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            CATMINT 
            Ben PESTER









We all met at the agreed time, more or less. I was at the restaurant first, having walked quickly, and having had nothing to do before. My flat was tidy and bare. My work was done. The kids were with their mother.

Yes, I had walked quickly, but ought to mention that I had also taken a slight detour around Sycamore Park to look at the evening sun. It was a fabulous evening sun, set in a gorgeous sky. Many colours—so many, and such rich pink, such emotional blue.

I had arranged for us to take the long feasting table that ran along the window. The window itself was a vast, single panel. It was not tinted, and was so clean it almost vanished—it was as though there was nothing but a cushion of air and silence between the table and the busy road outside. The sky was enormous through this window, adorned with faint birds, like jewels in the distance.

I had arrived first and admired this sky from my seat, alone at the head of the table, for a long time. I do not usually arrange events like this, the vision of this sky and its faint birds, and the clean window, all helped me relax as the others—my great friends—arrived.

Each of them on arrival performed the same little routine. They came in, took a breath, looked around at the restaurant—which was dark and elegant and ran deep into a distance on all sides, giving the impression that the seating areas, the bar, the cocktail area, the coffee bar, the plinthe of the maitre d’ were simply pools of light in a dark plateau. If you look closely, of course, there were many details in the jette terrazzo floor, tapestries of moons slinked across the ceiling, light reflecting from raw metals picked out walls and bannisters. I liked it anyway. So, they arrived, peered into the rich darkness, smiled at the occasional shimmers of brass, or flowing tapestries. Then they snapped out of this, accepted where they were, and began loosening their coats and handing them to waiters. Then they took another second or two to accept the atmospheric change now that they were no longer wearing outside clothes. An odd sight, the way people seem to stop and receive messages from their skin. All over their body, their skin giving them messages about the temperature in this restaurant. I had never seen it before. And then they saw me.

Sylvester and Maude came first, looking well, bristling with expensive coats, both dark coats, but not charcoal, but not grey and not any kind of blue, but not black. I kissed them both as they took turns leaning over. Sylvester’s cheek skin was incredibly soft, telling of hundreds of pounds of product, but no surgery I think.

For a while it was the three of us, and I listened to Sylvester describing the sky.

‘A wonderful sky,’ he said. I agreed.

‘Really I think such an emotional blue,’ I said.

‘Azure,’ he said.

Sylvester and I continued to describe the sky, but he kept saying azure, and I didn’t feel that Sylvester had adequately captured it, though I could not be specific about what he’d missed. Azure. I wasn’t convinced by that at all, even though technically it was accurate.

Maude said she had been so worried about finding the place she hadn’t been able to think much of the sky.

‘But if I had to describe it,’ she said, ‘I would I would call it arresting. It certainly didn’t help us finding this place.’

‘It was fine finding the place!’ Sylvester said. ‘We’re the first ones here. We got a bit lost, but on an evening like this, it’s a joy to be lost. It was fine. Fine,’ Sylvester said.

‘Yes, thanks to me,’ Maude said, she was smiling.

‘Yes, entirely thanks to you,’ Sylvester said.

‘You wanker,’ Maude said.

We all laughed and while we were laughing, in came Callum and Kevin looking well, smiling broadly, expanding their arms in a kind of synchronised display of air hugging, which then became real physical hugs.

I received my hugs graciously, first from Kevin—whose soft shirt collar pressed against my cheek, then from Callum, who was wearing a heavy sort of denim khaki jacket with heavy double breast pockets. The heft of one of these pockets landed on my forehead as he leant in. Somehow everyone who hugged me was at such an angle that some part of their clothing or skin ended up resting on the top of my head. I didn’t manage to get all the way out of my seat before more came in—a great clump of them—Sally and Kim, John, Manuel, Tai and Morgan, and Charlotte who came alone and was last, but so welcome. All of them were such a welcome sight. Hot and flustered and glowing now as though we were all taking our place in a historical moment, but of course it was only dinner. Simply dinner.

I heard them speaking to one another—Tai and Morgan have a dog—‘The neighbour is on dog duty,’ Tai says.

‘Lucky you,’ John says. ‘I don’t trust my neighbours at all. I had to put my dog in a kennel.’

Several of the others sympathised with John.

‘We’ve all left people or dogs behind,’ said Sally.

‘Except us!’ Said Kim. ‘We’re both here!’

It went on like that, they were saying exactly the things I expected, these gorgeous people.  

With all of them standing up, I felt suddenly like an island. Charlotte and the other last arrivals looked unsure about making the trip up to my end of the table, such was the upheaval of seating and hanging coats and glancing into the dark, and feeling the scale of the darkness and the pools of light, and saying how nice it was and how hard to find. 

‘It’s awkward to keep leaning over people!’ I said to Morgan, as he and I opted to wave before he took a seat at the far end of the table.

‘Not for me!’ Tai said, leaving Morgan’s side to come round for the usual kisses on each cheek. He smelled of something expensive, I wondered if it was something new by Frederic Malle, or Byreddo, but knew instantly this would be wrong. It would be someone I have never heard of. He was gone before I could ask, I remained there, inside this brief world of Tai’s body and fragrance while he went round the table kissing everyone and radiating adventure, warmth and mischief.

We settled into things. I had pre-ordered some champagne for the table. I tried hard not to draw attention to the fact that it was champagne, not cava or prosecco, as a waiter went around, casually pouring glass after glass, and everyone drank heartily without acknowledging the fact it was champagne. Most of the glasses were emptied without anyone prompting a toast or a cheers of any kind. It was all very natural.

For my part, I drank my glass quickly because I love champagne, and because I was not yet speaking to anyone at length. I did not have much to do. I was surveying the table, looking at my friends, and feeling happy that we had all made it and were together at last. I wanted to say this, to say how glad I was, but now everyone was hidden behind menus. Just beautiful the menus, elegant paper, like silk, like shrouds.

Looking admiringly at the others, who were hidden, as I said, behind menus, I realised I had not managed to receive one from the waiter. The waiter had passed mine to Maude, who was annoyed by Sylvester’s hogging of the one they shared.

‘Bloody ridiculous,’ I heard Manuel say, ‘not enough menus.’

Someone else, I think Charlotte, handed him a spare that she had. ‘Here you go baby,’ she said. I wasn’t sure if Charlotte even knew Manuel. I thought about asking, but for some reason it didn’t seem like a good time to raise my voice down the table.

I did not want to draw attention to my lack of a menu. What’s a menu? Why worry? I told myself it was stupid to worry about menus. I would get food. I had champagne, everyone was here and it was a delightful evening outside.

Sylvester ordered appetisers, starters and main courses for himself and Maude. It sounded like a sound choice, so I copied them. It was all the sea food options. Scallops, Bisque, trout, samphire, crémant sauce which sounded interesting. I planned to deviate from them later on, and have a chocolate-based dessert, which I knew they would not do on any account. Sylvester would order something stodgy and custardy, and Maude would have coffee and go outside to smoke. It was fine. I knew this would happen and it was so lovely to know my friends and feel this way. I drank more champagne. I signalled to the waiter to bring just one more bottle. I did some maths and reasoned the cost of additional champagne could be absorbed by the taxi fare I would surely not spend, not tonight, when the evening was so beautiful.

Sylvester looked well. I admired him already, of course, and had done since Maude first introduced him to us. But he looked especially well this evening. His crisp white shirt opened pleasantly onto his neck. His neck was thin and muscular and tanned. And he was so confident when he ordered all this fish for himself and Maude, and me, with such conviction. I told myself I was glad he was at my end of the table. Down the other end, Morgan said something salacious that I missed, but everyone down there was laughing. Tai was affronted as usual and dismissed Morgan’s comments with a wave of his hand.

Tai saw me watching this and rolled his eyes. ‘Champagne!’ he shouted.

‘That’s right!’ I shouted back.

Me and Tai cheersed in the air. I felt amazing. Everyone else also cheersed in the air, then went back to their conversations. 

After a lull, I asked Maude how she was doing in her new job.

‘Well, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster!’ she told me. ‘But my boss is so lovely.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘That’s so important. A good boss.’

‘Yes she’s lovely. She’s twenty eight!’

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘It’s so good that you’re happy.’

We didn’t get much further than this because someone—it was John—started laughing very loudly. It’d been ages since I saw John, so his laugh had not yet become annoying. I loved it actually, hahaha-haha-hahahaha—that’s how it went. The same laugh every single time. The same volume, the same flat delivery. I loved hearing it, though in the past, as I say, I have felt heavily oppressed by it.

I drank more champagne and focused on my breathing for a while. The expense was fine, I said to myself. Let it go. The tablecloth is really clean and lovely. The glasses for water are really unique. After a pleasant interlude spent like this, absorbing the convivial sound of friends catching up, without having to play any particular role, food started to arrive. Heaps and heaps of food. I had no idea who had ordered all this food. I reeled as I realised I really ought to have a handle on all this, since I would be picking up the bill.  Then I calmed myself. I listened to my breathing. It would be fine. There was plenty in the account. If I snuck into the overdraft, it would be alright. I allowed plates to be pushed my way. I waded in.

I ate in a kind of trance. The food was just so good, so much butter, and salt. Some moments while I held bread and butter in my mouth, the perfect balance of texture, fat, and salt felt like a new kind of purity. It felt holy in some way. The rest of the party was doing the same, just eating in this amazing trance right through appetisers, right through starters. We ate bread and golden cream butter. I drank a lot of rosé that Sylvester ordered, on the recommendation of Manuel. The cars swam by in glistening clean shoals.

The sky was the same as it had been when we arrived, I noticed, even though we had been there for an hour or so.

‘I can’t take my eyes off that sky,’ I said to Sally, gesturing to the bright world outside the huge clean window pane. Sally didn’t hear me because someone dropped their knife onto their plate.

‘What did you say?’ Sally asked. She seemed in pain from the sound of the dropped knife. I think it was Manuel who dropped his knife. He shrugged instead of saying sorry, but then he smiled his massive gorgeous smile, and Sally smiled back. I mentioned the sky again, but she didn’t really register. She looked outside and seemed to agree with me, but didn’t manage to quite articulate much.

I tried one last time to strike up a conversation, but in the general sound of eating and murmuring, my voice, the frequency of my voice, became lost. I forgot about it. The noise was not irritating, it was the sound of us all together again for the first time in years, I was so happy. I felt the warmth that only friendship can bring you. I felt that warmth flooding me, sluicing away all abstract notions of cost, and of debt. Of this strange feeling of being in trouble that life seemed to giving me. I ate more. I ate and ate over all my unsaid things.

I ate so much bisque I worried I would not manage the trout. I ate three or four more of those religiously good bread rolls too, heaped with butter. I ate with gusto, and nobody else was holding back either. A meal after being starved, is how it felt to me. I thought maybe the same for everyone. The cars sailed by silently, without end. Someone said something about a painting they had seen recently. I heard the words describing this painting and for a moment I felt like I was standing in front of it. I could see the way the clouds dominated the sky, and the people in the distance seemed at once heroic and painfully alone and insignificant. I could see the chips in the golden frame. I could see the river, the harbours, the ships, the city with its spires. I was lost in this feeling that I had to go to the gallery and see this painting, even though I never go to galleries, and seeing paintings usually makes me feel tired, and like I have missed out on an important lesson at school, and I want to move on. I looked outside.

The sky was the same. It hadn’t changed even though now fully two hours had passed, it was the same deep blue. Rich pink. Motionless clouds.

‘What an evening!’ I said. ‘What a sky!’ I said it generally because at this time—when the sides that went with the mains were not yet finished, but imminently would be—I knew we had reached the stage where nobody would have time for any meaningful interaction with me before the evening came to an end.

Everyone was here because I had invited them. Everyone had someone to talk to, as I had planned, but I had forgotten to give myself someone to talk to. What an evening, what a sky, was heard only by the bones of the trout. I ate some buttered potatoes and forgot about it. I ate a spicy parsnip and several forks of baked harissa kale. I ate in a dream, all these sides, I don’t remember asking for any of it, but the dishes continued to come my way, handed one after another by my dear friends. I ate doggedly, full of joy.

‘Maude, tell us more about your boss,’ I said loudly, almost shouting, when the mains were finally gone, and I was waiting for my chocolate pudding. Maude said she didn’t want to talk about that anymore. Quite a few of the people at the table seemed appalled that I would bring it up. I apologised. Then I raised my glass.

‘Cheers!’ I said. ‘Here’s to all my wonderful friends!’

‘Cheers!’ Everyone said. We all clinked glasses, it took a while. I turned back to the window. The sky had remained the same. I wanted to discuss this with someone, but I could also see that it was a very boring subject. The cars floated by like clowns. I watched them for a while, and fell into a state of waiting. The cars moved in near-silence, the sound of their passing occurring inside my head, a faint purr added in by an unconscious editor.

When I turned back to the table, chocolate pudding had arrived. I ate automatically, like an organism closing over its nourishment, moving through layers of nougatine, praline, noisette, ecstatic crisp membranes of tempered chocolate. When it was gone, I came back to myself, as though coming out of a trance. Sylvester was on at one of the waiters. He was taking over now, fully assuming control of my evening. I found it unsettling, but that was classic Sylvester. Hadn’t I known he would do this when I invited him? Even my former partner had said it was a mistake to invite him. ‘You know how he gets,’ she said, after the kids had said their goodbyes and vanished into her house, to their preferred bedrooms, and their preferred snack cupboard. ‘It pisses you off so much,’ she had said.

I had held up my hands and said something about needing Maude to be there otherwise, what was the point.

‘She could make an effort to come alone,’ she said. ‘If she was such a good friend, she could leave Sylvester at home, she knows better than anyone how he likes to take over.’

I’d held up my arms and I said she was right and what could I do and so on. In truth, I would have said anything to avoid letting the conversation turn to the cost of the evening. Anything to avoid the cost of the evening, and then what I owed her, and then over and on to how we came to be like this. I do not remember, I would have wanted to say, how it came to this. Why do my children live here now? Whose shoes are those in the entrance hall to this house? I don’t remember, I would have wanted to say. I don’t remember and I am sorry for whatever I did. I am so confused and sorry.

I will keep up my side, I would have had to say. I will pay my end of the kids’ needs. But surely, after all that has slipped away from me, surely I can be allowed to take my friends out for an evening, can’t I? After all they have done for me over the years. Surely after all they have done for us? The many times I have been rescued rose up then to me at the table, a blur of guilt and relief and gratitude and guilt again.

As I continued to drift away into this unhelpful conversation that I had, in any case, avoided, I failed to notice Sylvester ordering a number of extravagant spirits and cocktails and coffees, all the while waggling his platinum card in the air, and declaring he would take care of all of it—nobody had to lift a finger he wouldn’t hear of it, waggling his shimmering fish of a card through the air, but of course, I would still pay. I would still pay for it all. Maude would intervene or Sylvester would forget the PIN for that silver card of his. I would still have to pay for all this but I didn’t care. Hadn’t I earnt one night where I pay? Hadn’t my friends done their bit over the years?

I reasoned that if I split it between two or even three credit cards, I could spread the cost easily over four months without too much impact. If a waiter would let me come with them to the till or somewhere secluded, I could avoid the humiliation of the others seeing the bill, and of seeing me select which cards could cover the cost. I was thinking I could probably reduce the payments on one or two loans – just for a month. And then I would still be able to treat the kids, as I had promised, the next weekend. I would not let them down. I never had.

‘Did I hear you correctly?’ I asked, suddenly coming to my senses. ‘Sylvester! Did you just ask for beds?’

‘Yes!’ Sylvester said. ‘Beds all round!’

The waiters brought beds—beds on wheels of brass. Double beds for the couples. A king size for Sylvester, which he slapped with his wallet-shaped hands, single beds for the singles, which for the evening included me.

‘Bed time you tired old fuckers!’ Morgan shouted.

I saw that Morgan and Tai and the others were piling into a colossal, conjoined bed of beds. They were carrying bottles of champagne that had been brought by the waiters. I did not know who ordered them. I let it go. So what? I thought, and again, can’t I just treat my friends?

‘Bedtime!’ Sylvester shouted. He leapt into his bed like a salmon.

‘Bedtime!’ I too shouted. They had wheeled out my bed last, and on seeing it, I realised it was exactly, exactly where I wanted to be, and that it was worth all the money in the world.

‘Bedtime!’ Shouted everyone else. It was really quite fun.

As I settled into my bed, I felt again the distance between me and the tangle of the main group. I could hear them laughing and swooning magnificently into their beds. Morgan was calling someone a hag and they were all laughing. He was calling someone a trollop and they were all laughing their heads off.

Gradually it died down to more conventional muttering and the giggling shift of blankets as people huddled together in the mega bed. Nearer me Sylvester and Maude, more adult as usual, were applying cream from a tub to their faces. A waiter was holding the tub of cream for them.

‘Have some face cream!’ Sylvester said. ‘It’s amazing. It will take years off you.’

I applied some of the face cream. The waiter who held it for me smiled as I scooped from the tub, uncertain about how much to take. What was the right quantity. I tried to get it right. I rubbed it on, but could not stop looking at the waiter as I did so. As though he was standing in for a mirror, he kept his fact locked in a polite smile. I examined his face. There were small smooth patches on his cheeks where he was wearing some kind of makeup. I felt anxious that I wasn’t applying the cream properly. The waiter smiled encouragingly. I rubbed more of the cream onto my skin. It felt somehow tingly, like tea tree or eucalyptus.

‘Is this eucalyptus?’ I asked.

‘Catmint!’ shouted Sylvester who had it slathered down to his collarbone.

‘Catmint?’

‘Catmint!’

The cars swished by like enchanted babies. I lay back into the sweet comfort of my single bed. I was absorbed into fresh sheets, seemingly endless crisp layers of blankets, each subtly quilted, lightweight. 

I heard the whispered conversations of the others from my bed, even as I was trying to get to sleep. I worried about how much it was all costing. I have money that needs to be sent to my ex’s account. The kids need new clothes for the school term. It would be typical if I ended up being unable to meet my responsibilities because of something as decadent as sleeping in a restaurant. I put it out of my mind. Long ago—around the time I allowed Sylvester to order me extra cheese—I decided I would pay with the emergency credit card.

It had been a wonderful evening, I reminded myself. And the sky—the relentless blue sky had not aged at all. We slept under the protection of nets. Nets and laser activated insect repellents. Yes, we slept in happy comfort. Every worry that came—the debt I was in already, the failure of my marriage and the tired distance in the eyes of my son—his almond shaped blue eyes—my daughter’s silence—all of them came as usual in waves, but my restaurant bed, my wine-filled skin rolled over from them. Whatever happened, they knew I loved them. Whatever happened, they would never go without. Not like their mother and I went without. Money was coming of course, and it was fine. Sylvester was snoring and a waiter came to gently apply a safety clamp to his epiglottis. The safety clamp was the shape of a swan. Someone came to my bed, another waiter, a senior member of staff, very calmly leant over my body and activated the noise-cancelling feature of my bed.

‘Oh sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t realise.’

The waiter couldn’t hear me of course, and went away in silence. Other people dining at nearby tables occasionally looked over at me under my blanket and I smiled at them. An elderly couple, in their pastel best, bent low to me and smiled. It was clear from a bulging tote bag under their table that they had come prepared with pyjamas and eye masks, and were excited to have done with the cheese so they could get into bed too.

After the initial excitement and arrangements of the beds, I began to feel lonely for an hour or so. I could not tell how everyone was doing. Kevin, for example, had barely spoken to me. He was sleeping just one bed over, on the other side of Sylvester and Maude. I assumed he was fine. But I had been meaning to speak with him, to engage him in a long conversation about his life and work. I whispered his name thinking maybe he would hear me—like pick the sound out above the general ambient sounds of sleeping and noise cancellation noise.

‘Kevin, have you noticed the sky?’ Of course, he didn’t respond to this. He waved a lazy hand in my direction and smiled a wide old smile at the ceiling. Like everything else that had tried to assail me, the sky was washed away, it was beautiful. Also beautiful was the vision of Kevin waving. His happy huge smile. I slept on soft waves. I visited a harbour in my dream. I became tiny.

I woke to the sound of kettles boiling and the fragrance of strong coffee. A waiter had come and turned off the noise cancellation around my bed. We were all given newspapers—heavy, luxurious newspapers with endless features and crosswords and gloss that slipped all over my quilts. I read an extended interview with a celebrated Dutch goalkeeper from the 1990s, who now works for a foundation in Alaska. He spends his time out there measuring quantities of snow in a particular area of Alaska. He says there is so much hope. As much hope as snow, he says.

It was a really interesting article, I was still reading it at the table, after the beds were taken away and I was escorted back to my place at the table.

‘I should find a waiter and settle up,’ I said, after a cup of coffee, but nobody heard me. Sylvester and Maude were on the final clue of the hard cryptic crossword. I asked for the clue, but was told there’s no way I’d get it. ‘Trust me,’ Maude said. ‘It’s a bollocks one. It’ll be Latin or something or a poem by Browning.’

I let the crossword clue go. I was too relaxed and rested to get into it. I was good at crosswords, but not that good.

I feel sleepy. A good kind of groggy.

‘I should get the bill,’ I said to Sylvester.

‘Not yet, chap,’ he said.

All at once, we are back into it, all at the table, all talking in hushed, loving tones. We got three courses for breakfast. The cars outside the window were scootching by like musical notes.

The sky was as obstinately beautiful as before—I said to my friends, ‘Look at the sky!’

‘We know!’ comes a voice from down the table. I couldn’t see who it was, but most people laughed.

I noticed that several of the group had changed their clothes. I looked at Sylvester, he was wearing a similar ensemble to the night before, but his shirt was now blue. His cologne was intoxicating. I swallowed bacon, hash browns, toast.

‘Sylvester, have you had a shower?’

‘Hours ago matey!’ he said. ‘You were sleeping. Not to worry, you can have one after the walk.’

‘A walk?’ I said. I wasn’t sure about a walk.

‘Yes, we have to go for a walk!’ Kevin was speaking now. ‘I’ve arranged it all. We are going for a walk.’

I couldn’t react to this news. I was so deep into the experience of the baked beans, and then, as they were taken away, juices were brought, more coffee. I ate muesli. I had a poached egg with hollandaise and smoked salmon. It was on a muffin. Royale, I was eating a royale. Sylvester, Maude, Kevin, and Charlotte were mulling over kedgeree. I had peppered fish paste on toast. I had snarling black coffee. I had a danish pastry, I had pain au chocolat. It seemed it would never end.

A waiter came with boots and jackets, quilted jackets, I let the waiter dress me.

‘This way!’ It was Kevin now, taking over. Sylvester and Maude were more insular, enjoying each other. Sylvester had his hand in Maude’s hand. She had her head near his head. I couldn’t see past them, I could only hear the general willingness to go for a walk, and see the single shape of Maude and Sylvester as we stumbled into the expensive gloom of the restaurant.

I saw as I walked by, the elderly couple were still asleep. Their eyes twitching, and the sharp jags of their pupils rolling under their eyelids. I hushed my group, but they didn’t hear. I pulled an apologetic face at one of the waiters. He smiled and shook his head, they can’t hear you, he was saying. They have their noise cancellation activated.

We pressed on through the restaurant, emerging into the carpark out the back. It was a drab, grey zone of dust and damp. No concrete to be seen—it resembled an abandoned building site. The walls at the far end looked strange, uneven white mortar and steam. I looked back towards the restaurant. A couple of the waiting staff were leaning against the cracked white wall of the building. They looked absolutely dead on their feet exhausted. They smoked, did not acknowledge us.

‘Where are we walking?’ I asked Kevin.

‘This way!’ he said. He headed towards the far end of the carpark. We followed, I expected to be on St Anne’s road, which leads towards the park and eventually, to my flat.

But somehow Kevin, directed by a member of the waiting staff, veered off to the right, towards the dirty high wall that enclosed the carpark. As we approached, I jostled to try and get a sense of where we were heading. I could just make out a small brown door—like the door to an ancient shed, or a lean-to. A hard shrivelled door that creaked as Kevin opened it.

‘Oh yes!’ Someone shouted—I believe it was Tai.

‘Dooooor!’ chimed Charlotte.

I could feel in the air that everyone was gripped with excitement as we funnelled, single file, through the door.

In the reshuffling process I managed to slip in front of Maude and Sylvester, who I now sensed in the tight alley space behind me, shuffling, making sounds of approval. I could have been wrong, but it sounded as though Sylvester was eating grapes as he walked. As we walked I realised they were all eating grapes. Round perfect emerald grapes. The fragrance of the grapes was all encompassing—every few seconds I had the feeling I was within the skin of one of these grapes, a stretched out skin, taut to balloon proportions surrounding me and then evaporating with a pop. The grapes were being handed out to people by hands emerging from the alley walls.

Silver trays appeared, offered from shuttered windows, they seemed to appear at the wrong moment for me, I could not see what was on them, I flinched when they appeared. I was growing claustrophobic in the narrow brick-lined passage. 

Up ahead, I saw my companions take control of the silver trays situation. I crouched round the body of the person in front of me—Charlotte now I think, and I saw others collecting vials of pastel coloured liquids. They were like milkshakes in laboratory vials, but not thick milkshakes at all. Very thin. The way I would make milkshakes for my children at home, without ice cream or any of that faff, just syrup and ice cold milk.

Soon the alley way opened up and we were in a grassed, walled garden. I had come to expect these things by now, and spread out in front of us was a vast picnic blanket, pure white, upon which were platters of fruit, buckets of ice with champagne and more serious-looking whites and rosés. Crude wooden crates contained fresh bread. There were hints of other things too, bowls of delicate salads. On a small table, tilting at a wild angle, were ranged iced jugs of summer cocktails. There was a stick in the ground near a rosemary bush covered in syrup to draw away the wasps.

There were a lot of wasps on the stick, and a member of the waiting staff who seemed to be whispering to the wasps in a discouraging way.

‘We can’t be eating again!’ I said. Everyone in the group turned to look at me, as though they had forgotten I existed.

Someone threw a grape at my head. I couldn’t see who it was.

‘Beds!’ Charlotte shouted.

Beds were wheeled over the grass, coming from large gates in the vast wall garden. They emerged from beneath the climbing roses, pushed by waiting staff from the restaurant that was no longer visible or possible to conceptualise.

I tried to ask the waiter who brought my bed if they could tell me how much the bill currently stood at. I had abandoned the maths at this stage and was already resigned to the fact I would have to get at least one new credit card in order to move the money. I had left my phone in my coat, I realised, and so could not apply for one online.

I climbed into the bed and lay looking at the sky. Still those blues, those clouds, those pinks—like poetic beings sailing across the sky. Everything was silent. The wasps flew like swans around their stick.

‘This sky,’ I said. ‘I just can’t believe the sky!’

‘We know!’ the others shouted. They shouted it all at once.

‘We know about the sky!’ Sylvester and Maude were the first ones at my bed, at the foot of the bed, but soon I was surrounded by them, all of them looking down upon my body, and I was so tired suddenly.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I can’t eat anything else for a while. I need to rest.’

Someone’s hand was on my foot—it was Morgan, who is very kind to me in these moments when things are at an end.

‘Maude,’ I said. ‘I did so mean to catch up with you more.’

Maude who was at the top end of the bed nodded. Then she shook her head. Everyone was laughing. Someone opened more champagne and then everyone was on the bed. I had a glass of champagne in my hand and was trying to drink it but they were climbing on me and I have never felt more loved.

I looked at the sky and they were crushing the breath from me, and I have never felt more shocked by a sky.








Ben PESTER is a writer based in London. He has studied at the University of Exeter and Bournemouth university. He lives in Harringay with his partner and two children. PESTER’s first collection, AM I IN THE RIGHT PLACE?, was published by Boiler House Press






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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.



     

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