Alex Duval (2013)

Tonight he is impeccable. Grey French cuffs visible the perfect half inch under a slim black jacket, oxfords well polished, he could now enjoy the comforting embrace of a skin of perfect fit. Carefully unbuttoning the waistcoat he made a final survey of the face in the mirror, a sallow hard face accentuated by his refusal to wear glasses. Combined with his combed black hair it gave him a severe countenance that pleased him immensely. A customary glance at his watch, it was time to be on his way; a long ordeal lay ahead, promises had been made so despite his lassitude his course was set.

First he had to meet a man. It was dark outside, daylight saving had ended and the nights had since grown cold and a brisk chill wind was gathering. From a lined waistcoat pocket he produces a thin silver case; a cigarette soon lit, its warmth and calm begin to envelope him, his resolve steadying. On reaching the bottom of the steep driveway he turns to glance back towards the house. It is not an attractive home in the architectural vein, a construct of the late seventies like most of the homes surrounding it, yet it sits with a certain dignified air upon its hill. Warm yellow light emanates from the living room on the second storey, where his parents will be watching television while enjoying bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, unaware of his departure. A more comfortable place to weather this night couldn’t have been wished for and he was sorry to be leaving it behind.

That wasn’t to suggest he didn’t enjoy these evenings. On many nights he could be found walking this same path, a route that would normally lead him well past the bus stop and through the local reserve. When dressed warmly and on the move he had always appreciated the time to organise his thoughts and on this night apart from the few cars that passed he was a solitary figure. The only sounds above the ever present drone of cars in the distance were the neighbourhoods abundant trees being shaken by the wind and the rhythmic sound of his cleats tapping on the footpath; a perfect night to be left to oneself. As he walked he drew from his cigarette in time with the violent gusts, making sure it wouldn’t extinguish, its tip flaring briefly a vivid orange. He followed the walkway, serpentine down through the valley bottom, the path following a storm water canal, its far bank lined with willows. In this dark and frigid place he stopped; contemplating returning home, he was still unsure of why he should vacillate on such a trivial matter but today his mood had been foul. However promises had been made and the bus stop now lay only a short distance; he hoped it would be empty.

As he rejoins the road and walks the hill up towards the stop, he can already hear raucous laughter ahead. Feeling his fingers begin to burn, he flicks the butt onto the street and glances up at the shelter ahead. Defined under the sickly yellow light of a street lamp are the silhouettes of three sitting figures; his unease grew. When he draws near the shelter’s glass wall, their voices lower and he gives its contents a furtive examination; three young men, relaxed and at ease. He can hear hip- hop being played from an undersized speaker, the music sounding sharp and distorted, the base causing the speaker to crackle rhythmically. In appearance the young men are nothing like him; in contrast to his thin face and fine features, the young men all possess round simple faces festooned with poorly trimmed attempts at beards. Similarly their stout bodies, clad in loose un-ironed shirts and blue jeans stand in marked contrast to his slender six foot one frame, a slightness accentuated by his close fitting suit. After completing his appraisal he decides to remain standing outside as he knows their kind well. Simple young men, boisterous, gregarious, and inane; the best he can wish for is to be ignored. As his hand begins its search for another cigarette his hopes are promptly dashed.

“You going to town bro?” all three are now looking in his direction.

“No just Takapuna” he knows the question he is about to be asked, the fine case suddenly a great weight in his hand.

“Got some smokes bro?” A different voice this time, a voice sounding as equally uncouth as the first; Doltish laughter follows from his companions.

This was one of the very few times he regretted his habit. Why should he provide a cigarette to any one of them let alone all three? They were nothing to him; if they could all quietly expire where they sit he would be quite content; it would be no great loss. There were however three of them and it is never advisable to start an evening with an altercation. He approaches the opening into the shelter and slides from his case three cigarettes; a small price to purchase safety and perhaps with luck isolation. He loathes them as he holds forward his toll; his misgiving justified as three greedy hands in cheap shirt sleeves quickly snatch their prize. He turns and leaves, returning to stand close beside the shelter.

“Thanks bro” more laughter, then quiet as they enjoy their spoils.

His watch now shows eight o’clock; the bus is only five minutes distant and from his rendezvous still no word. A few cars pass by, bored looking drivers probably on their way home. He envies them. The three boys in the shelter continue talking loquaciously, every sentence punctuated repeatedly with ‘bro’. He shouldn’t have given them the cigarettes; he’s the victim of rapine, but was there really violence involved, was there really even the threat of violence, the three hardy appear bellicose. He knows he is merely the victim of a timorous nature; a steadier man would have denied them. He’s reaching for a cigarette to alleviate his gloom when his pocket vibrates. Upon checking his phone there is a message from Daniel ‘Be there in two’. So will the bus he fears.

“So where you going bro, going somewhere flash ay” A question asked in a heavy Afrikaans accent. The cigarettes hadn’t even bought him quiet; such a waste.

“Taka” he replies languidly. “Just Taka”

“Don’t sound too excited there, you should come in here bro. We’re all going to Taka, lots of girls there, ay?” The three of them laugh. “Cities too expensive, full of pricks, ay, we’re all gonna find ourselves some girls; lots of girls in Taka.” More laughter follows.

He doesn’t reply although he thinks he may have misjudged them, they seem rather harmless, simple, but harmless.

“What bar you going to anyway bro?” asks the young man with the Afrikaans accent. “You gonna find yourself a girl? Dressed to impress ay, you should work from a magazine bro, get lots of free stuff” the others laugh and voice their approval. “We’re all going to Toto’s, lots of hot girls at Toto’s, you should come bro, we’ll hook you up, find you a nice girl.”

“Not tonight thanks, maybe another time” he replies, still hoping that they will soon lose interest in him.

“You don’t want a girl bro?” asks a different voice.

“Don’t see the point on a night like this; vows made in storms...” he replies gesturing at the trees across the road being whipped by the wind.

To his relief no more questions are asked, the three boys not proving to be as totally unreceptive as feared. Leaning back against the shelter’s glass wall he contemplates giving Henry a call. He would have been quite content to have been left in the family home on this evening. Videogames and solitude were far preferable to this; whatever ‘this’ was. What did he want from the evening? He didn’t want a girl, of that he was now certain, and he was wary of those who had requested his company. He should have stayed at home; there was nothing this night could tempt him with. As he debates abandoning the endeavour entirely, a black car pulls up across from the stop, an immaculate old BMW sedan. He watches as from the passenger door steps a besuited young man who hurriedly makes his way across the road towards the stop.

“Alex, bus been yet?” he looks rushed, and is still adjusting buttons and pockets on his jacket. Daniel is thoroughly handsome with a very likable trustworthy face and he carries himself in that confident manner which suggests he is fully aware of his charms.

“No, just in time” Alex replies, again checking his watch, the evening’s course now determined.

“Been waiting long?”

“No not really. Busy week?” the palaver now unavoidable.

“No just Uni, assignments due soon; you?” Dan asks with his ever easy smile

“Work; just work”

A lie of convenience as in truth he had no job, and even less desire to discuss his current circumstances. A week prior he had been dismissed and he still wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that. He had loathed his lowly position but had never been inclined to assert himself in any more strenuous way. Even a mundane job had at very least given him some vindication for getting up most mornings. As for the finances, a welfare benefit would go a long way towards covering his necessary expenses; it is money that at least deserves to be squandered. If the state is prepared to fiscally support his faineancy it deserves it; he will endeavour to make sure every cent to the last is squandered.

He hears the familiar low whine of an approaching bus, the long silences as it changes gear as it begins its climb up the road. The other young men in the shelter have heard it too and are jostling to stand beside the curb. On seeing the bus cresting the final rise his reverie dissipates. Looking to Dan he sees that he is still oblivious to the incoming bus, all his attention given to his phone. The bus pulls into the stop, bringing with it the familiar smell of diesel, warm yellow light emanating from its almost vacant interior, it looks inviting. The three young men are quickly onboard, joking amongst themselves as they pay the driver before predictably heading for the back of the bus.

Tapping Dan on the shoulder he boards the bus, “Two to Taka please”, handing the driver a twenty dollar note. The driver, old and overweight, looks irritated as he works out the change. Alex can’t help but wonder if it’s personal. The bus is only lightly loaded and he takes a seat around the middle with Dan taking the seat in front. Moments later there is a hiss of compressed air from the doors, the engine revs rise and they are on their way.

“So, how did you and Henry become chummy anyhow?” Dan has turned in his seat, his phone momentarily forgotten.

“You invited him to come along to your nineteenth; I ended up chatting to him in one of the bars along the Viaduct”

He omits the specifics of how they met although he is fairly certain that details of the meeting will be investigated in due course. Looking through his reflection in the bus’s large window he sees more homes similar to his own, lights on behind curtains and not a person in sight; suburbia, warm quiet, and inoffensive. He also sees the bright rectangle of light reflected from Dan’s phone and is reminded to check his own. One message from Henry, he’ll be in Taka in fifteen minutes.

“Who else was there, anyone I know?” asks Dan abruptly, the question coming across as rather comical.

”Who do you know?” he replies, at odds with the breadth of the question.

“Was there that girl, Sarah, tall brunette, has a little Asian friend?” Dan further elaborates.

He pauses a few seconds, “Yes, I think so, pretty thing, studies coms at AUT?”

“Sounds like her. I think I’m going to ask her out”

‘Ask her out’; what he intends is nothing of the sort. He wants to take her home and fuck her, nothing more. As of late it has become rather a habit of his. It’s difficult to imagine that he had once possessed a girlfriend of three years. “Think she’ll go for you?”

Dan’s face lights up with a quick smile, “Of course”.

The rest of the journey passes quickly. He amuses himself listening to the young men at the back of the bus discussing the night’s potential conquests. At least they are honest about their intentions he supposes; unlike Daniel. He still can’t form a coherent opinion of him; he had changed so much from the boy he had known at high school. He was still as convivial as ever, yet a vicious streak had taken root since his break up six months prior. He had accepted the breakup like a stoic, but now seemed to partake in few pastimes beyond venery. Worse still, his constant successes had lead to him realising that he was in possession of extremely good looks and an affable demeanour. These attributes had allowed him to become ever more particular in his choice of company and he hadn’t many friends left.

With the bus approaching Takapuna, Dan again turns in his seat, the same question still obviously on his mind.“So you and Henry, your friends now? When did you catch up with him last?”

He decides to humour him otherwise Dan will keep asking all night. “I met him in a bar on Hobson Street, a few weeks back; he ended up buying me dinner.”

Dan is taken aback and looks lost for words. “Are you...” he looks uneasy.

“What, am I what?” He’s enjoying his friends obvious discomfort, it’s is not often he possess the upper hand.

“But you hooked up with..., what was her name, only a while back didn’t you? Someone told me you did,’re fucking with me aren’t you?”

“Am I what? Anyway that’s how I met Henry. Happy?”

He was getting a strange pleasure watching Dan so taken aback. He would see how long he could play this one out; it should be good for a few laughs at his expense.

“Look Alex, are you serious, you and Henry? I don’t care or anything. My brother went to school with him you know, he’s a smart guy. Did you really go out for dinner with him?”

He hesitates, not sure if he should push the joke further. “Yeah, he took me and a few others out for dinner for his birthday, I went with Liz, didn’t realise she had such penchant for violence though, kept hitting me and stealing my food. Capricious little thing”

“Fuck you”, replies Dan. “Liz thinks you’re a right Charlie Ronce as well. Said you cut and run on her last week. She liked you you know, she was pretty pissed, you can’t just keep playing with people; they’ll get the wrong idea.”

He decides to change the subject. “Well such is life. Anyhow Henry should be in Taka waiting for us by now.” Being reminded of Liz is the last thing he wanted tonight. He recalled being so certain he wanted her that evening a week prior. With a head clouded by drink and courage braced, he had waited till she was heading outside the bar to have a smoke before putting his arm around her slim waist and pushing her against the wall. She had squealed and struggled briefly before giving in and returning the kiss, putting her arms around his waist and pulling him in closer as she did so. When they had heard voices approaching they had quickly broken apart, and she had giggled and made great play of looking nonchalant while fumbling for a cigarette. He had been ready to lead her home that night, he had wanted her so desperately, but then over the evening’s course his courage had simply fallen away. While buying drinks he could see her talking to all these assertive young people, with their easy smiles and confident manners, and he knew he couldn’t compete. They made it all look so effortless. From the three beastly young men at the back of the bus, through to the charming Daniel, and even Henry, they all had a certain joie de vivre, an attractiveness that he couldn’t emulate. While he knew that woman were interested in him, if only because of characteristic high state of dress and groom, he was too fragile and taciturn to ever be a ladies’ man. Truth was that she was as happy chatting with any of the other young men in the bar as she was him, what could he offer that they couldn’t, a discourse on Dostoevsky?

“Our stop”, interrupts Dan, a buzzer sounding, the bus already downshifting as it approaches the stop.

On stepping off the bus, he is hit by the evening’s chill, his breath fogging. He can only pity the young women whom must spend such nights milling about in skirts and heels. Not that there are many about to be seen, Takapuna is quiet and the distant din of it bars can only be heard over the ever present drone of boyracer’s loud exhausts and rising winds. He checks his phone and sees one message from Henry ‘Waiting in the car park across the road from stop. Mine is Audi. Make sure your shoes are clean. Hope you don’t mind a squeeze’. He wonders who else is in the car; Henry is popular.

After crossing the street with Dan he sees a large black Audi sedan in a dark corner of the car park, a group of figures surrounding it with little orange lights dancing about their heads. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the silver case, flicking it open he offers a cigarette to Dan, who quickly accepts, before taking one for himself; he sees he’s almost out. As they approach the group he can make out Henry’s figure, tall and well built, and the slender figure of a woman wearing a long coat. It’s the third figure that spooks him, a figure that is noticeably shorter than the other two, he feels the bile rising in his throat; Henry has brought Liz.

“Hurry up you two”, yells Henry in his commanding voice. “It’s fucking freezing out here.”

He should have stayed at home. He’s not sure how he can deal with her in the close confines of a car, he had assumed their paths may cross over the evening, but he planned to evade her to the best of his considerable ability. Now there would be nowhere to run. Still she must have known he was coming, so maybe she doesn’t harbour any resent, he had never seen a spiteful side to her character. Yet as they approach the group he does his best to avoid her gaze, she looks skittish and keeps twisting strands of her long dark hair round her fingers.

“Alex, Dan, this is Holly”, says Henry gesturing at the tall long haired blond in the rather handsome tan coat. Like Henry she looks to be in her late twenties, and he recalls hearing her name mentioned in a few stories. Sweeping his arm Henry continues, “And Holly this dapper young man here is Alex, who I picked up in a bar, and this here is Daniel, who I have know a good while longer”.

With introductions made, the group’s falls into small talk as cigarettes are finished. Maybe things would turn out; everybody seemed to be on good terms and Liz had even taken a place beside him. Perhaps there was no harm done. Henry is in fine form, his loquacious manner keeping the girls amused, and Dan seems to be enthralled with Holly. Watching them it reminds him of a student chatting up a teacher, with Holly appearing so elegantly composed in contrast to Dan’s optimistic advances. He notices Henry leaving the group to stand looking at a car.

“Alex come here look at this” gesturing at the car in front. “Do you know what this is?”

Henry knows full well what car it is. German cars are a fondness of his, as evident by his spending of what must have been a year’s salary on an Audi. “Alpina B3 from the look of it.”

Henry doesn’t reply, a look of consternation coming over his soft featured face. Putting his hands behind his back he turn around pretends to examine the car more closely. After a long thirty seconds he turns back. “So Alex, none of my business you’ll understand, but you and the lovely Liz, you having a fight over something? You wouldn’t know it but she’s pretty pissed, heard her talking to Holly earlier” Henry pauses to think before continuing, “Do you like her?”

“Holly? She seems nice, a rather lovely creature, old friend?”

“Liz. She liked you you know, she’s a nice girl; you could do worse. Hell if I were that way inclined I’d bed her”

“And you were so inclined you’re free to have her. Nothing to do with me, not even sure if she’s what I wanted”

For the first time he can recall Henry looks angry if only momentarily. “For fucks sake, what do you want? We bought you along to cheer you up so what’s the matter with you? You’re being...what’s a word you’d like...supercilious. Make up with her and take her home, try to get her into bed; it would do you the world of good. Just chin up, tonight’ll be fun; I’ll ply you with alcohol and might even attempt another pass if I find you alone” Henry winks and begins walking back towards the group.

It’s warm inside the Audi which still posses the harsh chemical smell of a new car. Once he has checked that everyone has their seatbelts on Henry turns the key and the car rumbles into life with a baritone growl. Ever the showman he can’t resist redlining the engine while leaving the car par and young men walking nearby turn and cheer. Soon they’re on the motorway approaching the Harbour Bridge; there’s no going back now.

- Alex Duval

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