Until The End Of The World
Her hair is a little shorter than I remember. Still the same wavy autumn style, if a little more stylised. She’s just a little shorter than me – a tad under five-foot-nine if I remember; which is fairly average for a girl from Amsterdam. Mind she is only half Dutch on her mother’s side, her father is originally from Berlin which not only explains the height thing, but also the distinctly German chin. There are a few more subtle wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, probably explained by her constant smiling. But apart from that she hasn’t changed a day. She’s still Rita Katzenberg.
“It’s so good to see you!” she says after what frankly feels like a cursory hug. I feel lucky that I got that rather than a giant slap in the face. “I really wasn’t sure if you’d be here.”
“Yeah me neither” I respond, finally managing to restart my voice box after it just stalled like a car engine in dire need of a full service. “Didn’t have much of a choice, I was kind of bullied in to it!”
“Yeah, Lucy always was persuasive wasn’t she?” I’m actually a little taken aback by just how open and friendly she is, especially after what I did to her. I guess when you build something up in your head for this long it’s never as bad as what you imagined. At least I hope!
We shoot the breeze a little while leaning against the bar. We exchange compliments on our appearance, views on the day itself, thoughts on how Bournemouth itself has and hasn’t changed. It’s all very polite.
“Yes sir what can I get you?” asks the distinctly Mexican sounding barman. I’d completely forgotten about drinks. I ask for another beer. “And for you madam?”
“A glass of red please” I ask without missing a single beat.
The barman nods and sets about his orders, leaving me feeling a touch embarrassed.
“Thanks” she says. “So you remembered?”
It scares me exactly just how much I do remember about her – her dislike of fried foods, her love of British TV drama’s, her notion that a walk in the rain would wash away any problems. This and so much more is suddenly rushing forth like someone took a serious amount of plastic explosives to the reinforced steel door that had locked away my memories for so many years. “Of course” I say, trying to stay nonchalant. “I saw a glass in your hand earlier which helped.”
The alcohol arrives and I immediately grab on to my ice cold beer as if my life depended on it. The hairs on the back of my neck have been up for a few minutes now. My heart is doing its chest-burster scene audition again.
“Hey look who are back together!” Karim screams with his arms wide open, quickly followed by a small group of hangers-on who force their way to the bar effectively separating me from Rita. There’s just noise around me as people chat and laugh about nothing in particular. I’m certainly not a part of it. I just want – need - to speak to Rita. There’s something I need to say to her.
I reverse out of the crowd, gathering my thoughts, trying to work out exactly how to say it. I walk round to the other side expecting to find Rita still swamped by all the pissed party revellers, but there’s no sign. I turn in a panic, worried that I’ve missed my chance. Then I see a waving hand from a table positioned in the bay window. She’d escaped and found sanctuary – time for me to go in there and fuck it up!
I sit in the oversized leather chair opposite hers, the alcoholic storm raging to my left, while the once threatening storm I’d seen in the distance a few hours ago now howls and batters at the single glazed windows.
“Sorry I had to get out of there” she says calmly sipping at her wine. “I always get a bad feeling when Karim is that drunk!” She’s right to worry. The last time I remember him this drunk he nearly ended up getting his face punched in by an oversized gorilla with an IQ of a speck of dust who just so happened to be employed as a bodyguard at one of the local clubs. Words were exchanged. The gorilla said Karim should leave, he made a comment about the gorilla’s mother…still, he’s married to a guy who is pretty much a gay lion-tamer so I think he’ll be ok.
I’m suddenly aware that I’m not saying much. I must look like I’m about to do a ventriloquist act with a half empty bottle of beer. I catch a glimpse of her looking inquisitively, a half smile forged as ever on her mouth. “So, you look good!” I finally manage.
“Thanks. I mean I thought we’d established that, but thanks!”
“Right, right. So that IMAX building is still standing then huh?”
“Um, so you told me, yes!”
“Of course, right. So, how’s Holland?”
“Oh, same as ever. It’s beautiful this time of year.”
“Right, right. So um, who’s the kid then?” It sounded better than describing the child as a sack of potatoes.
“Oh yes!” she replies, suddenly excited. “That’s my son, you want to see him?” I don’t really get a choice as she’s already rummaging through her handbag, which is strange. I didn’t know Dutch scientists had perfected the art of fold-away handbag-sized children. “Here!” she says, holding out her purse. It’s full to the brim of passport sized photos of the little scamp. Actually, Rita has changed. This sort of thing always used to bug the hell out of her. She could never understand why parents carried around miniature pictures of their offspring. I guess motherhood changes you. “So, what do you think?”
I mean what kind of question is that?! “He’s a good looking kid!” I respond, nodding with just the right amount of approval and enthusiasm without coming across like a paedophile. “What’s his name?”
“Oh, you’re going to laugh at this!”
I envision random names like Ivor, or Egon. Or maybe one of those stupid celebrity baby names inspired by popular fruits and vegetables. “No, I’m sure I won’t!”
“No, that’s his name. My son’s name is Daniel.”
“Oh!” I didn’t see that one coming. “Well, it is a cool name. So what made you choose it?”
“Not sure. Just always liked the name I guess” she says vaguely from behind her half empty glass.
I just nod, half taking it as a compliment. “So um, where is he? I mean pictures are great but…”
“Oh Lucy’s sister came to pick him up a while ago, he’s staying with her for a while.”
“In the same house as the spawn of Max’s loins?” I check with a raised eyebrow.
“Well it seemed more appropriate than the adult based entertainment that was on offer here earlier. I know you think we Dutch are fairly open and liberal but there is a limit!”
Her sense of humour is still intact I can see. “So um, where’s the father? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“No not at all. Actually he’s right here!”
“Oh really?” Now I’m the one being over-enthusiastic. “Can I meet him?”
“You kind of already have.” she says cryptically. “And I’m looking at him.”
I glance around but can’t see anyone behind me. I shrug my shoulders signalling a failed attempt to locate the guy. She gets out a photo from her purse and tells me to take a closer look. “Look really close” she says. “See anything?” Again, the shoulders shrug.
“Dan, you’re the father!”
Right on cue there’s a giant crack of thunder and flash of fork lightening from the other side of the window. I feel my head flush red and my stomach bubble. Shit. I have a son? I mean the amount of shagging around I’ve been doing recently I guess I kind of expected it, but not from the Dutch part of the world.
“Look really closely” she says. “Are you sure you can’t see anything familiar?”
Maybe it’s the drink, or lack of nicotine, or my mind starting to unravel the genetic puzzle in front of me, but there is something there. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I put the photo down, and shift my attention back to Rita’s face. I watch as it slowly morphs from stone cold seriousness to cracking the broadest smile imaginable, followed by an explosive laugh.
“My God your face” she gasps. “I’ve been waiting to do that for ages!”
“What?” To say I’m confused is an understatement.
“It was a joke silly. Of course he’s not yours!”
“Do the maths! He’s six years old, and when were we last together?”
“Oh!” I finally catch on, my stomach settles slightly, leaving me with a feeling of relief and, if I’m honest, a small dose of disappointment.
“Lucy said you wouldn’t disappoint!” she says, raising her glass to me.
“Well…..I’m happy to oblige!” I get myself back on the ball, eventually managing to find out who the real father is.
Mathias Routchenini is a Spanish guy she met while he was working in Amsterdam on some major engineering project. Classic story really; meeting, falling in love, getting pregnant a year later, before him being assigned to regeneration work in Iraq. “His company won this big contract and he’s one of the few people who know that type of work. One of the best in the world!” He hasn’t been home in two months, but they chat every day, presumably on web cam and email.
“Must be pretty tough, on both of you!” I say, nodding to the kid’s photo in her hand.
“We’re doing okay. Still, it’s nice to get away for a bit!”
She seems sad when she talks about him. She must really miss him – another stupid long-distance relationship for her. We chat a little more about her life. She works for an internationally renowned IT company in the heart of Amsterdam, now in such a high powered position that she has two assistants. They live about thirty minutes outside the city, just round the corner from her mother who moved there after her husband died. I catch the inevitable quiver of the bottom lip as she remembers her father. Daniel is already an A+ student at school. “We’re pretty lucky” she says, nodding to herself. “What about you?” Her question is a genuine one. She won’t have read the tabloids this morning, recognising that particular brand of British journalism as less worthy than toilet paper. She was never one for reading online blogs or gossip columns either. Any information she’d heard about me will have come from one source – Lucy. “I understand you’ve been having some fun playing around with the single life?”
“Fun is such a strong word!” I skim across the turgid ocean that is my past relationships, refusing to delve any deeper than “we had some fun”.
“Yeah, I think I saw the movie version of that!”
Shit. So she has seen it then. I can tell she wants to tease me a bit about that as well, but a combination of Champagne, beer, shitty small sandwiches that wouldn’t soak up a small water spillage, and the whole he’s your kid, oh no he’s not really incident seems to have put me on the defensive. “Funny you should mention that. I saw your remake of that only yesterday!”
She goes quiet and blushes, her face lighting up like a supernova. I worry if I said too much, but the fact that she’s nodding and smiling suggests she’s taking it in her stride. Mind, I don’t think she wants to talk about it that openly, as she moves one seat round getting a little closer to me. “Actually” she says, pointing at me with her wine hand “yours is the remake. Not mine!” She asks me to cast my mind back to the days when we practically lived together in the college halls. Even after nine months the two of us were inseparable. I remember well, I couldn’t keep my hands off her. Lucy had to make another attempt at catching some visual gold, this time choosing to make a fly-on-the-wall ‘mocumentary’ about student life in Bournemouth. Everything was staged, making it look like the students were part of some weird pre-S Club 7 pop band. After filming one night she’d asked Rita to look after the camera.
“Oh!” If my eyebrows raise any more they’ll be hanging from the chandeliers. “You mean that was…”
“I thought you’d be able to recognise it!”
“Well it’s difficult. All you see for the most of it is this giant hairy backside pumping up and down!”
“Your giant hairy backside!” she corrects me. “You were pretty big back then!”
I can only nod in agreement.
“Y’know” she begins before taking a nervous final gulp from her glass. “I thought it was a little weird that you did another one. For a second I thought you did it to get back at me!”
“Oh Jesus Christ no, that was never the idea. It wasn’t even my idea!” I regale her with the PG rated version of The Tale of Genius Jalena, by the end of which she looks to understand. “So basically I’m an internet porn king then. Man I should start charging money for this shit!” I sense she wants to say something hilarious and derogatory – something along the lines of “yeah, that’ll pay for your daily newspapers for the next two days” – but she looks to be more apologetic than anything.
“How come it got online?” I ask.
She takes a deep breath. “My ex” she says, staring in to her empty glass as if willing it to magically refill. “The guy after you, he found the tape one day and got all jealous. He put it online.”
“Wow, what a twat!” I find myself proud that I don’t explode at the words my ex.
“He really was” she nods, before saying two words I never expected to hear from her. “I’m sorry.”
“Why?” I’m genuinely shocked that she is the one saying that!
“I shouldn’t have let it happen.”
“Don’t you apologise, how were you to know?” She nods again, still waiting for that magic trick to happen where air turns in to wine. I take a deep breath. Now seems as good a time as any. “Besides, I think I’m the one who needs to say s…”
“Hey what the fuck are you guys doing sat here? It’s dancing time people!”
God-damn!! Max’s intrusion couldn’t have been timed worse if I was about to cum all over Suzy’s tits and he’d burst through the door wearing a pink dinosaur costume. (Sorry, too graphic?) The guy is clearly drunk – a fact given away by the maniacal grin spread across his puffed red face and the sea-sick inducing to-ing and fro-ing that seems to pass for dancing at this stage of life. I don’t think he’s been this happy in ages! Lucy, who would usually be there as his rock for him to gain some form of stability looks to be just as hammered. They both look happy actually – like their old selves.
“C’mon you fucker!” he demands a little too loudly. “These little fuckers are playing some chooons!”
Both Rita and me are practically dragged on to the dance floor. I realise I should go with it, but I make a mental note to finish that conversation which I’ve had in my head for most of this last decade.
There are indeed – as Max put it – some chooons! I’m relieved to say none of the modern day crap that passes for hit music and thus gets added to the work play list, but real classics from Faithless, Prodigy, Reef. Cheesy classics from the likes of The Blues Brothers (very apt considering Max’s outfit), The Spice Girls, MC Hammer – which prompts both Max and me to bust out what we lovingly called the pyjama pants dance. It really does feel like time travel has been irrefutably proven. And then, without warning, the tempo greatly changes – hardly the best endorsement for an up-and-coming DJ crew who attempt to mix You Can’t Touch This in to the frankly awful Aerosmith (for want of a better word) ‘classic’ Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing. I don’t care if you’ve got a pissed up wiry drunken gay boy in a pink baby suit demanding that their wedding song be played for the second time - you just don’t do it. These guys need a lesson in DJ etiquette! Everyone is looking at each other completely phased and clueless as to what to do next. No more up tempo dance moves. No more jumping around like, well, Tigger. No more futile attempts at the Moonwalk! When we see the happy couple dancing their second of the evening – which looks very much like a giant blonde haired bear taking a stroll around the room with a child’s action figure – people either promptly vacate the dance floor or, in the case of the members of well-known exclusive club of ‘Couple-dom’, grab hold of each other and start the trademark slow dance. Rick and Jenna are there glued together, Max and Lucy are circling around – they seem like a happy couple again. I’m suddenly aware that I’m still on the dance floor, and never one that comfortable with being the spare wheel I start on a return trip to the bar. I see Rita stood on the perimeter, watching intently and no doubt reminiscing about her own man out in some war torn foreign land. I catch that wave of sorrow again, and for some reason grab her hand. Nothing behind it, it just seems like a decent thing to do.
“You looked like you needed a dance!” I say attempting a kind smile.
“Yeah, why not” she smiles back. “One last time eh?”
“So I’ve been told yeah!”
What the hell was I thinking? I’m suddenly well aware that I’m slow-dancing with my ex – the mother of a six year old kid and to all intents and purposes a married woman. She’s pressed up close against me, but thankfully I can still feel a barrier between us. I have to keep checking that my hands are in a suitable position. Rest assured, with anyone else my hands would be grabbing a fine chunk of ass (and hers is still remarkably grab-able!) so I keep my palms suitably placed on the small of her back.
“So you and…the Spanish guy?”
“Mathias!” she corrects me with a smile.
“Right, the daddy! You guys never got married?” She’d always said she never would, that she never needed a piece of paper to tell her that she wants to spend the rest of her life with someone. Plus what if she changed her mind?
“No. But we talked about it.”
“Wow! And you always said you never would!” I say, trying to emphasise my jokey tone.
“Yeah but, y’know. We’ll see.” She smiles again, not as broad this time. I think I touched on a raw subject, probably not the best as we’re in a room surrounded by other couples locked together. “So what about you?” she asks, changing the subject. “I mean video co-stars aside, anyone else that could be it? The one?”
I guess the question was inevitable after all the delving we’ve done in to her personal life. What I didn’t guess was that someone actually popped in to my head. “Um, well there was actually. Yeah, only I fucked it up!”
“You seem to have a habit of doing that!” Her reply isn’t intended to be in any way horrible or vindictive – she doesn’t have the capacity. Still, you know what they say – the truth hurts. “So can you un-fuck it up?”
“I doubt it!”
“Doubt? So nothing’s definite?”
I shrug my shoulders. Not for the first time, I don’t have a clue.
“So who is she?”
I suddenly realise that the majority of the halls attention is only us – Rita and me. And the music has changed – no more fuckin’ lame-ass Aerosmith shite, which as you can imagine is a blessing. But to replace that with the Frankie Goes To Hollywood ballad The Power Of Love – which lets not forget is actually a Christmas song and so technically way out of season – doesn’t do much to redeem the situation.
“Oh no!” I feel Rita slump a little against me, apparently trying to hide from, well, everyone. She points me in the direction of the slide projection screen which the best man had used to try and embarrass his brother during the speeches. Gone are the pics of Brad apparently tied to a railing in London with his cock in the middle of what looks like a hot-dog bun, and there instead is a loop of camera footage of the Bournemouth’s alumni’s past lives. Yet another exhibition opportunity for Karim’s past works, which shows highlights from the famous Christmas ball mixed together with footage from a little known cult one-off soap opera called Waves. Everyone’s ooh-ing and aah-ing at the kiss between two of the principle characters stood at the edge of Boscombe pier.
“To Dita and Stan!” someone shouts in the crowd. Oh no indeed!
“Okay, so it’s time for us to leave now!” I pull Rita off the dance floor and drag her back to the bar, much to the apparent disappointment of onlookers.
* * *
“So you never answered my question!” Rita’s composure is returning thanks to the help of a much deserved refill of the wine glass. “Is it fixable? I mean between you and the model?”
“I never mentioned she was a model!”
“Oh right. Well, you know Lucy!”
Of course the two of them kept in touch. They were friends, and still are by all accounts, which is more than can be said for others. And naturally, amid the catch-ups about life in general, my name popped up once or twice. And when curiosity got the better of her and she had some spare time, she’d look me up online. She didn’t have to look far of course – that top thirty listing in Google helping her out. She’d read the reports and seen the pictures. “You seemed to be really happy with that Suzy girl. From what I’ve heard you haven’t looked that happy since, well, then!” She points to the ever-repeating footage still playing in the background.
“Yeah well never believe what you read in our fine British cat-litter tray liner!” I hear the words coming out of my mouth, but they leave a bitter after-taste. She places her hand on mine – an instant attention grabber.
“I know what you’re like Dan!” she says, looking me in the eye.
“You know what I’m like huh?”
“I know how you struggled to get over us!”
“I didn’t struggle.” Yeah, those words don’t taste any sweeter either!
“Oh really? The letters, the emails? The late night, long distance phone calls?”
“Oh well, yeah. That was me back then, y’know. The guy here now, sat in front of you now? You don’t know that guy.”
“Instead of stalking this girl and writing letters to her begging to have you back you have in fact gone in the exact opposite direction and become some kind of serial sex addict!”
Wow, she really does know me. “You need to stop reading the tabloids, seriously!” Now seems like as good a time as any. “Look, about the whole letter and phone call thing, um, I think I should probably…”
“Oh that reminds me, I owe you an apology.” I’m not used to people stealing my lines. “You probably had some missed calls yesterday on your phone. Sorry, it was Daniel!”
I’m surprised her son has a mobile, but that’s not quite the case – it was hers. What he did have was a phone number that Lucy had given Rita after she asked for it, and proceeded to leave in her bag. She’d wanted to call me, to see if I wanted to meet up before the wedding but never got the chance. The kid found the number and giving way to the curious gene that he doubtless got from his mother, he dialled it – twice. The time roughly tallies with calls six and eight earlier today.
“Anyway, I just thought I should say sorry that’s all. I know it’s been a bit of a confusing day!”
It slots another piece of the puzzle in to place, albeit a small one. “Don’t worry about it. But while we’re on the subject of apologising I…”
God-damn!! For someone who isn’t particularly bothered with keeping our friendship going Max is developing an annoying and clingy habit. He and Lucy join us at the bar, quickly followed by Rick & Jenna – all four of them displaying symptoms of different levels of drunkenness. The irony is lost on none of us, including Raph, when he shows up being the only sober one of us in the group. I take a mental picture. Everyone is here, all changed in their own unique way - most for the better, some for the worst. It saddens me that I’ve added myself to the latter.
“So, where’s everyone staying tonight?” Raph asks, the first to get some form of a sensible conversation going.
“Oh shit, how the fuck are we supposed to get home?” Max suddenly realising that driving home with a blood-alcohol content at approximately ninety percent is at the very least frowned upon by the Dorset police.
“Well why don’t you see if you can get a room here?” Jenna asks. “We could carry the party on upstairs!”
I feel my forehead crease another wrinkle as it voluntarily frowns.
“That’s a good idea.” Rita agrees. “And the rooms aren’t that bad!”
“You’re staying here?” I ask incredulously.
“What can I say? I was feeling sentimental.”
“It’s a great idea!” Lucy screams. “Just like old times.”
“It’s really late though. I don’t think they’ll have any rooms left.”
I take a deep breath – I can’t believe I’m even thinking about this. “Leave it to me!”