

Resigned, he turned and dropped onto the bed. Despite the rain lessening the humidity his room was still stiflingly hot and he felt no urge to get under the covers. Instead he slithered upwards, turned onto his side and buried his head into the pillows. He tried to make sense of the past few hours but didn’t know where to begin. As soon as he started talking to Samantha and Gavin he was reminded that the clean break he wanted would never be all that clean. He’d been submerged under an avalanche of regret and recrimination. For a minute he thought that sleep wouldn’t be possible for him with so much to think about, but before he knew it his eyelids had drawn closed and he drifted into a drunken half-consciousness.

He pictured himself in a room he recognised but couldn’t place. The décor was minimalist, sparse and foreign like a museum gallery or another hotel room. It didn’t feel lived in; it felt like a show home or the room in a catalogue, or the made up rooms in a furniture store, everything having a designated place, designed to inspire want and need. There were two chairs of pure white plastic in the centre of the room, between them a table with two glasses on it, one half full of wine from the bottle next to it and one empty. The chair closest to him wasn’t occupied, but the other was. In a thin dark blue cashmere dress and knee high brown boots sat Charlotte Gainsbourg, legs crossed at the knee, drawing softly from a thin cigarette. She looked up and smiled at him, and with the slightest movement of her smoking hand gestured for him to sit down. Tony glided toward the chair with a grace he didn’t know he possessed, he sat down. He gestured toward the wine. She nodded. He poured himself a glass and then held the bottle over her glass. She smiled and he topped her glass up. Then he sat back, took a sip from his glass and smiled at her.

“So, Charlotte. May I call you Charlotte?”

“Of course,” she said, her French accent sending a warm shiver up Tony’s spine.

“So, Charlotte. What shall we talk about?”

“I can see only one thing for us to discuss.”

“And that is?”

“You’ve had a busy night night, have you not?” she said, tilting her head and smiling with her eyes at him.

“Oh. That.”

“Yes. That.”

“To be honest I could do with some respite from that. Can we talk about something else?”

“By all means. What did you have in mind?” Tony thought on this for a time. It seemed that whilst he was sat in the plastic chair staring admiringly at Charlotte Gainsbourg he was also simultaneously standing at the end of the bed in room 413, watching Gavin and Samantha in the throes of ecstasy, moving against each other in slow motion. The two images seemed to be superimposed over each other, the serene image of Charlotte occupying the same space as them both, their facial expressions appeared exaggerated and grotesque, the look of orgasmic passion on Samantha’s face and the aggressive lust on Gavin’s almost cartoon like in their intensity.

“No respite for you it seems. Poor Tony.”

“Yes, poor Tony. I think I need a cigarette.”

“Smoking in your sleep? Oh, that is a terrible habit.” She smiled and pulled a cigarette out of a plain silver case. She gently tossed it over to him.

“Somehow I don’t think it will hurt.” He lit the cigarette and the vision of his lover’s betrayal faded from view. He looked out of the window to his side for a moment. A plain blue sky.

“What should I do, Charlotte?”

“That is not for me to say.”

“Why not?”

“You do not know yourself, and this is your dream.”

“That’s not much help.” She just shrugged and watched him for a while.

“What? What are you looking at?”

“I’m waiting for you to decide where this is going.”

“How do you mean?”

“This is your dream. I’m part of you. Whatever happens is up to you.”

“So..I can control you?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Why not?” Again she shrugged.

“Are you…my subconscious?”

“Yes and no.”

Tony sighed. “Meaning?”

“The sub-conscious is an elusive thing, Tony. We don’t get to just ask it questions and have them answered.”

“I guess that’s why I chose you to represent mine.”

“Yes, I suppose so. I’m French, which in your mind is associated with philosophy and radical thought. You see me and being somehow cultured and otherworldly. Which is how you would like to see yourself.”

“I guess so.”

“Which is of course ridiculous. In reality I am not otherworldly or ethereal in any way – I piss and shit just like everyone else.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“You want to see?”

“Er..no. No, that’s not really my thing.” She shrugged.

“It’s your dream.”

There was a long pause. He’d had lucid dreams before, but this was more intensely real than any he had experienced before.

“I want to leave her,” Tony said eventually.

“Perhaps you should. Maybe it is fate, you two parting.”

“I don’t believe in fate. T think I’d like to, but…well, sometimes I find the idea preposterous. And cruel. So many people die alone, unfulfilled, unnecessarily, unmourned, every day. What kind of a bastard would you have to be to believe that was what was meant for them? That there was nothing they could do to avoid it? It’s just too cruel to believe in. You know, I used to think the same about god.”

“And now?”

“I don’t think about god.”

“Too busy thinking of yourself?”

“Probably. Sometimes I think I don’t believe in any kind of higher power because it hurts so much to think that there is some grand plan to all of this but I’m not really part of it. Perhaps fate is real but it just isn’t concerned with me at all. Maybe only people who are meant to do important things are fated to do so and the rest of us have to fend for ourselves. I dunno.”

“That is one way to look at it. Or maybe fate thinks you’re alright on your own and you’ll find your own way.”

“Maybe. It still seems unfair though.”

“We are all spoiled children competing for god’s fickle affections.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know, probably something from a book you read or a movie you saw. As I say, essentially I’m you.”

“And I’ve never looked so good.”

“Flattery is nice, but it won’t get your questions answered.”

“I’m getting the feeling they aren’t going to get answered regardless. Is it my fate to break up with Sam? Is that the path I should be on?”

“Maybe you should just make your mind up for yourself.”

“So fate is irrelevant?”

“I don’t know, this is you speculating. And you don’t believe in fate.”

“You’re not much help you know.”

“Well, you seem unwilling to help yourself. Just because you’ve read a few books and dream of Charlotte Gainsbourg instead of, say, Katy Perry, you think you’ve got more of an insight into these questions. When I’m afraid that’s not true. You know how many people are dreaming of me right now?”

“Probably not as many as are dreaming of Katy Perry.”

“Now you’re just being mean.”

“Maybe I should just stay with her. I don’t know. I wish..I wish I could go back and do things differently.”

“Back to when?”

“Whenever. I look back on my choices and think to myself, “why?” And I can’t answer. I just always felt afraid I suppose. But I swear, give me any moment in my past and I’d do things right. I’ll make the right choices, take my chances when they come. I’ll go back to any time, any place. I see the littlest things that remind me of who I could be now and who I am not and the longing almost hurts. Let me go back. I’ll do better this time.’

“Why should I believe that when you’re so consistently failing at now?”

“Ouch. Now that really is mean.”

They were interrupted by the sound of music seeping into the room. It seemed familiar to Tony but it took him a moment to identify it.

“Is that…Scott Walker? You have excellent taste.”

“It’s your taste, of course you approve. However I do not think this is part of your dream.”

“How do you mean?”

“This sound is actually being received through your ears. Which is to say it isn’t coming from your memory.”

“So…this is really playing?”

“It seems so.”

“That explains the shitty sound quality I suppose. I’d like to think my subconscious could muster some better internal speakers or whatever. It sounds like it’s coming from a…”

“..phone?”

“Ah right, this is my ringtone. I’m going to wake up aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I like this dream though.”

“I might still be here, waiting for you the next time you fall to sleep. It is up to you.”

“You mean it’s up to my subconscious. Which would make it up to you.”

“Then we shall see, won’t we?”

3

He awoke with his face stuck to the pillow with a fine glue of sweat and saliva. He turned over and reached for his phone, still in his trouser pocket on the floor, only for it to stop just before he could grab it. He took this to be a sign he wasn’t meant to answer it and turned back over to rejoin Charlotte.

There was a knock at the door.

“Tony? Tony?!”

Samantha’s voice. As soon as he heard it he pulled the covers over he head.

“I know you’re in there Tone. I could hear your phone. Look, I know you’re angry, but just let me in. We need to talk.”

Before he knew what was happening Tony found himself rolling out of bed, marching to the door and yanking open.

“Angry? Fucking angry?! Yeah, you could say that. I guess I am. I guess I am pretty, damn..”

“..angry?”

“Too fucking right!”

Samantha looked at him for a moment wearing an indignant, unblinking expression.

“Well, can I come in?”

They stood there staring at each other for a moment. Her defiant stance took him by surprise. After a while Tony realised he was in his underwear and found it hard to think of himself as occupying the high ground whilst mostly naked. He stepped back and opened the door further, beckoning Samantha in with an overly elaborate sweeping arm gesture. She walked past him towards the rooms solitary chair by the window.

“Look, Sam, I’m half asleep and I feel like shit. I can’t imagine what you have to say right this second that you think might help. I could really do with another ten or twelve hours to sleep tonight off,” he said whilst starting to put on some fresh clothes with his back to her. When he finished he rubbed his eyes which had begun to sting in protest at his rude awakening. Eventually he realised Samantha was watching him expectantly, though he couldn’t work out what it might be that she expected.

“Well,” he said, idly waving a hand at her, “you say we need to talk. So…talk.”

“This is your fault you know.”

Tom looked aghast at her for a moment, then started to laugh. It was a wheezy laugh straight from the throat which soon became a cough. He cupped his hand over his mouth. Samantha asked him if he was ok and reached out to him, but held up a finger to indicate he needed a moment and walked to the bathroom. When he’d finished coughing he croaked, “I just need some water. This ought to be good.”

Then, after a moment, he asked, “would you like some?”

“Hmm?”

“Water?”

“Oh. Oh, no, I’m ok.”

He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror for a moment, irritated at his allowing his politeness to get the better of him. He thought of this as a sign of weakness. His annoyance was compounded by the image in the mirror: under his eyes sat deep, dark bags, as if they were sinking back into a murky puddle. His skin looked older than his years, the ‘whites’ of his eyes that weren’t blood red were more a pale yellow. He splashed some water on his face, more in the hope that it would make him more alert than to make himself look better. He’d conceded defeat in that respect. He grabbed the plastic cup he and Samantha had been using to rinse their mouths out after brushing their teeth and filled it full of water. He returned to the bedroom.

“My fault?”

“I thought I’d open with a joke.”

“It’s in slightly poor taste, don’t you think?”

“Well, you’re right. There’s nothing I can say is there? Apart from that I’m sorry, I should never have done what I’ve done, you mean the world to me and I want you to forgive me.”

“Just like that?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“You walk in with a quick, “I’m sorry” and you’re forgiven?”

“Something like that.”

“I.. don’t see how I can.”

“It’s easy, you just say, “Sam, I forgive you” and everything goes back to normal.”

“You know it’s not quite that easy, right?”

“I know.”

Tony sat on the edge of the bed in front of her and stared at the floor, unable to find any words to say. He still wanted a clean break. To get home and start anew. But every time he looked at her things seemed more complicated. He was beseeched by the memories of their relationships. The small moments; her warmth as they lay together watching TV in bed, the sleepy smile she gave him every morning as she woke up, sitting in bars cracking jokes at each other. He wanted to rise above his conflicting emotions and see things objectively but knew that was impossible with her there with him. He’d been wronged, he had every right to leave. He wanted to go. Now he had his chance. He knew this but every look at her face and the cracks that had begun to show in her icy façade took him back to those moments.

“So, is this it then? Is this how it ends?” she said.

“I…”

“Please don’t say yes. Please. Tell me you’ll think things through before you answer.”

“He’s my best friend, Sam. My best friend.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry, but how can I trust you after this?”

Samantha tried to respond, but the cracks widened to canyons. She started to cry.

“Ah, Jesus…can I get you some tissue or something?” She nodded. He went into the bathroom and pulled the toilet roll from it’s holder. He took a quick look at himself in the mirror again before returning, trying to summon the resolve to stand firm and end things. On past form he knew he was liable to melt after seeing her upset and do anything to make her feel better.

“Here you go.” She looked up at him and tried to smile and wiped some mascara from her cheek. But as soon as she made eye contact she started sobbing again.

“I just can’t believe that this is the end.”

“Yeah, well..”

“I know I brought this on myself, but…I was just so mad at you. Your always drinking yourself stupid these days..”

“Ah, right, so it actually is my fault then?”

“I’m not saying that, I shouldn’t have…there’s no excuse. But it’s like your not even there half the time when you get drinking. You’re somewhere else.”

“What do you mean? Of course I’m there. I’m with you.”

“No your not. You get a drink in your hand and it’s like we’re not a couple any more, we’re just two people who happen to be in the same place.”

“So you have sex with my best friend for what? Punishment?”

“No, it’s not like that..”

“Because it would have been better if you’d just talked to me instead.”

“I have! So many times! You just look through me and change the subject, or make up some excuse about being tired or stressed or whatever.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“Well…that’s what it seems like.”

Tony got up and paced to the far wall. She was right, he knew. He wanted to explain things to her. But he felt angry that he was being made to feel guilty when, so far as he could see, he was the injured party. Why should I have to explain myself?

“Do you even want to be with me?” asked Samantha.

“Well, I did..”

“-so you don’t now?”

Tony knew this was his moment. All he had to do was be honest. The door was open for him to leave. All he had to do was take a step through it.

He looked her in the eyes.

“I…I don’t know.”

“Well, that’s…that’s helpful.”

“What do you expect? It’s been..some night.”

“Another excuse..”

“Well I think it’s a pretty fucking good one, don’t you?”

They both fell silent and avoided each others gaze. Tony felt angry. Mostly with himself. He just couldn’t bring himself to bring the curtain down.

“Look,” he said, edging towards the door, “this has been a…a weird night. I need some time to think.”

“You’re leaving?” He picked up his shoes.

“Yeah. I’m going to take a walk.”

“At this hour? Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you coming back.”

“I kinda have to. I can’t afford another hotel.” He tried to smile.

“And then?”

“We’ll see.”

Tony tried to summon the will to say something more definite. He could feel the words lurking at the back of his throat. If I don’t say them now I never will. Samantha rubbed at her nose a little too hard or too deep and made herself sneeze. As she said, “choo” afterwards, Tony raised an eyebrow.

“Bless you,” he said, and realised he was smiling.

He stood outside the door for a moment, looking around at nothing in particular, trying to get his bearings and decide what to do next. The road in his mind seemed to get further and further away. He was annoyed with himself for not being able to be decisive. He vowed to leave the next day, to get an early flight home. But for the moment he realised there was nowhere for him to go. He didn’t want to head down to the hotel bar as he thought Gavin may have decided to head there for a drink after their confrontation. And he still wanted to get more sleep. He pondered finding a corner in some bar to snooze in for a while before realising how bad an idea that was. So instead he decided to throw himself before the mercy of Chloe and Vicky and see if they’d mind him passing out on their floor.

He knocked on their door, half smiling at the sound of them giggling behind it. Chloe opened it and looked surprised to see him.

“Hi Chlo.”

“Hi Tone..um..”

“Can I come in? I need somewhere to fall asleep and I don’t want to be near either of those two right now. I’ll crash on the floor. I’ll be no bother.”

“I dunno Tone, I mean, why don’t you go and sort things out with Sam? You two need to talk.”

“I’ve just been with her. I need some time to sort my head out.”

“Listen Tone, I’m not being funny or anything, but..”

“Aww let him in Chlo! Poor thing..” said Vicki. Chloe shot a glance back at her without making any effort to hide it.

“Well, alright I guess,” she said with a fake smile on her face.

“Is Sam ok?”

“Um, yeah. Well…not really. It’s been a weird night.”

“You can say that again. I better go round and see if she’s ok. You’ll look after Tone, won’t you Vicks?”

“Well, I…”

“Good girl. I’ll not be long,” she said, stepping past Tony. The door closed behind him. He smiled weakly at Vicky. She was sat cross legged on her bed in her pyjamas. Tony shuffled towards the Chloe’s vacant bed and collapsed onto it.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Sort of. I guess,” he replied with a bitter laugh.

“I can’t believe they’ve done this to you.”

“Yeah, well..” He laid in silence for a while, staring at the ceiling. Vicky looked over at him, unsure what to say.

“Can I get you anything?”

“Nah, I’m ok.”

“Do you want a drink? We’ve got some wine left.”

“I’ve probably had enough,” he said. He just wanted to sleep. He thought it might be rude to do so though, so he rolled onto his side to look at Vicky.

“Actually, yeah. Why not? I think I probably deserve one.”

“I’d say so. Ok, gimme a minute,” she said, wandering over to the dresser and picked up a bottle of wine. “We don’t have any glasses so we’ll have to drink from the bottle.” She passed it to Tony.

“Classy. Thanks.” He sat up a little, took a big gulp and held it out for her.

“Have a bit more if you like.” She smiled at him as he drained another large mouthful from the bottle and sat down on the bed next to him.

“Things got a bit crazy after you left.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Chlo was not happy when she found out.”

“Ah. Oh well. I’m sure she’ll get over it.”

“You really don’t like her do you?”

“I’m not her biggest fan. She’s never liked me, so y’know.”

“Well I guess you two just aren’t…there’s a personality clash there.”

“You mean she has one, and I don’t?”

“No I don’t, you big lummox. Why are you always so down on yourself?”

“I dunno.” He passed her the wine bottle and sighed.

“You’d have been proud of me anyway. I stood up to her.”

“..yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“…you?”

“Yes!”

“…Chloe?”

“Yes! Don’t sound so surprised!”

“Well, I mean..I am. You’re just so..”

“Spineless? Doormat-like?”

“No..no! I was going to say nice!”

“That’s near enough the same thing.”

“What did you say to her?”

“I told her to shut up.”

“…really?”

“Seriously, stop it!”

“Sorry, but…wow. How did that happen?”

“She was shouting at Sam, and she was so upset, and I…I couldn’t stand it. It was cruel. So I told her off.”

“She was shouting at her?”

“Yeah. She was very sorry afterwards. I think I shocked her a bit.”

“I can imagine. Was Sam ok?”

“She was upset. She really didn’t need that on top of everything. I told Chlo to come up here and cool off before she said something she’d regret. Then I sat with Sam in the bar for a bit.”

“Then sent her up to see me?”

“Well, she had to eventually I guess. You do live together.”

“Yeah, there is that.”

Tony didn’t quite know what to add to that. Vicki grinned at him.

“It felt pretty good y’know.”

“Standing up to Chlo?” She sat back propped up by her right arm, turned her head and smiled.

“Yeah.”

She handed him the bottle back. He smiled to himself and idly stared at the label for a moment, not quite sure what to do with himself.

“Hang on, is Chlo going to be having another go at her? She’s round there now..” Tony started to get up. Vicki grabbed his arm.

“No, she’ll be fine. She wanted to go around and apologise once she’d got over the shock of being shouted at by little old me.” She started rubbing his arm up and down absent mindedly, before letting go and looking embarrassed.

“What are you going to do then?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t think straight.”

“I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to talk about it.”

“No, it’s fine. I just can’t get my head around it, y’know? I never thought she was capable of doing something like this.”

“Me neither. It’s so unlike her. And Gav too, your best friend. I can’t believe it.”

“That’s…less surprising.”

“Really? Why?” Tony told her the tale of the first time he’d slept with one of his girlfriends. How one night when they had shared a flat he’d been out with people from work whilst she popped around to surprise him and ended up having a bottle of wine with Gavin while waiting for him to get back. And how he had only found out a few years later, long after they’d split up.

“God, that’s horrible! What kind of friend does something like that.”

“I dunno. I can’t believe I forgave him just for him to do it to me again. I’m such a fucking idiot.”

“No your not! You can’t blame yourself Tony, he’s just a wanker. You don’t deserve that.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me, it’s true. No one deserves that.” She shuffled closer to him on the bed and put her arms around him. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything.”

She let go of him and he passed the wine back to her and laid down. To his surprise she put the wine down laid down on the bed facing him.

“Yeah I know. I don’t know why I’m still friends with him. I guess when you’ve been mates so long they just become kind of like family. Or maybe..”

“What?”

Tony sighed. “Well, it’s not like I’ve got many other friends is it. Whereas he’s got loads. Christ knows why he keeps hanging around me. Apart from maybe to shag my girlfriend every now and again.”

“Stop it! You’re always so mean to yourself. Gav has a lot of drinking buddies but I don’t think he has loads of friends. Not that he can rely on. Whenever he’s in trouble, who does he call?”

“Well,” Tony laughed, “I have had a few 3am phonecalls from him when he’s off his tits on something or other having a breakdown.”

“See? He needs you more than you need him.”

“Maybe.” Vicki shuffled across the bed to get closer to him. He wasn’t sure what was happening. She was usually much more awkward, less certain in her actions. He saw her as something of a kindred spirit in that way, united in a lack of self-esteem. But tonight she looked like…someone else. She looked into his eyes and smiled. He felt a stirring in his jeans. He wondered if she was expecting him to move in and kiss her. And if she was whether he wanted to. It wasn’t in his nature, he told himself. Though he wasn’t sure if that was due to noble instincts or due to cowardice. He sometimes wondered if he didn’t cheat not due to some code of ethics but due to not having the wherewithal to do so.

He was pondering this until he realised they’d been lying staring at each other for too long for it not to be awkward. He realised he had to do something. He moved his head forward slightly without thinking. This was all the encouragement Vicky needed. She moved in and kissed him. He let it happen and felt a rush of adrenaline surge through him. He kissed her back tentatively. He couldn’t quite bring himself to throw himself into the moment. Vicky moved her hand under his t-shirt. He pushed himself on, kissing her a little more passionately, trying to stop himself thinking. He put his hand on her hip and heard her moan softly. He tried to quieten the voice in the head that was telling him to stop. Why? He asked himself. Why am I not allowed a moment of indiscretion after all I’ve suffered?

The voice answered him as he moved his hand under her top and felt her soft skin beneath his fingers. You’re not that guy.

She pushed her hand between them and started to fumble with his belt. She pulled and pushed at it and couldn’t get it undone with one hand. She tried with both hands and still couldn’t quite get it to unfasten. She giggled at him.

“Maybe it’s a sign,” he said. She stopped and looked at him.

“Do you think so?”

“What are we doing, Vicks?”

“What everyone else does – whatever we like.”

He hesitated. Before he could decide what to do next he felt her tongue awkwardly lapping at his ear as she tried again to undo his belt. Tony pictured Gavin and Samantha again in that sweaty, feral embrace he’d witnessed and pushed himself once more into the moment, running his hands up and down her back. But the guilt came back once again. He held it off as long as possible, leading a brave horny resistance in his own seedy Alamo. But he couldn’t quieten his internal monologue, telling him it was all wrong. He pushed her away.

“That’s not really us, though, is it?

“Why? Why does everybody else get to have all the fun?”

Tony sighed and shrugged.

“Is it me?” she asked.

“No.” He pulled himself away and got up, straightening his clothes as he went. “It’s them.”

She sighed and grabbed the bottle and poured the last of it down her throat. She looked at him through slightly glazed eyes. He wanted to go back and couldn’t quite explain to himself why he couldn’t.

“You still love her, don’t you?” she asked as he walked towards the door. He didn’t know the answer. But he knew what he would say, for in that response lied the tortured nobility that he wanted to project. It seemed better to be seen in that light rather than reveal the inability to commit to the moment that was leading him out of the door.

“Yeah. Yeah I do.”

A short while later, with no where left to go, he found himself back down in the hotel bar. He ordered himself a bottle of red wine. He knew there was little chance of him finishing it but he felt comforted knowing he had it with him. He asked for two glasses and then walked and sat at a table. He shoved one across to the opposite end.

“Drink.”

“I’m ok, thanks,” said Gavin.

“Drink!” He filled both glasses to the brim.

“Did you talk to Sam?”

“Yeah.”

“How did that go?”

“None of your fucking business.”

They sat in silence for a while. Tony gulped down his wine. Gavin didn’t touch his.

“Drink!”

“You guys gonna stay together?”

“That’s also none of your fucking business. Drink already!”

Gavin ignored the command and continued to stare at him.

“Have you seen Chlo?” asked Tony with a vindictive grin.

“No, not tonight. Why?”

“Well she’s not in a good way herself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it seems she still has, or at least had, a thing for you after your fling. I think she was hoping you two would get back together.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Oh, you didn’t know?”

“No, I mean, it’s been ages since we..she never said..” he trailed off, looking for the first time like he was genuinely feeling something akin to remorse. He wondered if he had known it would have made any difference. He didn’t think so, though the sullen look on his face suggested it might.

“You’re such a cock Gav.”

“Yeah.” He sat in silence for some time. Then he asked:

“What are you going to do?”

“I dunno.”

“You’re right, it’s none of my business,” said Gavin with a heavy sigh, “but it seems like once a month you get drunk you tell me you’re thinking of breaking up with her. Now’s your chance.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?”

“It just isn’t.”

“She slept with your best friend.”

“Yeah, I’m aware of that, cheers. Maybe I should break up with my best friend.”

“Maybe you should.”

A silence sat between them for a moment.

“But you won’t.” Tony laughed a bitter laugh.

“We’ll see.”

“Let me tell you a story.”

“Oh for fucks sake. I’d rather you didn’t give me another one of your bullshit fairytales.”

“Hey, I’m not one to make stuff up, thank you very much. And they’re always entertaining, right?”

Tony drank more wine and fixed him with a sceptical gaze.

“Have you ever noticed how you’re always the one most entertained by your own stories?”

“…nope. No, that’s not how I remember it. Anyhow, I knew this guy while I was at Lloyds. Um, Rick I think his name was. He kinda reminded me of you, y’know, quiet, sort of aloof-”

“-self pitying? Spineless?”

“Well, whatever it is you’ve got going on. Anyhow, Rick was going out with this girl. I forget her name…Liz I think. Or possibly Laura. I don’t know; it’s not important. What matters is that he decides he doesn’t want to be in a long term relationship with her. This is about six months in. But obviously six months in they’re very much heading in that direction. So he stays with her for 3 years. Because he couldn’t bear to hurt her, he says. Every time we’d meet up for a few drinks he’d get about 4 pints in and start complaining about his lot. She was besotted with him, or so he tells me, but he just didn’t feel the same. He’s really kind and loving to her but he never lets on that he’s not that into her.” Gavin stopped and took a drink.

“Okay. So this is going where, exactly?”

“Well, as you can imagine after 3 years she wants things to progress. Living together, marriage, whatever would let her know he’s really in this for the duration. But of course, he doesn’t want to be. So he decided he needs to think up some excuse to get out of it. Me, I’d just tell her, but then I wouldn’t have stuck around this long and make the poor girl think I might be the one. But this probably makes sense to you.”

“Well, I suppose you can’t just suddenly say, “I’m not into you.” Not after years of saying, “I love you.” They’d need to know the reason, and…well, sometimes there isn’t one.”

“That’s just tragic.”

“I mean, you start to hope she’ll sense it on some level and dump you, or go find someone else. But they don’t.”

“Tragic and pathetic.”

“Yeah, I know. Cheers.”

“Well, if you want to use this as your excuse I guess the door’s open.”

“Maybe. I dunno.” Tony stared at his drink for a moment, too queasy to drink it.

“So then what happened?”

“Hmm?”

“Uh, that guy? Rob?”

“Oh, Rick. Well, at first he started being distant for a while, dialling down all the loving and caring stuff, but that didn’t work. She just worried about him more. So he figured to get her to break up with him, he needed her to hate him.”

“So what, he cheated on her?”

“No man, as I say he was like you. Y’know. A pussy.”

“Oh, thanks. I think the least you can after tonight do is lay off the abuse for a while.”

“Fair point, sorry. Old habit. Anyhow, he comes up with a plan to explain his sudden distance and want out: a drug addiction.”

Tony stared at him. “So this guy got addicted to drugs to get out of a relationship? You expect me to believe that?”

“No, no, nothing like that. Rick didn’t do anything harsher than booze and the occasional joint with friends. No, he just pretended to be addicted. He acted it out, started drinking more and smoking more pot, and eating worse to mess up his skin. He disappeared for days at a time and came back looking out of it. He really hammed it up. And just in case she didn’t put 2 and 2 together he bought some heroin and put it somewhere she’d find it.”

“Oh yeah, sure, he just went out and picked up some heroin. Sounds plausible.”

“Well, he couldn’t do that alone, obviously. How do you think I know so much about this story?”

“…you bought this guy heroin?!”

“Christ no, you know I don’t do that stuff. I put him in a touch with a guy who knew a guy. I stayed well out of it. I just gave him a number. Anyway, when she found it she was really cut up, begging him to seek help, but he claims he doesn’t have a problem. He promises to stop, pretends to quit for a while then pretends to have a big relapse. He does this a couple of times, trying to wear her down. But eventually she tells her Dad who apparently used to work for some kind of drugs charity. And they stage an intervention. She spends a chunk of their savings on some time in a private rehab clinic, and gets his bemused friends around to help convince him to go. I got invited as it happens but I made up some excuse. I couldn’t have sat through that with a straight face. So after they’ve all begged him to seek help, what can he do? I remember him telling me that he’d taken it too far to turn back. He had to keep up the lie.”

“He went to rehab?”

“Yeah, he did. You’d have thought that would have been the moment he decided he had to confess, but no. He can’t bear to. Now, obviously going into rehab when you’re not addicted to anything should be a breeze. The trouble is the drug tests are going to show he’s clean. He’ll be shown up as a fraud and apparently when you’ve committed yourself to a lie this big there’s nothing you won’t do to avoid telling the truth. There’s no excuse for pretending to be a junky really.”

“He could have passed it off as a cry for help I guess. Claimed he was depressed or whatever.”

“Wow. I like how you could think up an excuse just like that. You’re as twisted as him.”

“Thanks again, your a real tonic for the self-esteem. So what does he do?”

“Takes the heroin of course.”

“…seriously?”

“Seriously. He smoked a bit, as he was too squeamish to inject. And besides he had like a week before rehab started so he didn’t have time to be building up a collection of track marks for the sake of authenticity. Inevitably after a week or two of hammering the drugs to build up his junkie credentials he’s actually little hooked by the time he gets in. But I guess he figures, that’s what rehab is there for, right? He may as well get his money’s worth. And as any junky will tell you a week or two taking heroin taking isn’t really enough to develop a serious habit anyhow. The trouble was, he was weak willed, as you can tell, and somewhat easily led. So when he ran into a girl in their who’d smuggled a stash in with her and was looking for someone to get high with…”

“Wow. What happened to him?”

“Y’know, I’ve no idea. A couple of weeks in he and her check out and he clears out his life savings. No one knows where they went. Not his heartbroken girlfriend, not his parents, his friends, nobody. I heard a rumour he was in London somewhere, probably in some squat or other. Fuck knows what happened to him. And the moral of the story is?”

“Start taking heroin?”

“No you fucking idiot. It’s that you need to grow some balls for gods sake or fuck knows where you’ll end up. I need a piss.”

He got up and started to walk away. He stopped in his tracks, turned and said, “I can’t believe you threw an ashtray at me.”

“I can’t believe I missed.”

Tony was left alone to contemplate the story he’d just heard. Lies, of course, he thought. Gavin loved to invent stories to illustrate whatever point he was trying to make. Or just to hear the sound of his own voice. He found himself feeling angry at the arrogance of it, of him assuming he could give him advice after what he’d done. When he looked at Gavin he always wanted to see a note of sadness in his life. To paint a picture of him as that clichéd lonely hedonist trawling through such wanton debauchery looking for something he could never find. Love. Hope. Meaning. Anything. But as he’d watched him spin his tale he just saw someone who just didn’t care. Who was just enjoying himself. And that angered him more than anything else. After a while the rage overcame him and he decided to go outside to smoke before Gavin came back. He drained his glass, grabbed the bottle and left an untouched glass full of red wine behind on the table as he stormed out.

Shortly afterwards Tony slumped onto the stairs behind the hotel, head bowed, cigarette in hand. He tried to focus on the base functions of his body for a moment. Breathing, blinking, swallowing. He didn’t want to think about anything more complicated. He put the cigarette to his lips and consciously breathed in. He felt his diaphragm contract and create a vacuum in his lungs. Smoke drained down to fill the void. He held it inside him for a moment while staring out into the early morning traffic. He kept it there until it felt like it was straining to get out, his body screaming for oxygen. Then, as slowly as his desperate lungs could manage, he exhaled towards the rising sun. He knew if he exhaled too fast he’d start coughing which would sting his throat and leave lasting pain. This was how he did things: slow and steady to avoid any risk of pain. He’d been attempting a long, slow exhalation with Samantha. But it hadn’t worked. Now he had an opportunity for a quick getaway and found himself choking and breathless. He used to think he was noble for wanting to leave slowly, letting things run their course. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. But now he wasn’t so sure.

The only thing he was sure of was that he’d been presented with an exit wide open before him and yet he couldn’t bring himself to walk through it. In his brief few hours of potential singledom he’d experienced he’d felt like a man lost at sea. He had felt himself reaching out towards Samantha like she was a piece of driftwood. Part of him still longed to let go and sink back into silent waters. But he knew then that he wouldn’t.

One last time he tried to summon the vision of that road in his mind and force himself out onto it. He looked out into the dawn and thought of how huge the world was, how bloated with possibilities, and how it was all right there waiting for him. He told himself he didn’t want the quiet life. He wanted thunder and lightning. He wanted bloodstains on his teeth and dirt beneath his nails. He wanted sex as passionate as violence and love that burned bright enough to blind. He’d only ever caught these feelings in fleeting moments, glimpsed in the edge of his periphery. He’d never been able to lose himself enough to grab them. And even now he couldn’t feel the passion in him to try. He realised that instead he’d been moving inexorably instead towards a quiet redemption. A small life with Samantha, a few kids who would make similar mistakes and who would hopefully learn a little more from them. A collection of accumulated possessions that would speak of the person he had hoped to be lining the walls of his home like museum exhibits, to be glanced over and forgotten by the occasional new visitor. And little in the way of thunder and lightning beside the occasional intoxicated rebellion that would be quelled just as soon as it arose. And he found that the idea didn’t repulse him as it once did. He didn’t feel happy. He didn’t feel content. But he felt a familiar feeling of inertia that felt oddly comforting, even as he still felt the slight pull of that other imagined life he held in his mind.

He tried to distract himself from the chasm he felt opening in his heart by getting lost in some imagined interview from his glorious, fictional future once more. But the only voice asking him questions was his own.

“What is wrong with you, Tony?”

“I don’t know. I used to believe I was cursed, destined to suffer at life’s every turn. Marked from birth, with my own black cloud hanging like a halo over me. All that stuff.’

“And now?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ve made my own luck. The only thing I’m cursed with is mediocrity, to live an entirely unremarkable life and enjoy the brief moments of fleeting happiness that normal people enjoy.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

“It could be worse I guess.”

He closed his eyes and sighed, accepting what he was about to do. Accepting the bridges he had hoped to burn were left standing. Even though whenever he closed his eyes he could see Gavin and Samantha together in room 413 he knew he would soon take the long walk back to his room. I don’t want to love you he thought. I don’t want to love either of you.

“I guess I never wanted to choose. All choosing is really is the limiting of options. You’re doing one thing then you’re not doing everything else. I didn’t want to lose options, so I chose nothing.”

“You have to choose something. What do you want?”

He stared out into the street, at the few passers-by at this early hour who were trying not to make eye contact with the haggard drunk slumped on the stone steps. He smiled faintly to himself, faintly pleased with the outsider status his current state lent him. Of course he was an outsider – a foreigner in an alien country – but to him that didn’t feel any different than he would at home.

He asked himself:

Does anyone ever get what they want?

He asked himself:

Does anyone ever even know what they want?

He waited for answer to come to him for a moment. He could feel that one was hovering on the edge of his periphery, sitting lightly on the tip of his tongue. Ever present yet never quite there. He found himself pushing himself up off the step and walking back to the hotel entrance, throwing the cigarette but into the road as he went. Behind him trailed a long lit fuse skittering and bouncing along the pavement, never to burn to it’s end.

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