URSABLOG: Christmas Drinks A Short Story

 

Robert stirred the ice in his whisky and looked at the bottles behind the bar. It was his second drink and he was trying to make it last, although it was proving a struggle. He wanted to numb the pain, or fill the emptiness, or loosen the tight stress in his stomach, or just get blind drunk. Or all of the above. It was the Friday before Christmas and he was stuck in Singapore, waiting for a difficult ship to deliver from a difficult seller to an erratic buyer. Once again his life was on hold, waiting for other people to perform so that he could finalise, get on a plane and get home.

Home was not that welcoming a prospect however. The phone call earlier had hardly been sympathetic.

“I’m used to you not being here physically Robert”, his wife told him. “I just want you to be on the same planet as me when you talk to me. You’re not there. Your mind is somewhere else. What’s going on?”

“Nothing is going on Helen. At all. Just another difficult deal. You know I just can’t walk away from this” he replied.

“I’m sometimes not sure if you really want to be with me, be married, be a father. The kids don’t know what to get you for Christmas because they don’t know who you are. They hardly ever see you, and when they do you are hyperactive one minute and withdrawn the next. You should make a choice. Shipping or life.” Helen was on a roll. “You don’t enjoy it, you are so wrapped up in it, it brings you nothing but stress. Why don’t you do something else?”

“And what about the mortgage? The school fees? How will we manage without the living that shipping brings?” Robert replied.

“Well, I’m not sure if you’ve realised”, Helen snapped back, “But your responsibility is not just to provide, but to be a husband and a father as well. Your precious clients get more of your time than we do, and I sometimes wonder whether you prefer them to us. I wonder if you really prefer hotel rooms and airplanes to this house”.

The call ended grumpily, with Robert promising to text when he was back in his room. Stevie, his colleague, had suggested a quick drink before he took a new girl out for dinner  He had charmed the secretary of a broking company accompanying him to the most expensive rooftop restaurant to assuage his loneliness. Stevie was no doubt hoping that he could further charm her into assuaging his other frustrations. He was alive with the excitement of a hunter on the scent of a new trail. He was a perfect broker: sociable, smart, completely amoral, and with a three-inch thick skin. Nothing fazed him, and nothing got him down, except boredom. Despite all that, Robert was fond of him. He had trained Stevie, but now he was being eclipsed by him.

“I’m telling you mate, she’s gorgeous. You know what these Asian girls are like, all shy smiles and dirty eyes. This could be fun. In any case if it doesn’t work out, there’s always Brix, or Orchard Towers, if you fancy it later. You know, you need to relax a little mate. And remember what happens on tour stays on tour.”

“I’m ok” said Robert. “I’ll just get room service and sleep.”

“Room service eh?” winked Stevie. “Well be careful she’s all she makes herself out to be… Anyway I’m off. Sure you’ll be ok?”

“Yeah. I’m ok. Just a little bruised.”

“Well” said Stevie, sagely. “You shouldn’t take it to heart so much. It’s only a deal, not the end of the world.”

“Only a deal?” spluttered Robert incredulously. “Come on Stevie, you know how important this one is to me and the company.”

“Well, it’s going to happen, just needs a little patience. In the meantime you need to let off steam.” Stevie winked again.

“I’ll just gently simmer here thanks” said Robert. “I’ll cool off eventually.”

“Suit yourself. Bye!”

And with a slap on Robert’s back, Stevie jumped off the bar stool, and strode off in search of a taxi and the fulfilment of his immediate desires. Robert stayed with his drink, chewing nuts and nursing his grievances. No-one understood him. Everyone in the business was trying to screw each other. Loyalty was minimal, integrity was a luxury and friendships lasted as long as they were convenient.

The deal he was trying to do was a case in point. He had had to fight for the commitment, fight every step of the way in fact, and he was still fighting everyone. His client, his co-broker, the lawyers. He felt he was keeping the deal alive through willpower alone, and all because this was important not only for the commission, but for his boss. It would bring the company the reputation it deserved: a headline deal showing that they were one of the big boys. Too bad the boss wasn’t dealing with the lunatic client himself. That was Robert’s job, as usual. The safest pair of hands available: persistence, dedication and loyalty.

So here he was, stranded in Singapore, sweating slightly from the whisky and the humidity, wondering whether any of it was worth it. Job, marriage, fatherhood. Why not just get on a plane to Bali and disappear? He entertained this fantasy for a while, but loyalty, dedication and persistence intervened. Loyalty to his boss. Dedication to his family. And persistence not to be seen to fail.

He was about to order another drink when out of the corner of his eye he caught someone looking at him. He turned around and saw a woman, with long, thick black hair swept to one side of an oval face. She was wearing a short, loose summer dress which showed off her legs but barely suggested the rest of her slim body. Amused green eyes looked at him.

“It’s Robert isn’t it?” she asked as she came towards him.

“Er, yes” he said as he desperately tried to place her.

“It’s Katerina, from VS & M lawyers in Piraeus. We worked together on a deal last year.”

“Katerina, yes of course I remember you, but you look, er, so much different.”

“Well yes I’ve lost some kilos, and went back to my natural hair colour, and some other stuff, so I’m not surprised you didn’t recognize me immediately. What are you doing in a bar like this, the Friday before Christmas, in Singapore?”

“Well the deal I’m working on is delayed, and I have to stay until delivery”.

“Ah yes, I think I heard about that. Good luck – you’ve picked a challenging client there.”

“Yes, I am beginning to realise it,” said Robert, ruefully. “Listen, can I buy you a drink? How rude of me not to offer before. I had no idea you were in town. What are you doing here?”

“Firstly, yes you can buy me a drink. Secondly, there is no reason why you should know I was here, unless you are stalking me. Are you? And thirdly, same as you, trying to close a deal for difficult clients. And delayed”.

She signalled to the barman, who moved along the bar and asked:

“Usual madam? Vodka martini with only the slightest flirtation with the vermouth?”

Katerina laughed.

“Yes Michael, you remember well. No olive either, just a twist of the excuse of a lemon that you have”.

“Yes Madam, I know. Another one sir?” he asked Robert. Robert nodded, rather taken back by this show of cosmopolitan sophistication. Katerina was indeed completely different. Back then she had indeed a few extra kilos, a lot in fact. But something else was different too: now she was teasingly alluring and engaging. Back then she had been severe, closed, well, she had been a bit of a bitch if Robert was to be honest.

The drinks arrived and they chatted about work. Katerina had knocked back the first and ordered another without waiting to ask Robert whether he wanted one too. After tasting it and confirming it was of sufficient quality she said:

“Let me tell you my favourite joke.”

“Go on”, said Robert.

“A horse walks into a bar. The barman looks up and says ‘Why the long face?’”. Robert forced a smile. “So Robert my dear, why the long face?”

Whether it was the drink, or the jetlag finally catching up, or the woman, Robert overcame his natural reticence and out came all the problems: the work, the family, the life, the people, the stress, the loneliness, everything. Katerina listened carefully and sympathetically.

“Listen I’m sorry”, he said, “I’ve been going on too much about myself. It’s very rude of me. How about you? How is your life?” She ignored him.

“Have you eaten? I’m starving. Shall we eat?”

“I was thinking of getting room service later.”

“Room service? Are you kidding? I’m going to treat you to dinner. Ready?” She tossed the rest of her drink back, whilst Robert called for the bill.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“You’ll see. We have to get a taxi.” They went to the taxi rank outside reception and climbed into the waiting cab. “Bedok Marketplace please,” she told the driver and they sped off down the highway towards the airport. Robert was silent, rather enjoying the loss of control, being whisked away by a beautiful woman to a strange place. Beside him on the back seat, Katerina made a rapid series of calls in Greek. After about a quarter of an hour they pulled up outside a rather scruffy shopping mall in a residential district.

“In we go”, said Katerina. Inside were wide aisles with plastic tables in the middle, with small stalls on either side each selling takeaway food from different cuisines around the world. She went straight to one called ‘Auntie Chicken Rice’, and ordered two plates of chicken, two bowls of rice, with chili sauce and a ginger dip on the side, and two cups of green tea. They sat down on one of the plastic tables, and began to eat.

“My mother is a great believer in chicken and rice as a solution to most of life’s problems, and I agree with her” Katerina said. They both ate heartily and in silence. The moist chicken and fluffy rice was tasty and soothing at the same time. Gradually the food absorbed the alcohol, soothed the stress, and he cleared the plate happily. This was real comfort food.

“I’m dying for a cigarette and we can’t smoke in here. Let’s find somewhere to have a drink.” This turned out to be two cans of beer on a bench in the street outside.

“Let me tell you something Robert”, said Katerina. “My father was at sea, an engineer and he worked hard to put me and my sister through school and university, both in Greece and abroad, so we could be successful. He was away for long periods, but he was always with us, because we understood he was working for us. How did he do this? Well first we were proud of him because we knew what he did. He sent us letters with photos, and told us of his fights with the captain, with the office. He was a man, doing his best for us. He didn’t have to tell us this because we knew. The real delight was when he came back for two or three months, usually around the summer. Then, after a couple of days of noise, he was quiet. Not quiet by himself, but quiet with us. It was as if he was absorbing our life, our thoughts, so he could hold it inside himself and then feed off it when he was away from us. He watched us, listened to us, and occasionally asked those types of questions which were designed for us to talk and talk and talk.

“He smoked like hell of course, like all engineers, and died when he was 60 with lung cancer. When you saw me last, he had been dead for two years. I had turned in on myself. I was eating too much, fighting with the world to get over him leaving us. I blamed him too: he was not there anymore to listen, to watch, to absorb us, to see us become what he wanted us to become. I so wanted to be the best lawyer, to prove to him I was worth it, but also to show the world I could survive without him. I was a real bitch on the outside, but totally lost inside.

“That summer however I was on an island with my boyfriend. We were having dinner in the evening and there were two families on different tables next to us. One was noisy, with everyone fighting to make themselves heard, the other quiet, everyone looking at their smartphones. The noisy family however was happier, because as well as shouting at each other, they were listening to each other too.

“I looked at myself. I had become withdrawn, and not only was I not saying much about myself, I was not listening. I had forgotten my father. He made sure that the short time he spent with us was enough, for him, and for us, to recharge our emotional batteries. It was real quality time.

“So I began to listen. Then I started to talk, but more than that I removed the boundaries around myself. I let my hair grow out, I enjoyed the taste of good food, I went for walks, went swimming, enjoyed life. My boyfriend left me, but that was a good thing too as it turned out. I opened myself up to the possibility of life. The kilos fell off, and you see me now.

“Why am I telling you this? Because you are a good guy Robert. Not just a good broker, with a good reputation in the market, but a genuine good guy. This is worth having.”

Robert, rather blown away by all of this, gave the standard broking reply:

“Well yes, but good guys come second. And in broking you cannot afford to come second all the time.” He looked at the can of beer in his hands.

“Look, there is this English guy in Greece who writes this blog. I can’t remember his name but I read it from time to time. He keeps on saying that shipping is all about relationships.”

“Yeah I know him. Another burnt out case” muttered Robert.

“Maybe, but he is right. But you have to realise that without relationships you cannot survive in this business, as a broker, as a lawyer, even as an engineer. You cannot do it alone. You have to be fed, and you should only eat good food, as my mother keeps telling me.” She lit another cigarette. “I’ll have this and we’ll go. I have to meet some friends.”

Katerina stood up and walked up and down a bit, and then turned, facing Robert. He had no option except to look up at her. Her eyes, still alive, were serious now.

“I’m not telling you to run away from your family, or your job, or from your life. You chose those for a reason. I’m telling you to do what my father did after the noise had died down. Sit back, watch, listen and ask questions. Not just of other people, but of yourself. Stop being a broker, and trying to make everyone happy. Feed yourself too. Loipon.” She threw the cigarette away, took her phone out of the bag, and made a call, speaking rapid, excited, Greek. She finished the call and said:

“Come on, time to go.” They walked to the main road, and flagged down a taxi. “I will drop you off at the hotel.” They rode back in silence, both looking out of their windows. As he was offering to pay, she took his face in her hands.

“Look, relax, get some rest, and sleep. It will be better tomorrow.” She kissed him, slowly, affectionately on the lips, and then held his face a little apart from hers. “Don’t be tempted to look for the wrong things Robert. I’m a wrong thing for you. Look for solutions in the things you already have.”

With that she was gone. He stood alone, stunned, warm, confused. Then another taxi beeped him, and he jumped back and turned into the hotel lobby.

He took the lift, and looked in the mirror. He looked like a sad caricature of himself. The doors opened, and he shuffled down the corridor, pressed his keycard against the lock of his door, and entered the soulless room. He looked out of the window at the traffic for a while, and then decided to check his emails. He checked his work ones first, and saw a message from his boss.

Bad news about the buyers manit read. His boss only called him ‘man’ when he wanted something.Hang in on there, you can do it!

Yeah right, Robert thought. I’m stuck here until I deliver, that’s what he means.

He then checked his personal emails. Nothing. Then Facebook. There a friend of his, the father of a child at the same school as Agnes, his six year old daughter, had posted a blurry video. Although the video was focussed on his friends’ child, he could see Agnes singing along toAway in a Mangerin the background.  Tears sprung to his eyes.

He went to stare at the traffic again, and then went back to his tablet, and tried to call his wife on FaceTime. After a while it connected, but the picture was not clear, moving around and blurred. Then he heard Tom, his two year old son, gurgling away. Then the picture refocussed as Agnes snatched the phone away, and he saw her face.

“Daddy? Is that you? Where are you?” she asked.

“Hi darling, I’m in Singapore. I just called to say hello.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes I’m fine. How was the school play?”

“Oh it was brilliant! Mummy came, and there were lots of other mummies and daddies there, and the music wasreallynice, and we sang some Christmas songs, and the shepherds started fighting with the angels because the sheep wouldn’t keep still! and Mary dropped the baby! AND held Jesus upside down! and I wanted to be Mary because I would have been a better Mary, but I was the front end of the donkey because that’s a VERY important job… and…”

Robert listened. And listened. Then Agnes stopped and asked:

“Daddy?”

“Yes darling.”

“Is it very hot there? Mummy says it is.”

“Yes it is.”

“I know, because even your eyes are sweating.” As Robert laughed he felt the tears on his cheeks drip down.

“Daddy! Will you be home for Christmas?”

“I hope so darling. I really do.”

The picture on the phone moved again.

“So do I Rob, so do I” said his wife, looking at him. “Anyway I have to get these naughty children sorted out. Text me before you go to sleep.”

The picture went dead. He went to look at the traffic again. Then he picked up his phone and called his boss.

“Hi. Sorry to call you again but I wanted to clear something with you…. Yes it is difficult for me to be honest… and I don’t feel as if I’m adding anything here… Stevie is here and he can handle it… yes Iknowthat Stevie will take the glory and the client… but we are a team, and some things are more important than that… yes I know I will now have to share the bonus with Stevie… yes I have thought of my priorities and the consequences… yes I know that the flight will cost more… yes I agree that will come out of my bonus too… yes I accept that things may have to change… yes I am prepared for that… OK fine… I will sort it out…. Yeah, see you Monday…. Yeah, bright and early.”

Robert made a few of other calls, including Stevie and the travel agents. He packed his bags, went down to reception and checked out. In the taxi to the airport he called his client, and told him that Stevie was taking over. After his client shouted and screamed at him for a while, he asked Robert why he was going home.

“My family needs me, and to be honest I need them too” said Robert.

“Malista,” said his client. And after a pause said “I’m pleased with your efforts Robert, but I also like you. The next ship will be yours exclusively. Good flight.” And the line closed.

Robert checked his luggage in, and ran to the gate to board the last flight to London. As he was squeezing into his economy seat the flight attendants switched the doors to automatic. He just had time to text his wife:

Going to sleep now. See you tomorrow.

He turned his phone off, settled down and before the plane was even in the air he was asleep. He would not be able to read his wife’s text -???? -until he landed, but by then he would answer any questions they cared to ask face to face. In the meantime - bouncing around above the Bay of Bengal - his only thoughts, unconscious or otherwise, were of home.

 

Simon Ward