If You Keep Talking
AT THE MISTY GREY CORNER of nowhere and no place, in a tatty old London pub, Laleana was drunk, utterly so. Another long, dreary week was passing quietly amidst a maelstrom of raucous laughter, dizzying clouds of smoke, and rounds of drinks for all, and as she glanced around the table at her friends, she came to realize that it had always been this way, for as long as she cared to remember.
Lit cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, Julian presided over them, antagonizing everyone as he swung his glass of whiskey back and forth through the air, punctuating his sentences with cast off drops of drink.
“Right then, Holiday,” he said as if demanding an answer, “The ole family plot or what? I have confirmed … we’ve got the run of the place. What do you think? Dust the cobwebs off the tombstones: a little frivolity, a little debauchery, some self-indulgent mass-hysteria. We can paint the walls chartreuse should we feel so inclined. Hell, we can douse the place with petrol and light a match for all I care. Ha! I don’t care … let’s do it … burn it to the ground.”
Every year the topic of holiday started this way. He probably would have reduced the estate to cinders by now if it hadn’t been for his friends. Julian felt no love for his family, despised them, actually, and everything they stood for. The inheritance was no more than a technicality. “Old money,” his mother often proclaimed with great enthusiasm. “A chance to start over,” his father would reply, but all Julian heard was that it had all been arranged. His life had been rearranged. Apparently visions of grandeur and respectability had done them all in, but they would never be the aristocrats they wanted to be. They just happened to be the only living relatives of a rich dead man. Cardiff, Wales? What did working-class Americans know about Welsh society or any sort of proper society for that matter? Nothing. Manicured lawns; expansive meticulously tended gardens; tranquil ponds, ornamented with esoteric statuary and uncomfortable stone benches, and mansions that cast their shadows over time itself. To Julian, it was garish bordering on grotesque; to his parents, it was a fairy tale with all of the gilded trappings the nouveau riche could ever hope to possess, not to mention flaunt in the most obnoxious ways conceivable.
Laleana had heard the lecture a million times, and so she raised her glass before he could begin his rant and gave him a wicked little wink. “I’m in,” she confirmed, and then she looked across the table to Ioan.
Ioan, sweet Ioan, sat quietly, both hands wrapped around his pint, gaze cast downward in attempt to stay out of the fray, with a shy little smile just barely creasing his face. It wasn’t even a smile really but more of a delicious little parting of his lips, only slightly upturned at the corners, as if a dirty thought had passed behind his eyes for a sliver of a moment. He shot a quick and gentle glance back at her. That fragile gesture of camaraderie was as understated and innocent as the rest of his face. Laleana could not help herself and smiled back with blushing appreciation.
“Count me in as well,” Ioan said while fumbling with his shyness and his pint of beer. “But I want to stop in and visit my mum and dad for a day, you know, since we’ll be there and all that…”
“For fuck’ sake, what ever for?” Julian slammed his empty glass down onto the table, sending shards of ice flying in every direction. “Way to ruin a perfectly good holiday. What did they ever do for you except declare you a nutcase and pump you full of drugs? You’re just like us. Misfits. Victims of happenstance, or, whatever. You know it. I know it.”
Ioan didn’t respond. Couldn’t respond. He just shut his eyes and clutched his drink as the stiff reminder — too painful to bear — tightened his shoulders.
Laleana could feel his anguish, they all could — lying thick in the murky air — but the solemn silence didn’t last long.
Opting to stoke the fire under Julian’s feet for his own amusement, Tom rushed to Ioan’s rescue. With a raised eyebrow and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he looked back and forth from Julian to Cecile. “You know, for a man of principles, you’re always talking bollocks, Julian. We aren’t arguing the point that our lives were rearranged. How many times do we have to have this discussion? Twenty years here, and I still can’t figure out what kind of English they speak. It doesn’t matter. Here we are, so leave him alone, not everyone wants to stick sharp objects in their mom’s eyes like you do. Look at my dad. Half a life here, half a life in the states. He’s got his birds, and mom never leaves her precious house in the Hamptons. Laleana’s dad is dead, and her mom is, well, her mom is nonexistent, and what about Cecile? Cecile’s parents are mean-spirited religious crackpots, praying to the Loch Ness monster and shit, they belong in an asylum. So what! Who gives a flyin’ crap? Can’t get even. Just live your life. Isn’t the best revenge just having one to live?”
It was a brazen move, and Cecile smiled and let loose an accidental giggle, provoking Julian to air his umbrage with a long draw on his cigarette and whiskey-laden sigh of disgust. “It’s: who gives a toss, not gives a crap.”
“Toss, crap, whatever. Anyway, shut up, Julian.”
“Tom, you need to relax. I am just saying, none of our parents deserves the Nobel Prize. Anyway, not that this banal chit-chat hasn’t been immensely thought-provoking, but it’s late, and I need to have it off while I’m still sober enough to get it up.”
“Yea, I have a show in a half an hour,” Tom continued, “and I don’t really care to hear about your sordid sex life either, so why don’t you have another drink. It’ll keep your mouth busy.”
Julian, having had one too many drinks already, leaned in and took the bait with steely reproach: “How can you work there? The fuckin’ stench alone. All those baldy perverts having a wank — bloody hell, Tom.”
“Well, we can’t all be psycho solicitors now, can we? And until I get a platinum record, it settles the rent, so fuck off, and I do mean all the way off.”
Julian smiled broadly at Tom’s hearty rebuttal, smoothed out his tie, flicked an ash deliberately onto the table, and then he turned his attention towards Laleana. “What about you Leana, what sort of drivel are you gettin’ on about this evening?”
“As if you actually care. Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Solicitor, forgive my dusty dryness. If you must know, I am going up to the flat, maybe read a bit.”
The sneering derision was entirely for her own benefit, but the cheeky, patronizing smile that had worked its way onto her face was all for Tom.
Julian was not amused in the least and leveled a malicious sidelong glance at her. “How stimulating, are you at least going to have it off while you’re reading?”
“Why, Julian? You want to watch?”
“Tempting … always very tempting. Leave the light on then, luv.” He gave her a wink and a nod and then turned his attention back to Ioan, whose long rigid stare had become fixed hard upon his drink. “Ioan, now what about you mate?”
“I’m sorry? Oh … what am I doing? After this you mean?”
“No, Ioan, after the aliens abduct you for your annual anal probe? Of course I mean after this.”
“Thanks for the invitation, Julian, but I can’t. As much as I like anal probes, I’ve got work to incinerate.”
“Shit, Ioan,” Tom interjected, “how many this week?”
Ioan bowed his head and pressed his palms to his temples. “Six, I think. I can’t get the fuckin’ blood right. It’s all crap. It’ll never be anything but crap.”
Sensing Ioan’s discomfort, Cecile, with her light, bubbly little voice, chimed into the conversation in an effort to redirect, “I have no plans, mind if I come to the show, Tom?”
“No, I like having the company, just don’t touch anything.”
“Alright, I won’t. I’ll catch a cab with you then. If you don’t mind. But I have to make a stop first. Oh, but there might not be time, if not, it’s ok…”
Julian knocked back the remainder of his whiskey, but it wasn’t enough. Cecile’s solicitous truckling always set him on edge, so to silence her, he cut through her chatter with a final prod for the evening: “Cecile, stop squirreling about. I can’t understand a word your saying, and when are you going to stop putting that shit up your nose?”
More so than his rudeness, the accusation startled her. Her shoulders fell limp; her eyes, lifeless, and her cheery disposition slipped underneath the table, undeniably confirming that his thrust had been accurate.
He already knew it had. He could taste the shame in her breath from across the table. He stood up, glared down at her, and then smiled, a small severe smile, as if revealing her secret had always been his intention.
Julian never lived a moment of his life without intention. Laleana knew this, better than anyone, so realizing that Cecile wouldn’t, she countered for her in a futile attempt to restrain him. But in allowing Laleana to speak for her, Cecile had accomplished nothing more than to refocus his ill-humor, and he seized the opportunity to retort without restraint: “Hey Cecile, if you get a nosebleed, why don’t you go over to Ioan’s, he can use the blood.”
As much as Laleana adored Julian, she could tolerate no more of his unjustified verbal brutality, and even though she knew that her attempt at reproof would be in vain, she stood up, took hold of his shoulders, and calmly, with a concentrated scowl, looked him directly in his eyes.
“Julian, you’re a right shite bastard, you know that?”
“Yea, so, somebody has to be,” he replied with equal deliberation, his lips an inch away from her face, but then in an instant, his demeanor changed. He grasped her head in his hands, planted an affectionate yet matter-of-fact peck on her cheek, turned, and through the boisterous crowd, he elbowed his way towards the exit.
How egotistical and prickish some might say, but Julian’s temperament bordered on the lunatic fringe most of the time. His attitude — his very being — was at odds with everything, as it was for all of them. Grounded in anarchy, his pretense was impossible to decipher and downright intolerable to all but the hardiest of temperament. Laleana, Tom, Cecile, and Ioan were of such a disposition, but even then, they never knew what to expect from him, and they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
So with little desire for additional confrontation, they looked on as he made his disorderly and disgruntled retreat. After that, they ordered another round of drinks and shared in a silent exchange of sly murderous smiles. When the drinks finally arrived — grins and gratuity promptly dealt with — they toasted to a joust well met then huddled closer together and let din, the distressed mahogany, and the cracked leather illusion of normalcy swallow them whole.