France, Life experience, Travel

Holiday from hell — journal of a misadventure

I seldom write about travel, and when I do, it’s only about spectacular experiences. I have never written about misadventures that caused so much anxiety and grief that I wonder why we carried on when things started to go wrong. But when you have such an experience that lasted from the time of beginning the journey to the very end, and beyond, I thought on the hindsight, it was an adventure worth remembering, even though we were not that amused when it all happened.

It began when we started our journey to France on a mid-June Monday. We had already moved from our Kent home, so we stayed overnight in Ramsgate. In the morning, as we left for the ferry from Dover, it was a last minute dash because of the roadworks along the way. As we were waiting for the ferry, I realised we forgot to book the European breakdown cover. I made a last minute frantic call to the breakdown provider (I had three covers those days, don’t ask me why and how!) and selected an option that was slightly high priced but provided more cover. To be honest, that was the best last minute call I’ve ever made; if I hadn’t done that, we probably had had to come back without the car. So with the breakdown sorted, we set sail on the way to our destination, Normandy. We planned what we’d do each day, and had a busy schedule ahead but we were sure that we were going to have a great time. Only if we knew what lay ahead of us.

Here, I’d flashback to the week before we started our journey. I was on M25 on my way home and I suddenly felt the car lost all its power. As if it went into a limp mode. The car was only over a year old, so you don’t expect a major fault to develop. The breakdown mechanic couldn’t fix it, but he reset the warning light and asked to start and see if the traction is back. It worked. So I thought it was a freak incident and I must have done something to cause that. The dealer could not have a look in such a short notice, so we decided to carry on with the plans and get the car fixed later.

Coming back to 20th of June, we did the usual. On reaching Calais, a trip to Adinkerke to buy cheap tobacco and Speculoos, a quick trip to Carrefour Mivoix and late lunch at the McDonalds there. With all that done and a cranky terrible two, we headed for belle Normandie. Except that we were running a bit late and looked like we wouldn’t get to the campsite before 8:30 pm. It was a long drive but that never bothered us. Not until the things started to go wrong very quickly. We were approaching Boulogne-sur-mer on A16 where the road goes on an incline. It’s not steep by any means, but the car generally needs to work harder. Whilst on that section, the car lost power again! Second time within a week. I exactly knew what went wrong when the engine warning flashed on the dashboard. It made me panic a bit. A breakdown on a foreign country is a terrifying prospect, let alone that happening on the autoroute meant we’d have to pay highway authority the fees to be towed away from the autoroute. So I decided to carry on driving at 50mph until we reached the next exit. Thankfully it was a country road and I carried on driving for a while before we stopped on the verge. My satnav said it’s a place called Beuvrequin. I remember the place we stopped, with houses on the right and the other side of the road, had vast fields.

Beuvrequin, verge/footpath where we stopped

Beuvrequin, view on the other side of the road

After we calmed down our crying daughter, upset that the holiday might not go ahead, I called the breakdown agency. I reported the breakdown and was told that the wait time is about 45 mins. Being parked on the pavement by a country road was not the best of the places, especially getting stares from people who had to go on the grass. A few minutes later, I received a call from the French contact from the breakdown company, telling me that they cannot send assistance because during my application I said we’ll be going to Belgium and then France. So, tow away will have to come from Belgium, and they don’t to towing across borders. Infuriated and anxious, I called the UK number, and after explaining the situation, they said we should get assistance and they will arrange with the French colleagues. Another 15 min later, which is almost an hour since I was told that the assistance is 45 min away, I received another call from the French number saying they are sending breakdown van and it’ll be coming around 5:45 pm. By then, I doubted any garage will be open.

The breakdown truck arrived slightly earlier than we were told. As expected, the mechanic didn’t know a word of English. I thought that would be ideal to practice my French. I probably would have, if I knew all technical terms. I didn’t even know what brakes are called. Anyway, the guy picked the car on his truck and asked us to go in the truck to the garage. I think that was the highlight of the day and my daughter loved travelling in a truck. We went to a garage in Boulogne-sur-mer. He met another colleague who had a computer to connect to the engine management system. They decided that it’s beyond their knowledge and learning that the car was under warranty, they said the work can only be done in an Opel garage. By that time we gave up our hope to get the car fixed that day because it was already nearly 6 pm. The mechanic said he’ll take us to their garage to keep the car overnight and we can arrange the taxi pick-up from the garage. We were offered a replacement car or stay in a hotel and get the car looked at the next morning. I was confident that it’ll just be resetting the alarm and we’ll be able to drive on. So we chose the hotel and waited at the garage. The taxi came around 6:30 pm to take us to the hotel in Boulogne.

Hardy Maurice garage

Hotel ALexandra in Boulogne

The hotel was pleasant and it was located close to Boulogne city centre. We walked down to a square called Place Dalton and had a nice dinner, trying to forget the headache we’re about to have the following day. The following day we had nothing to do but wait for the updates from the breakdown company. So we were just cooped up in the room. About 9 am we received a call saying that the breakdown garage will take the car to the nearest Opel garage. I thought it would be done in minutes, so our hopes of having our holiday soared high again. But that state of euphoria didn’t last long as a follow up at 11 am confirmed that the car was still in the garage. The agent said she’ll call me back shortly. When she did, it was even worse news. Opel garage was fully booked and they wouldn’t be able to fix it before Wednesday or even Thursday. At that point, we thought we’d had enough and started thinking of cancelling the holiday and go back home. As a last ditch attempt, we demanded a replacement car. After waiting another 10 minutes for a callback, we were told that our only chance was if we left the hotel immediately because the car hire place they use will be shut from 12 pm. It was already getting towards 11:30 am. So we picked all our tonnes of luggage, waiting for the taxi. Then the taxi dropped us at the wrong place, which meant we had to drag all our luggage and a toddler across a busy junction without crossings. When we arrived at the Enterprise Cars office, there was only one employee, waiting for us. It took another half an hour to get sorted. But in the end, we had our car.

I wish our story could end here, but it wasn’t unfortunately. Our understanding of the breakdown cover was that we get the hire car until the time we are ready to return to Boulogne on our way back. On Wednesday afternoon, as we’re exploring the American war memorial in Colleville-sur-mer, I received a call from the breakdown company that our car was fixed and they want the hire car back. Shouting or swearing is normally my cup of tea, but if I lost my temper that day, I’d expect people would have sympathised with me. I kept my calm but said that they are expecting me to make a 600 km journey because they screwed up a breakdown repair. It also seemed like the day of our return, Saturday, is only for the Car buyers at the Opel garage and the repairs department is shut. I was told very sternly to go back on Friday to which I refused, agreeing to pay the difference for an additional day of car hire. Half an hour later, I received another call that the garage had been very understanding and made a very rare exception of opening the repair garage on Saturday.

With the good news that the car was fixed and that we can get on with rest of the holiday, we felt relaxed then and enjoyed the rest of the days. Except the fact that Normandy is where it rains most in France and it rained really bad the week we went there. Unlike previous caravan holidays, we opted for tent that time, and the floor was filled with water because of the leaks in the floor sheet. We spent most of our stay in the tents mopping the floor, wet feet, soaked trainers and a damp tent. Despite this little inconvenience, I felt the time in Normandy was much more enriching than in Paris. Just when we were about to enjoy the holiday, having lost nearly two days, it was over and it was time to come home.

We started with plenty of time in hand, thinking of collecting the car early so we could go to the cheap wine store in Calais. We got to the Enterprise Car place at about 12. But then we realised that they are shut in Saturdays and we needed to drop the keys at a hotel opposite the car hire place, past the big junction. Les Gens de Mer — the hotel looked quite nice as we browsed the lobby and menu while we waited for the taxi. The taxi arrived late, and we were on our way to the Opel garage near Outreau where our car was getting repaired. When we got there, the manager said everything was done and they are getting the car ready. It did surprise me a bit because the car was ready on Thursday. We waited nearly 45 minutes before we were given the keys. We were at the last minute rush again, trying to get cheap fuel from Carrefour and head for the ferry. That was the beginning of another nightmare journey.

Hotel Les Gens de Mer

As we headed back to Calais, I noticed that the tyre pressure warning sign came on. I was not too worried at the beginning, because sometimes if one tyre had less pressure than the others, the sign came on. But as we went closer to Calais, I started to get more and more worried as the pressure kept on dropping. When the other tyres read 38 psi, the fourth tyre was at 25 psi. There must have been a leak, I thought. But where would that have happened? The car has always been at the breakdown garage or at the Opel garage. Did they just find out and handed me a car with a leak? Surely they can’t be that unscrupulous! But everything signed that way.

So we went back to Carrefour, filled the tank and put some air in the faulty tyre thinking it might have some problem that’s going to fix itself. When we boarded the ferry, I left the car with 35 psi on the tyre and hoping that it should stay like that when we reached the UK. 90 minutes later when we came down to the deck, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tyre was completely flat. And we had landed as well, so we didn’t have any time to change the tyre. It was a Saturday afternoon and most of the garages would have been shut by 4 pm.

Now I made a faux pas at that moment. I had the option to come off the ferry and get the tyre changed with the spare tyre. We could have then driven home because our spare tyre is a full spec one and there is no speed restriction. Silly me, I didn’t remember that at the moment of madness when I thought if I take too long changing the tyre, and something else is wrong, I might lose the last chance to get home that night. So I decided to drive on to the next open garage, which was Kwik-fit. As I drove on the alloy wheel, the sharp and annoying screeching deafened our ears despite the windows were up. I was worried that there will be damage to the wheel as well but it was a relief that there wasn’t.

Kwik-fit changed the tyre straight away and we also got another tyre which was getting towards the legal limit. After that, we hit the road, hoping to get some dinner at Bluewater or Lakeside, places that we used to visit often but missed a lot when we moved. After a filling dinner, with our daughter falling asleep in the car, we finally felt that after all this, the holiday is coming to an end. But there are more twist in the tale that one can imagine. Just because everything had to go wrong on that trip, as we were on M6 nearing Coventry, my daughter woke up and started crying. We didn’t want to stop, being so close at home, and as I tried to accelerate harder, BANG! The engine warning light came back on and the car won’t speed beyond 50 mph. The sting in the tail that was waiting for us before we reached home. So all that fuss at the Opel garage, did they do sod all apart from puncture the tyre? Nevertheless, my daughter’s incessant crying made me carry on rather than stop and ask for another breakdown. I just pushed the pedal down and used the downward slopes on the road to speed up and use the momentum to drive the car at a higher speed as the road became flat or went up. Without much difficulty, we reached home, bringing a close to the worst travel experiences we ever had.

Like many stories have an epilogue to the end, the tale of our misfortunes does not end there. I had to take many days off as I was unable to commute to work while getting the car fixed. Back then, I was doing a commute of 300 miles! During next few days, the car was repaired, and the fault reappeared almost immediately at times. In the end, it took a call to their grievance line to report the issue to get the technical team involved, who sorted the problem. One of those days when the car was broken down, I had to hire a car to go to a meeting in London. There, as I was trying to get on the Hammersmith bridge, I was caught at the box junction and was fined £70. Now the car belonging to the hire company, they received the fine notice first. By the time I received it, I couldn’t appeal online, so I had to send it over email. I then got the email address wrong and was then facing a court action since the first notice was received much earlier and the normal 2 weeks response window had gone. This dragged on until November. So nearly 5 months after that week in June, we put an end to the dreadful journey, but before that end, I had to pay out the final amount which had since doubled.

So, there we are, our story ends here. Terrible experience to sum it up. And I believe we won’t forget it very soon. Yet, the good memories will last longer. Visit to Utah, Omaha and Juno beaches, our daughter’s excited walk in the sand, the American war memorial and its deafening silence at Colleville-Sur-mer, the Bayeux tapestry, Caen, beautiful village of Beauvron-en-auge, riviera of the north Deauville and Trouville-Sur-mer, surreal grace of Lisieux abbey, sunrise over the trees at our site in the middle of nowhere at Château Le Brévedent, the quaint villages Le Pin and Blangy-le-château near our campsite, the bridge at Le Havre — the memories are countless and one day, if not already, they will outweigh the dreadful experience about the journey.

Just as I finished this with a positive spin, I remembered to add one last note about our holiday from hell. The year this happened was 2016, and I guess we all know what happened that year between 20th and 25th June. Yes, Brexit. That happened while we were on this holiday as well. Before we left, we were all confident that it was just a paper exercise to finish off UKIP, and in fact felt smug to see the smiles disappear from the leavers’ faces. On 24th when the results came out, we were going to Trouville-sur-mer. The entire day was spent in disbelief, then frustration and then anger, as all the lies started to surface. Brexit was the pinnacle of the catastrophes that week and I believe it was symbolised by everything that went wrong with the car. It was a nightmare, getting a simple thing done took forever, service on both sides of the border was equally appalling, and above all, since it happened, things were never the same. You live in fear that things will go wrong again, and so it did. The car proved my premonitions, and Brexit will go the same way. I think there will be a time in future where all good and terrible memories will fade away, and we will remember the journey just as our own Brexit disaster. I think that should say it all.
Art, Film review

Leviathan and The Room: Two films of Polar Opposites

This is an overview of two fabulous films I watched recently. One is a brilliant film shown in Cannes, the other one is a cult classic featuring in the hall of fame of the flops.

I learned the name of Leviathan (2014) while trying to find about Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Like Deux Jours, Leviathan was also shown in Cannes in 2014 and was nominated for Palme d’Or. The poster of the film was equally eye-catching — a man sitting on a rock with a giant whale skeleton lying in front, on the seashore. I wanted to watch the film since, but the opportunity didn’t come until last month.

It was a stunning film. At the end of it, I was speechless. The protagonist of the film resembled a typical example of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are instances when you think that the situation couldn’t get any worse, but it does, and it’s relentless. It was an example of the power struggle on the fringes of Russia, where Moscow and its influence means nothing to the power sharks. It’s a tale of exploitation, desperation, disillusionment and betrayal. Shot in the Murmansk Oblast, Leviathan showcases the murky backdrops to set the dark tone of the film. The dilapidated infrastructure, symbolic shooting of the Soviet leaders’ portraits, the ostentatious focus on the word Pravda (truth) by the Orthodox Church priest — it heralded a Russia far away from the shining riches of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here, despite the camaraderie in the working class people, they live in fear, they don’t go against the flow, although inherently, there is a deep-seated hatred and disappointment of being deserted in the past.

Leviathan won international accolades just as it did criticism from the Russian cultural ministry for wrongly depicting Russian rural lifestyle where people stay drunk all the time, they bicker and commit adultery, the church brainwashes corrupt politicians. We don’t know the truth, but I can draw parallels to another brilliant film I watched many years back called Manorama Six Feet Under. In both films, politics was shown as the source of power, and exploitation that the usurpers cherish to the fullest. In an Indian backdrop, there was no doubt that the film was based on truth. For Leviathan, I’d like to be proven wrong, but for now, I believe the story is almost a true depiction of life at the far reaches of Russia. However, internationally acclaimed films about Russia are perhaps needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, where most of the successful films are found to be castigating the Soviet past.

Apart from the worrying storyline, Leviathan features brilliant acting, some breathtaking views, and beautiful music scores. Although halfway into the film, you’d start to hope that something positive happens to the central character Kolya, and hope there is some justice, that justice doesn’t happen. Leviathan is not a story that fills the viewers with a feeling of optimism and hope. Instead it drives home the message that life is not fair and it is controlled by the people with power. For the rest, it’s just a story of survival. It is a remarkable film and I’m glad I finally managed to watch it, although it took me three years.

For the other film, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve often written about brilliant films, that change your whole perspective about cinema and its role in our lives. The Room (2003) is certainly not one of them. The Room is, on the contrary, something that’s known as SBIG — So Bad It’s Good. And when someone makes a film featuring the filmmaker of that original film, you’ll have to admit it must be spectacularly disastrous.

Poster for the film
Source: Adweek

The Room is the brainchild of Tommy Wiseau. It was originally played in theatres, but Tommy was so inspired by it that he wrote a book. When nobody published it, he decided to produce a film. The end result is The Room, where Wiseau played the protagonist apart from his many other credits. When within five minutes into the film, Tommy has sex with Lisa, the female lead of the film, and within another ten minute, the same scene is repeated, you know that this is going to be hilarious. Even porns have a better script and acting on them. The Room has nothing to boast about. The film is all about a banker Johnny in San Francisco and his fiancée Lisa, who has an affair with Johnny’s friend Mark. The story revolves around Johnny’s obsession with Lisa, Lisa’s lack of love for Johnny, and then Mark’s hesitation in choosing between Johnny and Lisa. Outside this, many characters pop in and out but fail to play a significant role. The script is incoherent, the acting is amateurish, editing nonexistent. It felt as if a dictator trying to make a film about himself. Tommy kept changing the dialogues, forcibly inserted scenes that had no relevance to the film like men playing football in their tuxedos. The budget for the film apparently surpassed $6 million whereas the first two weeks taking in the box-office came to about merely $1900! The Room is an ultimate disaster movie, with Tommy Wiseau at the helm.

With such a catastrophic start, one would expect the film to end up in cold storage with some old DVDs turning up in 99p stores in some remote seaside town. Possibly with a two for one offer. But The Room was destined to become something else. A legend. A cult classic. So 15 years since it was first released, The Room has its range of arcane followers — it often had midnight screenings across San Francisco, where Tommy Wiseau attended many times and posed with fans. Apart from this, Tommy Wiseau was an enigma to the crowd. The Room is his only prominent screen appearance. Nothing is known about his past that he claimed, like being of Eastern European origin but growing up in Paris. There were speculations that he made the over-budgeted film to get rid of the black money earned from dubious sources. Speculations led to many researchers delve into Tommy’s past life. And when Greg Sestero, who played Tommy’s friend Mike, wrote Disaster Artist about making of The Room, that opened up many facets of Tommy as well as unknown facts about the film. Hollywood rejected Tommy Wiseau in The Room, but then, thanks to its eccentricity, The Room will be reborn in Disaster Artist (2017), the screen realisation of Sestero’s book.

Tommy Wiseau in You're tearing me apart dialogue

Sometimes in our life, we encounter things that are good and things that are bad. It’s the way of life. Both have their own roles to play. The same applies to films. You watch Leviathan, and then watch The Room and realise how good or bad filmmaking could be. What puts these two films into perspective is their budget — The Room with its extravagant spendings coughed up nearly $6m, whereas Leviathan was made on a shoestring budget of c. $4m. This only serves as an example that good films should not cost a huge budget, and you can throw millions but can still end up making a car-crash like The Room. It was a pleasure watching Leviathan, and The Room was painful to watch, but both films will feature in the hall of fame of the epic films I’ve watched — but for very different reasons.

Yet, at one aspect they both seem equal. In The Room, despite the end result was hilarious, Tommy Wiseau gave more than 100% of his abilities. He was frivolous, but it can be seen that there was not shortage of his dedication. So was Andrey Zvyagintsev in making Leviathan. Even though the end results are polar opposites, both filmmakers would still get the kudos for their dedication to tell a story they wanted to tell, irrespective of the reception.
Art, Film review, Nostalgia

An Obituary to Wolverine


Logan died last night. In fact, he died on 1st March this year, or in a distant 2029 — whichever way you look at it. But I wasn’t aware of it. To me, Logan died yesterday. No tears were shed, no sleepless nights, but inside I just felt something has changed forever. There was a sense of emptiness. The 17-year stint when the X-men were a part of my life has come to an end. And I know that it’s only going to get worse.

I grew up in an imaginary world of superheroes. In my early childhood, it was the comic strips of the Phantom — the ghost who walks, Mandrake the magician, Flash Gordon and alike. Then there were Batman, Superman and Spiderman in comic books and with their film franchises. All these characters had one thing in common. They were infallible, invincible. They fought many battles, they lost some, but they came back like the phoenix from the ashes. At the end of each book, or each film, you’re left with a feeling that they are there — whichever imaginary city or country they were protecting. We knew that they will bounce back. They come back. Always. Except for Phantom of course, who’d die but pass on the legacy to his offspring, who’d become the next Phantom. Phantom dies, but Phantom lives on.

When the superheroes only meant Batman, Superman or Spiderman, back in 2000 entered a new franchise that I had no idea about before. Rather than a single protagonist, they were a bunch of people. Or mutants, to be precise. The mutants on the film had remarkable powers, but like many others, I became a fan of the Wolverine. He wasn’t endowed with supernatural abilities, but when you gave up hope, Wolverine was the one who was in charge. A hard grafter, almost fighting with a feral instinct. That’s why in films like The First Class, you end up waiting for more since you don’t see him much. Wolverine became the next sensational superhero. X-men is the only film series that I waited as eagerly as Harry Potter films, and that tells something about it. Now knowing that Wolverine dies, the interest in any further X-men film has ebbed away. X-men won’t be X-men without Wolverine. Period.

After the initial moments of numbness, I tried to think why have I been so upset? Ultimately, it’s just another fictional story, created to earn millions in the box offices across the world. It is a big franchise and the crew cannot continue forever. It had to come to a stop. Better this way than like The Last Airbender, that created a lot more expectation and then fail to follow through with the sequels. So, what was the root of this sadness? There are many reasons, as I thought about it. Death is perhaps the main factor. We saw Wolverine die, and Professor X. Death came as a finality. I’ve known people, who passed away unexpectedly, and it is difficult to come to terms with that. Perpetuity is something we probably seek unconsciously, and comic book characters that withstand the test of time could provide that permanence. Many Golden era heroes have passed that acid test and are still equally popular after possibly four generations of readers. The untimely deaths of Wolverine and Charles broke that promise of permanence. We watch throughout the film how Logan is struggling with his health. Although in many scenes it was alluded that he is really ill, viewers could still hope that by some miracle he’ll wake up again, and perhaps even rejuvenate. But that doesn’t happen.

And waiting for that miracle, we see how powerless Logan and Professor X has become. They are shadows of their past, or more precisely ghosts. They seemed like mere mortals. They lived hiding away in a disused factory. Even on the run, they don’t really stay on focus. They looked like a spent force. Expendables. They live in a virtually mutant free world. There wasn’t anything left to fight for. 2029 represented a world where no X-men are left other than Wolverine and Professor X. Charles possibly killed all the mutants in one of his bouts of uncontrollable mental waves.

But the more pertinent reason was the end of hope. Watching films or reading books about superheroes makes you push the boundaries of your imagination. They make you believe in the supernatural and that all these things are possible — at least for the duration of reading the book or watching the films. Watching them become powerless permanently — their commonness take away the sanctuary inside your mind that somewhere there is this person who can kick some ass to the bad guys. A concept similar to god in a way. More so because in your mind you know they can do bugger all; they don’t even exist. Logan featured this death of hope. He remained a tour de force in almost all X-men franchises but suddenly he’s gone. Not disappeared mysteriously so he could make a dramatic entrance later on like Jane in X-men three. But he died. And he was dying throughout the film, it was not a sudden shock. Like all death, Logan reached the finality of the Wolverine. That’s when the hope finally evaporates away.

The death of Wolverine may not mean much as far as the film franchise is concerned. Although Hugh Jackman hinted that he will no longer play Wolverine, with a right script and a right fee, he may change his mind. The possibility of Wolverine being featured in a film is still big. We know now that he dies in 2029. That’s still 12 years away, and there can be as many X-men films as possible. Even after 2029, films can be set in the past like we see The Wolverine set in 1945. As long as Hugh continue to look like the invincible Wolverine seventeen years back, he can carry on X-men film franchises. So, it is still possible to see Hugh play Wolverine in future.

But it won’t be the same. In the past films, you knew that Wolverine will be back again. He’s less of a mutant, but more savage. But after watching this film, no matter how savage Wolverine appear in the next film — if there is any — Logan with all his vulnerabilities and resignation will come back to mind. Death, as the great leveller, has claimed another victim, who will now fade into oblivion.

As the next generation matures, X-men will probably become a thing of the past, just as are the Arnie or Stallone films to the present generation. The tapes will remain, and their hay days will live on through the dusty memories of the parents and grandparents who once dreamt of doing what they were doing on the screen when they grew up. Wolverine is not there yet, but we can say Logan marked the end of that era. Memories of Wolverine are still vivid, and that’s how we’ll remember him — the pain in his eyes, yet the savage outlines of his face, always on alert, trusting no one and finally, with his shiny Adamantium claws that hadn’t become rusty with disuse. The Wolverine who dominated my cinema experience in my twenties and thirties. Logan has been the swan-song of an exciting seventeen-year stint. It’s a shame that he chose to end Wolverine’s legacy and dash any hope that Wolverine will live on, like all other superheroes that were created. But then, it’s Wolverine. He’s the perennial bad boy; since when did he play by the rules?

So 1st March 2017 is the day when the hope ended. That mutants and humans will live side by side. A vision that Logan himself was very sceptical of. Melancholy is a profound word, probably not applicable to superhero films. But it was melancholy that filled my heart, seeing something, that has been a part of me, end. The last scene was pretty symbolic when Logan’s daughter turns the cross over his grave into an X. It could be a symbol of optimism, similar to le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. Or, it may mean that the story of X-men ended there, with the last true X-men biting the dust. Who knows what’ll happen to the mutants now?
Entertainment, Films, music, Nostalgia

Blade Runner C-beams speech: A throwback to 80’s sci-fi films

In my previous blogs, I have often mentioned about serendipity. It’s a magical word, and the effect of serendipity in our lives is even more astonishing. One such example would be how a great inning from the maestro Sachin Tendulkar would lead me to Blade Runner and the C-beams speech, and following that through to my revelation about the science fictions in Hollywood.

It was the summer of 1998 when I witnessed what is known as “The desert storm” — Sachin dismantling the ominous Aussie bowling attack in Sharjah. The ferocity and sheer brilliance cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t witnessed it. It was devastating and lyrical. The next day as I still reminisced the flurry of strokes by the little master, I came across a compilation of musical scores. One of them caught my interest instantly as if it complemented the replays of the previous day going through my mind. I noticed that the music was called Chariots of Fire, a tune I had heard many times before, composed by none other than Vangelis.

Fast forward a few years, when I’m working and have all the money to splurge as I have no outgoings. Finding Vangelis albums in Calcutta was extremely difficult as the handful of well-known music stores mainly stocked what the most people wanted — 90’s boy bands, 80’s rock and 70’s pop. Who’d be interested in a Greek electro composer? Still, I found luck and the old love rekindled. Each CD cost equivalent of £50, but I still bought a few. Apart from albums like Chariots of Fire, China and Antarctica, there was another compilation album called Themes. That’s where I came across Blade Runner first. It was the title soundtrack of the film, and unlike the serene Antarctica or China, the music was strikingly different. The music seemed completely in sync with the name Blade Runner as though the protagonist running against time — the Laser beams shooting past him in a futuristic world. Learning from hearsay, later on, I thought it’ll be another cop film. But regardless the genre, Blade Runner compositions has been permanently etched in my memory.

Let’s blitz past another decade. The year is 2017. I came across reviews of the Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the original film. The superlative reviews, about how the sequel befits the original film perfectly, made me want to watch Blade Runner, which, despite initial low earnings, is now hailed as a cult classic. However, a lesson I’ve learnt watching Tron: Legacy is that I should at least learn a little about the original film if I’m going to watch the sequel first. And that’s how I decided to watch Blade Runner.

This brings me to the role of serendipity again. I needed all these preludes to tell a story behind deciding to watch Blade Runner. The rest is pure magic. It is undoubtedly one of the best science fictions I’ve ever watched. Set in 2019, this doesn’t perhaps resemble the world we will be living in two years, that most of Earth’s populations will set sail to intergalactic colonies, and there will be flying cars and replicants. But when you think that the film was made in 1982, the concepts of the film and visual effects are mind-boggling. Most of the film features a bleak backdrop — a dystopian LA full of darkness and dereliction. And throughout the film, the music from Vangelis casts the web of magic that complements the feeling of noir in the film, yet in a dreamy world. He pulled all the stops in making the soundtrack for the film — from Indian classical instruments to techno-synth — and the result is magical.

I’m not writing a film review here, so I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the film. But it was an amazing experience, even watching it on my iPad. All I would say is that it was a thought-provoking film, and asked many existential questions. Questions that are still unanswered and admirers are still looking for answers arising from the closing scene of the film. And then there was the C-beams speech. A speech that immortalised Rutger Hauer amongst the Blade Runner fan community. The sheer contrast of character that the viewers witness in Roy Batty during the closing climax was baffling enough when he saves Deckard from falling. Just as we begin to take in what had just happened, Hauer delivers the C-beams speech and blows us away!

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

The words were profound, but beyond those dramatic words superbly drafted by Rutger Hauer himself, the C-beams speech leads to another window or realisation. A realisation that the film, just like its enigmatic soundtrack, was way ahead of its time.

As we are left spellbound at the climax of the Batty vs Deckard duel — Roy Batty said his last words, the white pigeon fluttering away symbolic of his freedom, the downpour and the dark background and finally, the mesmerising music from Vangelis — the film seemed unmistakably 80’s. And it made me wonder. Was 80’s the best decade for science fiction movies? And you think of Tron, Blade Runner, Terminator, ET, Back to the future, Predator, Alien. The list goes on. And when you look at the visual effects and the concepts adopted in the films, the ideas are still fascinating even considering forty years of advancement in science and technology. At times it feels like we have let down those visionaries who depicted a picture of the future, by not advancing enough! I mean, there are brilliant science fictions since the eighties like Jurassic Park, Matrix trilogy, Inception. But the flurry of maverick ideas that we see in the 80’s seems to have been lost. The scripts are much more mainstream and cautious. We have talking robots like in Transformers, but they don’t make C-beams speech anymore.

Watching Blade Runner was nostalgic in another sense. Apart from marvelling at the concept behind the film, it reminded of the growing up, the teenage years, forbidden pleasures of going to the cinema without telling parents. I recently came across a term — Xennials, a generation born between 1977 and 1985, a crossover between Generation X and the Millennials. They are characterised by having the cynicism from the Gen X and optimism of the millennials. This unique combination is perhaps the result of an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood. Living in an analogue world meant the digital reality of today was science fiction then. The information was scarce, so science fictions opened the magic doors to a glimpse of the future. Blade Runner rekindled those memories of the past, and provide inspiration to explore the magical world of science fictions. All this due to a whirlwind inning nearly twenty years ago. Butterfly effect? I call it serendipity.

Rutger Hauer, the C-beams speech and Vangelis soundtrack

Art, Film review, Films, History

Wakolda (The German Doctor) — Film Review

Josef Mengele. Der Todesengel. The angel of death. Just thinking of the name makes my skin crawl. I don’t know if it’s just the name, or remembering the atrocities carried out by Mengele with a fanatical glee in Auschwitz. So when I read the synopsis of the film about a German doctor in remote Patagonia, it took me a while to decide whether to watch it, after my mind immediately associated the story to that of Josef Mengele in his exile. Wakolda (The German Doctor in English) is a fascinating atmospheric thriller where the thin line between truth and fiction was aptly obscured by a brilliant storytelling, remarkable acting and breathtaking cinematography featuring an Andean backdrop. But beyond the taut storyline, the ominous presence of Mengele at the back of the viewers’ mind is what gave the film an eerie outlook. If you don’t know about Mengele, the film will fail to create the effect the director intended to. So, prior to watching the film, I’d recommend a little history lesson in WWII and the role of Josef Mengele in the extermination of the Jewish population. And it’s important, not just to understand the context, but to understand the horror of the WWII that torn millions of lives apart.

Trailer of the film

The story begins in around 1960 as an Argentinian family heads to a mountain retreat named Bariloche in Patagonia, when a strange person requests to follow their car. He seemed quite interested in their boisterous girl with a stunted growth. Reaching Bariloche, where the family is trying to open their inherited hotel business, the doctor — identified himself as Helmut Gregor, offers to stay for six months in their hotel, despite having a place to stay in the town. The doctor offered to treat the girl, Lilith, against the will of her father, as she kept getting bullied in her new German school. Lilith’s mother was found pregnant as well, and knowing that she’s having twins, the doctor looks quite interested and offers to help her with the medication. As Lilith suddenly becomes fond of the strange doctor and follows him everywhere, she learns little things about him that made her more curious. Things such as Sonnenmenschen (Sons of the sun/Aryans), Blut und Boden (Blood and soil) engraved in a knife. Lilith’s curiosity gets someone else interested as well. Nora Eldoc, the photographer at the German school Lilith went to, was suspicious of the new doctor who arrived in the German community, and he seemed to have a few fond supporters including Nora’s boyfriend. She takes Helmut’s photos and sends them as evidence that Mengele was in Bariloche. But the Israeli authorities were more interested in Eichmann. As Lilith started showing some signs of growth, Helmut increased the dose that caused Lilith to have a high fever. Meanwhile, he convinces Lilith’ father Enzo to mechanise production of dolls that Enzo makes. By this time Eichmann was caught and taken to trial in Israel and Mengele knew people have started to suspect. The day they visit the factory to see how the dolls are coming along, Enzo finds out from the delirious Lilith about the treatment and confronts the doctor. Enzo asks him to leave their hotel immediately but realises on his return that his wife Eva gave birth to twins prematurely and they are not breathing. Despite Enzo’s protest, Eva convinces her support to the Doctor. Helmut agrees and tells Enzo to get help from a secret address. He finds out a heavily guarded place, with a fully functional hospital, strange looking people with bandaged faces. A nurse comes with them and makes the twins stable, although it was clear that one is recovering better than the other. The next morning Eva finds out that one of the twins passed away. Helmut packs his bag and measures Lilith for the last time, showing a big growth in her height before he starts making his escape. As the Israeli officials close in on the hotel, Mengele escapes in a seaplane, heading towards Chile.

The escape on the last scene, as Lilith watches
Source: Peccadillo moview

Wakolda is a strange film. You don’t see anything amiss, and that is what is more unsettling. It feels as if you’re watching a Cold War spy film, but there’s something more sinister in the plot there. It also gave a déjà vu feeling after I tried to find more about it. The film is written, produced and directed by Lucía Puenzo, the same author-director who made XXY. XXY is one of the most remarkable films I’ve watched and in my state of awe of having watched Wakolda, I thought that explains the fabulous story and filmmaking. Lucía Puenzo is one of the rare breed of filmmakers, who make films from their own stories. The entire minutiae that she must have thought of while writing the story are seamlessly translated into the scenes when she was making the film, without details getting lost in transition.

Apart from Lucía Puenzo’s phenomenal storytelling, Wakolda is a success with its casting as well. Like her previous film XXY, Lucía’s story revolves around a young character and Florencia Bado was flawless in portraying Lilith. Lilith’s character is the narrator and most part of the film is seen through Lilith’s eyes. As one of the main characters of the film, Florencia’s characterisation of Lilith, with her innocence, hesitations, her shame about her body, and yet showing her defiance, her adolescence – it was magnificent. Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti played crucial roles as Lilith’s parents. Natalia’s character Eva played a subdued role in the film and although she won a number of awards for the role, the character was not emphatic or significant enough in the film for such acclaim. In fact, Elena Roger, who played Nora Eldoc in the film was much more vivid than Natalie. But it was Àlex Brendemühl who stole the show. Àlex portrayed the central character of the film with a finesse. I didn’t manage to find out how Mengele’s character changed when he escaped to South America, but Mengele in this film didn’t show the devilish ecstasy that he was known to exhibit during his experiments. Except for his obsession in creating the perfect race — whether it’s the cattle, the dolls or Lilith and the twins of Eva. But perhaps, his subjects in this film were of the race he wanted to modify, and therefore was sympathetic towards them. Again, being an atmospheric thriller, Wakolda didn’t leave much scope for Àlex to express the panache of his acting ability, like we witness from Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang. Àlex’s ominous presence was expressed by his silence, curt dialogues with Lilith, his feverish scripts and notes, and above the conviction in everything he does — whether it is reserving the room in the hotel, or convincing Eva that Lilith will start growing, or getting Lilith’s father to start manufacturing factory made dolls. He possessed an imposing aura on anybody and everybody he interacted with. It seemed that Àlex was a natural choice for this role.

Los poetas escriben lo que ven, los pintores lo pintan. Yo mido y peso lo que me interesa (Poets write what they see; painters paint it. I measure and weigh the things that interest me) — Helmut Gregor on his obsessive detailing of human form.

And finally the cinematography by Nicolás Puenzo, without which, Wakolda would have been another long-winding character drama. The dramatic backdrop gave the film its momentum and created the perfect atmosphere for the suspense to evolve. Whether it was the awe-inspiring Andes mountains, the meandering roads, the tranquil lake of Nahuel Huapi and the pier, the treacherous pass to reach the toy factory — the imageries fitted into the gloomy backdrop of the film. Some of the long shots lasted for a little too long but that worked well with the slow-paced start of the story. The film also captured the seasonal changes of the region — from incessant downpours to thick snows to sparkling spring. Bariloche, which is a famous Argentinian holiday destination, is showcased with all its beauties to an audience spread across the world.

Wakolda behind the scenes: Cinematography
Source: ControlstudioTV

But beyond these elements that made Wakolda a grand success, it was the storyline itself that gave the film its addictive charm. In Lucía Puenzo’s own words, she tried to blur the lines between black and white, how the world wants us to see things. The viewers are left in a state of confusion whether to believe if Mengele was in fact in Bariloche during that period. Lucía chose a period when Mengele’s whereabouts were not known for six months, between the time Eichmann was caught and Mengele escaped to Chile. He was known to be seen in Bariloche. Apart from Mengele’s sightings in Bariloche, the location was perhaps chosen based on the fact that Bariloche became a safe haven for the Nazi war criminals. Lucía mixed facts with fiction so subtly that it created a thriller straight out of Forsyth books. Facts like Nora Eldoc being present in Bariloche. She was later found murdered in the mountains, and she was in Argentina to find Mengele, but the rest of the story is fiction. It looked like the murder of Nora Eldoc is covered in mystery, as was the silence of Israel government. Was she sent to hunt Mengele down by the government? It seems that we still don’t know that. Throughout the film, similar questions arise that keep us wondering how much of the story was actually true and how much falls in the realms of the imagination of the author? In his parting gesture to Lilith, Mengele takes his SS engraved knife out and flicks it over the scale where he was measuring her growth. It showed a big change in her height. Again, Lucía mentioned that even until the time of making the film, the hormone treatment for stunted growth is done pretty much as developed by Mengele. Now, not knowing Mengele and his atrocities, his departure in the film leaves the audience wondering whether he was a misunderstood person with excellent medical knowledge? Perhaps it does. But that is the success of the film. It’s like making a horror film without showing scary ghosts. The spectre of Mengele looms over the film in every scene. If it wasn’t Mengele, the film would not have been classed a thriller. It would have been a stale drama.

Serendipity is a word I learned a long time ago, and I found that best discoveries in our life are serendipities, we find them when we aren’t really looking for them. It’s most apt regarding the films I’ve watched in my life, and Wakolda was one of them. I just come across brilliant films by accident. But I only write a review when the film goes beyond the message it’s set to deliver and makes me wonder further. Especially when the thoughts are primarily regarding Nazism and it’s just last month when Germany has seen right-wing MPs to be present in the Bundestag for the first time since the WWII. Questions like how on earth the despicable criminals like Mengele have avoided the war crimes trial? It appeared that Mengele had even gone back to Germany carrying his own passport and travelled across Europe before going back to Argentina. Did the officials not know who he was or was the information kept hidden? Even 15-20 years after the end of the war, was there still an underlying pro-Nazi sympathy existing in the government ranks? Had the ghost of Nazism ever disappeared completely from Germany? Perhaps it did, and the new far-right politics is a completely new movement, but while the leaders of these new movements debunk the horrors of Nazism, it begs the question whether it was just hidden under the rug. Wakolda also showed in a brief shot a heavily guarded hospital and many people with their faced covered in bandages. It obviously hinted to the fact that many of the defected German war criminals underwent plastic surgery and avoided arrest for their life. We also see the lack of remorse in a lot of Germans featured in Bariloche, about the war, about the Holocaust, about Hitler. They lived their life as it was before, in a close-knit community, still thinking about the world order they could not build, still dreaming about the Sonnenmenschen. Amongst all such developments, one thing was strikingly evident; it was the naiveté of the Argentinian people about who they were. It seemed that the Nazis and their sympathisers had no worries from the authorities. And the Argentinians they lived around were happy to be integrated into the German lifestyle – proudly attending parties and singing Deutschland uber Alles, which was officially banned in Germany since the war. Although news didn’t spread so rapidly as it does now, it was surprising why the Argentinian government and people did not know about the horrors of Nazism and turned a blind eye. One thing that these Nazi war criminals had in abundance is wealth, amassed from the families they destroyed. It can be easily guessed where that wealth was channelled to, so they have a trouble-free life. Perhaps it was the fall of Peron regime and Eichmann’s arrest and trial that brought an end to the carte blanche the Nazis enjoyed so far.

Such questions arose and it’s never easy to find an answer. People perhaps spent their lifetime finding an answer to these mysteries. However, Wakolda also raised another question and I have an unequivocal answer to that. At the end of the film, Mengele leaves the audience wondering if he was right and his treatment was working. There might even be a small room for sympathy towards the German doctor who avoided arrest at the last minute by catching the plane. But the Josef Mengele depicted in Wakolda is not the person who he really was. He was a heinous criminal, with no respect for human life, and single-handedly murdered thousands of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. He is beneath any sympathy, or commendations for the discoveries he made, because of the cost of such findings. And that’s where the similarity between the film and real Mengele ends. Mengele, after all, was not worth turning into a misunderstood protagonist. Wakolda is, in fact, a historical fiction, not a real story.

Fiction, short story

Repêchage d’amour

Un jour je suis allé au café, et comme d’habitude j’étais assis à côté de la vitrine. Dehors, le carrefour semblait une mer de visages. Une tasse de thé m’accompagnait pendant mon soir mélancolique. Soudain, un visage à l’autre côté de la rue m’a étonné. Comme des souvenirs qui nous tourmentent tout le temps. N’est-elle pas la jeune femme à qui j’ai consacré mon cœur sans la connaître? Mais si! C’est elle! Et tout à coup mon ennui, ma journée en grise est remplie de toute les couleurs…et espoirs.

Je l’ai vue la première fois dans un métro. Nous allions au bureau par le même train. Elle portait une robe blanche toute simple, ses cheveux noires, coupés au carré court. Mais son visage…mon dieu! Comme elle était mignonne! Et les yeux…paraît-il que ses yeux n’ont pas vieillis depuis sa naissance! Ils étaient glissantes, gros et noirs comme ceux d’un bébé. On pourrait vraiment plonger sur la profondeur de ses yeux innocents.

Je ne sais pas ce quoi l’a intéressée vers moi, mais on a échangé des jets d’œil plusieurs fois. Et après quelques jours, nous allions au travail par le même métro de 9h05! En effet, j’arrivais au boulot en retard chaque jour mais qu’est-ce que je pourrais faire? C’était une lutte, celui mon cœur a déjà gagné contre la raison. Mais nous étions timides, nous étions stupides. Nous n’avons jamais parlés! Quelle drôle de vie…

Ou bien, peut-être on a pensé que ce ne serait pas nécessaire! Nous nous connaissions sans parler aucune mot. Il n’y avait pas aucune doute que nous sommes tombés amoureux. Nous savions ça et ce n’était pas nécessaire de déclarer l’amour. On parlait avec les yeux, la bouche, une petite sourire, un regard avant sortir. Mais la chance ne comprend pas les choses spéciales comme ça. Elle a décidé d’intervenir notre bel amour! Après Noël, comme je bordais le métro de 9h05, espérant qu’elle y serait à toute à l’heure, elle n’est pas venue. «Peut-être elle est en retard, ou bien ses vacances n’est pas finis», je pensais. Mais je l’attendais il y avait des jours, et des semaines. Comme elle était soudain venue dans ma vie, elle a disparu. Pour des mois je n’ai pas pu dormir tranquillement. Son visage, sa sourire et surtout ses yeux ont me réveillé toutes les nuits. Elle me manquait à la folie, chaque jour un peu plus.

Presque trois ans plus tard, ce jour-là quand je l’ai vue encore, je me sentais comme si c’était une aubaine, pour régler ma vie. Mon avenir m’appelait et elle était sans doute l’avenir. Pour trois ans ma vie était coincée dans la passé. C’était le moment ou jamais. Se réunir avec mon rêve. Mon cauchemar. Mon obsession. Ma petite amour. Et là, elle y attendait le feu à passer au vert. Parmi une mer de visages. Est-ce que j’ai assez de temps avant qu’elle est disparu encore? Peut-être pour toujours.

J’ai payé l’addition tout de suite et suis sorti du café en courant. J’ai croisés la rue aux pieds légères. Mon cœur se bat comme une batterie. Et enfin, après quatre ans de silence dont trois derniers sans dormir, je l’ai appelée. «Hey!». Surprise, elle a tourné. Elle s’est étonnée comme si elle a vu un fantôme! Et pour moi, je pensais que ça vaut vivre la vie pour le moment. Je l’ai presque perdue. Après quelques secondes de se souvenir les moments et les sentiments de passé, son visage a soudain illuminé. Ce n’était pas la lueur de la rue, ni les voitures. Elle était ravie de me revoir. Une grande sourire apparaît sur son visage, une sourire de bonheur.

Dès le moment je l’ai appelée, on n’a pas encore parlé. Mais cette fois nos yeux parlent plus clairement. C’était sûr qu’on ne laisserait l’autre jamais disparaître. Ses yeux aux larmes, roulantes sur sa joue. Je tiens ses mains par les miennes. Et cette fois-ci je l’ai dite comment elle m’a manqué. J’avais peur qu’elle soit dérangée, ou le pire, elle étais déjà avec quelqu’un. Mais pas du tout! Elle m’a embrassé et m’a dit en souffle, «On ne vas jamais se perdre…allons-y. Dis-donc, tu t’appelles comment?». Et on a retourné au café que j’ai sorti il y a quelques minutes et on y passe le soir…

Il n’y a rien à dire de plus, sauf que deux étrangers dans une ville se sont rencontrés après trois ans, et ils passeront beaucoup de temps se rappeler leurs vies. Touts les soirs, le café seront le rendez-vous pour les deux nouveaux amants. Chaque jour un étape ensemble sur le chemin de l’avenir heureux.

Fiction, short story, writing

A lurid Christmas dream

I see her every day across my desk. I mean, on the days I manage to sit at the desk reserved for Prakash. I like this seat, and it has got two widescreen monitors on the desk. It’s ideal for doing some work, but a bit NSFW while I spend my lunch hour browsing the internet. Everybody behind me could see that I’m on Facebook, or checking share prices or looking to see if I’ve got any new message on the dating site. I leave large colourful PowerPoint slides open in the background, so the colours on the browser are not clearly visible.

Ellie Careless does not have the stunning looks of a model. She is rather plain in her appearance. She’s short, heavily built, and has a plump round face. She doesn’t dress up much – mostly trousers and top, even during nights out with the team. She’s probably in her late twenties, about a couple of years younger than me. I gathered that she’s from the cold north, as her “kloob” sounded like Geoff Boycott’s. She is an average pommy girl in all sense and purposes. Despite all that, I remembered her the first day I moved here, because our paths had crossed a few times in the past, and it’s impossible to forget her fiery personality. We didn’t get on very well — the first time I came here to sort out some budget for my new contract, and we ended up disagreeing to every point during the meeting. Sometimes I felt like asking whose side she was defending, but she was just playing Devil’s advocate and she played it really well. Probably even the Devil himself would have been more lenient.

I don’t know if she took our disagreement personally, but since that first encounter she was rather cold towards me on most of the times I saw her. She tried hard not to make any eye contact, and when she failed, I was greeted with a “hi” as curt as it could be, and a smile that she could manage without stretching her lips. The only times we had a normal conversation is when we had someone else talking to us. And the chat died off the moment they had left. I’ve come to a conclusion that most possibly she doesn’t like me. Then again, neither do most of the people in this office. They are too reserved and engrossed in their little circle of friends. Aaron told me that some think I’m an arrogant know-it-all. That’s total bonkers. I just don’t have patience with wussy no-hopers.

I can’t say I like this new place. Brighton is a fabulous town to hang out, but it’s almost at the edge of the universe. I can’t really say that Croydon was the centre of the world as such, but at least it was closer to London. Brighton is a vibrant place, but you still feel the undertone of a small seaside town. To be honest I always feel out of place in this country, compared to Melbourne. I feel at ease inside the skyscrapers, in the fast-paced city life, looking at the world from the top of 20-30 storey apartments. When I was in Singapore or KL, I never missed Melbourne. Tokyo was even wilder and London wasn’t much different. Until Vicky changed her plans.

Vicky is my partner. Or should I say was? I don’t know. The problem is, nor does she. We’ve been together since late teens when we first met at the Uni. She was a wild girl then, and still is now, unlike me. I’m trying to slow down and be sensible. I wanted to earn and save enough by 40, then settle down either back in Oz, and buy a farm, or move to San Francisco. Vicky and I both loved it there when we went backpacking on Pacific coast trail. That’s before Vicky said she’s bisexual.

When she told me, I didn’t feel any different. In fact, it made me quite excited imagining Vicky with another woman. Two is, after all, better than one! Since the day we had that chat, we’ve engaged with other bisexual couples. At first, it was in seedy clubs, but as we came to know more people, it became easier. We could choose couples where our likes and dislikes are similar. Although Vicky always enjoyed it more than I did. And she wanted this permanently, rather than wild weekends.

That’s when she met Sharon. Sharon works in our HR and is based in this office in Brighton. Vicky was very fond of her, and last year, she had to spend quite some time with Sharon to sort her Visa out. Then one day Vicky introduced her to me and said they are going on a girls only date. Since that night, Sharon had come many times to our Croydon flat. After a few months, Vicky said that she wants to move to Brighton office to see Sharon more. It was a tough decision to make but we supported each other in everything so far and thus we moved to Brighton. I didn’t dislike Sharon to say no. Our flat is just above Sharon’s, the rent is cheap, and our office is ten minutes walk – so it worked out quite well. We could get rid of our car, as everything is close by, and Sharon lends us her Land Rover any time we ask for it. So it was great moving down here, but it felt as if Vicky and I are more distant than we ever were. We still loved each other, and had our times together but they became less frequent than the days Sharon would be around with us. I told Vicky last September that I hardly see her, to which she said that I was being jealous. And that she’s thinking of settling down here. We were in an awkward stage since then. I made it no secret of not wanting to settle down in this bloody freezing place, and as Vicky and Sharon started living in each other’s pockets, I felt that I was the third wheel among us. But I didn’t have the heart to tell it to Vicky. I thought once the Christmas is over, I’ll think about moving out.

I came back to the present, and looked at Ellie again. She’s wearing a black top, and her chestnut brown hair is tied up in a bun. She’ll probably be coming to our work Christmas-do tonight in the same outfit. A party would be an overstatement though; it’s a meal arranged by the big boss. But it was long planned so I couldn’t let it go. Vicky is not coming as she works in the logistics department and they are having theirs next week. She couldn’t have come anyway because this year’s budget is tight and partners aren’t invited to keep the numbers down. I wondered if Ellie is wearing trousers again, but the desk blocked my view. She’s talking to the old hag Christine sitting opposite her. They get along really well, but I wonder how. Perhaps because Christine has a sadistic sense of humour, and I can imagine Ellie’s would be the same. She looked quite pretty from this angle as she’s laughing to something Christine is saying.

At lunchtime I saw her again, in the kitchen. It was one of her one-word conversations; this time she said — “Alright?”. I just repeat what she says these days, so that was the sum total of our chat. It died off with my “Alright?”. I didn’t make any effort this time, as she never stops to actually talk. At least I got to find out what she’s wearing tonight. Her top has silvery threads through, and she’s wearing it with black trousers and black pumps. Surely she could dress up a bit more? But then, I thought, it’s all about having a good time in the end. I wanted to wear my party clothes before coming here, but it’s only Thursday so I couldn’t dress-down. I put all the clothes inside the disabled toilet. I found that it’s ideal to store small items because the toilet is massive.

The afternoon went by in a frenzy. One of the suppliers called about wrong sized materials and I spent almost the entire afternoon talking to my team trying to sort out a solution. We are late on this project and can’t drop the momentum because it’s Christmas three weeks away. Everybody is interested in squeezing every last penny we can earn extra this year. It was after 5 when Aaron tapped on my desk and asked if I’m coming with them for a drink or two before we went to the meal. I had enough for the day and asked for five minutes to get ready. I changed into my jeans and a Ralph Lauren shirt and a semi-formal jacket. I looked in the mirror, and I noticed that my stubble has grown long. I planned to try the hipster look, but got annoyed with the itchy beard, so I just trim it often to keep the stubble neat. I tied my bun neatly and left my formal clothes hung up in the toilet so I can take them back tomorrow.

We went to a pub on the seafront. There were five of us, with others planning to join in later on. Aaron offered the first round and he seemed a bit shocked as I asked for rum straight away. I don’t mind having a beer, but this is not summer, so I didn’t see the point. Days like this make me miss Christmas in Melbourne more. Needless to say, they started jabbering about bloody football. I was thinking Ashes will be on soon, we must wipe out the smirk from the Barmy Army. Bored, I picked up my phone and did a casual check in on Facebook. I bet I’ll get the usual 12 likes from friends who like everything. I’m sure if I said the fish died or the Titanic sank, I’ll still get those 12 likes. I looked at the time. Bloody hell! It’s already 5:45! It seemed I only sat down here five minutes.

My phone vibrated. Three likes already including Vicky’s and a strange message. “How long u guys be there?”. Who the hell is Ellishera CO? As I kept wondering, I saw Aaron commented back, “Til we go to the meal. We’ll grab a cab. Coming?”. So Aaron must know this person, not even sure if it’s a man or a woman. I looked at Aaron and asked, “Who the fuck is Ellishera?”. “Shh… Maddie, it’s Ellie”. Ellie! That’s a weird name, is it even her real name? “Maybe”. Her comments are as curt as her conversations. I soon stopped wondering about her funny name as the next round arrived. We are about 12 now, and this side of the pub looks really rammed. The drinks took my stress away. I’ll now probably be talking to people I usually don’t like. I looked around the group here. I can say I’m pretty friendly with Aaron. Apart from him, I get along well with three or four, but the rest are sulky moaners. On another day I’d put them in their place if they called me Maddie. It’s all Vicky’s fault. She shouldn’t have announced my nickname to every place we went. Especially here, where Maddie is often a girl!

Around 6.30 I went over to the counter to get the last rounds. I should have bought first, now there’s fifteen of them and nobody else offered to share the bill. The queue was horrendous, even though it’s only Thursday. As I finished ordering, I heard a familiar voice say, “Aand two G& T please”. It was Ellie. I looked at her as she added, “I’ll pay you, just saves time queuing”. “No, it’s my round”. “Fair enough. I’ll pay for one later then”. I handed her the two G&Ts and that’s the first time I looked at her this evening. She has transformed! She’s wearing an electric blue dress and a faux-leather jacket, her hair is now straightened and down, making her face look thinner. She did some makeup but it’s barely visible. “Do you need a hand, Damien?” She must have noticed that I was looking at her, as it seemed she forced herself to say something. “Ta, I’ll manage…Ellishera”! I chuckled a bit but controlled myself. After all, she’s my colleague and not a friend. As we were dodging our way back to the corner where our lot were, she stopped midway, and signed me to lean towards her. Then she brought her face close to mine, close enough that I could smell the perfume coming out of her cleavage, and she whispered quite clearly,” If you ever make a joke about my name again, I’ll tear your balls out and feed the dogs on the beach. Okay”? Ouch! Looks like she’s a bit touchy-feely about her name! Why did she go so fucking berserk about it? “Understood. Sorry”!

I carried the drinks to the table and was cheered by the rowdy mob there. This is the fifth round, I don’t know if this is appropriate to turn up drunk at a work party. I only had three shots of rum, just to get in the mood, then switched back to Coke and soda. There wasn’t much space now. Ellie and another girl Clara took up the last seats. “Guys…squeeze in a bit please?”. Her voice was heard over the raucous crowd, she likes to give orders! People sitting on the long bench squeezed in, leaving a tiny patch to perch my ass. I was almost sitting on her lap, our sides almost glued together to avoid me falling down. I felt a bit dejected that I made that gaffe about her name, perhaps we could have finally talked otherwise. It was different if I disliked her, but she seems quite funny; it’s just that perhaps we got on the wrong foot.

“So, do you live close by”? I tried to break the ice again as the guys across the table seem to crane their neck away from me to watch sissy boys kicking about. “I live in Hove, you”? “Not far. Only walking distance”. “Lucky you! Is it one of your Aussie mates sorting all this for you”? “No, I haven’t met many here. We used to go out in Croydon once a month or so, not here”. “Okay”. She’s gone back to one word again. I looked at the phone. 6:50. Shit, when is the meal? I thought it was 7:30. I don’t know where that place is, we must be getting ready soon. “Do you know how far we gotta go”? She looked at the phone, and said “Yeah, we should be getting ready. It’s not far but we’ll need taxi looking at the state of some”. “C’MON LADS, we’ll be late, leave by 7”. I think she’s so bossy at work that it worked outside as well. People rushed to finish their drink, coming back to senses.

I walked outside first. The air has turned nippy, but I know that it’s not going to snow here. It never does. The strand is decorated with Christmas lights, and all the pubs along this side are full now. The air is filled with the sound of the waves and a subtle hum of people chatting in the pubs, only to be disturbed by some raucous laughter or loud chants. I must say Christmas is something special here. I stood there, almost lost in thoughts about Vicky’s decision to settle down here. What would happen if I decide that as well? Would she still be with me? “Coming Damien? Or you’re not planning to?”. I looked around. Aaron, Ellie, and two others are waiting for me, I didn’t realise the rest of the lot has already picked up cabs and left! In the dim white light of the street lamps, I could see a smirk on Ellie’s face. I recognised that from before. Does she think I’m a bit weird? Or is it that she’s a bit amused that I stood there on my own, oblivious to everyone else? I hurried back to the taxi. Ellie got in first, and sat with her back to the driver. Then the other two and Aaron sat on the other side, leaving me no choice but to sit next to her. I thought Clara would sit next to her but she’s sitting opposite Ellie so they could talk. We just had mild banter about the ones already pissed, and whether our director will come to the party. The cab drove along the narrow streets of Brighton, often making last minute turns to avoid traffic. With every turn, either I’m falling on Ellie, or she lurched on to me; the strap to hold on to aren’t that effective. Especially when you’ve had a few drinks.

After a few times our shoulders brushed, which I didn’t really dislike, we reached the place. It’s a stately building, perhaps what they call a listed building, converted into a hotel. I wondered why on earth we are here, the meal isn’t cheap. In Croydon, we had about £20 budget. We paid £60 here, plus £30 to the drinks pot for the ones going out later on. I’ve been to a castle before to attend a wedding but not a hotel like this. It exudes opulence, from the marble floors to the crystal chandeliers to the carved oak doors. We went to the bar-cum-lounge area, it’s really crowded now with a lot of other people turning up. I ordered a cream soda, and looked around to see if there are any familiar faces to mingle with. I glided through the clusters of people, trying to find one to join in. All these fucking retards just talking about their job! Seriously?

I looked for Aaron, but couldn’t find him anywhere. He must have gone out smoking. I looked at my phone, there’s a message from Vicky, “How’s the party Maddie? Having fun babes? Who the fuck is Ellishera!!! X o x”. I replied to her straight away, “It’s Ellie Careless. Do you know her?”. “Of course I do! Posh twat”. “In what way? She sounds too common to me”, I asked. Seems like we are chatting through text now. “Does horse riding, I mean proper owned horses! Does diving with that fat ass, and filthy rich”. “How do you know all that”? “Oh I know everything about most of the girls there. And you know how ;)”. Sharon! So she tells Vicky all the gossip and their background. Of course! She can access all the details. “Tell me Sharon doesn’t tell you all these personal stuff from their HR file!”. “Don’t worry babes. I don’t tell this to everyone! But anyway, if you’re thinking of hitting on her, think twice Maddie. She’s way out of your league”. “You bitch! I wasn’t planning on, but now I might! You never fancied her then ;)?”. “No I don’t fancy pigs haha! Seriously, if you can fuck her tonight, I’ll give you 20 dollars”. She’ll never mature! I don’t know if that’s the problem between us, that I’m not that fun anymore? I looked at the glass of cream soda, it’s still full, it must have been 20 minutes and I’m still stood here in a corner. “Gotta go Vic, I feel like an alien here. Dinner will be served soon”. “Coz they’re normal ppl! Just chill and don’t worry if you don’t talk to them you can come back early”. “You offering a root?”. “Maybe;) !”. “Alright then, I’ll come back early if I can”. “Maddie don’t! I’m just having you on! You can smash my back tomorrow. Enjoy the party, I gotta start at the normal time unlike you lucky bastards!”. “Told you, you’re a sick bitch! I’m going now. You can go flog yourself”. “Oh I can just go downstairs for that! Have fun at the party! Love you x o x o”. And she’s gone. The messenger showed she’s offline.

The crowd has thinned a little now. Have they started to usher people to the room? Aaron just walked past me with an “Alright mate?”. At the far corner, Ellie and Clara are now joined by the rest of the girl gang. Looks like she’s got a Guinness. I don’t know how people drink that muck! She looked at me, but we were quite far to acknowledge. She was smiling, and then I realised that few others looked at me as well. The girls were laughing, and it might be something to do with me because Ellie was saying something with a lot of finger-pointing. As the large wall clock chimed 8 o’clock, a couple of neatly dressed staff came to the room, to inform that the meals are ready to be served. Despite the plush ambience, it’s been pretty shit for me so far, so I hoped the meal better be nice!

There was a rush to go and sit down at the table. The rowdy lot were the first to go in, then the older ones, some girls went in after them and some headed for the toilet. I stayed back until the queue dwindled. It’s not that I dislike crowd, but I wanted to finish my soda first. There was a teenage boy waiting at the door with a list, “What’s your surname, Sir?”. “Kruger”. “Thank you, Sir…Table six on the left, Sir”. “Thanks, bud”. I wasn’t very flattered by all the Sirs and pompous etiquettes. A waitress stood by each table, to attend that table only it seems. The girl showed me the seat I’m expected to sit in. I looked around the room, it’s a huge dining room, with large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling high enough to fit two storeys. On one side of the wall, there are large windows but they have curtains drawn in. The wall opposite is adorned with paintings, plaques, artefacts encased in glass containers. At the far end of the wall, there is a large fireplace, with log fires. I looked around our table. It sits eight but there are only seven of us now. I was pleased that Russell is sitting next to me. He’s okay, at least not pretentious like most of the lot here. They were serving wine bottles to the other tables, but not ours. Maybe because they are waiting for the person on my right to sit down? Most around this table are the older lot. I wonder why they sat me here. I started chatting with Russell about the wines when I smelled the perfume around me that seemed very familiar. Ellie! She’s the mystery person in the empty seat.

“Hi”. “Hiya”. Gosh! Not again this one word game for the entire meal! I was saved by John, the guy opposite me who started telling some jokes. We finally got our wine. It’s full-bodied red. She had the same as well. As the wine began to flow, the conversation became easier. Now I don’t really regret sitting at this table, some of the guys I’ve never spoken to, they are really cool and they have some interesting stories to tell! I started getting hungry and wondered when the food is going to be served. Miss tight ass next to me is the only one who’s just gulping down wine and smiling at odd intervals. Our eyes met a few times but we looked away immediately. I looked at Russell, he’s busy talking to the guy on his left about mortgages, something I don’t understand.

This is great! £60 spent on posh shit and that’s it. Even that seems to be taking forever to arrive. I thought that this can’t get any worse, and perhaps I should ask Ellie what the matter was. “Alright Ellie?”. “Alright”. “Nice wine, huh?”. “Nah, cheap crap from Calais. You can get a crate for 10-15 quid for this”. “Really!”. “Yeah”. “I hate this fixed seating arrangements”. “I know! I can tell, you couldn’t wait to get as far away from me as possible!”. Ouch! That wasn’t necessary. “That’s not true! I thought you weren’t talking to me”. “Oh, you’re not sulking for that still! That was meant to be a joke!”. “Didn’t seem a joke to me!”. “Oh for F…Damien, I need to have a word with you, outside”. “Yeah, I think so too!”.

We walked out of the room, down the hallway and into the lounge, where we were greeted on arrival. I let her walk ahead of me, and she preferred that way. We went into the courtyard, where there is a giant Christmas tree covered with chains of LED lights. She stopped and faced me, and said, “WHATS YOU FUCKING PROBLEM DAMIEN?”. “My problem? Nothing! Except that you couldn’t do any more to avoid me at work. Look, I get it that you don’t like me, but as colleagues, we could be a bit more civil don’t you think?”. “Oh is it then? The last time I checked my contract, it didn’t say anything about smiling and being nice to tight arsed idiots”. “Oh thanks! At least you’re clear about what think of me!”. “What! You’re gonna moan about that as well? Just get a life for fuck’s sake, Damien!”. “Fair enough! I won’t be talking to you If I don’t have to, but you better stop smirking at me”. “I SMIRK AT YOU! You must be joking!”. “You just do! You did it outside the pub when we were coming here!”. “That wasn’t a smirk!…”. She suddenly lost her words and looked away. I can’t believe this! Having a fight with a colleague on Christmas-do! “Damien”, her tone changed, it’s more reconciliatory now than a few moments ago, “Now, don’t be over-dramatic, you’re a decent guy, and you work hard and don’t piss about like the most here. I just feel that you don’t wanna talk to me, as if you’re holding some grudge on me”. “Exactly how I feel about you, Ellie. Especially after that bloody row in Rugby. But to be clear, I don’t hold any grudges against you. I don’t know what it is. How you look at me sometimes, it seems as if I am…anyway leave it!”. “I’m not leaving it, Damien! But listen. We both were thinking about the meeting in Rugby. Can we just forget about it and treat each other as colleagues, not enemies?”. “I’m all for it, apology accepted”. “WHAT! When did I say that?”. “Chill! It’s only a joke. We better go in now, Steve might be here”. “Yeah, you carry on, I’ll have a quick fag. You haven’t got a light, have you?”. “Here”. I handed over my lighter. Then on a second thought, I lit one as well. “Oh well, Steve can wait then!”.

I made a ring in the air and watched it disperse circling the stars above. Then I realised that Ellie was standing in front of me and I was again distracted looking at the sky. “So how long you’ve been with us? It was 2014 I guess?”. “13. You?”. “11. I feel old saying that!”. “Before that?”. “I’ve worked at a construction company in Singapore, before that in Beijing, and KL”. “Interesting! You have travelled around a bit then!”. “A fair bit. We travelled a lot, Far East and all over the world after coming here. Do you travel much?”. “Yes and no. I did a lot of work with charities in Africa during college and uni. Travelled a few countries down that way”. “Wow! Which ones?”. “I’ll tell you later Mad…err, Damien. It’ll be shorter to tell the names I haven’t been in sub-Saharan states”. “Phew! I must hear about your experiences. I wish to go there sometime myself!”. “Sure thing. I can give you a few tips. Shall we go in?”. “Let’s go”. We finished our cigarettes and started walking back to the dining hall. It was relieving that we had the chat. And finding out that there’s something we can talk in common. As we went in, I noticed that our director Steve was giving his speech. And then someone started clapping. Not to Steve’s speech, but I guess to mock us. Aaron even did a wolf whistle. Once we sat down, Steve carried on with his speech thanking everyone.

The food arrived amid a loud cheering. It took bloody 45 minutes to serve the starters. And then they got everything mixed up as people can’t remember what they pre-ordered three months back! I knew exactly what I wanted and got it straight away. Ellie had the salmon terrine as well. I thought of waiting for the rest in our table, but she started eating already, and I excused myself and followed suit. Rest of the guys didn’t have to wait much longer either. Russell briefly spoke about how fed up he is with everything but I wasn’t in the mood for the doom and gloom stories, so when he went back to eating, I whispered to Ellie, “Why are people so miserable here? You’d think being the head office, you’ll see the opposite!”. “Because…”, she leant towards me, “we get a lot of rumours as well, and mostly the bad ones!”. I was listening but my mind drifted as the smell of her floral perfume wafted through. I couldn’t help but look at her cleavage where the smell was coming from, but then I looked around. I noticed a couple of guys ogling her as well. So I’m not the only pervert here! “I think John is perving on you”, I whispered to her. “What’s that got to do with you?”. “Nothing! I thought you could have a laugh”. “Oh I will!”. She sat up, sitting straight again, and looked at John. “What’s that you’re having there John?”. As it turned out, he was sort of ignoring the main course trying to look at Ellie, and he had to do a lot of ums and ahs. I hurried myself to concentrate on my beef wellington to keep a straight face. That was hilarious. I must tell Aaron this. I texted him. He replied back saying he is a known “lech”.

I think that incident has lifted any uneasiness left after our talk outside. We spoke a lot during the meal and nibbling through my cheese board. She told me about her time in Africa, amazing things she’d seen there especially the sulphur flats, about her horse-riding hobby, that her dad is an ex-diplomat, and about her partner Ken, that he’s mostly on tours playing tennis. “Is it awkward staying away most of the time?”, I asked, remembering nights when Vicky was with Sharon. “Well I tend to go wherever he is every couple of weeks”. What! She travels around with his boyfriend every other weekend? How does she get the time? “Wow! You mean in Europe I suppose?”. “No even in the US, or the Middle East. As long as it’s not too much travelling”. “You must be minted, to spend all that money”. “It costs quite a bit but not an arm and a leg! He gets the tour calendar well ahead and I have spent £300 once on a return flight, and that to the US! Most of the times it’s £50-60. And no hotel bills as I stay with him”. I was listening to her, amazed. We tend to travel a lot, and thought we were frugal but she seemed to have made our efforts look bloody amateurish. “I must say your bloke is a lucky man!”. She shrugged her shoulders, and asked about my life.

It got a bit awkward when I told about Vicky. “Vicky at operations is your partner! I didn’t know that”. “Why? What’s wrong with her?”. “Nothing. Don’t take me otherwise Damien, I haven’t spoken to her but what I heard is she wears her heart on her sleeve. You seem to be an opposite!”. “Yes, I know. I’ve heard it many times”. “I’m sorry, I was just passing what others said”. “No that’s totally cool. Hey, maybe you can tell me if she’s got any gossip in your girls’ circle”. “What is girls’ circle?”. “I don’t know. When all you girls go to the toilet at the same time”. “So you want to find out gossips on your girlfriend! That’s a bit underhanded, no?”. “Well true, but aren’t most gossips?”. “Are you gonna tell her?”. “Depends on how bad it is! If we can laugh at it, I will. If it’s spiteful I probably won’t”. “Well she’s got a name, Sticky Vicky”. I burst out laughing, “What!”. People on our table stopped talking and looked at us. I apologised and carried on talking. “Sticky Vicky! What does it even mean?”. “Well it’s a character from a TV show. I can’t say any more. You’ll have to Google it. The show’s called Benidorm”. I went on google to look for it, and I didn’t like what I was reading at all. Ellie must have seen my ears turn red, “I’m sorry Damien, I shouldn’t have said that to you”. “Well…it’s not very nice, is it?”. “No. But I don’t think whoever came up with the name didn’t mean it like that. It was a bit of banter—”. “Yes, a bit of banter, always at the expense of someone”. I think I touched some raw nerve there. She looked stern and said, “Well you shouldn’t have asked what people talk about you behind your back. Nobody is interested to know how good you are! I’m sure people call me things, fat arse and all…but I’m not interested unless they tell it on my face. I can then put them in their place!”. “You’re right. By the way, I wasn’t saying it was you”. “No I know you didn’t. Coz if you did, I’d have punched you in the face”. She smiled at me, but I guess she meant it. “You don’t hold back your words do you?”. “Why should I? Fag break?”. “Ya let’s go”.

I looked at the time. It’s already 10 o’clock! We haven’t gone anywhere yet. People are finishing their coffee and mince pies. But it looks like the meal is almost over – people looking at the time, conversations getting louder, empty plates on the tables and the nice linen now smudged with gravy and wine marks – a sign that it’s time to go back to Brighton. The meal dragged on a bit long. We walked down the corridor outside. It’s quite nippy now, I should have had my jacket on. She offered her lighter this time, our hands touched and I felt how warm her hand was. “Crikey you’re freezing Damien!”. “Ta. I’m always like this, what do you expect in this bloody climate?”. “You don’t like it here do you?”. “I mean, people are nice enough, but you must admit it’s pretty shit weather! Bleurgh!”. “You bloody people, coming here, making a living and still moaning,”. She smiled as she was exhaling the smoke, and the web of smoke created a veil in from of her face, making it look mystical in the dim light filtering through the large windows. “Your friends giving you a cold shoulder today?”. I noticed during the meal some went out for a break but didn’t ask her. “Yeah, I guess jealous cuz I’m talking to you”. “What’s there to be jealous about?”. “Because at least three amongst the girls here tonight fancy you”. “What! I have hardly spoken to them!”. “That’s why”. “Oh thanks!”. “Nooo…I meant they think you spend a lot of time on your own, working, and that’s odd. They think it’s kind of mysterious, keeping a distance from everyone”. “You don’t?”. “No, you just try to avoid them because you don’t like them”. “That’s not really the reason why I haven’t got along with the lot here. I’ve had other things going in my mind”. “See, now you sound like everyone else, whinging about life. There’s no mystery in you”. “You’re right! The magic’s gone”.

As I said the last sentence, I was thinking about Vicky. I think I am right in guessing that the magic between us is truly gone. All that’s left is the friendship as we were best friends from teenage. Ever since we moved down here, the thought has clouded my mind all the time. And I’ve been trying to talk to somebody, but all I could think of was Vicky. I spoke to my mate Jono a few times, but not about our lives. Uttering those words to Ellie made me realise that it’s probably time. Time to have a candid tête-à-tête with Vicky. “Hey, Damien, are you alright?”. My stupor broke by her words. I don’t remember how long I stood there, but it can’t be too long, the cigarettes in our hands are still glowing. “Ya, I’m fine. Sorry”. “If you feel like crying, let me go first. Especially if you’re going to sob”. “Oh ya! Some great friend you’re turning out to be! Not even wanting to listen when someone is in distress!”. “No point mocking me, even if I did, you wouldn’t tell me. We are only on speaking terms since this afternoon”. “Keep it to yourself will ya Ellie?”. “No worries. I’m not in the gossiping group! I was worried for a second…look, we all have issues in our lives to deal with”. “No, you’re right. Fuck it, I need some shots”. “Well c’mon then!”.

On our way back we walked in silence, probably either of us thinking about what happened outside. I didn’t walk behind her like before, our arms brushed. As we were about to go in the dining hall, we noticed some people were already coming out. I picked my jacket up, and waited until she finished off the wine she was drinking and picked her bag up. “Are you coming back to town for your shots?”. “You betcha I am!”. “Okay I might see you there sometime tonight then. Are you going with Aaron?”. “I don’t mind. I’d go wherever they serve the cheapest booze”. “Then I’ll definitely see you tonight, I think we’re all going there. Well it was nice finally talking to you Damien, see, I don’t bite! “. “I always tried to say hi to you! But ya, it was nice talking to you too”. We headed off for the lounge. I don’t even know if somebody called a taxi or who I’m going with. I felt a hand slapped my back outside. It was Aaron. “I can see you pulled Ellie, are you coming with us or going somewhere else?”. He said “else” with a wink. I wanted to say something funny but couldn’t think of anything, and she spoke before me, “Shut up Aaron. Somewhere else with him! I’m not blind!”. “Too right. Pull her? I might pull a lamppost! Have we got a cab?”. “It’s on the way. You’re coming with me. Stay here”. And he disappeared in the waiting crowd. “That wasn’t really necessary was it Damien?”. “You know the moment I said it I thought FUCK! I am—!”. “No wonder Vicky wants to leave you. Excuse me”. And she squeezed her way past through the crowd towards the girls, leaving me alone.

I resented the minute I said it, but perhaps that was me trying to deny something I might have been wishing for. I’m not the most sensitive person and I call Vicky a slag all the time, she doesn’t mind and rather enjoys it. If I said that joke to her, she’d probably have said to try sticking my dick in a lamppost instead! I texted Vicky that I’m going to the town. She replied saying if the bet is still on sleeping with Ellie. “NO Vicky! She fucks a tennis pro! I’m just going to get pissed”! “Ah ha. You don’t know what’s been happening. They broke up!”. “But she said they are together!”. “Her bloke posted pictures on Facebook with a girl in the bikini by the pool. A sexy one, not like the pig. Your flame commented who’s she and he said just a fan. Yeah mate, you’re not Andre Agassi that people chase you for a selfie!”. “So, what happened then?”. “Right, don’t repeat it to anyone, they had a showdown. He didn’t want to piss off an ex-diplomat’s daughter, and she couldn’t see that he’s been a dickhead so they got back together. Then someone saw another piccie on the other girl’s profile and told Ellie. She had enough and threw him out”. “What a dick!”. “Feeling sorry for her Maddie? If you’re fucking a hippo every night, you’d want the same!”. “If I get a fuck every night I don’t mind a hippo. A bird in hand ;)…btw, since when are you so interested in gossip?”.

Our taxi arrived finally. I got in the front seat to avoid any more prying questions from Aaron. The other two are pissed already. They smell of wine, and their shirts bear the evidence that they drank red. I looked on the phone. Vicky replied. “I’m not but Sharon pisses me off with all her bitchy gossiping!…you’d get a root every night babes when I get Sharon ready to come with us;)!”. So she got the hint! She stays away from me because Sharon doesn’t want to share the room with us. “Like that’s ever gonna happen! I’m fed up not being with you Vic. You want both of us at the same time, it’s not working, so you need to decide—”. I looked at the message again and deleted it. It’s not worth having this discussion at this state. Then another message flashed on the screen. “So the bet’s off then?”. “What bet?”. “Sleep with the elliephant haha ;)!”. “Ya. Like I had any chance! I’m gonna get stoned”. “Be careful Maddie. Don’t call me unless it’s urgent, but if you need me, give a bell anytime”. “I will. Night night x o x o x”. The lot behind me seem to have gone to sleep. We are back in Brighton now. The taxi stopped at the Esplanade. I looked around but it was only our cab here.

I looked at the time. 11:30. Still, plenty of nightlife is left. But the lot with us is already pissed, we aren’t even sure if they’d let us in. “Mate, I can’t let these pissheads come with us. I’ll take them to my flat then come back”. Aaron’s idea seems to make sense. “I’ll come with you. You can’t handle these two!”. Anthony, one of our surveyors suggested he wants to go home and needs a cab. We put him on his cab, and Aaron asked me to stay here and look out for the other people back from the hotel. I waited for 15-20 minutes waiting on the pavement. It’s getting colder, and the wind is getting stronger. I got a few wolf whistles from a group of pissed girls. I looked at the time again, neither Aaron nor the other lot is here yet. I decided to go indoors somewhere and wait for them instead.

I walked across the road to West street. This is a familiar place for me, especially the walkabout. When we fancy some real Fosters or Bundy rum, we come here. Vicky likes this one, but I think Macko, the manager is a bit snotty. I never really felt welcome here, and some of the other Aussies I spoke at different times seem to think the same. I still went in, to kill some time rather than strolling along the cold esplanade. I sat next to the bar and ordered a shot of rum to Gina, the girl from NSW who serves weeknights. The rum didn’t last long, and I started to feel edgy, sitting all on my own. I don’t dislike my company in most places, but bar and nightclubs are an exception. Because of Christmas, the bar is still busy, so I can’t even have a chat with the bar crew. Besides, Macko doesn’t like that. I went for a cigarette outside, to clear my head and look on the phone if Aaron is coming back soon. I got no bars on my phone inside. The pavement is quite crowded, and there I noticed Chantelle. She was walking past me as I called her, “Chantelle!”. “Oh hi Damien, alright?”. “Ya, where are you heading?”. “Just here, to Revolution”. “Do you know where the rest of the crowd is?”. “No idea mate. The girls are here”. “I thought we put down money for a booze fund? Are we all not going to the same place?”. “So nobody told you?”. “Told me what?”. “Well, people thought it’s a bad idea and took their money back”. “When did that happen?”. “This evening”. “Fuck, when was somebody going to tell me!”. “I don’t know Damien. Ellie had the money for everyone. She still has mine, but she’s here so it doesn’t matter. I don’t know about lads, a few were here with us, but someone else must be giving the money back. Maybe ask Aaron?”. “So Ellie won’t have it?”. “You can ask yourself. Come in”.

I followed her in the queue. It didn’t take too long to get to the gate. I was lucky that Chantelle was with me, we went in without any problem. I wonder how, but the girls managed a cosy corner with leather sofas. I guess the people who are working tomorrow, have left, and it’s only students and merrymakers who are still here. Ellie noticed me as we entered the room, and she looked away chatting with the others. I went and sat next to her, hoping to ask about the money. Before I could ask, Chantelle said. “Ellie, Damien was looking for his money, I thought you might be having it”. I think she didn’t want me there, and wished I took the money and go out. “Yes, I got your money, sorry Damien I thought we’d all come back at the same time”. “No worries. Have you got the cash?”. She stood up, picking up her coat. “I’ll come with you, I gave out all the cash I had. Need to go to the cashpoint”. While we were talking, I kept wondering which three girls here fancy me, because all I’m getting is dagger looks. I bet she blurted all that lamppost joke, they are bezzie mates again.

In the bar area, I spoke to her, “Ellie, I’m really sorry, and I felt awful since I said it”. “Must be something you always thought then!”. “Ellie look I’m sorry and there’s no other way to put it. I know it must have upset you. Look I’ll be off if you want me to”. “It’s up to you. You came here for the money anyway”. “Actually, I thought we all are going to the same place! Nobody told me what the bloody plan was”. “It was at the last minute, after I went away outside”. She sighed, “It probably wasn’t you at all Damien, maybe it’s just me, perhaps I overreacted…cmon let’s go outside I need a fag. I’m bored sick”. We went to the open area at the back. A halogen heater is keeping the outside of the canopy warm, even in this cold. We smoked our cigarettes in silence for a while. I couldn’t think what to say to her, do I pretend that moment never happened? “The more I think about it”, she spoke finally, “it had nothing to do with what you said. I mean it’s no point pretending, my boyfriend and I broke up six weeks back. He was cheating on me”. I don’t really know what to say in these situations. Should I appear surprised, shocked or sad? “Oh, sorry to hear that”. “It’s okay. In fact, I was telling you as if we were still together, it’s pretty sad”. “Well it’s your way of dealing with it, that’s all that matters”. She lit another cigarette. I haven’t smoked back to back fags for a long time, but I did the same. She looked out towards the dark facades of the buildings around us, smoking in silence. In the light filtering through the canopy and the heater, I could see tears trickling down her cheeks. Fuck! She’s crying! And she’s neither my date nor even a friend that I’d try to console her. Should I give her a hug? Touch her arm? I just stood there, repeating her staring vacantly into the darkness and smoking. I can now see why she was hurt. She must be thinking that she can’t keep a boyfriend. I offered her my pack of tissues. She took it in silence, wiped her cheeks and blew her nose before she spoke again, “Thanks a lot, Damien, the strangest thing is almost everyone here knows about it, but I haven’t told it to anybody”. “Yes, you can’t maintain a private life without people prying”. “You’re right. I’ve been quite naive. Let’s get you your money. I’ve kept you waiting long enough”. “It can wait, more we wait less likely it is that I’ll spend them!”

We went inside the lounge. There was a cash machine. Ellie said it charges about £3 and we should go to the cash point. She suggested we went to a bank and have a cigarette on the way. “Do you think you might need a trip to the ladies before?”. Her eyes squinted, “Why?…oh I see, is it that bad?”. “All over your face. You might get a few comments about Hallowe’en”. “Blimey! Thanks”. She went to the toilet to fix her makeup. I doubted whether it was a good decision to let her do that. I might be waiting here for another half an hour. It’s already 1:15. Where’s the time gone! I wondered why Aaron didn’t contact me, and the wifi here is shit. I managed to get one bar in the end, and received a text from Aaron sent about 12:30 that he’s staying in because Tim, the drunk guy he took in had been sick and he was cleaning the floor and carpet for last half an hour. He said whether I managed to get my money from Ellie and the rest of the guys are in Coalition. I made up my mind to go to Aaron’s, once I got the money from Ellie. But it depends when she comes back.

To my surprise, she didn’t take much time at all! Less than 10 minutes! That must be a record! She put some mascara on, to match with the blue of her dress. She’s got a darker shade of lipstick, and as she came closer, I could smell the perfume. She looks pretty when she dresses up rather than wheel about in her baggy trousers, I wonder why she wears them! “That was quick!”. “Oh well…Let’s go Damien”. And we were out in the streets. People now are rowdier, but there is only a few. “Are you feeling better now?”. “Yes, better. That’s the word. Thanks, Damien”. We walked towards the nearest cash point along West street. After walking in silence for a bit, she said, “I think I know why you said what you said”. “Why?”. “I can’t answer it for you. But let’s not dwell on that now”. We found a cash point but when I pointed it to her, she said this one was cloned a few weeks ago. I suddenly thought, is she dragging her feet to spend time with me? Her excuses seemed pretty deliberate. And the change of makeup. But then, I don’t mind doing this rather than getting pissed with people I don’t particularly like. After walking for another five minutes, we found a bank. She took out £300 and asked if I can do the same. “But you only owe me £30!”. “Yes, I paid everybody else’s than the girls and some others, who I don’t know where they are. I thought I’ll pay by card”. “But they can pay by card, no?”. “Damien, do as I say. Not everyone likes paying by card on a night out. Too easy to lose it or get cloned”. “You’re the boss!”. On our way back we spoke about her childhood being grown up in the Far East. I thought international schools are for snobbish people, but she turned out to be a nice person! “So why did you become an engineer Ellie?”. “What do you mean? Being a woman and an engineer?”. “Fuck no! I mean your lot tend to go in law and all that sort of shit before following the family business”. “And what’s MY LOT?”. “I mean the rich people”. She laughed out for a moment. I guess she laughed first time while talking to me, ever. She looked radiant then, and as she laughed, she slapped my shoulder. If felt her touch is still there, although she moved her hand away! “You see Damien, I guess I’m beginning to understand you. I’d be pretty offended by that, but I can see that you meant no malice, it’s just how you talk!”. “Sorry! So you’re not offended? I’m used to people swearing at me if I offended them, so you see, hard to guess if you don’t tell me”. “Okay, I’ll swear at you next time!”.

We didn’t realise that we reached Revolution while we spoke. We were engaged in a lively debate about Nando’s chicken and what’s best to eat them, hand or knife and fork. “Oh, we are here!”. “Oh yes!”. I stood there for a moment. She looked at me and said nothing. “Well thanks for the money Ellie. And showing me the cloned ATMs!”. “That’s alright! And thanks for listening to me whine about petty things”. “You mean not offering to leave before the tears?”. She forced out a smile, “Something like that Damien. I guess you’re going to where the other guys are? Will you get to go in?”. I looked at the time. It’s gone past 2 AM. I suddenly felt no desire to go there. “No, I guess I’ll go to Aaron’s and have a few drinks with him, I’m not bothered to go clubbing this late. And…I don’t mind if you’d rather want to roam around, showing me streets of Brighton where there are uncloned ATMs”. She looked away as I looked at her. I could tell that my guess was correct. It’s hard to tell in this light if she blushed, but I’m pretty sure she did. “Oh! I see. You don’t?”. “No…”.

We stood there in silence again. It’s like the times in the office, when we’d say nothing and walk past, but it felt different this time. Much was probably said without actually saying anything. “Would Aaron mind if I came over as well?”. “As long as you don’t mind women referred as sex objects. To him, everyone keeps a dildo in their lingerie drawer…To be honest, I’d better ask him”. I sent Aaron a text if he was asleep, while I watched the look of disbelief and hilarity on Ellie’s face. He said he’s watching some trash film on HBO and we are free to come in. “You two can fit into my other room, it’s got a comfy bed ;)”. I told him that we’ll bring some drink. “Yes, we could go there, he’s awake. I said we’ll get some drink. You sure you wouldn’t become unpopular in the bitch club?”. She laughed out, and said in a low tone, “How do you know if I’m not gonna tell it to them inside?”. “I just do. If you still wanna do it, be my guest!”. “Even if I go back, people would still say tomorrow that I threw myself at you. So I don’t give a fuck what they think or say”. “Just don’t let them speculate. Do a check in from Aaron’s”. “Wait here Damien”, she put her hand over mine and squeezed it, “I’ll just be back, let me give the money to the people inside”. And she went in.

I waited outside. The streets look deserted now. All the clubbers are either in the nightclubs or went home. The empty streets with store facades decorated with Christmas lights made the night seem somewhat magical yet eerie. I heard the footsteps on the tiled entrance, the sound I remembered when she went inside. “Fucking bastards, the lot of em!”. She was fuming. “What’s up?”. “They’re not there! Where the fuck am I gonna find them and now I’ll have to carry around all this cash!”. “Look, let’s check Coalition. Aaron said some went there”. We walked across to Coalition. She was busy texting as we walked. As we crossed the esplanade, the chilling sea breeze broke through the layers of warm clothing and made me shiver right through to my bones. I looked at Ellie, busy trying to keep the unruly hair off her face. I thought if I was a photographer, that would make an amazing picture. It’s not just that she looked beautiful at that instant, but it’s the whole combination of the sea breeze rustling her hair, the Christmas lights behind, the empty esplanade that gave that moment a magical feeling. It was a long walk down the ramp to Coalition, Ellie held onto my shoulder to keep the balance. At the entrance, she said, “I’ve texted Chantelle. She just replied she’s there and thought I went away with you”. It is freezing at the sea level. Chantelle came out about five minutes later, Ellie gave her the cash and explained who owes how much. She said she knows the bouncer and could get us in but we said we are off to Aaron’s. On our way up the ramp, it was worse. Ellie definitely had more to drink than I did, and she struggled with her heels. She grabbed hold of my arm tightly so she didn’t slip.

We took a taxi to the Asda that stays open 24hours. I’m pretty disappointed in a way that I still feel alright rather than feeling at least a little tipsy. On the other hand, I made up with Ellie. I still don’t fancy her, but I thought she is a nice girl just to talk to. And I can’t say I can turn up to too many to talk to. But just tonight within a span of last 8-9 hours, I’ve told her things I probably wouldn’t otherwise. And so did she. We asked if the taxi would wait for us for an extra £10. We needed a lot of wine but we didn’t have an awful lot to choose from. We had a crate of beer, six bottles of wine and a bottle of Smirnoff and plenty of nuts and Pringles. And a box of Alka Seltzer. Back in the cab, I put down the bag on the floor, so we had to sit next to each other. “Do you think we had enough for three?”. “Haha well, if we had a bit more time, I’d say no, Damien!”. “Well, we got the hangover medicine”. Every time we went around a roundabout or the taxi took a turn, we lurched one side to another, and I suddenly felt different sitting next to her. I sort of waited for the next turn. And I kept telling myself that it’s just the alcohol.

“So what’s the deal with Maddie? I can see you sort of cringe when anyone calls you that”. “Well I blame Vicky for that. She calls my name in front of pretty much everyone”. “What’s wrong with that?”. “Nothing. But I got the name in school, people used to call me Damo, then Maddo and then one day it’s changed to Maddie and it stayed on. I don’t dislike it, and as I grew up, all my friends called me Maddie, but I don’t like it when people I’m not so familiar with calls me that”. “Why? It’s kind of cute!”. “I think it’s only for friends. I don’t mind Aaron calling me that, but when other ones call me Maddie I feel like punching them in the nose”. “Haha. You’re funny Damien…so…would you feel like punching me if I called you Maddie?”. “Shit, no…I guess I can treat you as friend. Can I?”. “Ya, why not?”. “Cool”.

Aaron was waiting for us in his flat. I think finally it’s time for the booze to flow. We sat down in his hastily tidied up lounge. He wouldn’t have bothered if it was just me. Tim was asleep on the other sofa and I could smell a lot of air freshener to overcome the stench. Ellie sat down on the corner and put the recliner on. I thought it’s not great for three of us sitting next to each other when we want to have a chat. I grabbed a few cushions and sat on the rug. “Come up here mate, plenty of space on the sofa”. “You see Aaron, he doesn’t want to sit next to me, isn’t that right Damien?”. I was going to say something silly but then realised what happened last time. I think Ellie noticed my hesitation and she tried to look away from me. “Go on then, I won’t mind if you compare me to something else”. I thought I found a neutral judge in Aaron, “You see Aaron, ever since I joked about lamppost, I’m being reminded every fifteen minutes. As if I mean anything when I joke!”. “Yeah, he doesn’t Ellie, he’s a nutter!”. “Oi! Watch it! You don’t want me to spill the beans, do you?”. It was an empty threat, I don’t know anything much about Aaron’s personal life, but he said “Anyway, what’s wrong about this lamppost lark? Look at him”, he was pointing at me, “He looks like a bloody lamppost”. “You’re right Aaron! He does look a bit…haha”. We all laughed at the silly jokes before Ellie said, “I wouldn’t mind looking like a lamppost though. I might pull a few more blokes”. “Oh come off it Ellie. What’s wrong with the one you already have?”. I kept quiet, and watched her. Her face was unfazed; eyes stuck to the tele, perhaps deliberately. Then she said casually “He’s fucking a bimbo in Florida where he trains”. “Oh what a dick!”. “Yeah, sorry to hear that Ellie!”. “I just told you an hour ago!”. Shit, what’s she’s playing at? Or is it that she’s enjoying pulling my leg with things I won’t make a joke at? “Well then, sorry to hear that again!”.

I saw a look of disbelief in her eyes. Did it sound like a sneer? I looked at her and she’s looking at the TV again. Aaron probably sensed the uneasiness and said, “Whatever, forget about the slag. It’s his loss Ellie”. “Probably it is, but that doesn’t fill me up with great joy seeing someone I love falling for other women…obviously more good-looking than me!”. “Oh come off it! I’d date you if I was single. Won’t you Maddie?”. Oh that bastard dropped me in it again! Does he want that we hook up or sleep together? I don’t understand what his game was. “Oh…yes, of course…I’d date you as well”. “Don’t lie, Damien, I’ve seen your girlfriend! Gosh, you are patronising!”. “I think the question was…if I’d date you if I were single”. I saw something change in her face, as if a light went off somewhere that made the glow on her face disappear. “Oh yes of course Damien!”. We sat there in silence before Aaron got up and went to toilet. Ellie already drank a bottle of wine and now halfway through the second. “Is it me again? I’m sorry if I upset you”. “No Damien it’s just how things are at the minute. I’m a bit messed up that’s all. Sorry to let you in it”. “Look I’ve only really known you for last few hours. But I can say without being silly or anything that you are really a nice person, you’ve done amazing things in your life, don’t forget all that because some prick thought otherwise”. “Thanks, Damien, you’re very kind but that’s not enough, being a nice person, is it?”. “It is in fact. And to be honest you are attractive, you got sexy curves, nice tits, and a really pretty face, where do you look in the mirror that you don’t like?”.

If the light in the lounge was bright enough, I could probably have seen her face go bright red. And she could see the same on my face. “Your description of being attractive made me feel so cheap now! And you’ve been perving on me as well!”. “No I wasn’t, and what’s wrong thinking nice ass when I saw one?”. “In many ways Damien, but let’s not spend the rest of the night on that. It’s easy for you to say those things but you didn’t have to mean it—”. I don’t know what came over me. I crawled on my knees towards Ellie and took her hand, and said, “No I did mean it, all of it”. She snatched her hand away as Aaron’s shout from the toilet broken the intensity of the situation. He said he’s looking for some spirit he hid in the kitchen. “Come outside Ellie, the balcony is nice! Need a fag?”. “Ya, let’s go”. I opened the sliding door into the steel balcony. It’s a tiny square area, but gives an amazing view of the esplanade. It was chilly and the sea breeze blasted our face. I wanted to get her away from lounge so Aaron doesn’t hear what we were talking about. She sighed and said “Look, I don’t want to be a house wrecker, just because it happened to me. Vicky seems to be a nice girl—”. I thought she’d try to lecture me as if I didn’t know what I meant. “Nor do I Ellie. There’s more to us than meets the eye. Okay I’ll tell you but you must promise not to say this to anyone. I know I can trust you but please, it’s sensitive”. “Don’t tell if it’s that sensitive”. But I told her all, about us, about Vicky and Sharon. Her face didn’t give it away that she was surprised but it she kept looking away when I looked at her. “So you’re offering me to be your bit on the side because your partner doesn’t sleep with you anymore?”. I could sense the sneer in her voice. It does always work when you make the other person feel that they are better off than me. “For fuck’s sake no! I meant things look perfect when they may or may not be in reality. You thought I was patronising but I meant I found you attractive. It doesn’t mean that I want to sleep with you”. “What’s with holding the hand then? You nearly freaked me out. One moment you were saying I got nice tits, then grabbing my hand and you’re drunk as well. I thought I’d have to pepper spray you!”. “Get out! I just held your hand to make you understand that I actually meant it”. “That makes you an almost boyfriend, which means nothing to me”. “Good. Now you see the point of being on your own than being with crap men”. She laughed out and stubbed her fag out in the ashtray. I lit up another cigarette but she said she’s cold and is going inside soon.

I stared into the sea far away, and thought about Melbourne and how this stretch of water is connected to my home, like an umbilical cord. A bloody long one though! I thought about the situation between Vicky and me. Was it a good idea telling Ellie all about it? She might blabber it out to her mates at work, who knows! But it felt good confiding in someone. The question is at what cost though! I’d soon know. I felt her hand on my shoulder. She hasn’t gone inside then! “Damien, I’m really sorry about you and Vicky. Don’t worry, I’ll tell no one”. “Thanks”. “Come here you!”. She pulled me towards her, and gave me a hug. I didn’t know what that hug was for and what I should do with my hands, should I hold her or just leave them dangling, with a burning cigarette in one, which I cupped inside my palm to stop burning a hole in her dress. She steadied herself and said, “Thanks for everything tonight Damien, wish we spoke before. You’re coming in now aren’t you?”. “Ya, lemme finish my fag”. She went inside and I wondered what that hug was about, or whether it was just a nice gesture.

After I went in, I noticed that Aaron has already set the scene with his famous chess board shot glasses for truth or dare. We had the Smirnoff open and he found his sambuca and tequila. He poured all in each glass, then said he’s going to ask the first question to me. I’ve played this quite a few times with small or large number of crowd in Aaron’s flat. “Can’t you think of anything else Aaron? We’ll soon run out of secrets!”. “Yeah, but I’m setting this up for you two, so you can know as much as you want about each other!”. “What are you, a hookup agent?”. “No, but even I can sense the tension between you two”. “Now you two LISTEN! I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if this carries on, I’m going to leave. I came here to avoid these sort of cheap shit!”. I had to tell Aaron off as well, “Aaron, cut it mate. Let’s just drink”. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t play Damien, but don’t need these constant innuendos. That’s more like your bitch club!”. “Ignore him Ellie, I warned you before, he’s a perv! He said he’d fuck anything that’s got a fanny, didn’t you Aaron?”. “I did mate, anyway are we playing?”. “Yes of course!”.

I chose dare knowing it’ll be drinking shots. “Hey that’s not fair! What’s the point of playing if you’d just choose to dare and drink all the shots!”. “Well, you know what to do. Dare me something else to do!”. I regret saying that. None of them were in their full sense to suggest that. But now that I gave them the idea, I wonder what weird plans they’ll come up with. “Sniff your socks for 15 seconds”. It wasn’t too bad, considering my feet don’t sweat much. But it was not very pleasant either, and I missed my drink. Aaron chose truth and so did Ellie but seems like this will go on forever. I chose to dare again, and was told to record on YouTube that Steve Coogan is a shitface. I wonder if that would be a good idea to slander our director but I did that anyway. I left it there for 2 minutes then took it off. Aaron chose truth again and I asked him if he wanked off at work and describe how he did it. He was bloody embarrassed to say that all in detail but Ellie seemed to be amused by the idea. When it was my turn, I said, “Look I’ll choose double dare, for double drink otherwise these shots will still be lying here tomorrow evening!”. “Okay, deal Damien. So strip off and stand in the balcony for a minute”. I don’t know where she gets these ideas from but I guess next time I’ll choose truth. “Ow! Ow! Hold on, I’m still here, I’m gonna get evicted if someone sees him. I don’t want to see your dangling cock, thank you! You can carry on your sexual stuff later, I’m gonna go to bed in half an hour”. “It wasn’t sexual, anyway I take standing up and starting taking your trousers off as dare so you can have your shots”.

It went downhill pretty soon. Aaron chose dare and I asked him to take five shots in a minute, so did Ellie and for a change, she dared me to do the same. That was a mistake! I felt my throat was on fire. I can’t remember how many drinks I had throughout the night, maybe 20 or so, but the shots tipped the balance and it hit me hard. We all thought that it was too much and stick to truth questions but it went all bizarre when Aaron asked Ellie if she fancied anyone at work. I looked at her and she just said yes. But she won’t tell the name. We said it’s not fair but she insisted that it’ll have to wait for next turn and she kept choosing dare. And she kept asking me awkward questions. Aaron tried to stop but I said it’s fine. So they now know that I was in attended orgies, been dogging and where! But I guess they won’t remember tomorrow. Just to keep things vague I asked the same questions to Aaron, which all ended up in a no. I counted that there are still 12 shots and Aaron took 2 and said he’s had enough. He showed where Ellie will be sleeping and said once we finished having sex I could come back to the other sofa. I said, “Don’t be daft!”. Ellie didn’t say anything. I don’t know if it was the drink or intentional. Aaron reminded us not to be silly at the balcony and went to bed. I suggested we had the fag then think about going to sleep.

We sat down in the balcony this time, not taking any risks. “So you don’t want to finish the drinks?”, She asked. “It’s too many really. I thought Aaron would drink a couple more!”. “We’re pissed anyway Damien. Few more won’t make any difference”. “True, true. By the way, I liked your ideas of dares, they’re wicked!”. “Would you like to continue?”. Looked at the phone. It’s 4:55. I wish I booked the day off today. “Yes, why not? But not too long maybe wrap up in half an hour?”. “Yes that’s fine. I can’t believe you were that honest. People would make up things—”. “Depends on the crowd. I told you things about Vicky and me, so telling the rest isn’t a big deal!”. “It’s an eye-opener for me. I haven’t been very adventurous”. Her voice is a bit slurred. I don’t know if mine has changed, being drunk means you think you’re normal and in control, while everyone else thinks otherwise. I laughed out. She looked at me through the screen of smoke between us and said what’s so funny about her admitting that. “It’s wasn’t you, sorry Ellie. I was thinking we talked about all this in truth and dare but can you imagine asking a random colleague if they’ve been out dogging?”. She giggled. “Yeah I can think what their face would be like. Excuse me!”. She went inside as I continued to smoke. The sky is still dark and I don’t think it’ll start to get lighter for a while. She came back after five minutes, bringing four shots with her. “I like it here, can we sit here for a bit? I need a few more fags to clear my head. I’m too pissed now”. “If you admit you’re pissed then you’re probably not. Or beyond care haha”. “Probably the latter”. “Probably”. We picked up two shots, “Prost”. “Prost!”. “Damien, you know when you first came here, I thought you’re an arsehole”. “You’re probably right. What matters is what you think of me now. I wouldn’t mind if you still think the same”. “Well that feeling has changed”. “Great. What happened to your legs aren’t you cold?”. I just noticed she had taken the tights off before she came back. “My legs are hurting”.

“Ellie, I was dying to ask you this all evening”. “Go on then!”, she looked surprised. “It’s your name, do you like it? Do you feel uncomfortable telling it to the others?”. “Oh that!”. She seemed visibly disappointed, perhaps expected something else. “No, that’s my full name Ellishera Careless-Oosthuizen. I don’t know how my mum came up with the name, but she heard that name when she was in Namibia. I don’t love it, but I won’t be too bothered to change it either. And yes, before you can ask, you can call me that if you wish to, without fear of losing your balls!”. She lit another cigarette and said, “Damien, without playing truth or dare, would you answer honestly if I asked you something?”. “I will, but it’s my turn first”. “Fine”. “Are you a princess type or the tomboy type?”. “What do you mean?”. “Well you have ideas about life. The girls I’ve met they either think life’s a fairytale and they are princesses. Then there are the types who are tomboys who give a fuck to anything and does what they want”. “Well, Damien, I’ve done a lot of things like riding, diving, roughing up when I was in Africa…so you can call I was a tomboy, but I want a happily ever after as well”. “Oh you had to be bloody difficult!”. “I like it being difficult! What’s Vicky then?”. “Oh, she is a combination of tomboy and a bitch”. “Erm…We haven’t had this conversation. What’s this have to do with my question anyway?”. “Nothing, it was just a random thought. But you didn’t get me about the bitch comment. I tell her every day! She doesn’t get offended. Okay your turn. Ask away!”. Her voice is really slurred now. “Tell me, do you like me?”. I kept quiet a minute. My mind is all fuddled now with so many shots. And now I’ve got a great sense of conscience under the influence of booze. “Of course I like you. I spent the whole evening and night with you Ellie. Would I have done that otherwise?”. “Not what I asked you Damien”.

She stood up and put out her cigarette. She walked over to me and half sat on my stretched legs and wrapped her arms around my neck and said, “Look straight into my eyes and tell me, do you fancy me?”. “I do a bit Ellie. But you are a princess girl, I have nothing to offer you. I still love Vicky”. “What’s the princess girl nonsense?”. “I love Vicky. And perhaps I’d like to be a bit closer with you than how we’ve been, I live in a relationship where it is like that. But I guess that’s not all that you want…and what you want is a stable relationship, all on your own, and I don’t want to waste your time. I genuinely like you, and perhaps in another parallel universe in a different dimension, we’d take this forward, but stuck in reality, it’s all going to end in broken hearts”.

I could see the pain in her eyes. I’m pretty sure that it’s not me she wanted, but to be in a relationship like she was before. My legs are aching because of the way she’s sitting on them. Her legs look very pale, almost translucent, just like her arms and face. I could kiss her, she was that close, and the moment was just right. But I watched her get off my legs, and pull the door open. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Damien. You’re totally pissed…It’s late Damien. And I’ve grovelled enough, it’s getting me down. I’m gonna go lie down”. “Okay Ellie, will you speak to me later or are we back to being strangers?”. “Of course I’ll talk to you. Night night Damien”. “See ya later alligator”. She walked along the long corridor that joins the lounge to the main bedroom where Aaron’s sleeping. She went into the spare room on the door and shut the door.

Fuck! Would it have hurt to play along with her, at least for tonight? Would she have remembered this chat tomorrow when she’s sober? I felt like an asshole, left alone, abandoned by my puritanical righteousness. Rather Right-ass-ness, I thought. Driven by the same urge of doing the right thing, I started cleaning Aaron’s lounge, drained away leftover shots, put all the snacks away in the kitchen, picked crumbs off the carpet, then turned off the light and lay down on the sofa. I stared at the ceiling where the street lamps below threw some light, and I couldn’t shut my eyes. The entire evening started to unfurl in front of my open eyes, like a collage of snapshots, and it was only about Ellie — how she caught my eyes watching her, her smiles and laughter, her hair blowing in the sea breeze, her shiny brown eyes through a fog of smoke looking at me asking for answers. And the reel of images finished with her sitting on my leg, her arms around my neck, and her legs…and those eyes that told me a lot tonight, yet all I did was to break her heart. Filled with resentment and disappointment, I closed my eyes. The party is over.


I woke up with a terrible thirst. And a banging headache. I felt relieved remembering that there’s Alka Seltzer. I looked at the ceiling half-asleep and the moment I closed my eyes, I saw Ellie. She stood in the corridor between the lounge and the toilet. She’s stark naked, standing with her hands on the walls, as if trying to prevent me going past her. The spotlights along the corridor made her look like a mannequin in a display window, so real, yet so impeccable that she couldn’t be. She may not be very tall but with her hair falling on her bare shoulders, her massive breasts that defied gravity, and her strong legs joined at the groin with triangularly shaped pubes, she was more surreal than how I remembered her. The only colour on her was a shiny deep red stone on the ring of her navel, As I walked up to her, she undid my shirt buttons, and ran her fingers along my chest. Without saying any word, I bent down and kissed her, and then looked at her. The big shiny brown eyes looked at me, and possibly looked through me, as I saw her face transform into Cyrielle’s, the French woman we went camping with, then to other women we slept with before, and it was Ellie again in the end. She took my hand and took me into her room.

I opened my eyes again! Shit! It was only a dream! It was so real and I was about to sleep with her! I tried to focus and looked around. This space looks like a small room and I’m lying on a single bed. What! That must be the room Ellie slept in last night. I looked around again. She was nowhere to be seen. But then, just like a long forgotten memory, I smelled Ellie’s scent. The perfume she was wearing last night. Nah, it can’t be true! I must be dreaming, this is just a dream inside a dream. But in the first dream, I was going to have sex with her. It felt pretty horny. I decided to close my eyes again, possibly inside my second dream, where trace of Ellie’s scent is still lingering.


“Easy tiger!”. She muffled through her heavy breathing as I pushed her on the wall. Our bodies thrashing and twisting like two mating cobras, and Ellie completely drained me out of strength. We seem to be going on forever! It’s just like how we smoked on the way to the cash point this evening – one after another after another. It started gently and as we explored each other’s bodies, the levels were pushed further out. After we finished yet another climax, and I felt burnt and bruised by her scratches and bites, I asked, “C’mon Ellie, let’s lie down now and get some sleep”. “Not yet! I’ve waited for this for months!”. “What do you mean?”. “I didn’t tell who I fancied at work did I?”. “Who is it?…Me! Of all the other blokes?”. “You, always! And I was right on another thing as well”. She winked at me. “What’s that?”. “Let’s say room had been half empty before!”. “Sounds like you’ve been deprived”. “Yes, long time!”.

The scene changed. She’s lying on her back, and I’m lying down with my face on her stomach, pulling her ring while trying to make eye contact looking past her large breasts that even lying down, remained upright. “Ellie, I think I got a few confessions to make”. “Really, what’s that?”. “Last night I reacted clumsily making the lamppost joke. I guess because Aaron had said something that was at the back of my mind!”. “I know! Didn’t I tell you? What are the others then?”. “I have been perving on you since I’d been here. It’s like scanning your body every day, getting the details finer and finer in your mind. You turned up just how I imagined you to be”. “Hmm…then I got one as well. I’ve been having sex with you in my mind for quite some time now!”. “And how do you rate me compared to the virtual one?”. “Much better. You can only imagine up to a point. I can see why Vicky is stringing you along. So what’s your other confession then?”. “Well, I have never seen tits like yours before!”. “Then why are you ignoring them?”. And she pulled my hand to her breasts. “Here you go!”.


I woke up again. Fuck! I feel really horny now! And I missed the sex again in my dream! This must have been the best erotic dream of my life, and the worst one by how much frustrated it left me. I blinked my eyes. Yes, they are open. And I’m definitely lying on the small bed, not the sofa in the lounge. Ellie’s perfume is still lingering but she can’t be seen in this room. I got out of the bed, wondering what I was doing in this room. Did she go out this morning and I came in later on? As I stood on my feet, barely keeping my balance, I realised that I haven’t got any clothes on. Did I undress after I came inside this room? This all must have been a big dream. I’ll soon wake up and see Aaron and Tim and Ellie. I put clothes on and stepped outside the room. I must wake up in the lounge, to be sure that it’s a dream! But Aaron is nowhere, nor is Tim. I called their names, no answer. There’s no one in this flat, nor any note for me. I decided to pull the curtains.

That’s when the reality lunged back at me, just as the bright sunny day dazzled my eyes. The curtain opened to a busy Friday Brighton that is far from my imagination. My head is pounding, and so are my eyes. I felt crestfallen. That dream was so vivid. Yet I can’t imagine any of that happened in reality. I tried hard to remember what happened last night and the last thing I could recall was her going into her room. I took an Alka seltzer drink and sat down on Aaron’s sofa. I sat there and closed my eyes again so they stop hurting. I also hoped if I could find out some clue on what exactly went on this morning since the time I remember. Trying to remember didn’t result in anything, but closing my eyes seems to bring out a lot of images that actually happened last night.


This time it took a while to dream Ellie. The bright room made it impossible to fall asleep, so I had to draw the curtains again. I tried to think of the time the last dream ended, with my hand in Ellie’s tits. But it didn’t continue like that. I tried to force the dream to move forward, but I was awake, so all I could see was a continuous repeat of the same instance. Until I went back to sleep properly, and the images changed.

We are lying half sat next to each other, my arm around her. Her hand still wrapped around my cock, and I don’t think she’s going to let it go. “Oh, it was amazing! How about you, Ellie?”. “Same here! It was fab”. “Hey, we both agreed on something!”. We both laughed. Then she spoke again in her slurred voice, “Damien, I’ve wasted many years trying to be satisfied with a mean prick and a tiny cock. But ya, listen carefully!”. “What is it?”. “Let’s be blunt, would you just want to have sex sometimes? None of us disliked it, it’ll be no strings attached til me or you move on with our lives and situations?”. I wondered what Vicky would think. But she can’t say much, she’s already with Sharon, well partly. She can’t be jealous of us. “Why not?”, I thought. Friends with benefits, hmm…”You won’t be those psycho bitches, will ya? Stalking and chasing me, or worse?”. “What do you think? You said you don’t give a fuck to anybody! What is it? Vicky?”. “No, she would be fine with it”. I couldn’t see her face clearly but I could sense her eyes are watching all my reactions closely. “But…?”. “Nothing…Tell you what Ellie, fuck it, if you want me in, I’m in!”. “Like you had any choice, I control this gear anyway”. And squeezed that fist that was wrapped around me. We laughed out loud again, the gloomy cloud that hovered over us during the early morning has lifted. “There might be a little treat for you every day, Damien!”. “What do you mean?”. “If you want, you can touch my tits every day!”. “”You’re a sicko. How can we do that?”. “At the front stairwell, while leaving”. “Are you crazy?”. “Nope. Everybody uses the back one to get to the car park. So what say?”. “Well…I hope there isn’t CCTV on the stairwell!”. “Get ready then. Let’s get ready for work. You can have your first treat today!”.


I woke up much calmer this time. I exactly knew where I was, but none the wiser on this morning. This has been a dream indeed! Everybody else must have gone to work! I’m glad the dream ended with a happy note, but now the sad feeling engulfed me, thinking how I remember, it didn’t end like this with Ellie.

Suddenly, it dawned on me! Shit! It was always supposed to be that way! The dream was just happening inside my head to tell me how it could have ended. I thought I must see Ellie today and tell her what I feel about her. I doubt Vicky would be annoyed, especially when she knows Ellie as much as she knows all the gossip about her! She’ll probably be taunting me all the time! I had a hot shower and put on the same clothes I was wearing, with the intention to get changed inside the disabled toilets. I found my phone under the sofa. It’s 2:10PM! We were supposed to be back at 11. There are 30 missed called from Vicky and Aaron, and many texts from Vicky. I just read the last one that said “Aaron told me that you slept at his. Can we go home together tonight Maddie?”. I didn’t understand the tone of that text. What did Aaron tell Vicky? Was there anything to tell?

I almost ran the 1km stretch from Aaron’s flat to our office. It was 2:30 by the time I got changed. As I walked through the corridor, there was a loud cheer and wild whistles. Lots of claps. Except Ellie. Of course! I sat down on Prakash’s seat again. I could not do anything today, but wanting to speak to Ellie. She looked at me a few times as well. I noticed something changed in her. She looked different. She smiled at me, but I don’t know what to make of it. Does she not remember what happened last night? I must find a moment to speak to her alone about my feelings.

About 3:30 she got up from her seat and went past the end door that leads to the toilet block. I went behind her and decided to stay there until she came back. This was the longest 5 minutes in my entire life. I’ve been rehearsing what I’m gonna say to her, but I wasn’t pleased with any of them. Then I heard the latch, and the door opened. It was her.

Suddenly all my courage and carefully chosen words have all vanished and I just stood there, in front of her. “Hi Ellie”. “Damien”. “I…I got something to tell you”. “Okay, go ahead!”. “About last night, I’ve been really stupid. A total asshole”. “What are you talking about?”. “When I was telling you about meeting you in a different dimension and all…—”. “Ah yes, and I remember how your dimensions changed very quickly”, she said as she took a couple of steps forward to stand right against me. She ran her index finger on my chest just like she did in the dreams. I looked at her in shock and surprise! And the word just came to me. Yes! She looks radiant. The dimples on her cheek are permanently pronounced as if she’s constantly trying to stop smiling. Did the last night really happen then? “See you in the stairwell then in half an hour!”. She walked past me, leaving the door swinging. The lines between reality and dreams blurred away. Suddenly Brighton doesn’t feel that terrible place anymore!

I still don’t believe it. This better not be another bloody dream! I’m gonna kill Christopher Nolan otherwise.