I don’t really know what to do with this one. It was originally supposed to be a story for the Bad Dollar project, but as it got further I don’t think it really fit with what they’re trying to do, and I had a more appropriate idea. So let this just be a fragment, a silly little story in a new voice, innit. Happy friday!
“You are a well-travelled person.” She gazed into my eyes and swung her censer.
“This is Beirut,” said Beth, “everyone’s well-travelled.”
The old woman’s mask of mysticism slipped a little.
“That’s hardly my fault. Besides, what can you expect for the amount you’re paying me?” I glanced at the sorry note on the velvet cloth. “Life coaching?”
I don’t know what I was doing there. That’s a lie, of course I know - I was living the dream, wasn’t I? Everyone comes within touching distance of thirty and starts thinking where’s my adventure? Why aren’t I living? Then they decide to go somewhere they’ve heard to be slightly wild and ideally they choose where exactly on the basis of their favourite ethnic restaurant, and we’d been to Yella Yella for Andy’s engagement in Feb. And when you get to your lastminute dot com three-and-a-half-star adventure, you’ve resolved to “go native,” reenact your own version of The Beach, but the Beirutians - is that right? - know you’re coming and what you want, so they dress up and reenact a parody of their country, just like the human statues of Elizabeth on the South Bank, and a part of you knows you’re falling for a charade, but you don’t care because you’re helping to boost the Local Economy.
I didn’t feel a lot like I was boosting the Local Economy. And Madame Valanna, she didn’t look like she was going to be able to put her children through college on our donation. She held my hand like she was weighing a bag of carrots, carrots that were more mottled than she’d have liked.
“Look, I’m sorry. We didn’t really know the exchange rates and all that, and anyway- I’ll write you a review, how about that? I can…” I imagined the look on the Features Editor’s face as I passed him five hundred words about Beirutian palm-reading. He’d choke on his Silk Cut. Madame Valanna’s face had turned a similar purple, and her eyes were bulging. Beth started, but suddenly Madame Valanna made a harsh hiss, and held up a hand for silence. Her nostrils flared and seemed to hoover the oxygen from the room, and her hand clenched over mine. She was pressing and pulling, her fingernails tracing diagrams and calculations across my palm. Behind my fear, I was pleased to discovered I remembered a little of the geometry she was using from GCSE.
She looked at me. “Are you… of the goat?”
“If you mean Aries-“
“The goat! The goat, are you of the goat, child?”
I nodded. I supposed I must have been of the goat. Madame Valanna’s eyes bulged further still.
“Danger! Terrible danger. I see a hatted man. A watering can, a cat without tail, and… lines.”
“Lines? That’s obvious.”
“Beware the lines. That is all.”
Madame Valanna’s eyes rolled back into her head, and she said no more.
So, we decided to beware the lines. Even this most authentic of adventures did nothing to lift Beth’s spirits; she complained that she hadn’t seen a single camel. She complained that there were far fewer beggars in the street than Lonely Planet had promised. She complained that the hotel’s food was too Western. Over Cottage Pie, I asked her why she’d insisted we stay in a Western Hotel. Because we needed some stability, she said.
“Well then,” I said as I groped for the gravy, “this is where your stable adventure gets us - Cottage Pie in Beirut.” In the back of my mind a new feature began to form - The New Adventures, it was called. A wry-eyed, sideways look at the world of middle-class roughing it abroad. Yummy mummies in saris, some reference to The New Glamping, and of course your reporter being sent around the world to sample this new trend. I stopped myself when I realised how irredeemably facile this would be.
“Have you ever thought,” I asked her, “how we make a living out of being professionally shallow?”
She sipped at the Merlot. Her face looked as thought her thoughts had somewhere better to be, and I’d dared to drag them back. She smiled, just a little.
“I know. Not a bad living though, eh? Look, try some. It’s not total rot.”
She proffered the bottle.
Looking back now, I wish she hadn’t. And in wishing she hadn’t held the bottle out, I know that I’m kind of trying to make it her fault, which is a pretty sore deal when she’s not around to tell her side of the story. But that’s the reporter’s privilege. And cause and effect is a pretty strange thing; you start to tie everything together into these big chains of meaning. This chain of meaning had started with her and the bottle but truly lay in my hefting of the wine glass, catching my reflection in it, and suddenly realising that when I saw myself I saw nothing and nobody; one of those mannequins in the Oxford Street branch of Topman that I secretly know I’m too old for.
I gasped, and let go of the glass. It fell from my hand, rolled majestically along the tablecloth, waterfalled over the edge and crashed on the flagstone.
“Ouch,” said Beth, “Seven years’ bad luck, that is.”
“That’s me sorted until I’m trying to put kids through school, then.” A cheap response. But it played on my mind as I was served a fillet of suspiciously pink chicken. I haven’t yet learned to make a fuss abroad like Beth, so I only said, “is that, ah…?”
“Speciality.” The waiter winked from beneath his fez.
“Bullshit,” muttered Beth. That night in the ensuite, I echoed her sentiments, bodily.
On the plane home, we tried to take stock of what we’d experienced. The point, after all, is to have a good story to take home. We live a kind of future-facing life, trying to package and ship experiences even as we have them.
“This is great,” said Beth, showing me the picture she’d just taken of me. My face was alabaster pale. Even in still life, you could tell I was shivering. “You’re still really fucked up. It’s a great angle.”
“Misery? Come off it.” But I knew it was. If the situation was reversed, I’d be editorialising her.
“Tim,” she said, “You already know how to work this. Gentle, long-suffering British good humour. A kind of Therouxian comedic misfortune. With,” she smiled, “a touch of the mysterious.”
“Bad luck isn’t mysterious. It’s bad luck.” I tugged at the foil of the milk carton, and a thimbleful of British Airways’ finest ejaculated onto my khakis.
“I call it misfortune. And ever since you angered the mystic Beirutian with that dollar! How thrilling.”
“I did not anger her! I annoyed her. A bit. If anything, you angered her. Your problem,” I said, “is not that you’re annoying. It’s that you’re graceless.” I reached for the iPod to drown Beth out after my retort, but at the moment the landing lights went on and I had endure her angry silence all the way through the stowing of tray tables and the buckling of belts.
I’m not a believer or anything. Who has time to believe in things now? Still, in the next couple of weeks I decided it might make sense, economically speaking, to make one or two slight adjustments to my life. Little efficiencies: I put rosemary under my pillow. I started taking the 37, the bus that avoids the building sites. Did you know you can get four-leaf clovers from eBay? It’s true. Look under Jewellery>Charms. Only £2.99, so I guess they must breed them now. Still, it counts. The third time Beth hid it, I hit a wall. A post-it note, cut to show four leaves and a stem, fluttered on the screen of my work computer. “If you want me back,” it said, “give Beth a tarot reading.”
I dialled her extension. I heard the phone ring on the other side of our partition. “Beth, this isn’t funny.”
“You’re right Tim, I’m sorry. All I ask is one thing. Please…”
I composed myself and remembered what Dad had told me about being gracious.
“…don’t curse me.”
The phone clicked and from over the divide a quiet splutter trickled out, and formed into cackling, piercing laughter. I heard other giggles start up until the entire Lifestyle desk was shaking with laughter at my paranoia. A stuffed black cat landed on my desk. I jumped up but couldn’t bear to look at them, so I half-shuffled half-ran to the balcony for a smoke. I had to get away. The problem with being a journalist is that just once in a while, people read what you write - especially if your travel partner has the charity to stick a photocopy of your pre-subbed work on the noticeboard with the header, “When Minibreaks Go Bad.”
On the balcony was another of my new audience. I’d successfully managed to remain an unknown to Sir Charles Lathamfere, our Chief Editor, for two years.
“Ah, it’s the Pilgrim!” Sir Charles clapped me on the back. “Cigar?”
“I’m alright, thanks. Health, y’know.” I fumbled around for my Marlboroughs.
“Is that so? I thought you were rather the adventurer. That’s what I got from your piece. Have you ever thought about a column?”
Column. That was a new one. You have to understand: column to a journalist is like the word tenure to a professor because it means safety, security. Bread and water through the door on a consistent basis and then, then, one can finally work on one’s tell-all book and the fabled Exit Strategy. I would smoke a cigar with Sir Charles with for a column. I would do many darker things for a column. I wondered if he knew that.
“Interesting angle you have,” he said, “very zeitgeisty, very now, very google. Very Vice. A Pilkingtonian odyssey through the world. And we’d find budget, of course… for the right adventures… tell me, have you ever been to Compton?”
I looked at Sir Charles, his eyes were wild underneath bushy brows which wiggled like fighting weasels. I looked back, through the French windows at the newsroom. Beth and her girls had stopped laughing now and were just staring, openmouthed. Nobody ever got an audience with Lathamfere, unless they had royal honours to confer or a book deal to offer. I thought about dodging bullets in Compton, about sampling expensive breeds of marijuana in Belize, about seeing the sun rise behind Machu Pichu with a bellyfull of shrooms and putting my thoughts on paper for an adoring public. The gonzo dream. I thought about Madame Valanna’s parting words, “beware the lines,” and about possible names of a new column.
“Sir Charles,” I said, “how many words?”