All Time Low
09:57: We’re a little early. Both me and Max must look like a couple of pre-pubescent school kids about to meet their school yard crushes during their lunch break. We both scan the park with expectant looks. Max is sweating profusely, which could be for a number of reasons (the hot sun, hangover, cold-shower-induced flu) but more than likely it’s the nerves. It’s contagious too; even my palms are a little sweaty. God knows why.
Finally I see Lucy and Rita coming down the path from town, both of them carrying what looks like coffee. Max is like an over-excited dog, desperate to rush over to his wife, but I subtly hold him back. Probably not the best thing to do right now.
Lucy doesn’t say a word to either of us when they finally arrive, still making sure to keep her distance from her husband, probably she figures in case she needs to run. She’s made an effort to look decent by throwing on jeans and a little make-up, but it does nothing to hide the bags under her eyes, which both look distinctly dehydrated. The long black coat she’s wearing makes her look like she’s hiding a sawn-off shot-gun. Shit she probably is, but she’s probably just cold.
“So” Rita starts, probably hoping some form of a conversation will start, but nothing happens, until she gets a closer look at our faces. “Jesus were you two fighting?” It’s a distinct motherly tone which immediately makes me want to say ‘he kicked me in the head’. Thankfully I don’t.
“Max!” Lucy shouts, seemingly without her trademark ball-breaking bark.
He struggles to get any sound out of his mouth so I step in. “Its okay, all sorted now!”
“Well I’m happy for you both!” she barks back. Turns out my defence wasn’t as peace-making as I’d hoped.
Eventually the four of us pair off and find a couple of benches, far enough away for some semblance of privacy but close enough in case me or Rita need to perform an intervention. She hands me a large cardboard cup of scolding hot coffee. Not a mocha, but it’ll have to do. It’s the thought that counts I guess.
“So were you two fighting?” she asks.
“He kicked me in the head!” I say defensively. “Twice!” I tell her about the hotel rumble. At first she is unimpressed that two grown men would try to solve their disagreements with violence, even when there’s no other way. But when I get on to the reason for us being kicked out of the hotel after barely enough time to put our trousers on she mellows a bit. We sit in sporadic silence for a few minutes, keeping an eye on Lucy and Max as they start what look from a distance like a business negotiations. Worryingly they don’t look like a couple. I hope that soon changes.
“So I bet you’d never thought you’d end up being a marriage councillor for the weekend eh?”
“Daniel, stop that!” Rita shouts back. Seems a little over the top. “Daniel stop dat en kom hier nu!” What the hell is she saying?
I follow her eye line down to the small man made stream at the bottom of the small hill, where three dwarves are running rings around a clearly exhausted and stressed out woman. “Please” she pleads in desperation. “Please get away from the water. Stop splashing him!” I’m going to guess that Lucy’s sister no longer has even a linger of a desire to have kids. Rita runs over to a visibly annoyed Jackie to try and sort out the mini-ruckus, I knew it was a bad idea to leave her kid alone with the spawn of Max.
Rita and Jackie talk for a good few minutes. I spot several evil stares from Jackie towards her brother-in-law, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rita has to physically hold her back a couple of times from walking over to that bench with a rock in her hand. If there’s one thing you know it’s never mess with a woman’s sister. Soon enough Jackie is gone again, taking her nephews with her. Man did she get the wrong end of the luck stick!
Rita returns to the bench, her face burning an all too familiar red. Christ those kids must have done a right number on her son. “Daniel!” she shouts back. Man this could get confusing! “Daniel gaan zitten en zwijgen opgelegd, u hebt veel moeite jongeman!” The dwarf sits down on the grass in a massive grump and just stares back.
“So is Jackie ready to kill Max, or just maim him?”
“It’s not been decided!” Rita replies, keeping her eyes fixed on her son. “She’s taking the kids home. I said I’d get Lucy to call her later!”
I just nod. We’re being watched. “So um, that’s my namesake then?” I ask, trying to bring some light to an increasingly stormy atmosphere.
“Sorry, yes that’s him. That’s my son!” She pauses and takes a deep breath. “Would you think any less of me if I said he can be a real shit sometimes?”
“Not at all. That was practically my nickname ’til I was ten!”
“Well then I hope he grows up quickly!” Turns out it wasn’t Daniel’s innocence I had to worry about. Rita’s son had pretty much lead little Noel and Liam on a twenty-four hour rampage of poor Jackie’s house. A chair was broken, an armchair ruined. A cat terrorised with an electric razor. Christ maybe he is my son after all!
“Mama?” The little voice scares the crap out of me. “Mama ik kan niet vinden van een drankje!” I start to wonder if this is another one of my weird ass dreams. There is a slight resemblance to that dwarf from Twin Peaks.
“Hier krijg je een fles cola en betaalt de aardige man aan de balie.” Rita gives her son a pound coin and sends him a few yards down the pavement to a guy pushing one of those mobile ice cream fridges. She doesn’t take her eye off him for one second.
“So he’s a bit of a handful then?”
“Just a bit!” Rita replies, clearly waiting for him to do something like set fire to the ice cream trolley simply by the power of thought.
“Bet you can’t wait for…” I pause to try and remember the name. “…for Mathias to come home.”
Oddly I don’t get a response. Maybe she didn’t hear me, concentrating all her will-power on her son not blowing up the Pavilion with the bottle of cola he’s just bought. I turn my head the other way. Lucy and Max don’t seem to be talking much, both of them seeming to be more interested in the content of the cardboard cups.
“Nu zitten op de vioer en gedragen zich zelt.” Daniel walks a few paces and finally sits cross legged on the grass looking down towards the stream, seeming to plot his next dastardly move.
For some reason the thought that I probably shouldn’t ask this next question does fleetingly pass through my mind, but I refuse to sit here in total silence so I rephrase my last question. “So when is Mathias coming home? Bet neither of you can wait to see him.”
There’s an uncomfortable pause before Rita finally responds. “Well I’m sure Daniel can’t.” she says, cryptically. “It’s…complicated!”
“Oh!” Yep, that’s all I can manage. Just ‘Oh!’ Nothing like ‘Hey is everything alright?’ or ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ And given Rita’s well known history of hardly ever wanting to put her emotions out there until the pressure has got so much that she finally explodes I guess that’s all we’ll be talking about on that subject.
Well guess again! Because literally thirty seconds later she’s bawling her eyes out, members of the public are walking past us looking at me like I broke her heart (sorry jackasses, eight years too late on that one!), little Daniel is almost crawling over her with genuine concern – and giving me an evil look that would cut through a tank – and I’m sat here wondering what the hell is going on!
* * *
Twenty minutes later and things are a lot calmer. Rita’s face is back from its hysterical crimson red to its normal colour. Daniel is sat back on the grass, but now keeping a firm eye on me which isn’t the most comfortable feeling in the world. Lucy and Max are talking again after she came over to see what had happened. I’m sat here still digesting what she’d just told me.
So, Mathias Routchenini; lover, father, engineering top dog. He’d taken his skills over to Iraq to help rebuild the country – a noble, and apparently well-paid gesture. I knew all this from last night and from these mere snippets of information I had somehow deduced that Rita’s life was all perfect and rosy. So imagine the shock when I hear Rita say “He’s not coming home!” Now let’s look at the facts shall we: war torn country, civilian engineer with a son to return to and raise, and the mother of said child to finally make an honest woman of. What would be your reaction to such a premise? Well I’ll tell you mine:
“Oh shit, was Mathias killed? Is he dead?” Sounds sick I know, but I bet you’ll admit that it sounds like a move fate would make; almost neat and tidy in its conception, and yes, incredibly sick. But as it turns out it was just the ramblings of a hung-over jackass who as soon as he’d spoken was watching a small angry Dutch boy charging at him with the kind of anger you’d only expect to see on the battlefields of ancient Outer Mongolia…or the queue for the cancelled 10:18 flight from Heathrow to Berlin on the eve of yet another ‘important’ England Vs. Germany football match.
So no, Mathias Routchenini isn’t dead. And after spending five minutes reassuring her son that his father would see him again soon, Rita told me everything. Turns out he’s already back home in Amsterdam - arrived yesterday after a seven month stint. But he’s only staying for two weeks before he heads back again.
“Wow, demanding job!” I said, still reeling from the shock of being attacked by an angry child – again!
“It’s not the job!” Turns out stories of cheating and infidelity aren’t just confined to these British shores. Mathias started seeing some nameless girl in his company before they left for Iraq. Rita even thinks he set the whole thing up on purpose. Anyway, he left her. Said he still wants to be there for little Daniel. As I said, “How the fuck can he do that from Iraq?” Christ, are all men complete jackasses?
We’re sat on the bench in silence, sipping our coffee, watching the world go by. Lucy and Max actually seem to be talking properly now, which is a good sign. Shit, what a time for Rita to come over and re-live the ‘good old days’! She leaves Amsterdam to get away from Mathias (henceforth known as ‘Evil Dutch Bastard’!) and arrives only to find herself a guest star in a British remake of the same thing she’s trying to escape.
“Rita I’m so sorry!” They are words that I’ve been waiting to say for years, I just never expected to say them in this context.
“Not your fault” she smiles back. “But thanks!”
We sit in silence a few moments longer. Both of us have our legs crossed. We’re a little bit closer to each other now than when we first sat down. My left hand is resting beside my leg. I feel her hand touch mine, and it sends a shiver up my entire arm. Both of us catch a glimpse of the ever watchful Daniel and soon move our hands away. Neither of us make eye contact.
“So how’d you think those two are?” I ask, nodding towards the other dysfunctional couple in the park.
“I honestly don’t know!” she says with a deep sigh. She mentions briefly how she’s known for ages about Lucy having the affair with the French dude, and how she told her to tell Max or things would get worse. Oddly after what she’s going through she sounds to be slightly more on Max’s side. Granted the whole angry-shouty man thing and the stalker-like scary text messages, not to mention the clichéd affair with his secretary wouldn’t have helped, but I guess she thinks what goes around comes around – cause and effect and all that. She always was a big believer in Karma.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine” I say, the crack in my voice betraying my real thoughts on the subject. I mean let’s face it; it’s pretty fucked up – like a lot of things. “Hey I’ve got a question.”
Rita looks at me expectantly.
“Well yesterday, before this whole Lucy & Max thing hit the fan, Max told me something.”
“And that was…?”
I take a deep breath, unsure whether I should pursue this at all. Ah fuck it, I’m not going to say that anyone died! “He told me that, well, he was Lucy’s second choice. For the prom I mean!”
I watch as Rita’s face turns a completely different shade of red.
“I mean, without wanting to sound any more big-headed than I already am, is it true?”
Now it’s Rita’s turn to take a deep breath. She tells me how a simple game of ‘Rock/Paper/Scissors’ effectively determined the course of our four lives. Turns out both Rita and Lucy wanted a bit of the Dan Shears. But, as you’ve no doubt heard Christopher Lambert tell you, ‘there can be only one’! So in the middle of a packed Landmarc the two friends challenged each other, and Rita won. Scissors beat paper, and Lucy was left with Max.
Some of you may think I should be flattered. Women have been chasing me for a lot longer than since I became the Z-list celebrity I am today. And yes I am. Women want me, deal with it! But I also feel a tad guilty. “So Lucy settled for Max?”
“Well to start with I guess. But she fell for him, big time. I mean Lucy was never the kind to just hook up with a guy in a hotel room was she?”
It’s true, she wasn’t. I’d like to say still isn’t, but after what happened with Artsy French Dude I don’t know if either of us can know that for sure.
“Ik belde je nummer en je raar geluid” I almost jump out my skin – Daniel has appeared from nowhere with his half-drunk cola bottle in his hand and a very cautious look on his face.
“Daniel you’re in England and my friend doesn’t speak Dutch. Now say it again!” Rita asks with a firm but loving ‘Mum’ voice.
“Um, hello my name is Daniel!”
“Hello Daniel” I reply in kind. “That’s my name too. It’s nice to meet you at last!”
The kid just smiles again and runs off back down to the stream, followed by a flurry of firm instructions in Dutch.
“You should feel honoured!” Rita tells me.
“That’s the closest he’s ever got to an apology!”
* * *
The next hour is spent talking, entertaining Daniel with a football (which apparently means me and him are friends now. Man, kids are fickle!) and keeping a watchful eye on the Miles’ while they continue their intimate, and occasionally heated discussions. Rita and me go back over our entire relationship piece by piece; our walks along the beach, the films we’d go and see, the time we fucked in broad daylight in the middle of Horseshoe Common. Sometimes it sounds like she has idealised and romanticised our time together even more than I have. There’s the occasional dig at my behaviour, and my attitude in general, but nothing that I don’t expect or deserve.
“Do you think you and I could’ve have lasted?” Her question is completely out of left-field. “I mean if we had lived closer, or even together?”
It’s a question that I’d asked myself many times before, and to be honest I’d never come up with a conclusion. I’d never been able to get over that fact that in the two years we’d been ‘together’ we’d spend half of that apart. Of course that sounds a bit bitchy and insulting. “Maybe!” I say. My totally non-committal answer leaves another uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.
But then Daniel steps in to save the day. “Mama ik wil voedsel!”
Rita just smiles and turns to me. “You hungry?”