May 29, 2018 | by Emma Falk Dennis Illustrations by Julian Dennis (@jlznns)
“If we were in Nigeria, I would have beat her. I would have beat her and then brought her home to her mother and told her that I was the one who beat her daughter. And her mother would thank me because, in my country, that is what we call looking out for each other. Everyone in the community looks out for each other’s children in Nigeria. And girls who act with such disrespect, such stupidity, should and would be beaten.”
“Well thank god we’re not in Nigeria, Samuel! Jesus! So she was drunk! How many drunk girls in short skirts do you see out here every weekend? Would you beat them all?”
“I would. I would if this were Nigeria.”
The Mongo’s six-foot-three bouncer was surveying the weekend crowd — incredulous over the swaying of one particular teenage girl exiting on her heels, stumbling as she went.
Samuel was a stone-faced man who liked — when he was on the clock — to act as though he had no time for the “godless” ways of the club patrons, and then hit on pretty women that were not his wife as soon as he was no longer being paid by the hour.
“That’ll be three pounds, please.” I said to a thirty-something lady in a sleek red dress making her way up to the door, hoping she’d not heard too much of Samuel’s ode to the lash.
“Okay.” She winked. “Unless this big handsome man wants to let me in for free.” Evidently she hadn’t heard a thing.
I could see the smile spread across Sam’s face. It was amazing really, how quickly his disdain would retreat whenever the subject of his ridicule paid him any attention.
“What do you say there, Samuel? Are we charging her? Does her behavior meet your standards of conduct?”
He was blushing. “Ah, you are a beautiful woman. Thank you, thank you. Lovely. If it were up to me, you would go in for free. But this is Daniel’s club. So pay the lady. Ah, thank you though. Thank you. Beautiful woman.”
He was nothing if not a rule follower whilst on duty, especially when the boss was just on the other side of the door frame.
Things had been quite copacetic between Daniel and I since my triumphant first Mongo performance. Things, for me, were copacetic in general at the Mongo. In exchange for a few hours in the cold collecting punters’ pounds each weekend I was gifted with plenty to drink and wonderful people to party with, more live music than I could take in, and ample opportunities to perform. It was, unequivocally, a sweet deal. And Daniel, at the time, wasn’t doing much to sour it. For the moment, he mostly just provided enjoyable, albeit occasionally perplexing company for our shifts. I tried to make sense of his tales, and found myself consistently amused by his logic.
“I’ve been really stepping up the diet. You can see the difference right? Schoop!” He said as he brought his hand down out past his quite prominent belly. “Staying away from the sweets. Those Mars Bars will get ya. Doing the baby carrots instead.” Not only could I see no difference in his physique, but I suspected the reason for this was the Mars Bars I’d caught him scoffing on many occasions in the pub’s kitchen. I became well practiced in my responses to these exchanges. It was clear he believed in what he was saying and I didn’t want to be the one to burst his bubble.
“That’ll be three pounds, please.” The customer in front of me had most certainly been doing a fair bit of pre-pub drinking, and her partner — clutching her coat and purse at his side — seemed to be the caretaker for the evening.
“Let me just get my wallet,” he said while trying to pry his arm out of her clutches.
“Oh no no, I am not paying. I know Daniel. You might not know who I am, little girl, but he wouldn’t have me pay. She put her hand on my shoulder in an effort to push past. But of course she was no match for Samuel, who, without laying a finger, easily asserted himself enough to get her to back up.
Considering her great friend Daniel was standing in full view right besides me, I suspected her story a tad far-fetched.
“Well, that might be, but seeing as he’s obviously not here right now, I am in charge, and I don’t know you from Adam. Samuel, what’s the price for entrance?”
“It’s three pounds each, pay the lady.” There was something wholly exciting in the power of being able to cross my arms and exert my will, or at least the pub’s will as expressed through me, with nothing more than a nod of the chin towards Sam. It really did come in handy to have such an imposing figure standing besides me. Though, I was glad we were safely operating from inside the parameters of English society. And as such, I knew I could just about count on him to be imposing, without, well, actually beating anyone.
Eventually, the soused lady’s keeper wrestled his hands free and six pounds from his wallet, and in they went after one last parting question:
“Is Daniel here tonight? I’m looking for Daniel.” I could feel her words falling down at my feet as if she were spitting on my shoes. As if I were in every way beneath her.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s around here somewhere,” I said as she waved me off and stepped inside.
“Sooo... who was that then, Daniel?”
“You know, Emma, I’ve no idea. Just some fuckin’ crazy woman, I really don’t know. Why did you tell her I was here?”
“Well, you are! And anyway, I don’t think it matters. She doesn’t appear to know what you look like!”
He seemed angry for a moment, though as Daniel’s face always presented outwardly with the same exact stoic expression, I never could tell. But in any case, he soon moved on. “Do you know, that reminds me, I’ve been flirting with this woman at the Groucho — this waitress.” He said this with such an air of conspiracy, as if he’d just uncovered the secret to everlasting life and was slyly letting me in on it. “She always offers me this sandwich that’s not actually on the menu, but she does it for me anyway. Every time. And she knows I’m going to ask for it. It’s like she has it ready for me.”
He paused and looked at me, as if searching for my response: my amazement at such a gesture from this nameless waitress. I must have looked blank, for he rolled his eyes a little and sighed in exasperation. When it wasn’t deciphering the words from his accent, it was deciphering the meaning from his stories.
He continued: “I mean, I’m fairly certain she’s in love with me. It’s a special singular kind of treatment. It’s a real sign. It’s the carrots. Shwoop!” The hand came down past the belly again.
It would have looked too obvious to glance over at Samuel for acknowledgement of this mad logic our boss was wielding. But I could feel him thinking the same thing as I, and I was sure we were sharing a silent internal chuckle.
“Well, well,” Sam said. “Spring love.”
It wasn’t long before our mystery lady of drink, with a new one in her hand, and her man friend, were back outside with cigarettes at the ready. It was then that I got a good look at her. Adorned rather than dressed in a gold lamé number — cut down to her belly button and sticking to her every curve. As if she’d simply gotten out of the shower and instead of dressing, poured a vat of honey over her head and called it good. She had some severe eyeliner cementing the three-foot long lashes sticking out from her face — a face that appeared not to move as she spoke. Perhaps it was surgery, perhaps she just wasn’t finding anything about this evening that merited a reaction. Staggering slightly to stay up on the spikes of her shoes, she looked like one of Degas dancers, bronzed in a state of undress. Held together by her adornments somewhere in the process of coming undone.
“I’ve still not found him. I need to see Daniel. Baby, hold my bag for me, and take my coat in case he comes out. I want him to see the dress.”
“Cigarettes on this side, please,” Samuel said sternly, pointing to his left. “Inside the barricade.”
He did have a way of making the patrons feel like cattle, rough in tone as he exhaustedly asked them to step inside the ropes. No doubt that’s how he viewed everyone who chose to spend their evening doing something as debased and lowly as imbibing. He himself never drank (whilst he was being paid).
“Yeah, yeah,” she said dismissively, staying exactly where she was. It was then, as she was swinging her hair around like a prize pony, that the lights of recognition snapped on inside her champagne-submerged eyes. Oh, oh my god, there you are! Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you!” She’d spotted him. I’d started to think she really didn’t know what he looked like, or perhaps his face had changed over the years as much as hers seemed likely to have done. But, the time had come. Whatever cloak of invisibility Daniel had managed to hide under up until now had slipped off.
“Daniel, hi!” She went in for a hug and then turned on her heels towards me. “We used to date.” It appeared to be a slice of extremely relevant information she needed to pass on to Samuel and me. Perhaps she was still trying to get her three pounds back. Around again to Daniel she spun. “Oh, it’s just so good to see you! You look hot. “
“It’s the carrots.” It had come up like an involuntary burp and as soon as I said it I was hoping neither of them had heard me. The woman just turned to look at me incredulously, before turning back to stare at Daniel and pause dramatically.
“I could kiss you.” She said, going in for the kill. Getting little more than his arm out pushing her away in return, she settled for another hug: limp on his end, zealous on hers.
“This is my fiancé, Matt. Say hello, Matt,” she urged as she held out her sizable engagement ring for us all to see. Matt seemed like an entirely appropriate name for the man with the coat and bag in his hands, watching his fiancé try to make out with another man. Drop a T and his given name would have provided an apt description for his position in the relationship. “We’re going to go in now. Find me in there. It is just so good to see you. ”
Samuel kept his mouth shut as our two guests went back inside.
“Do you know who she is now?” I pried.
“Yeah, I think so. Fucking crazy.” Probably just like the waitress at the Groucho will be, if ever she stops bringing you your special sandwich. “I do not want to get caught up with her in there. I feel sorry for that fiancé. What has he gotten himself into?” A flicker of enjoyment came into his eyes when he mentioned poor old Matt. I got the distinct impression that Daniel was enjoying this. He was the desired man — chosen ahead of another. The alpha. I wondered what kind of tryst he and this insistent woman had had. Had he been an alpha there? There was certainly something left over — a hook of some kind he’d buried in her, or perhaps just a scar from a hook.
I wondered if she’d left any hooks of her own. Perhaps one of them had lodged in his brain many years ago and hollowed out some of the sanity he’d had in there before. Who knows.
Enjoying the attention or not, it seemed Daniel was keen to avoid any further run in.“You know, I’m going to head round the back into the kitchen now. Hopefully she’s not waiting for me.”
“Godspeed!” Samuel and I looked at each other and laughed. Back to work: “Come on up. Three pounds, please!”
When the incoming crowd slowed and 2am rolled around, my shift was at an end and it was time to check my phone messages. I had felt the familiar buzz in my pocket sometime after midnight and I knew what the waiting missive was likely to contain:
“Want to come round mine later?”
I’d met him at a post-Mongo warehouse party in Manor House a few weeks before.
Yes. Yes, I did want to come over. “Yes, please. I’m just going to grab a drink at work, meet me here?”
I headed for the bar. “Mags, can I grab a Crabbies from you?” Crabbies, for those unfortunate enough to never have tasted one, is a diabolical, diabetes courting, sweet treacle ginger beer drink — a drink that paired perfectly with Marlboro lights, and my maturity level. Mags popped the top off an icy bottle and handed it to me.
“Crabbies, really? If you’re going to drink, drink something real,” she chided me.
“Ah Mags, nothing’s as good as Crabbies,” I snickered and was about to take my first sip as way of entry into the afterwork world of revelry when Daniel’s mystery lady pushed right in front of me, nearly knocking the bottle out of my hand.
“Excuse me!” Like a Christmas ornament, fully lit up. Or a clown-face jack-in-the-box, all tightly spring-wound and shouting away. I already knew she wasn’t great with facial recognition but even if she had remembered me from the door, I doubt it would have affected her behavior. She was in pursuit of a man despite the one behind her, looking more and more sheepish and still carrying her purse.
“Excuse me,” she said again in Mags’ direction, waving a bit of paper, “I have a note for Daniel. Please give this to Daniel! I know he’s back there, and I want him to come out and see me.”
“Right,” said Mags. “I’ll make sure he gets it, love.” Mags headed back to the kitchen and at this point, I decided to follow her — ever so careful not to give the waiting women a way to slip in after me. My mind itself becoming a bit alcohol sodden, I was finding this little piece of pub intrigue quite entertaining.
“What’s it say?”
“That she wants to fuck me.”
“No, but that’s what it means... come on!”
Mags was not amused: “Well, are you going to go out there? I mean, you’ll have to at some point. She’s driving the bar staff mad. She really wants to see you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He grumbled into his Bud Blue. And then, something seemed to strike him. He looked over at me, perched on my kitchen stool with my cigarette and sugar beer, and announced in revelatory tones: “Wait. Wait. Emma, I’ve got an ideaeer. I’ll get you to tell her yer my girlfriend. Better yet, we’ll go out there together and you can pretend to be my girlfriend. It’ll get her off the trail.”
His conspiratorial voice was back. Partners in crime, then.
This lightbulb of a poorly thought out plan, dim at best and ever fading, was somehow enough to pull me in. I felt I could convince her. Perhaps I could put Matt out of his misery and get them both to go home. “Alright, let’s go!” I said, holding out my arm.
And so, we did. As soon as we made our way back into the bar, the feeling in my stomach soured. There were no butterflies of conspiracy or excitement, but rather of unease. I suddenly wanted to find that invisibility cloak and hide until this was over, until the jig was up. I glanced around the room hoping not to see too many faces I recognized. Instead, I spotted the target, her eyes glued to the exact spot we were emerging from. I saw her frozen face attempt (and mostly fail) to scrunch up in some sort of confusion as we approached her together.
“This is Emma. She’s my girlfriend.” He said quickly. The words tumbled fast and clumsy over his lips as if he were presenting a third grade science project. Daniel was a lot of things, but a great actor he was not.
However, our swaying woman in love bought it, the libations in her system surely assisting in her acceptance of the reality we were quite amateurishly spinning for her. Was she this gullible when they’d been together? Did she get this way when she drank back then? Did they get drunk together? Maybe it was before he “stopped.”
This woman, so rude to the faceless girl on the door, the girl not worthy enough to treat as anything more than a roadblock in the way of her adulterous evening, this woman was now the picture of cloying sweetness ever since I’d been bestowed with the identity of “Daniel’s girlfriend.”
“Oh, Sweetie!” She slurred at me. “It’s just delightful to meet you... isn’t it, Matt? I’m Bunny.” Of course she’s Bunny. “Oh Daniel, she’s pretty! Well now, congratulations. So how’d you two meet?”
“Oh you know, around. Here. We’re very happy and all that.” He really was a world class terrible actor. I could feel the fingers of one short chubby hand place itself on the small of my back, finding its falsely appointed position, and creating within me a rising nausea.
“Yes, delighted.” Laying my hand over his and then as discreetly and quickly as possible, removing it.
It seemed this gesture was enough for him to tire of the charade. “Excuse me. I have some pub business. Be right back.” He wasn’t quick enough for the huntress, however. Latching to her prey, she ran right after him.
“Oh, wait a minute,” Bunny said, handing her drink to the ever present Matt. “Daniel! Daniel! Come back. I want to talk to you!” She sounded like a blurry version of any bad guy in any film who has ever uttered the unsettling line, “Come out. It’s okay, we just want to talk to ya.” And like the kid hiding behind the couch in one such film, Daniel, against his better judgement, stopped and ever so slowly and reticently turned around.
“Before you go, I have something to give you,” Bunny announced, and without skipping a beat, she then simply pulled down her tiny lame dress over her shoulders and showed Daniel and half the people waiting at the bar what she described loudly to him as her “new tits.” She was attempting to set a trap. A lure of honey. Something to hook back. I imagined what Samuel would have to say about this if he’d been inside. “In my country, this woman would have brought shame to herself.”
What was she bringing herself here?
Daniel simply grinned for a moment and then hastily and a little flustered, excused himself. “That pub business….”
“Oh love, come on, put those away,” came the voice of a long-suffering Mags, trying to restore some order to the droves of customers who’d betrayed their thirsty mouths with their wandering eyes. I had the feeling she’d seen this plenty of times before, in many different guises, probably all of which had likely been just as sparkly and just as short.
With Daniel gone, it was up to me to deal with the fallout. I had tried to lose Bunny in the crowd, but she was like a bloodhound, the alcohol in her system doing nothing to blunt her ability to sniff me out.
“So, sweet girl, how long have you two been together?” I thought quickly. Unlike Daniel, I was getting quite into the act — thinking up the backstory of our loving relationship. I needed to supply an answer with a long enough period of time, I figured, to avoid her feeling the relationship was new and therefore fragile enough to try and come between us, but also not too crazy a length of time that she could call me out on some intimate detail I should know about a partner I’d been with forever. Likely, I was giving it too much thought. My sparring partner was swaying out of time with the DJ, dancing to the beat of her own drunken drum.
“Six months,” I replied, taking a pull of my Crabbies and reaching into my pocket for my vibrating phone.
BE THERE IN 15.
It was time to think up a way to explain leaving on the back of another man’s bike. Again, I was likely overthinking. Bunny had just knocked back another champagne flute (incidentally, this was the first time I’d seen a flute or any champagne for that matter served at the Mongo — I didn’t even know there was any in the building. I imagined this a rare request surely greeted with a hefty price tag.) In any case, with so much ingested, her reading of the situation must have been becoming increasingly impaired.
“Ah sweetie,” she said with a sigh, taking my chin in her hands to pull it away from my phone and up to meet her face. “You watch out. He’s tricky. He’s not going to stay with you.”
“Oh don’t worry, Bunny.” I replied. “We are solid. I do have to be going though. Work in the morning and all that.”
“You mean you’re not staying here?” Her question appeared to cheer her, as if she’d discovered a crack in our foundation.
“Ah nah, my man (the words felt bitter in my mouth as they formed), he’s clearly retired for the evening. I’m going to leave him to his sleep. Perhaps you should think of doing the same. Speaking of which, where has Matt gotten off to?
“Oh, he’s gone to get me another drink. I signaled to him a couple of minutes ago. Do you know, we have such a good relationship. He just knows what I need. And he’s so much younger than Daniel. You’re so young aren’t you, darling? Yes. Ah sweetie,” she smiled a crooked smile, overly familiar, and far too close to my face, “It won’t last you know.”
I found myself slightly lost in her big doe-like eyes just then, as they were in front of me all painted on and pain-filled. I knew her concern for me was all just a bluster and really what she cared about was getting close to Daniel, but it didn’t stop me from supposing there was truth in her warnings: that she’d really been in love and really been hurt by Daniel leaving. I just couldn’t imagine it. What must it have been like to actually be in the position I was parodying now.
I thought of Daniel’s hand on the small of Bunny’s back, as he told her about the invisible apparitions in the shape of automobiles he saw on the street, or as he accused her of stealing from him, or getting too drunk, or looking at another man with lechery, or maybe angering the ghosts that lived around him one paranoid night. The idea that she had escaped that and then come back looking for it all this time later baffled me. Bunny was baffling.
But love, after all, is itself a kind of madness. Otherwise why would Matt still be hanging around, holding Bunny’s bag.
I was musing over it all as she continued to warn me of the inevitable demise of my faux relationship. And that’s when I felt Marcus’ hands on my shoulder. He was early. Ready to whisk me away, back to the Manor and to his bed. It may end sooner than she thinks!, I thought, feeling the charade in jeopardy.
I launched into my cover-up before Marcus had a chance to spoil anything further: “Oh, hey there friend! Fancy seeing you here! I’m on my way out, but you can walk with me! Come on!” I dragged him out quickly, whispering that I’d explain once we were in the clear.
“Ah, I was going to grab a drink, do we have to go just…”
“Yes, no time for that now! Drinks back at the Manor.”
And with that, I left behind Bunny and my Crabbies and the evening’s false identity, walking out the door with Marcus into the brisk post-midnight air — the air of endless mischievous possibilities. Samuel was still on the door, marshaling the punters who’d come out to smoke, many of whom were too drunk by this point to pay attention to where the designated smoking area ended.
“Good night, Emma,” Samuel said in between pushing people back behind the line. “Have a lovely evening.”
“Thanks, Sam. I will! We are off to the warehouses to take drugs and have sex!” He was just too easy to spook. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself.
“No, no, no... I’m sure that’s not true. Nice young girls like you don’t do things like that.”
The same shutdown response I always got from him whenever I mentioned men or parties. His denial, much like his own hypocritical behavior, seemed unavoidable. I shrugged as we turned down Archway Road towards our bus stop. I guess he, like Bunny, never need know the truth.