So Many Crows
an extract from the novel Death of a Ladies’ Man
Friday night and he was well up for it: amorous and stretched and princely as he dressed. In the mirror was Travolta. Andy tried dance-moves, advancing and retreating from his own grin, then chopped out a line and snorted. Then he danced again. His mum shouted upstairs: ‘What a racket!’ ‘Sorry, Mum,’ he murmured back, furtively coke-wrapping, pocket-dipping, texting. He texted blindly, looking for contact out there, like a late-night radio DJ going to the phones or some dreaming astronomer. Helen? Jenny? Janice? Nush? He sniffed. Kirsty? Jada? Eunice? Jo? Nadine and Dawn texted back – classic. They’d gone off the Garage, so he suggested the Buff Club – the Buff Club? That still open? Apparently so. Okay! They went. He wasn’t wearing a hat this time, but contact lenses that made his eyes more blue and dazzling: peacocking. They handed their jackets in, went to separate toilets, chopped out more lines. That antiseptic smell from the cistern – snort. Rub. Gasp. Stars collapsed! They recognised the brightness in each other when they emerged, Nadine and Dawn grinding either side of him as they danced. Sexy as hell. He had a headful of angels. A cockful of come. Girls were looking, boys were looking, how did this loser get these hotties? But lads, he thought, I am the dragon. The girls slithered up and down. He let them slither, jungley. Soon Nadine said, ‘I’m getting bored.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘Keep dancing like this. Guys are totally checking you out and women are totally checking me out.’
‘They are as well,’ said Dawn, slithering.
‘It’s crap,’ said Nadine, ‘This music’s crap.’
She slithered half-heartedly, but people were looking away now. They broke and went to the bar, where Andy bought a round of shots. ‘One-two-three!’ They downed them. Then Dawn ordered some cocktails, which they drank through straws while they watched the dancefloor. The dancefloor was a tableau of Armageddon, waving, panicked arms, darkness. Thump-thumping sounds. He felt somehow risen. Andy put his arm around Dawn. Nadine sipped through her straw and narrowed her eyes.
‘Andy,’ said Nadine, ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’
‘Aye,’ said Andy, ‘To the max.’
He wasn’t sure if people still said ‘to the max’.
‘Do you really?’
He wasn’t sure if people still said ‘big-style’ either.
‘Well I don’t care,’ she said, ‘I don’t care what you think.’
‘Don’t then.’ He turned away.
After a while she said, ‘Know what? You are a wanker.’
‘I think you’ll find it’s you who’s got the problem, Nadine.’
Dawn leaned across him. ‘C’mon, Nadine, it’s a night out, don’t start all that crap from Europe again.’
Nadine stared at her. ’You,’ she said, ‘Can shut it.’
Dawn raised her hands and shook her head. Andy gave her a little squeeze. He nodded to her and she took off in the direction of the toilets. ‘Okay, Nadine,’ he said, ‘Let’s talk about this.’
‘I don’t want to talk,’ she said, and put down her cocktail, ‘I don’t want to talk about this with you.’
‘What’s all this on the dancefloor?’ She mimicked them slithering. ‘What’s this feeling her arse, feeling my arse? What’s wrong with you?’
He said, ‘I thought this had been sorted out in Budapest.’
‘For you maybe.’ Nadine had some creature’s eyes, flashing out from the forest.
He paused. He said again, ‘I thought this had been sorted out in Budapest.’
She crossed her arms: a cat, a jaguar, sleek and wild. She said, ‘Know what you are?’
‘Afraid,’ she said.
She shrugged and turned away from him. She drank her cocktail fast. ‘You’re going to end up in a black hole, Andy.’
She slammed down her drink and left, wiping her eyes. ‘Nadine?’ he called. Then sipped his drink. Dawn came back. She placed her arms around him and raised her lips to his. He stared at her, so fucking horny. Dazzling with danger. The coke was still a filigree in his system. He was determined to involve Dawn in a threesome, and she would want to, he could see it in her, she was hungry for it. His eyes were hypnotic. He wanted to eat, take, tear, rend. He could not fail. A predator. He could not fail.
Andy pushed his mother’s wheelchair through Dumbarton Street and people said, ‘sorry’ and ‘oops’ as they passed and he said, ‘No problem.’ She was wrapped up in a coat and scarf and gloves. ‘Alright, Mum?’
‘Aye,’ she said, and seemed to freeze around the word.
He kissed her cheek. He pushed her into the library and they looked for talking books. She liked to listen to them in the bath and in bed: Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Jilly Cooper. It drove him nuts. Occasionally he’d recommend a Steinbeck, a Stevenson, an Orwell. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it appreciate a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian future. Not while Barry Manilow is playing.
He picked up a book called Surviving Divorce then put it back down.
He wheeled his mother round and glanced at the librarian. She looked up. Their gazes caught on each other’s before they unsnagged them and glanced away. He’d seen her a few times in this library. Eye-contact, smiles – something more maybe? edgier? – but they hadn’t spoken yet so he couldn’t be sure. His mother chose The Da Vinci Code. He didn’t say anything, but when he took it to the desk he told the librarian, ‘It’s not for me, honest.’
She smiled and scanned the book. ‘That’s what they all say.’
‘Mm,’ he said, then: ‘Take off your glasses,’
She looked up. ‘What?’
‘Are you self-conscious about them?’
‘Um,’ she said, ‘What makes you say tha-’
‘You are,’ he said, ‘You’re self-conscious about them.’
‘Maybe a wee bit,’ she said, ‘They’re a boys’ style. Can you tell?’
He nodded. A flicker crossed her forehead. He took his own glasses from his pocket: ‘Swap.’
‘Uh, okay,’ she said, and gave him her glasses.
‘Put them on,’ he said.
She did. ‘Do they suit me?’
He said nothing and simply regarded her.
‘I said do they suit me?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
Neither of them spoke, and she began to paddle and splash awkwardly in the silence. She reached for the scanner then realised she’d scanned the book already, then reached for the book then changed her mind. ‘Seriously?’ she said, ‘I suit boys’ glasses? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? Don’t you think that’s a little rude?’
‘Yes,’ he smiled.
‘Can I have my glasses back?’
‘No,’ he said. He looked at her, then away, and then back at her. She lowered her gaze.
‘Please?’ she said.
He placed the nail of his thumb in his mouth. He looked away then back at her again.
She touched her hair.
He bit his lip.
She cocked her head.
It was starting to feel fugitive, faintly unearthly, this little moment they were excavating there. His mind, at times like this, resembled that of a small boy’s glimpsing an adult world barely understood, but simply felt, as something raw, dark, sugary. ‘I would kiss you,’ he said.
She opened her mouth then closed it. ‘You would kiss me if what?’
‘If you’d let me.’
‘I won’t let you.’
‘I could learn from you. You could teach me.’ He was whispering.
‘How you like to be kissed. It’s always better to know. It’s always better to just ask. I don’t want to mess it up.’
The librarian laughed. ‘Oh really?’
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I can always learn how to kiss better. I’m thinking of you here.’
‘You can’t kiss me,’ she laughed.
Andy held up his hand as if to say okay or don’t move or trust me. Then he leaned forward, palms pressed against the desk. The librarian stiffened a little but didn’t move. He dipped his face into the hollow between her neck and shoulder. Her posture remained locked, but the muscles of her neck rolled lightly as she angled her head into his. She took two sharp breaths.
‘No,’ he said, ‘You can’t kiss me.’
Then he withdrew and asked, ‘Can I have my book now please?’
She stood looking at him, into him, stilled and transfixed. He gave her glasses back then took his book. She seemed hypnotised, poised, posed, snake-charmed and undulating. When he moved aside, the queue nudged up, breaking whatever spell he’d created. She blinked and said, ‘oh,’ and reached for the next person’s book. Andy folded his glasses into his pocket and bagged his mother’s novel. He turned to the next person in the queue, an old man with a walking-stick.
‘Don’t trust this woman,’ he said, ‘She’ll steal your spectacles.’
‘Eh?’ the man said.
‘Mr Smith,’ the librarian explained, ‘This is the Devil.’
‘Eh?’ the man said.
Her gaze touched Andy’s for a second – iridescent, lingering – until she started scanning books again, and he felt himself disappearing out of the moment, back into the solid reality of the library. Oak panels. Pot plants. It happened with a pang which felt almost like loss. As it always did.
He found his mother, who was talking to a woman he recognised, and so stood behind his mother’s wheelchair while they spoke and the woman said ‘mm’ and ‘oh’ and ‘well’ and, ‘But it must be hard for you, Theresa, being on your own.’
‘I’m not on my own,’ said his mother, ‘Andy’s with me.’
‘Oh,’ said the woman, ‘This is wee Andy?’
Andy did a tap-dance.
‘Remember Ina?’ said his mother, ‘She used to baby-sit for you when you were wee.’
‘Of course,’ he said, but couldn’t really remember at all.
‘Andy?’ said Ina, ‘Haven’t seen you since you were about that height. Mind he used to sit on my knee, Theresa, and tell me he was going to be Indiana Jones. That’s what you said, Andy – Indiana Jones.’
‘Hey,’ he said, ‘The whip’s at home.’
‘Oh!’ said Ina.
Andy added something along the lines of, ‘and a hat,’ and she said, ‘Oh!’ again.
‘Taking care of your mum now, are you?’
‘That’s one way to describe it,’ said his mother.
‘But I thought...’ said Ina, hesitating, ‘...didn’t you…get married?’
Andy nodded slowly.
‘They split up,’ his mother said, then before the silence could wash the story away: ‘She was cheating on him.’
‘Mum,’ Andy said, and gave her wheelchair a shove.
‘Well!’ Ina said.
‘Yep,’ said his mother.
‘Just goes to show,’ Ina said.
Andy touched his forehead.
‘Oh, Andy,’ Ina said, ‘What a shame for you.’
He clenched his teeth.
‘The poor laddie,’ said Ina, stridently wielding Traditional Family Values, ‘It’s just not right,’
‘That’s what we thought,’ said his mother.
‘It’s that Sex in the City.’
‘Yep,’ said his mother.
Inside was magma, molten rock.
‘Right, Mum, we going?’
‘I’m talking to Ina.’
‘I’ve a lot to do.’
‘No that’s fine, Theresa,’ Ina said, batting a gloved hand, ‘You get yourselves home.’ But she stood for a while shaking her head and sighing. ‘Poor souls,’ she said, as though to stray puppies found on her doorstep. ‘I’m so glad you’ve got each other.’
Andy stared at her. Breathed deeply then released. ‘Well,’ he managed to say, ‘Nice to meet you again, Ina.’
Ina waved as they left, and Andy smelled the grave off her, and he pushed his mother to the bus-stop and looked at the tops of trees while she spoke to him, and there were crows, so many crows, and the noise of their flapping wings disturbed him, and when they got to the bus stop Andy fussed, ‘Mum, please, you’re not wearing your gloves. Wear your gloves, Mum, please. For me.’
‘Andrew,’ she said, looking up at him, ‘I’m not the one that’s cold.’