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29/01/2013

AN EXHIBITION

Will Miles

Our glasses chink loudly. An old American couple, melting under sun hats, looks on and smiles. Freddie knocks half his wine back. He doesn’t savour things like I do.

‘It’s not bad,’ he says, and I knock mine back too.

Freddie tops us up. We watch the people in the square. Teenagers are huddled round a fountain. Music’s blaring out one boy’s phone. Two of them dance, half-joking, half-grinding, as if no-one can see them. Isn’t it too early for dancing? Maybe it’s an Italian thing. Or maybe at twenty-nine I’m getting on.

‘You ever hear from the others,’ I ask Freddie, ‘the boys?’

‘No. Well, Christmas cards. To be honest with you… yeah, to be honest, I’m not too fussed about seeing the others.’

‘Serious?’

He rocks his head side to side, settles. ‘Actually yeah. Yeah I am. I don’t get all this meeting-up stuff, school reunions, uni reunions. Yourself aside – most people, I really can’t be fucked.’

That’s the thing with Freddie – he’ll come across a bit cut-throat sometimes. Really gets Kate’s back up when they do dinner-party politics. She calls him a callous bastard, he calls her a bleeding heart, but they’re both smiling like mad. And Megan and I – we roll our eyes at the routine. I guess she and I are quite similar. We don’t get annoyed about things.

‘But some of the boys,’ I say. ‘Payne, he could throw a party.’

‘Now that I can’t deny,’ he says.

‘To be fair, his parents had a fucking nice house. They just happened to spent most of their time in their two other fucking nice houses.’

‘That New Year’s in third year. No, second. The German. What was her name?’

‘Monika.’

‘Monika! She was bellissima!’ He clicks his fingers. ‘Sehr sehr schön! And you! After that party! You went round pretending you slept with her. You went on for months.’

‘I did sleep with Monika.’

Freddie’s elbow’s propped on the table. He strokes his stubble.

‘I went along with it,’ he says. ‘I was hardly going to embarrass you in front of the boys, but come on. She went home before midnight. I booked the cab for her. Her friend was a fucking wreck, downed the vodka before she was barely through the door.’

‘She was still there a good few hours and we did, we fucked.’

Freddie breaks into a laugh.

‘What the fuck?’ I say.

He holds up his hands. ‘Of course. Of course.’

And there it is, that nod, like he’s allowing me this one. Now don’t get me wrong, Freddie’s a good guy really. But he doesn’t like other people having things he hasn’t got, doing things he hasn’t done. I’ll bet you Monika didn’t fall for his charm.

We go on chatting about whatever Freddie wants, real crappy conversation. And either I’m not coming across as pissed off as I am or he’s too blind to notice. All I want to do is talk about what’s happened. If he could just give me a window to get it in there, something about uni or parties, but all he’s chatting about is where he’ll go next year. He goes on for an hour like this. I just nod. Yeah, Freddie. Wow, Freddie. Who gives a fuck, Freddie?

He knocks the table. ‘Wine. Let’s get more wine.’ He signals to the waiter, asks for the same again. I spot the chance to knock him off balance.

‘Sorry, Freddie,’ I say, ‘I didn’t actually enjoy that bottle.’

‘Oh.’

‘Bit sweet.’

The waiter looks from me to Freddie to me.

Freddie frowns. ‘Sweet? If you say so.’

He and the waiter watch me read the menu. I decide pretty soon. In fact, I’m barely looking at the list. I’m just thinking about the two of them waiting.

‘The Soave ’90, please,’ I say.

Freddie drums his fingers on the table, clearly pissed off about the wine. He’s always got to be in charge, hates to be knocked back. But trust me, I’ve seen him when he’s not the big man.

Take the spring ball third year. If I brought up that night, that’d seriously fuck with him.

He and Megan – they had this massive fight. They’d only been seeing each other for, what, six months. I was pretty far gone when I spotted them in the corner of the college. Megan looked amazing in this green backless dress so I didn’t realise straight off she was shouting, bright red. Never seen her like that before or since. She stormed off in my direction, flapped her hand when Freddie tried to follow her. Then he just stared at the ground, looking fucking suicidal in his DJ, and walked inside.

I called out to Megan. She came over, we hugged. Her dress was rougher than I’d thought; it’d looked silky in the distance. She was crying. Someone had let slip they’d seen Freddie with another girl one rugby night. He hadn’t denied it. Megan had this odd phrasing – she was pretty drunk too – something really pompous like Freddie has torn us apart! So I held her tight and told her come on, come on.

‘Fucking hot,’ he says, fanning himself with the V of his shirt.

So here we are, sitting in a square in Rome. Fucking hot. Waiting for our girlfriends. And I don’t wanna make myself look all passive-aggressive harping on but fuck I’ve got to say something.

‘Sorry, Freddie. I really can’t leave this. Why would you say that about Monika?’

‘What?’

‘I’m not a fucking liar.’

‘Jesus. OK. I get it.’

‘Do you?’

‘Sure. If you say so.’

‘Look. We went into one of the spare rooms at the back of the house. Payne’s sister and Robbie were there. We chatted to them. They left. We could hear you guys pissing around outside. You were jumping in the pool. Where the fuck do you think I was if I wasn’t there?’

My heart’s thumping. Freddie’s eyebrows are raised. He drops his head. A half-nod.

‘I didn’t realise she meant so much to you,’ he says.

‘She didn’t. It’s just- it’s the principle, Freddie. Don’t go calling me a liar.’

‘I didn’t say you were lying.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘Alright I did. But you’re right. I’m sure of it. In fact, now I think about it, yes, you weren’t there when we jumped in the pool. I didn’t see you for a while. I entirely and completely and absolutely believe you. Now can we fucking well put a fucking end to this fucking business. Finally! Thank fuck – the fucking wine’s here.’

The waiter sets down new glasses. This time I taste. It’s so much better than Freddie’s choice: drier, more sophisticated. I tell the waiter we’ll have it. He fills our glasses.

‘When did the girls say they’d be done?’ he asks, pointlessly looking at his Rolex.

‘I dunno. No, they said an hour or two. They said they’d call.’

‘I’m starving.’ He yawns, stretches his muscly arms like he’s actually saying, ‘I’m knackered.’

I down half the glass and sit back in my chair, feeling the booze fill my empty stomach. I only had a melon slice and a pastry for breakfast. But I don’t wanna say I’m hungry too. I’m not copying him. I know, I know – you must think me petty. I would in your shoes, but you’ve not been around Freddie.

Take yesterday at the modern art shit-smeared-on-a-canvas-how-fucking-edgy exhibition. I was looking at one of the less ridiculous ones. Primary colours slotted into each other like Tetris blocks. I could sense Freddie right behind my shoulder. And I was so busy wondering if this is good art or if I could justify why it was good art or plain say whether I liked it or not – what they call the “aesthetic response” – that I didn’t know how to reply when Freddie asked, flat tone, giving nothing away, ‘What do you think?’

It’s like a test, and God I hate myself for it, but I was racking my brains to guess what he was thinking. And I know the whole there’s-no-right-answer-in-art bullshit but fuck it was like he had a coin between his hands. Heads or tails. This is good art, this is bad art, and he wasn’t letting me see.

‘Yeah, it’s a nice one,’ I said.

‘I think so,’ he said, and we joined Kate and Megan at the next piece.

Back in the square, the restaurant, Freddie asks if I want a top up. I shrug. He fills my glass anyway, staring at me as he sets the bottle back down.

‘You still in a mood?’ he says. ‘Seriously, come on. Just drink up.’

I say nothing, just go on watching the square.

‘Fine, don’t fucking drink. Sulk.’

The teenagers have gone and there’s a new bunch hanging around. For all I know they’re the same ones. In the corner of my eye I can see Freddie’s puffed chest. Wild turkeys do this to exhibit prowess over other males. Maybe it’s the drink but it makes me wanna thump him, chuck the wine in his face.

‘You’re very sure of yourself, aren’t you, Freddie?’

He sighs, shakes his head, not even fucking looking at me.

‘You don’t ever feel embarrassed, do you?’ I say.

‘Not on your scale,’ he says, taking a sip. ‘You’re very self-conscious.’

The drink’s tugging through me.

‘You remember the spring ball in third year, don’t you?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ he says, all awkward. He scratches a mozzie bite on his forearm.

Cause it started with Megan’s friends coming over to comfort her. And I suddenly thought – cause you don’t really think this with him – I wonder if Freddie’s alright. But fucking hell. I hadn’t expected to find him like that. He was sitting on his bed in his DJ, crying into his hands, like really sobbing. I couldn’t tell what was just the drink and what was real. He told me he had slept with this girl – quelle fucking surprise. He was really going for it: how he’d messed up the best thing he’d ever had, didn’t think Megan would ever forgive him.

I can’t pretend it didn’t feel good seeing big old Freddie Hall screwing his eyes up. But it was sort of horrid, you know, unnatural. I was sad for him, sad for both of them. But Megan deserved much better, still does.

I told him things would work out. He had to tell her he was gonna change (I’d heard someone say it on TV). And I was rubbing his back like you’d do for anyone crying, for your mum or your brother or a stranger, but then something switched. You never know who starts these things. We were pissed, remember. And either my hands moved first or he was at my neck first. His suit smelt old, like attics, which was weird cause it looked brand new. It looked so Freddie.

God I hated myself for what we did. It made me feel sick afterwards but, fuck, at the time there wasn’t any doubt in my head.

‘That’s something you’re embarrassed of,’ I say, cool as anything, though my heart’s slamming like mad. Fuck, it’s like I’m tearing out my intestines just to beat him round the head with them.

Freddie stares at the base of his glass.

‘You’re a real piece of shit,’ he whispers.

‘What?’ I say loudly. The Americans look over. ‘I can’t hear you, Freddie.’

‘I said you’re a little piece of shit. How fucking dare you.’

I puff my chest out. It takes all the power in my body cause I’m shaking.

‘We’re settling up, then I’m going back to the hotel,’ he says. ‘And we’ll half the bill this time. I’ve been too generous this holiday.’

‘Not a problem.’

Freddie signals to the waiter and stares at the half-full Soave he won’t drink. Someone’s phone rings. I don’t realise straight off it’s mine.

‘Kate!’ I say.

‘Hi babe, how’s it going?’

‘Great! Freddie and I are having a drink. We’re having a hoot!’

‘A hoot? Megs, they’re pissed.’

Megan groans in the background.

‘We’re not pissed,’ I say. ‘Come and join us. We’re at the Plaza di… I dunno, it’s where we bought the ice creams.’

‘Do they serve food?’

‘Yeah. We’re starving, aren’t we, Freddie?’

The waiter comes over. Freddie asks for the bill.

‘Alright,’ Kate says, ‘we’ll see you in ten. Maybe get some water down you.’ She laughs – that gorgeous one she uses in the taxi home from dinner parties.

Once we’ve hung up, I can tell Freddie’s all pissed off that he can’t go back to the hotel. I’m not. I’m happy. I open the menu and I’m spoilt for choice.

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