A grey fedora rests on Corm’s piano, as he plays Einaudi’s ‘Monday’ and hopes it doesn’t rain. Women and children and men, all strangers, pass before him, dropping coins into the hat. Metal clinks on metal, and he thinks that maybe once in twenty times they make a note that nearly fits.
Statues aglow like paper lanterns sit lazily on columns arranged throughout the square. Some of the wandering crowd glance up at them, stare, noting how they stand out bold and near-surreal against the squid-ink dark. Some of those looking up take out their cameras, snap away. Rattle of fish biting.
He notices all this in between tunes. Likes to think that, amongst the crowd, there might be other people catching themselves imagining how it would be if those statues were alive, looking back. Reprimanding themselves quietly for such stupid, childish thoughts, but not being able to stop thinking them. Realising that being childish maybe isn’t so bad. Realising that being childish is just something you get accused of if you’re not pulling your full-grown weight, the few times that it’s really needed. That it doesn’t matter, not really, the rest of the time.
Sometimes, if he spots a face in the crowd he recalls from a previous night, he might try to talk to them during those short between-song breaks. A few nights back, he’d even managed to convince one of them to go and fetch him some food – a kebab, tucked inside a pitta bread with fries and oily salad and salt and onions and garlic mayonnaise. Paid for with money from the fedora. But there are no return visitors tonight.
Corm finds himself looking beyond the immediate gathering – who always seem to congregate in semi-circular formation, two or three rows deep – towards the stream of people on the main strip bisecting the square, as demarcated by the columns and the not-really-watching blue and yellow and pink and green statues that occupy the plinths set out on top. Finds himself scanning for the bare ankles and calves and thighs of Nice’s nice young women, the most beautiful he’s ever known anywhere, and wondering how it would be if he didn’t have to spend most of his nights playing piano, and could spend time instead trying to win one or two or more of them over; charm them, somehow, into feeling they were falling in love.
The sharp hush that follows the close of the applause for the previous tune, or the clinking of coins – unaccompanied now – usually shakes him out of such reveries. That, or the sound of footsteps peeling away from the crescent that hangs almost airborne just a few metres away.
He starts up ‘Moonlight Sonata’, just like he does at least once every week.
The crowd responds well – no more Dopplering shoe sounds – as they tend to do to the better-known pieces. He has about a handful, just over, of similar popular tunes that he likes to pull out from time to time, in the hope of bringing in a few more coins, perhaps a note or two, from sentimental members who associate the given composition with happier times in haze of youth, when they listened to classical music so much more often. Probably because their parents didn’t really get rock ‘n’ roll.
For Corm, it had been the other way around. His parents didn’t really get music like this. Sat around when he was younger playing old vinyls by Elvis and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and some country stuff like Hank Williams. This was all music that he came to later, when he’d grown older by a few years and started piano lessons under the half-belief that he wanted to play rocking boogie numbers and the occasional big bluesy ballad. His first hearing of Beethoven turned him, sent him spinning off on a different route.
Every few minutes he glances up beyond the statues at the sky, tries to pick out clouds that harbour any hints of downpour. It would take him nearly three minutes to close everything up and to push the piano to the nearest sheltered space, a concrete overhang, jutting upper lip at the corner of a building, leading into the doorway, the mouth. In the daytime, he’d block the way into the shop the building housed, but no such worries were on him at night. Because he doesn’t like his piano getting wet, because there are small holes in the top through which water could leak, because he doesn’t like cleaning the internal mechanism all that much, he prefers to get a head start if he feels a storm coming. But tonight the air is simply black and warm and dry and still. End of summer/early autumn evening air.
So Corm stays sitting down on his second-hand stool and looks back at the crowd and looks at his sheaf of loose sheet music, and then Eeny, meeny, miney, mo… he thinks, and plucks a piece from near the back.
Then Fuck… he thinks.
Green crosses hang lit-up outside pharmacies, dotted throughout the night in a way that calls to mind those arcade shoot-em-ups he used to throw his pocket money at. Every time he moves beneath one, he feels the urge to jump and grab for it, hear the congratulatory sound-effect, feel better. His whole body feels lightweight enough to make the leap, relieved as it is of the burden of piano. But feels tired along with it. He’d had to push it for five minutes towards the storage space he rents from a local artist. Can always, after that journey, sense the locking and knotting of shoulder-blade muscles, inching towards invisible hump he perceives at the base of his neck.
His fingers have started to creak and mumble with air or whatever it is in the joints. They do this if he’s stayed out too long too many times in a row. He bunches them around the mostly-clean tissues he keeps in his pockets in case his hay fever acts up. Likes doing that. Likes to ball them up and remember a habit, a game he’d formed when he was a kid, taking sheets of toilet roll and scrunching them – bound with soap and water – into clumps – pulping them, weighing them out – before winging them at the bathroom tiles, or the mirror, or the back of the bathroom door. Watching them ooze clumsily down whichever surface he’d chosen, laughing and making more mess until he was caught. He’d been six, then. Six or seven. Two years before his first piano lesson. Five years before his first kiss.
A sallow absence in his gut, it feels like, every morning that he wakes without her, and every night she isn’t by his side before he sleeps. Sometimes, this rotting, sick sensation is augmented by alcohol, but most times these days not. Sometimes, when he lies there thinking about her, pre-sleep or post-waking, he gets a hard-on, though lately he’s more likely to get worried, to talk himself to sleep or out of bed with wonderings about whether all of this is worth it anymore.
She is in London, miles away. Many miles. So many miles he can’t count, and doesn’t like to try. Exact numbers won’t help. He sees her once a month, occasionally twice, if she can get the time off work, or if he had a good run of it out on the square. He always tells her that he loves her, every time before they part. Sometimes, it stills feels like she means it when she says it back.
Today, he’s worked out, leaves him with only one more day after this before she comes here again – by plane, because the tickets tend to be cheaper that way. Until then, there are two more phone calls to have, whilst she takes her lunch and he drinks a mocha in the café at the end of the road. Two more opportunities to try and laugh, to not talk about the things that still turn him on or worry him.
Although, he might tell her, today, that he wants to get drunk and dance with her beneath those lazy light-up gods. Like last time and the time before. Re-enact it like a war, and then retreat to his apartment and compare battle scars and stay awake until the dizzy dry-mouthed hangovers kick in and eyes-closed on their pillows seems the safest place to be.
Strokes the inner side of his left forearm in the shower, wondering at its sensitivity that it should miss the weight of her the way it does. Presses the heel of his right hand against the mostly hairless part just below the elbow’s crook, trying to simulate the heaviness of her reclining head.
Pisses down the plughole as he washes his hair.
He likes to wear a different shirt each day. Always a proper button-up shirt, never a T-shirt, or a vest top, or anything like that. Always does Eeny, meeny, miney, mo to choose which one. Something leftover from childhood, like eating sugary cereal for breakfast and walking the edge of the kerb like a tightrope when he thinks nobody’s watching. Used to do that all the time, and make believe the street was flooded up with shark-filled waters. Hadn’t done that last part for years.
His finger lands on his blue&green checked shirt – long-sleeved – and he pulls it on slowly, taking his time to roll the cuffs up and roll them again and fasten them in place with the sewn-in straps. He wears his oldest jeans. His newest pair have a hole in the knee and another just below the right-hand side back pocket. His feet slip, sockless, into sandals, the ones he’s taken to wearing whenever the sky is mostly blue. Notices his toenails could do with cutting. That’ll need doing before the weekend. She complains if he scratches her legs with them in the night.
He pulls and smoothes his hazel hair into its parting. Sneezes with the dust in the room.
He wants coffee.
Nice, at 10:30am at this time of the year, means rising sun and late breakfast. He passes the low walls that border the small gardens of the smaller hotels that hunker two streets in from the seafront. Cars pass him. A scooter. A group of cyclists, heading the other way. The rear wheel of the last bike has a reflector strip locked between the spokes, and it catches the sunlight for fractions of seconds each time it reaches the peak of its spin. He turns to watch it once it passes, until they round a corner, heading down the road from which he’s come.
Corm is making for a different café today, one that overlooks the beach. It’s more expensive, but it has a good view of the students, the lasses he can watch and watch without any desire to get more involved. They’re his own age, more or less, and he thinks he recognises one or two, on some visits, from the course he should still be attending. But – and it isn’t just because of her – his only intention, his only wanting is to watch. To daydream that they could be his, without complication, without life showing up and thrusting itself in the way. The ultimate cock-blocker. Just to daydream. That’s all. One real thing at a time is plenty.
The sun just gets to him that way, makes him hungry, makes him feel that it’s alright, that it’s moral, in the what-Hemingway-said sense of the word. The sun brings out his freckles and burns at his nose and his neck. The sun makes him enjoy things like walking down streets and eating breakfast outside and wearing cork-soled sandals that make a door-knocking sound on the road. The sun makes him want to compose and perform and hang out at after parties and swap anecdotes with all the other bums who do the same.
He feels his mobile phone buzz in his pocket, doesn’t take it out to answer.
It buzzes again, and he finds himself wondering how well it would skim on the water.
Yellow bikini. Yellow with thin white stripes. Can only see the top half of her, the bottom being beneath the rolling waves. Makes him think of mermaids. The croissant crumples on his tongue and he can feel it sticking to his gums and the roof of his mouth. The butter he’s allowed to melt on the top is salted, makes him want more.
A couple of flies wrestle at the edge of his table, and he moves his fingers in a walking motion close towards them. They jump slightly with the vibrations but don’t move any further than that. He doesn’t flick them. They won’t trouble his food.
Turning back towards the sea, he can no longer spot the yellow bikini, can no longer see the dark-haired girl it just barely hides. There are others. Blue and white polka dots. Pink. There is the ocean.
He likes it best in the minutes before nightfall, when it goes the colour of his piano, all burnt sienna and faded-varnish brown. But bright blue, like the eyes of long-lost marbles, that’s a good colour too. That goes hand in hand with the sun.
His phone rings again.
He answers it.
The call lasted thirty-four minutes. He checked the screen after pressing end. They hadn’t said much. Sometimes, he was content to sit quietly and think about her, or about nothing much at all, reassured and calmed simply by the knowledge she was on the line. Sometimes he sat quietly and worried about the lack of words. As far as he could tell, she always worried. She’d said she missed him this time, though. Said that if she could have taken an extra day off work to get here earlier, she would have done. Cross her heart.
He doesn’t really have the money, but he buys another croissant, this one to go, and walks across the street to lean against the railings. A seagull swoops in and perches a metre, less, away. Corm eyeballs it, stares it down. It moves its wings, like shrugging, but doesn’t fly off.
Spots the girl in the yellow bikini down below, halfway in the shadow of the seawall, laying on a small rectangle of sand placed seemingly without much consideration in the midst of the bigger rocks and bottle tops and pebbles that make up the rest of the beach. Her boyfriend – or a friend close enough to fill that role – massages suncream between her shoulder blades. Corm lets his gaze linger for a few seconds, then looks out further, noting a large yacht that seems anchored off a promontory down along the coast. Its windows all look dark, like scraps of obsidian, like stuffed-teddy-bear eyes.
He never wants to own anything like that. Is pretty certain he never will.
In the afternoons, he likes to wander the old streets, the ones way back from the seafront. That is his habit. He’ll eat, usually at one of the establishments out and away from the main restaurant plaza, and then take his time, dawdling, dragging his feet in the shadow of houses constructed in the classic Mediterranean style, all white-walls and red roofs. Stare at the terracotta of the tiles until they blend together and turn weak salmon-pink in the sun.
The thin streets, the ones winding up the hill, stepped at large intervals, three storey white walls gone grey with the shadows they throw down on each other. He likes those streets the best. They make him think of pictures he used to love, ones painted and sketched out by itinerant artists learning their trade. They make him think of Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Romeo & Juliet, Brigitte Bardot. Italy and France seem to bleed together along this coastline. Greece too, he guesses. Spain and Portugal from the other direction. This is what Nice does to him, how it gets him. Makes him take everywhere this side of the sea and tie them together and view them all through the lens of the Niçoise sky. A cabal, a conspiracy of sun drenched joy.
His sandals hit two distinct slapping sounds with each step – the first when his heel hits the ground, the second when his toes follow suit – and with both feet counted he puts out a 4/4 beat as he walks. In these high-walled streets, the acoustics are good. He finds himself finger-clicking with his right hand on occasion, sometimes with the beat, sometimes laying a melody over the top. He doesn’t whistle, because he can’t. He’d used to be able to, when he’d been much younger, and gap-toothed, but his second set just hadn’t been that way inclined. Especially not after the braces.
Another thing about this habit, about this route he finds himself most often taking, is that it doesn’t seem to pass by any bars. At least, he’s never noticed any. Out here, it can be all too easy to stride into someplace about midday, or simply start drinking with your lunch and then not stop, all because it feels too good to be doing that, under a shade but still under the blue.
Not that he has a problem with that himself, really. But if he doesn’t have much money at the end of weeks like this, she wants to know why. And even though she enjoys doing the same kind of thing when she’s out here, she doesn’t appreciate his desire to do it when she’s not around. He can see where she’s coming from, mostly, which was how this habit had formed in the first place, but it is still his money to spend. If he wants to spend it on her, he’ll spend it on her. Ditto for wheat beer and red wine and mojito cocktails mixed up with dark rum instead of the usual white.
These thoughts make him thirsty, and he half-wants to take his phone from his pocket and call her again. They’d agreed he should, if he ever wanted to spend a day drinking, so as it didn’t come as a shock to her later, and spark off an argument that dragged itself across the sparse few hours they had in which to see each other. His fingers tap against the screen for a few seconds and then leave it alone. She’s busy this week, made busier still by having to account for this weekend away, and it won’t go down well if he calls during work hours. Besides, if he starts drinking now then he won’t be in any fit shape to play later, and every day he is given with weather like this wrapped inside it is a day he has to take. The square will be loaded tonight. Congregation full in the church of glow-in-the-dark gods.
The fountain, as well, will draw the crowds.
So many places of that kind around here. So many places he can think about and smile over and stack-up images like postcards he’s been strange and lonely and sent to himself. This is how it is now, this is how he feels about this city. Raw and woozy from hitting the big white & pink tangle of here, conglomerate mass that has finally neutered his wanderlust, sated his need to go anyplace else. Raw and woozy and dizzy and sick like he’s eaten too much of a good meal, but not sick enough that he’ll stop.
This is how it is now – he thinks, as he moves between zebra-crossing stripe patterns of sunlight and shade – but it isn’t how it started. Even a couple months back it wasn’t like this. He is navigating his way between houses and heading to the gardens cut into the side of the cliff, the ones that hold the waterfall, and the waterfall is what got him thinking that it wasn’t always like this. Along with the fountain, these rising-through-old-city hill streets, the square, a few of the other parks, the Orthodox church, along with all those places, the waterfall had made him think about her. Because, even just a few months ago, he found himself constantly judging sites like that, like this – areas of natural beauty, sites of historical interest – by no other criteria save for how badly he wanted to bring her there sometime and fuck.
To sit her down by the stone horses at the base of the fountain.
To press her against a house wall, leaning into the shade and holding a hand across her mouth so as not to stir the owners into flinging wide their shutters in intrigue and disgust.
To skinny dip in the pool at the foot of the waterfall as the lights came on and the sky dimmed to the same dark blue as the sea. To hold her as she held him and they pressed back into some moss-slicked cavern obscured to tourists left standing on the other side of the liquid screen. All of those daft bastard ideas about fucking that go out of his mind almost immediately as he gets caught up in the act. No time then to daydream it out, worry about how it might look if anyone happens to be watching. Doesn’t matter.
Lately, though. Lately it isn’t even as if he gets those stupid ideas in his head because of anyone else. It’s good enough to see what’s there, to look at the place for what it is and what it holds, and not ask why that makes him feel good, just accept that it does. At the beach, it is different – the bikinis see to that – but it is like that here, amongst the houses, and up there, catching the waterfall spray on your bare toes and your shirt and your teeth if you open-mouth smile.
The first few times he’d come here, he’d brought along his camera. The whole city splays out before watchers on this side of the cliff, and trying to figure out new favourite haunts and sites to go see in the future is a game that hasn’t yet lost its charm. The Russian minarets of the Orthodox church, turquoise and each topped with a gold-plated cross, are out there somewhere, he knows, though he always has trouble finding it. It shifts through the city at will, he thinks, and he’s been telling himself lies like that to cover for gaps in his geographical memory ever since his age was just one number.
It’s the sun, he thinks. He’s always felt vulnerable to tricks of the light.
He can see the seafront hotels clearly, though. There is no missing them; great pale marble slabs, lined up with scarcely a gap in between – from this perspective – filling up the whole of the mid-stretch of the bay. Taken en masse, they stand as the biggest buildings in the city, and, as such, even though Nice stretches into hill-country from the shoreline, the hotels create at first the impression that it dips down again behind their walls. Like a shallow trench crafted long ago in grim anticipation of an ever-rising tide.
He can see the little match-head specks of sunbathers, settled in for the afternoon’s session on the salt-lick grey stones of the beach.
Which ones are women, he wonders, tries to guess, like Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. If he gets back down there soon enough, he’ll be able to check, to see if he was anywhere even remotely close to right.
During sunlit hours, his hands ease up a little, no matter how much or how hard he’s been playing. Whatever it is that brings on the cracking and popping subsides. Holding his hands in the ocean helps too. Helps as well with easing his feet after a long walk.
He’s standing in the surf with his jeans rolled up below his knees, but when the large breakers come in and push the tide-line higher, the denim at the bottom still gets wet. Every half-minute or so he’ll bend down and reach his hands into the water, hold them there a few seconds and then bring them up holding pebbles, props to make this ritual appear less strange to anyone who might be watching.
Nobody is, though. He knows. A day like this, people are either turned away from the sea with their bare backs getting bronzed, or with eyes closed behind sunglasses facing dead-set into the rays.
Corm likes to throw stones. Not at those sunbathers but out into the sea. Sometimes, he’ll make an effort to skim them, watch them pound the surface three, four, maybe five times before hitting a wave or simply losing steam and slipping under. Other times, he’ll launch them as far out as he can, watch them splash like gulls harpooning after fish. He does it that way most often. It makes him hungry.
To his left, perhaps thirty feet away, a group of girls – four of them, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old – are sitting on beach towels and rubbing suncream or tanning lotion onto their skin. One of them is topless and he can see her right breast in profile from where he’s standing. It makes a change from the older, richer women he often bypasses at the other end of the beach, out in front of the more expensive hotels. The ones who’d been tanning their chests every summer for the past twenty-five years, and had never eaten too much, and had always chain-smoked, and were left with small breasts like pears gone soft and rotten and long out-of-date.
He turns away from watching that girl and dips his knuckles once more in the foam.
His flat is the same colour as the sky outside when he winds up there to change into his shoes. Blue into burnt sienna printed like a previously-undiscovered Rothko onto the smooth, beige-painted wall beside his bed. He kicks his sandals off and they thump against the skirting board. Pulls on some thin socks and slips his feet into his nearly-worn-out leather shoes.
He leaves, then returns to pick up his fedora, then leaves again.
The burnt sienna on the wall is turning purple.
The piano he keeps in the artist’s storage room was made in 1934. He’s been playing it for four months and he’s only just now noticed the date on the brass plaque behind the music shelf. The plaque is the width of the gap between his forefinger and thumb. He sits there with the room’s door shut and stares at the date and then looks away and thinks about it for a while.
This is the time he should be spending on warm-up, and so he puts his fingers to the keys whilst he thinks, but doesn’t play much in the way of tunes. Runs up and down a couple of scales, knocks out half an Elton John song from the seventies, but not much more. Once knew a guy who told him, drunkly, conspiratorially, on a night out, that he’d like to learn to play so as he could sit in front of any piano and entertain anyone who happened to be sharing the room, just put a smile on their faces or bring tears to their eyes, because who didn’t love Elton John? Corm had listened and not laughed, like the guy expected him to, and told him that he’d teach him, if he bought all of Corm’s drinks for the rest of the night. It had been half seven, so that would tally up to quite a few. The guy had done that, but the lessons never happened because soon after that the guy’s parents separated and he moved away with his mother to somewhere in Wales. They’d never tracked each other down on the internet, and now Corm couldn’t remember his name.
He laces his fingers together and cracks them, before running once more through his scales.
If he could sing, he thinks, he’d like to play more songs of that kind as well. If he had confidence in his singing. Too many hours trying to sing in front of the bathroom mirror back home had put paid to that, wincing at the faces he made when reaching for the lower notes, and the noises he made when he reached for the high ones. He still sang in the shower, but was happy for the water to overshadow his sound.
He’s stayed in the storage space longer than he should have done, his legs still feeling his earlier hike, harbouring aches that don’t usually linger. The road immediately outside this space is quite steep and it takes a lot of energy to get behind the piano and bend his knees and arms and push the thing up the hill, and that’s energy he’s not sure he has.
Still, if I could do this forever, he thinks. If I could do this forever and there was nothing outside.
His first kiss had been with a girl from the street below his, and they’d shared it as they hid behind a shed in her back garden. Her father had died young and they held hands and cried behind that same shed when she came back from his funeral, though they’d never kissed again. He wakes up with that on his mind. Remembers how, as he’d left her garden that day, he’d let his hand run across the pink blossoms of a thorn bush, trapping some between his fingers and wrenching them unintentionally from the branch-tips, rubbing them to wet flakes and staining his skin for a few hours until finally he went inside and washed his hands.
That comes back to him often, most of the time in his sleep, and he’d told his girlfriend about it one morning and ruined the day. She never talks about other men.
His head comes away slowly from the pillow, fabric flypaper-clinging to his cheek and his hair. Drool and sweat from the night. He sits up, checks the weather through the crepe-paper-thin curtains, doesn’t see any clouds.
The fedora rests, half-full, on his bedside table, and he reaches a hand into it, rattles the coins, disappointed with feeling how small most of them are. Disappointed with not feeling even one note. A big crowd, four rows deep, roused and gathered up by the great weather, and yet no notes and hardly any one Euro coins. He picks a few up and lets them drop. Picks a few more up and lets them drop too.
The girl’s mother had given him twenty pounds for painting that shed, the summer between his first and second years at Uni. The girl had been in Rome with some girlfriends and he hadn’t asked after her. He helped chop down another neighbour’s conifer later on that afternoon, but didn’t get paid for that except with two burgers from the barbecue they were having whilst he worked.
He loves it here. Even though he’s spent most of the bursary, and has to play piano until his fingers go stiff every night of the week, he loves it here. Perhaps because of that. He doesn’t feel that he’s wasted any of the money that he’s spent. He wakes up every morning missing her and not missing home and not even thinking about it some days, unless he’s dreamed about it, and hoping he never grows old and goes away from here, and even, so as to stop that ever happening, that he dies young and arranges for his remains to be sunk into the sea. Weight him down with a chunk of rock from up by the waterfall, or a roof tile, or with a lead anvil, something else cartoonish like that.
Blue and white stripes like a circus tent. This is the shirt that mo’s landed on today. It’s short-sleeved and he can’t remember how he’d ended up buying it, but he puts it on anyway, after rolling deodorant under his arms. Some brand advertising its fragrance as sportif. He’s never understood how any scent can be sporty besides sweat itself. Perspiration, sweet and cheesy, the hallmark of exercise and playing games outside in fields. She always liked to cover it up immediately after hockey matches, keeping some spray in a small bag at the side of the pitch, but occasionally, if she’d scored with a good shot, she’d come over to where he was standing and hug him and he’d smell it then. He doesn’t mind. In fact, he likes it. He likes it when she doesn’t try so hard.
Distance makes them both try harder, though. A few bad phone conversations in a row and they’d have to try harder still. It’s more than full-time. It’s extra-time too.
He checks his clock. Still forty-five minutes until he’ll have to call, or she’ll call him. Probably his turn.
Picking up the list of all the sheet music he stores with the piano, he makes a mental note of some kind of running order for tonight. Liszt might make the cut, first time in three weeks.
There’s a 10am lecture he should have been attending, had he kept on with the masters he’d enrolled in out here. Some days he’ll walk as far over as the lecture hall, listen to the voices through the windows, which will be open, invariably, until the mistral rolls in. Not today, he doesn’t take that walk.
He’s just left a tabac carrying a packet of cigarettes – he allows himself one a month – and there was a fellow student he’d recognised in the cramped confines of the store. Doesn’t know his name because Corm hadn’t really stayed around long enough for that, but they’d paused for enough seconds for the other guy to have time to form a question. Corm snapped back into action at that point, left before that question could be asked.
Halfway down the road before he realises that guy clearly isn’t attending the lecture either. Looks back over his shoulder but doesn’t see anyone leaving the shop. Lights a cigarette. He’d never smoked much before he travelled out here, maybe one or two on random nights out, but no more than that. Now, he finds that they help with the tension, add to the effect this place has upon his nerves. Calm him when he starts thinking things like he isn’t sure he wants to see her this weekend. Calm him before he starts thinking he doesn’t want to see her again.
He never smokes inside. Never in his room. Always and only by the sea. The breeze keeps the smell from clinging to his clothes, his shirt especially, and there is a strange fascination for him in watching the gulls toy with the butts that he drops, pulling and knifing with their off-yellow beaks until finally it clicks that the filter-tip isn’t good eating.
The lectures were good over here, he thinks, lighting a second. Probably why he still takes the time to pass beneath the windows. And his French is still good enough to get everything he needs out of them, understanding-wise. That isn’t why he dropped out.
Neither was it simply to take the bursary money and run.
He spent his undergraduate years pushing hard for the grades. Having fun, but never too much, and certainly never too much with the girls, with the women. He worked hard in sixth form before that, and at high school, and he’d not seen any reason to kick that habit at Uni. It suited him. He enjoyed the grades. Liked the sense of self-worth. Liked the effort, and the ego-boost. As long as that pattern of hard-working and grade-getting continued, he was alright. Satisfied indefinitely. Able to satisfy – his parents, his tutors, his peers, maybe. But then that grade-getting finally reached its zenith point, was pulled together, tallied up. He paid money for the privilege of graduating in a gown and a cap that kept slipping to the side of his head, and was handed a piece of paper. And he hadn’t known what to do with that piece of paper, and had finally realised not only that he was in a state of financial and personal debt, but also what that meant, and he hadn’t really gone looking for a job, because that was the last thing he wanted after all that work and all that schooling. The last things: a piece of paper and a job.
So, he looked around for postgraduate courses and, after a few months, had discovered this performance masters down in Nice. After two days, he knew it wasn’t the same. Kept going at it for three more weeks until the bursary came through and he could see the extra zeros tacked on to his balance, and then he left. Academia is done for him. Had done for him, he thinks, half-bitter, half-guilty at running off with the money like that. At spending most of it quickly.
He turns around and leans his back against the rail. Watches the traffic go by in front of the expensive hotels. Watches the wind shake the thick, waxen, baby-hammock-sized leaves of the palms on the islands in the middle of the road.
The bright patchwork jazzman statue at the corner of one white building catches his eye, and he tries in vain to hear its trumpet serenading.
An afternoon cluttered with beer glasses and even more money is gone. Even more money and even more braincells and somehow he’s gathered dark sickles of grit beneath each of his toenails from where the breeze had swept the dust against him whilst he sat outside the bar.
She hasn’t called. It had been his turn to call and he hadn’t done it and then neither had she.
He is on his bed now, holding his left foot up, inspecting the grime more closely. Soot-like patches blush around the tendons that rise out of the toes. Rubs them away with the heel of his hand. The knuckles pop as his fingers curl under the sole. No playing tonight. He should go out and get a full hat, he knows, but he knows as well that he’s too drunk to play what a crowd would want to hear. Besides, he wants to eat.
Wants to gulp down wine and glut on three courses all on his own, not wait till tomorrow. Seafood starter, wine. Fish main, wine. Dessert of the day, probably. Pastis. He’ll vomit in the night, like last time he went down that route. Cake it over his sheets and have to get up early to rush them to the laundrette before her plane comes in. If she smells the heavy night in any nook of his room, she’ll ask about it, interrogate. But if she doesn’t, he won’t mention it. He’s avoided such questioning before.
He hates to hide it. Hates it, wants it to be relaxed, unserious, fun, easygoing, cool, effervescent – all those ‘good love’ PR terms. But he talks to her the most of all the people he knows and she is closest to his worries and problems, and so, somewhere in the process, she’s become a repository for them, a holding cell for all the niggles and knuckle-whitening stresses he imposes upon himself whenever he opens his mind up to thoughts beyond music and eating and fucking and wine.
He sits for a while longer, picking at the dirt beneath his nails. They still need cutting.
The taste of her, like lemon sole and salt and ocean. That’s what comes back to him now, here, at the restaurant table, only the tented awning between him and the sky. The taste of her and the thinnest of stubble pressed against the edges of his tongue. He remembers. He thinks. He wants.
He wants her to be here, to mount him on this restaurant chair whilst everybody else in Nice looks on, or simply keeps on eating. He wants her to slide and grind herself against him, on him, wants her to catch his semen inside her mouth and on her chin. Wants to suck her nipples until he tastes the start of her milk, and wants to bite at her lips and trade juices and flavours and essence and story of this two-hander play they call sex. Wants her to call out his name in a riot of joy at both being a woman and being his.
But she isn’t here, and even if she were, she wouldn’t. She’s always kind of quiet when they fuck. She’s always kind of quiet when he talks about his music.
The scents all play against his mind and his skin; the scents from nearby tables, the trails of scent drifting on the fine breeze from the open back doors of kitchens, the flecks of scent embedded firmly in the ether of here. He reaches onto the seafood platter that he’s ordered, takes a shrimp up in his fingers, snaps it, peels loose its legs and shell. Finishes it in two bites, complete with chews and swallows, then lifts a lemon slice and squeezes it over an oyster. Squeezes it till oyster swims inside the citrus, half-shell interior bleaching even whiter. It’s not the quietness in bed that bothers him, he thinks, as he raises the oyster. It’s the other quietness. That bothers him more than anything else she ever does.
Sitting there with his knife sliding the oyster loose and thinking She doesn’t care for my poet’s soul, thinking Not once has she begged me to play for her. Downing the oyster, the shell catching against his lower lip. Licking the point of impact, checking for blood. Somewhere in his head is the memory of hearing that the shells could be poisonous or have something poisonous on them, but it isn’t distinct and so he can’t be sure, and, besides, there doesn’t seem to be a cut.
He sinks the last of the large glass of white he’s been drinking, and its flavour runs into the seafood and the sex dreams, and he closes his eyes just trying to get a clear image of her into his head. No dice. No good trying when he’s this drunk and on his way to being even more so. It has started to settle like sediment at the lower reaches of his brain, all this booze, and it’s getting difficult to keep his head straight upright. The faster the main course shows up, the better. The faster the monkfish falls under his knife.
On the tables around him, it seems there are mainly locals tonight. The talk is French and fast and the meals seem to be taking a long time to be eaten. No-one in any particular hurry to do anything more with their evening, not at this hour, only halfway past nine. An older couple sitting two tables over look his way, and then again a few minutes later, and the way they talk after those glances makes it clear they’re talking about him. Thinking he’s been stood up or something. Talking with pity about how he must have asked out some fine Niçoise lady, even managed to convince her to agree to a date, somehow, only to face this final embarrassment. Only to have her not arrive. And there were little sparks of laughter from each of them then. Pity and laughter are all that he hears and he can’t seem to stop himself watching their lips.
He wants to hear his keys instead. The middle C for starters – the old warm-up routine, the one he’d had since day one, since the day the small piano was delivered to his parents’ house, a whole week before a family friend came round to deliver a lesson. Can remember playing the middle C, right index finger plinking it down, too gently at first and then too hard. Can recall that but not the song that was taught in that lesson. Not exactly. ‘London Bridge,’ possibly, or ‘Frere Jacques,’ something simple like that. Or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, perhaps. Probably. Yeah…
It’s only when the waiter comes over to ask if he’s finished with the seafood platter that he realises he’s humming the tune quite loudly to himself. The man has a tattoo of a woman sitting on top of a skull, just beneath the left sleeve of a white T-shirt that sticks to his skin. There are words underneath it, but Corm can’t make them out. The waiter is walking off with the silver platter by the time he gets it in his head that he can ask.
A hand lays a glossy business card down on the table. More just a poster in miniature, really. On it is a woman on a darkly-lit stage, wearing a sparkling thong, matching tassels captured in full spinning motion, the blur covering most of her breasts. He leaves it untouched on the table, looks to his right and sees the two girls who must have dropped it, dissolving into the mid-evening crowd until all Corm can see is their five-inch high heels and tight dresses. One dress black, one more of an aquamarine. A slit up the side of that one, he thinks, but from this distance he can’t tell where her leg begins and where those of the other female incidentals in this street-scene end.
Still the clatter of eating on every table nearby. Still the smell of food and dirty thoughts. He’d been without something in his glass for twenty minutes, and is contemplating asking for a bottle of wine, the same white he had earlier. Doesn’t feel quite like mixing drinks now. Earlier, yes. Later, maybe. Not now.
The tattoo flashes by his eye line again, the waiter placing his food on the table. Him saying thank you in French. The waiter managing a smile, then reaching down to tap the shiny little poster. Saying Don’t bother with that place. It’s for the tourists. Only tourists go there – they don’t give you sex. Smiling again, pleased to be of further service – above and beyond the call of duty, his one good deed for the day… Corm wonders if he’ll head on back to the kitchen and spit in someone’s soup, just to re-level that out. Wonders that, then feels guilty for doing so, for judging the man who’s just brought him his food. Sits back in his chair and realises he’s neglected once more to ask about the writing on the man’s arm. And about the wine.
Picks up his knife and his fork.
The top left corner of the square is empty tonight, seems especially empty to him. Half-past twelve and still, the weather being as it is, he would have been out there and playing. Should have been. Should be. Part of him wants to wander over to the storage space now and coax his muscles into sufficient cohesion, enough to push his piano up that sloping street. But when he looks down at his hands they look back all blurry, throwing out weak strands of light from the edges. Laurel and Hardy misadventures cloud rest of his sight.
Looking up, the sitting-down statues are shaky as well. Chalky street art echoes of themselves, scuffed and smudged at their outlines, either by the wind, of by soft inconsiderate shoes. He leans against one of the pillars, struggling to steady his feet enough that he can start dancing. His shinbones feel funny. The backs of his knees have pins and needles, or are numb, he isn’t sure which. No dancing. Just leaning and trying to recapture his balance. Elusive prey.
Looks up again. Beyond the statues and past those grubby wisps of cloud, stars are streaked, and all appear joined to a duplicate, the bonds in-between the same as trails they leave when they begin the business of falling to earth. Watching them, the simple melody comes back to him, rises out once again as a humming, humming it and pushing away from the pillar, standing upright and swaying in time. Keeps on with that for what must be minutes, before the fatigue part of his drinking properly knocks, walks in without wiping its feet, and he thinks I am so very tired, just like Frankenstein, and he doesn’t know why but that’s the only book he can source in his mind right now the knowledge of ever having read, and he doesn’t read anywhere near as often as he should, as he feels he should, and that’s what his sister will tell him whenever they next meet, but what does that matter, he thinks, what does that matter when he has his music? He doesn’t need any more stories, any more plots and voices, needs to live a story, doesn’t like to give his time away to someone else’s. And, besides, it does his head good to spend time without words.
She calls him at seven-oh-three in the morning, and he wakes up to find fries on his pillow and half a kebab in his moneybox-hat. She calls him and tells him she is angry. Tells him she is angry and that she thinks she loves him, but that he’s made her miss two parties this week to save up for the trip. That she loves him but he can’t keep doing this to her, and it’s like she smells the musty liquor on his breath. She doesn’t ask if he’s been out, doesn’t mention the two missed calls he must have had from her at some point in the evening. She doesn’t say anything about anything related to his drinking at all. But all evidence in her tone tells him she knows. She raises her voice throughout the call, upping the volume, pushing into higher registers, making his ears want to wax over for good. He can’t move his head, or his mouth much to talk back, in case things begin spinning and he does something untakebackable, like retching into the mic. It sounds as though she is taking his silence for guilt, but also for his being ashamed, reading into that shame a willingness to make amends. She volunteers him to pay for most of their meals. That will be his contrition.
Bits of fried potato are stuck squashed in his stubble, and, when the call ends, all he can think is that he needs a shave.
He likes to shave to the rhythm of ‘Ode to Joy’. Since probably the third time he’d shaved, he’d done that. Must have had it on his mind, been learning it, or listening to it a lot. Couldn’t say for sure. Just kept coming back to Beethoven. He doesn’t shave to that rhythm all over, only on his chin after he’s pulled his lower lip inwards and tightened and straightened the skin. That is the worst place for cuts on his face, always has been, and thinking about that rhythm distracts him from that, at the same time as it makes him focus in more, keeps his downstrokes regular and neat. Of course, sometimes he still cuts himself, most times in fact, and today hasn’t really bucked the trend. When he splashes warm water on to clear the excess foam, the blood blossoms outwards, finds the minute lines in his skin and tracks them, like rainwater hitting wild on parched ground.
After his shower, he stays mostly naked whilst he attempts to tidy his room. Not easy when trying to keep his head upright, even when scooping things up from the floor. Too much movement and he might vomit, which would only worsen the mess.
With the carpet mostly clear, and the bed, he chooses a shirt, a white one made from a thin, crinkly fabric. Buttons just the dull side of silver, just the small side of five pence pieces. He leaves the top two undone.
He makes himself a cup of tea, a relative novelty in these coffee-heavy days. He follows it, duly, with sachet of cheap, over spiced cappuccino mix, though neither seems to be having the desired effect.
Two and a half hours before the plane is due to arrive. Thereabouts. He should order a taxi soon.
Walking over to the window, he opens the curtains, slowly squints up at the sky. It is bright and he shuts his eyes fully, but the light still shines through, pink and orange and spotted with green. He rubs at the lids with the knuckles of his thumbs. Opens his eyes, looks once more back at the sky. There are clouds, he can tell now, but none of them too dark. They’ll clear soon. With any luck.
When he locks up and walks to the taxi, the kebab is still tilting out of his hat.
The sky is even brighter when he arrives at the airport, and he hasn’t travelled well. Twice, he found himself swallowing acid and other things back down his throat. He’d been close to telling the driver to pull over, but hadn’t.
A flight has just landed when he enters the terminal. He watches the plane slow to a stop and hears the quiet come in when the engine blades finally quit spinning round. A set of portable steps are pushed across the tarmac towards the plane’s sizeable flank. A pause of a few seconds before the doors open and everything connects up.
Lots of people crossing the asphalt, coming up the tunnel. Lots of people all scrambling towards the conveyor belts and their orange-labelled cases.
He retraces his steps a little way and finds himself a seat in the bar. The one this side of the check-in point is probably cheaper, but not by much. There are two people working it, a man and a woman. They look like twins, though that may just be the matching uniforms and same-length hair. Hers is more feathered, and she’s wearing more green eyeliner and rouge, or whatever they’re calling it now. Probably still rouge, over here, he thinks.
Orders a beer; nothing stronger until later, until they’ve made the trip back into town. Needs something to balance him out, though, to maybe calm his gut, to ease off the oppression in his head.
He squints, tries to read the time on the TV behind the bar. Looks like eleven:fifteen. Twenty-five minutes or so before the flight down from London should land.
He’ll be going three nights without playing, he thinks, as he sits back down. There is money he could be making. Albeit probably still less than he’ll spend if he carries on living like this. But, beyond that, there are pieces he could be playing, at least. He’s been thinking for a while about playing a set which is only early rock ‘n’ roll stuff, all the things he’d grown up hearing in his parents’ house.
Playing Grieg would help either. Grieg’s ‘Concerto in A Minor’. Grieg, composing for piano in the key that Corm loves maybe the most, that sad bastard, lonely, searching, weary, vicious, probing little key. He has a copy of that, all dog-eared, and he tries now to visualise all the notes on the first page of that copy, the way he’s found he can sometimes, he’s looked at it that often and that hard. All the notes and all the changes in the paper’s shade behind them from the drinks he’s spilled, and simply from its age and exposure to the air.
He gives up, lapses back in his sofa seat, hogging a corner table, watching the people. Men’s legs in denim and out of denim – in shorts – and then women’s legs, all out of denim. All shaved. All smooth and on their way to being tanned, or being burnt, so that they’d ask their man to apply some aftersun, or ask a friend to do it, or do it themselves after showering, feeling lonesome, not horny, just wanting someone beside them to hold for a while.
Moving up from their legs, he notices faces – not on the men, not now, on the women – and the ones wearing sunglasses indoors are ones he overlooks. The others, he watches them more closely, his fingers cooling in the condensation either side of his glass. He watches the different hair, pink and hazel and dark chocolate and sandstone and rooftile-terracotta and auburn and mauve. Watches the variation in the bounce of different breasts. Watches the lack of smiles, despite the better weather, and he watches out for a kind of hungry sadness in the eyes.
Then Eeny, meeny, miney, mo he thinks, then Fuck he thinks, then turns back towards the windows and watches for her plane.
Dan Micklethwaite spends his days absorbed in a life of writing in West Yorkshire, UK, but also enjoys any chance he has to leave the pattern of those days behind and travel, if only for a little while. His shorter fiction has featured or is forthcoming in 3:AM, BULL, ink sweat & tears, Birdville and Emerge, and covers issues ranging from adventure to art to lust to unemployment, often at the same time. More examples of such can be tracked down on his blog: http://smalltimebooks.blogspot.co.uk/