In my first post, I mentioned the novel on the stocks – why do I imagine the collective groan, the sigh of, ‘of course, everyone has a novel on the stocks!’ Here’s the start of mine: working title, ‘The Last Days of Doubt’.
He emerged from the splendid, hungry maw of Grand Central Station like the choicest human morsel, delivered up to her at last by the merciful gods. She had been standing for twelve minutes by the marble balustrade overlooking the Main Concourse, staring down at the teeming masses beneath the vast American flag, her eager glance scanning the crowds that hurried like columns of army ants in all directions within the quicksilver light that streamed through the tall windows opposite and reflected, gleamed, off the polished walls and shining floors. Her husband was waiting in the car outside, frowning she imagined as he ran a monitoring eye down the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but it was not the thought of his restrained, finger-tapping patience that made her restless, excited. She had been waiting for this moment for years. It was just literally true: over the past two years she must have written David a hundred times, first in Johannesburg, and then, when he had become gravely ill and moved to Cape Town to stay with his daughter so that Sara could keep a watchful eye on him and drive him to the clinic for the bouts of chemotherapy that seemed to leave him so listless and dispirited, her emails and phone calls had followed him there. She had not seen David for nine or ten years, at least: so far as she knew the last time he had visited New York had been seventeen years ago, in the year of George Orwell’s dystopia, 1984, and he was married then, the wife hanging about him like some tribal curse. He was free of her now, thank god; Meg had never liked the woman and was not surprised when she had abandoned David, leaving him to die, no doubt, for she had not a caring or a loving bone in that beautifully preserved but soulless body of hers. Come to me, Meg had implored; let me take care of you. She could easily afford it, certainly; but it was not about having the money. I have a large house, she had written, a Brooklyn brownstone, overlooking the East River and Manhattan. In the evening the setting sun lights up the skyscrapers opposite like a thousand triumphal fires. You will find it so beautiful, restful, not like New York at all! You will have a room of your own. No-one will disturb you. You shall have everything you want, everything you need. She might have added, and at one point she did, I have a big heart, remember? That seemed to provoke a response, for David had emailed her right back with a kind of tongue-in-cheek resignation, no-one could ever resist your big heart, Meg. You were always larger than life. And then he had added, a few lines later, perhaps I shall come, after all. And now, here he was. For a moment though she wasn’t sure. A frail figure detached itself from the mass, stood in a space on the gleaming floor that was suddenly open, and stared up at her, then lifted a hand in solemn salutation. She looked again, her heart in her mouth, and then she gave a shriek, and waved madly, and cried out, David! David! so that people turned and stared, but she didn’t notice, and if she had, she wouldn’t have cared. David! she cried again, leaping down the broad stairs with her long bare legs and darting into the throng. In a moment she found him, flinging her arms about his shoulders as he bent to set down his backpack.
‘I’ve been waiting for this moment,’ she crooned, crushing his body against hers, ‘it’s so good to have you here, baby.’ And then she added, patting him urgently on the back with the flat of her hand, ‘welcome to New York, sweetheart. There, let me look at you.’ Laughing out loud, she drew him to her again. ‘David, David,’ she said, ‘I’m so happy to see you!’
‘You’re just the same,’ David Honiman smiled, speaking for the first time, his voice muffled against her shoulder. He relaxed against her for a heartbeat as if giving in to a weaker impulse and then, extracting himself carefully, holding her by the arms as if to forestall any further embrace, he returned her gaze, his eyes searching hers out appraisingly. ‘You haven’t changed a bit, not a jot,’ he affirmed at last, as if he had been wondering. ‘It is good to be here, Meg.’ And then he added, simply, ‘thank you.’
Meg would have none of it.
‘There’s nothing to thank me for,’ she said briskly. ‘Come on, let’s get you to the car. Michael is waiting outside. He’s probably wondering what the hell has happened to us. I’ll bet he’s been told to move on three times already.’
And then she said, changing her mind, as if she saw that she needed to suck every last drop of sweetness from the moment, as if it were an orange, or a purple fig spilling out its sticky seeds, ‘Here, stand still a minute! I want to take another look at you.’
‘Meg, you are hopeless,’ David protested, halting abruptly. Someone stepped clumsily around them, muttering an apology or a curse.
Meg was undeterred. ‘Shut up, David,’ she said firmly. ‘I want to look at you.’
Patiently, for already he knew better than to argue, he submitted himself again to her gaze. He saw the two of them, two small individuals standing apart in the great amphitheatre of the station, pitched against the scurrying masses; he was conscious of the gleaming vault, the huge Stars and Stripes hanging overhead, the inevitable and ubiquitous reminder, this is America. He fantasised for a moment: Meg Cohen, wrapped in the American flag, transfixed like the Statue of Liberty, holding aloft her torch: come to me, ye huddled masses. In truth, it had crossed his mind that he was making a terrible mistake, coming here; he was not prepared for kindness, he dreaded pity like the plague. For two cents, he would turn right around, and fly straight home. It was better to die in silence, better to crawl into a hole, dragging the darkness after like a shroud. He was parched, he felt faint, he needed to sit down. But he remained standing and allowed himself to return her scrutiny and saw in her look something soft, something dazzled. She was saying something, and he leaned slightly forward, shaking his head in puzzlement.
‘David, David,’ Meg was saying. ‘My poor boy. Your eyes are so blue, just like I remember them, like the sea off Clifton. You must remember that? I remember everything so clearly. My memory is perfect, let me tell you, one hundred per cent recall. That intense azure. I’ll never forget the salt and seaweed smell, the feel of the cold sand, wet beneath my bare feet. Seagulls, robber-gangs of them, taking off into the wind. How they balanced on the tips of their wings, their feet paddling the air.’
She threw her head back and laughed out loud.
‘I loved your eyes, my sweetheart; so gentle and true. You were always my first love, you know that? My true love. Except that you didn’t have any money.’
She snorted, rolling her eyes.
‘My mother could never forgive you for that.’
She was talking to him, but she was talking to herself too, her voice tinged with wonderment, sadness perhaps.
‘You’ve lost a lot of weight, my darling.’
And then she shook herself, as if to break free of her thoughts.
‘Where are your bags, my baby? And why on earth did you want me to meet you here? Why wouldn’t you let me pick you up at JFK? When did you get in? What have you been up to, you bad child! You must tell me everything!’
It was in the grain of David’s character to deflect these questions. He had an instinct for privacy that was in part the carapace that soft-bodied creatures develop for self-protection; partly it was a sense of propriety, manifesting less as decorum than as an indefinable reserve. Now that he had become ill and vulnerable, changed through some vile mutation from the living human being that he had been into something less whole, chemically and physiologically less stable, less intact, it was all the more important to him that he should be able to preserve this sanctuary, a place that was not open to the probing lights and instruments of medical people and the hypocritical smiles of friends and sympathisers. Most decidedly, too, he was quick to resent any appearance of being called to account; though he understood that this was not Meg’s intention. Yet his reticence now was a reflection of nothing more complicated than the fact that he was exhausted. He was too tired for questions. Explanation would have demanded too much of an effort and besides, he did not imagine that Meg expected an answer.
If David prevaricated, Meg scarcely noticed. Having extracted from him the information that he had bags at The Roosevelt, Meg made for the grand staircase, gripping David by the wrist and cutting a path through the throng that flowed in all directions, until they arrived, Meg triumphant and David white and out of breath, at the tall brass-trimmed swing-doors that led outside onto the covered driveway and out from the shadows into narrow Vanderbilt Avenue where the yellow cabs nosed forward like New York barracuda and Michael Cohen, with the dignity and indifference that derives from dollar-denominated wealth, sat waiting unperturbed at the wheel of his black SUV.
He must have been watching out for them in the rear-view mirror, for as soon as Meg and David emerged onto the sidewalk Meg’s husband opened the door of the big BMW and lowered himself heavily to the ground. Coming round the back of the car he stuck out a bear-like paw and said with an All-American grin that belied the wariness behind his soft brown eyes, ‘Hello David. Meg is so glad you could finally make it. Welcome to New York.’
That was the second ‘welcome to New York’ he had heard in ten minutes; in twenty years, David thought, as he extended his hand, fully expecting it to be engulfed and crushed.
But Michael Cohen took his hand as delicately as if it had been a woman’s, gripping him meaningfully by the forearm with the other.
‘Our home is your home,’ he said, looking, to David’s discomfiture, directly into the other man’s eyes.
‘I want you to know that.’
Then, glancing down, he saw the battered backpack at David’s feet.
‘Here, let me take that. Why don’t you get into the car.’
Turning to his wife he said firmly, ‘Meg, you ride in front. I’ll help David up here.’
Was this, now that she was settled in the car with her cherished, her long-awaited captive in the seat behind her, the epiphany she had been expecting, was this the reason she had been counting the months and days?
It was hard to say. For she had felt in that first rush of emotion, that first instant of physical contact, nothing but her own excitement, the joy coursing like Moet in her veins, and David’s fragile body yielding awkwardly to the strength of her embrace. Of his emotions she knew nothing, she had barely seen his face until, gripping him by the shoulders and taking a deliberate step back she had stared unabashedly at him for the first time. Now she swivelled around in her seat to look at him again, reaching out a hand to grasp his thin wrist, stroking the back of his hand with a slender forefinger, the nail a little ragged where it had been chewed, the purple varnish chipped at the edge.
‘We’re going to have a good time, you and me,’ Meg smiled, her voice light and caressing. ‘Just like old times. You’ll see.’
David was settled back on the black leather seat at the rear of the big BMW, his hands on his knees. It had all happened with unsentimental efficiency; a helping hand under his elbow, another guiding his hips, and before he knew it, his host was reaching around him to fasten his seatbelt, asking him if he wanted a rug to spread over his legs.
‘No thank you,’ David had protested under his breath, even though, despite the brightness, the late afternoon was cool, and he had felt keenly the wind whip around his legs as he and Meg had crossed from the shadows of Grand Central Station into sunlight. It was all too much, this solicitousness, the generosity, the almost too-friendly welcome; leaning back, he closed his eyes for a moment, and felt the car rock as Michael Cohen climbed up into the driver’s seat and pulled the door closed with a solid clunk. Now, when he opened his eyes, Meg was turned around, holding his hand, and saying something to him.
He smiled in reply, uncomprehending, and Meg, glimpsing suddenly in his darkened eyes and hollow cheeks the spectre of his vulnerability, quickly released his wrist and turned back, saying to her husband, ‘Michael, we’ve got to pick up David’s bags at The Roosevelt.’
‘You serious?’ Michael asked testily. ‘In this traffic? You gotta be kidding. Just kidding,’ he repeated, more loudly this time, looking back over his shoulder.
David closed his eyes again and waited until he felt the car glide powerfully out from the kerb, and then he opened them, feeling faint, conscious of his shallow breath. He stretched out an arm along the upholstered door, against the cold glass, as if steadying himself, and after a few moments he said, in a voice that was intended to be jovial, but was more of a rasping whisper, ‘This is very good of you, you know.’
Michael Cohen tilted his head, and studied him briefly in the rear-view mirror.
‘That’s okay,’ he said.