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THE FUTURE WORLD PRESIDENT’S

FIRST TRUE LOVE

A novel in the here and now.

By JJ Alexander

1

EUTOPIA

2

1

Sure, okay, he was gorgeous enough to catch any girl’s eye, with that curly black

hair, broad shoulders and those deep, dark eyes. He sure caught Ariel’s as he came

across the dance floor, sidestepping a swinging arm, shimmying a gap between two

wild-haired women, gliding around an unraveling knot of clumsy, foot-stomping

students. He found a space at the bar and leaned over, a hundred-Euro note in a

sculpted hand.

So okay, he was hot, and she was young and beautiful and all that, but that doesn’t

explain what happened next in this club swirling with hot, young, beautiful people, for

when their eyes met something amazing happened, a honey thunderbolt of delicious

connection, then a warm shiver right through her body. She saw – no, felt – it go

through him too. He lost his cool and gaped at her as everything, the pulse of the music,

the rhythmic lights, the hubbub of voices, everything else ebbed away. A smile came to

his eyes in the quiet, and she felt it in her own.

Then the barman moved between them, and the world came throbbing back.

This is it! Love at first sight. This is what they mean. The myth is confirmed! She took a

shaky breath and then a sip of her juice, willing the barman to hurry up. But he stayed

rooted, legs spread wide, leaning forward and yakking away to the beautiful boy,

ignoring the waving hands to his left and right. So Ariel’s flustered mind had

opportunity to interfere and over-analyze everything, as usual.

No, just chemistry, that’s all. Genetic compatibility. Biology. Animal instinct. Maybe five

years ago I dreamed about this, but now I know–

His head bobbed up over the barman’s shoulder. A flash of eyes and he ducked back

again. Her heart actually fluttered. Animal reaction, that’s all, her mind went on and on.

A spike in blood pressure, reacting to the oxytocin, dopamine, adrenaline … oh, shut up already.

3

She giggled, giddy as an idiot, then had to freeze and compose herself as the barman

jumped aside, leaving her once again in the light of his dark face. This time no smile.

They hung loose, chill, breathless.

A hand dropped onto his shoulder from somewhere out there and he broke away. A

psycho-ugly rat-faced guy, who glanced over and caught Ariel’s shock and horror. His

face hardened. She looked quickly down into her drink, and when she peeked up again,

they were both gone.

She hopped off the bar-stool, craning her neck. Then she realized that people along

the opposite bar were staring at her. A gangly boy, leaning sideways and leering

drunkenly, a couple of sleek, pouting teenage girls, their chic style identical and their

mouths tight blossoms of envy. Two older guys in who-cares leather jackets, watching

with frank amusement. They saw the whole thing! In a flush of sheer embarrassment she

plonked back onto her barstool, swinging her long dark hair forward to hide her face.

After a few seconds she looked out again. All gone back to their business, show’s

over. All except one strange-looking man, a cruel face carved with lines of suffering,

pain, loss < she shivered again, cold this time, spider up the spine. He sat alone at the

far curve of the ovoid bar and stared at her, unblinking, a stray shaft of red light – it

must be – worming in his shadowed eyes. She frowned but still he stared, so she stood

and walked away.

Where was Noodle? Her best friend, last seen grinding away on the dance floor with

a very tall and sexy black guy. Ariel searched for her and, of course, for Thunderbolt,

drifting past the alcoves and dark recesses, circling the dancers. In the far depths of the

club she saw a raised level, an off-set room with walls of white Roman pillars. A subtle

blue-neon sign glowed above the arched entrance: VIP. Two bouncers in dark suits

reinforced it. Out of bounds for mere mortals like Ariel.

She drifted closer, and saw between the pillars, at last, her Thunderbolt-boy, her

beautiful boy, sitting at a low marble table with a gang of guys in very trendy,

4

expensive-looking clothes. He looked distracted, not joining in their raucous talk,

stealing occasional glances out into the club.

He’s looking for me, too. Hasn’t noticed me here, watching him. Let’s see if he feels it. She

settled back against the wall. The nearest bouncer gave her a contemptuous glance.

As she watched, she began to get a feeling that she knew him from somewhere. Like,

he’d been at her school before he grew up and became gorgeous? Or maybe a rock star,

something like that? Almost all the guys in his group had distinct hairstyles, expensive

do’s from top salons. Except for poor Rat-face, short-back-and-sides. Next to him sat an

angular, dark-skinned boy with dreadlocks, then a shiny skinhead, then a gleaming

flow of shoulder-length locks. Interns at a fashion house? She was pleased that

Thunderbolt’s style seemed the least self-conscious, curls so natural it could well be the

most expensive of the lot. Oh, I hope not. She realized that others in the group were also

vaguely familiar to her, especially Rat-face. So, celebrities? It was frustrating. She needed

Noodle’s help here as an expert in such things.

She slipped out her phone, switched to camera and held it between the pillars. The

light in the VIP lounge was brighter than the rest of the club but the screen image was

still murky and grainy. She found Thunderbolt, zoomed to the max and clicked. A wall-

spot shone directly above him and he kept his head still, gazing out into the club, so the

photo came out a disembodied head on a platter of dark. She attached it to a text:

Noods wru? Who is this guy? Why I know him?

and sent it. Within seconds a reply:

Wait coming.

‘Thanks, Ariel. You saved me.’ Noodle had two bright red spots on her cheeks, and

her long blonde hair had been mussed around by the wind. She looked radiant. ‘Bastard

asked me to come outside with him, and we kissed, then he starts, like, ‚I love you, I

love you,' with his hand on my tit! I mean, we’d only just met.’

5

‘Where is he?’

‘Following me. Then his whole tragic life story, how they’re going to deport him back

to < Djibouti or, or Timbuktu or whatever godforsaken hole unless some dumb

German cow like me marries him, which sort of put the whole ‚I love you' thing in

perspective, right? Wow!’ She stared between the pillars, eyes shining. ‘He’s even cuter

in real life. Why are you taking photos of football stars?’

‘Footba–?‘

‘His name’s Juan Baptista. Don’t you know? He’s everywhere. Bayern Munich just

bought him for zillions. The other guys are also Bayern. He’s, um third, I think?

Munich’s hottest young eligible bachelors? Tease magazine?’

‘Third hottest, youngest or most eligible?’

‘Eligible is eligible, no?’ Noodle giggled, and then groaned without pausing for

breath. ‘Look. The Djibouti Desperado.’ The tall black guy was wandering among the

scattering of tables between the VIP lounge and the rest of the club, looking lost. ‘It

seems I got the most eligible. You know what they say?’ She pointed to Thunderbolt.

‘It’s tough at the top <’

Ariel finished the sentence, at Desperado. ‘< but really crowded at the bottom.’ And

in a twinkle of laughter and disco-light Noodle was gone.

No matter how intensely she watched him, he still didn’t sense it. Here. I’m right here.

Juan. Juuu-aaan. Juan! Baptista. Juan Baptista. Nothing. She sighed, getting bored now.

The bouncer gave her another look. Damn it. Juan! You’re supposed to get a strange feeling

that someone is watching you, then you look over and we connect, like magic.

She took a few more pictures, just for something to do. She saw in the screen that the

footballers had fallen quiet. She looked up. A door at the back had opened, and an

astonishing girl was making a grand entrance. Petit, with huge breasts and a perfect,

hour-glass waist. A mane of big hair – definitely a wig – and a dress so weird, tight and

6

slutty it must come from some haute couture collection. Her face was difficult to see

under the make-up and all that hair, but she looked Asian and very young.

The footballers applauded. But not Juan, thank God. She took a few more pictures

without really thinking about it. The Doll striking a pose before the boys, arms raised to

accentuate the impossible breasts, one foot forward. The Doll leaning over to kiss Rat-

Face, her breasts bulging out. Juan staring at them. Slut! She stabbed her thumb down.

The next photo appeared and she gasped. Rat-face, glaring straight at her.

She looked up. He was already through the pillars and upon her. With frightening

speed he reached out and grabbed the phone. She closed her fingers around it. He took

her index finger and bent it back.

‘What are you doing?’ she squeaked.

‘Give it,’ he grunted. ‘Give it to me or I’ll break your finger.’

‘No!’ She was angry now, and held on hard. ‘It’s mine!’

‘Frank, what’s going on?’ Juan the Thunderbolt had swept to the rescue, a restraining

hand on Rat-face’s arm. He spoke English, Ariel noticed with surprise, with a lovely

Cockney twang. ‘What are you doing, mate?’

‘Fucking paparazzi.’ Rat-face switched to English to reply, in a whiny French accent.

‘Taking pictures of my birthday present. I’m gonna smash her fucking paparazzi

camera.’

‘I’m NOT paparazzi!’ Ariel pulled free and kicked Rat-face as hard as she could. His

eyes bulged in astonishment. Then he squealed, fell to the floor and rolled around

clutching his knee, his mouth a wide O of agony.

‘Oh come on, you baby.’ Ariel brushed her hair back from her face and slipped her

phone back into her pocket.

‘Are you paparazzi? Were you following me?’ Juan looked sick. His eyes held hers,

pleading.

7

‘No! I took a picture of you to send to my friend, because I recognized you from

somewhere, I promise.’ She was babbling. ‘Look, look here.’ She took out the phone

again, stumbled her thumb for a while – for a moment of freak-out she couldn’t even

remember how – then showed him the text. ‘See? How could I be paparazzi? I didn’t

even know who you were. In English this means, who is this guy? How do I know him?

See, the picture? Here, read.’

He read it, leaning close to her, even though she was holding the phone at arm’s

length. A couple of inches taller, just right. His scent was nice, clean man-smell, the

subtlest hint of expensive aftershave. She brought the phone in closer. It took him a long

time to read the text, or maybe just a few seconds.

‘Well, that’s alright then,’ he murmured into her ear. ‘So what < happened at the

bar, that wasn’t because I’m famous? It was < you know, natural?’

‘Yes,’ she breathed back. ‘I don’t even like football. It’s boring. You’re nobody to me.’

A hint of challenge as she glanced up. He smiled back.

A low, plaintive moan came from below.

‘Frankie? Mate? Relax, she’s cool. But the real paparazzi might see you lying around

like that, so get up.‘

In a flash Frank was on his feet. Ariel reached out a hand to him, but with a glare he

whirled and stomped back to the VIP lounge. The Doll was sprawled out on a couch,

batting her false eyelashes at the boys. Frank took her arm rather roughly, lifted her up

and led her off to the door at the back.

‘Who’s she?’

‘Some hooker. Birthday present from his agent.’

‘Really? That’s awful.’

And he shrugged. It was a gesture she would later remember, although it meant little

to her at the time, being all caught up in his scent and his shoulders and his hair and

those deep, dark eyes. Her mind had an inkling, a premonition, and could have spoken

8

up and warned her that before her lay a world where flesh was bought and sold, where

bodies and their talents were valued only in money, but her mind stood no chance.

When he held out his hand to lead her into the VIP lounge, she took it without

hesitation.

Behind her, the strange man with the cruel face was now seated at a table in a dark

corner, a faint red glow still worming in his eyes.

He watched her enter Juan Baptista’s world, and he smiled.

9

2

Not only the pillars separated us from them, there were two marble steps as well, so

Ariel was lifted above the rest of the club. Not much, but enough to feel, if not very, at

least more important. She let go his hand, looked out and saw that most of the people at

the tables were turned towards them. She laughed, ‘It’s a stage.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing. I said–‘

‘Yeah,’ he smiled. ‘All part of the ego trip. That’s why I came down to get a drink at

the bar. Sometimes I just want to, you know <’

‘Be ordinary?’

‘Yeah, I’m just a guy, you know? Frank bent my ear, he said some nutter’s gonna stab

me or something, but my Dad was just a hotel porter, so all this <’ He gestured around.

The other boys were all standing up, gathering their jackets. ‘Listen, we’re going to

another club. Please come.’

‘I, um. My friend <’

‘Oh, friend, a, a boyfriend?’

‘No. She. The text?’ She waved the phone.

‘Oh, okay. Where is she?’

She scanned the club, one hand shielding her eyes. ‘Don’t know.’

‘Call her again, tell her come with.’

She hunched over her phone and texted, then noticed a loose thread in the waistband

of her skinny jeans. And a seam by the knee unraveling. And a splash of brownish paint

on her sneaker. This is terrible. I’m so scruffy. ‘Juan? I’m not really dressed to go to–‘

‘You look fantastic. Name’s Johnny. Okay? What’s your name?’

‘Ariel.’

10

‘Ariel.’ It caught in his throat. His hand twitched. Their eyes met and then glanced

away, met and glanced away, shiny stones skipping over the surface of a pool of deep

excitement. Then her phone thrilled in her hand and she dipped her head to read

Noodle’s reply.

‘She’s outside, being <’ Ariel shook her head and laughed.

‘What?’

‘She’s being <’ she searched for the English word, ‘um, wooed?’

‘Wooed?’

‘Never mind. She’ll meet us on the street. Look, your friends have already left.’

‘Yeah, let’s go.’

The door led to an alcove and then through heavy velvet drapes to a darkened room.

It was like stepping into another, long-past century. Wooden floors, Persian rugs,

swirling Paisley wallpaper, ornate wainscoting, a large framed mirror mottled orange

with age. Fabric lampshades cast a yellowish light over a cluster of leather armchairs at

the far end of the room, where a dark-haired woman in a long red dress was slowly

gyrating before an enormously fat man, his face in smoky shadow. In one hand he held

a bundle of money, the other was murky in his lap. Some sort of bizarre growly jazz

music was playing, barely audible above the thump-thump-thump coming through the

wall. Johnny grimaced at Ariel in mock-horror, took her hand and hurried her through

a further door, to a landing with a large semicircular desk and an elevator door, closed,

red-light numbers blinking to show where the other boys had gone. Alongside, another

door led to a steep enclosed stairway. It was too narrow for both of them, so he let go

her hand and went ahead, jostling down two stairs at a time, his hair flouncing. Ariel

followed, slower, step by step. There were ancient framed photographs down the left-

hand side, portraits, posed family groups, women with starched bodices and blank

faces, goateed men in long-tailed jackets, stiff in their dusty elegance. The last portrait

hung askew below a red light bulb, a girl child in a pinafore, her hands behind her back

11

and her eyes fierce and solemn. She looked remarkably like Ariel at that age, the same

dark hair, the same intensity. Two words were scrawled in an archaic cursive in the

bottom corner. She stopped and peered closer: Rachel Edelstein.

‘Hullo, Rachel,’ she whispered. ‘I wonder what happened to you.’

Johnny swept open the door at the end of the stairs and Ariel felt the wind waft

through her hair, tugging her on. She hurried to catch up. It opened into a small

parking lot. A VIP parking lot, presided over by another big guy in a black suit, who

nodded approvingly and smiled at Ariel as she came through. It gleamed with luxury

cars, Mercs and BMW’s, Bentleys, a beautiful dark-blue Jag E-type, hulking black

SUV’s, a Ferrari in a child’s-toy bright yellow. The boys were dispersing to their cars,

laughing and shouting. Johnny waited for her with an arm held high. For a moment she

thought he was going to drape it over her shoulders, but then he beckoned and walked

on ahead.

She prayed that the Ferrari wasn’t his, but no, a new, black Mercedes. Nice. Classy,

expensive. But not flashy. It beeped and flashed as he pressed the remote. He opened the

passenger door for her, and she was pleased, despite herself.

The scent of new leather. The sheer beauty of the glossy consol, its space-ship reds

and blues. Aaaaah, she allowed herself a smile as he walked around the back of the car.

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think the day would end like this. Then, as he opened

his door, It hasn’t ended yet. How are you going to get home, exactly? Do you trust him?

He settled in, fiddled the key into the lock, opened the cubby and traced a finger over

a row of CD’s. She had to speak up:

‘Um, Johnny? Where are we going? I don’t mean to < it’s just that, we took the, the

U-bahn, how do you call it, the, the Tube! So <’

He looked surprised. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll give you a lift.’

‘Okay. So you’ll take us home?’

12

‘Yes, of course. Whenever you want.’ She realized that he was as nervous as she was,

every action, every word he spoke – and even the music he chose - a window open

wide to her judgment. He bit his lip and turned his focus back to the CD’s. She wanted

to help, just pick any one at random, get on with it already. But part of her also enjoyed

watching him squirm a little bit, and she was curious about his taste in music. Not to be

cruel and judgmental or anything, but if it’s big-dick rap or metal, I’m getting out right now. In

the end he pleased her again, choosing Seal, early nineties. Cool over trendy. Nice. Even if

a bit obviously sexy. She relaxed and settled back into her seat.

The parking garage opened out into a side-alley and he braked, put the gear into

neutral and took his wallet out of his leather jacket. The card had only one word – Oh! –

over tiny print. He activated the GPS on the consol and typed in the address, then slid

into drive and purred up to Leopold Street.

‘There she is. The blonde, standing next to that tall guy? Just past the-’

‘Yeah, I see her.’ He angled across the traffic and pulled up into an empty space just

beyond Noodle. She was standing with her head down, lost in the screen of her phone.

Despite her body language, Desperado continued to hover at her shoulder, his teeth

bright in his face as he talked.

Ariel rolled down her window. ‘Noooooods? Over here.’

She looked up with a quick smile and strode over, Desperado close behind. Johnny

unlocked her door with a flick of a switch and she opened it and slipped into the back

seat. As Desperado reached out to take the door and follow her into the car, she leaned

over and whispered urgently to Johnny, ‘Go go go!

He took off without hesitation, the back door swinging and slamming shut with the

impetus. Ariel saw Desperado in the side mirror, his hand still outstretched and one

foot suspended in the air, staring after them. Johnny looked in the rear-view mirror and

laughed. Then he glanced over at Ariel, sensing, perhaps, her twinge of dislike, the first

13

sour note of the evening. One song faded on the CD and another, with a thrum of bass,

began.

Gott sei dank! ’ Noodle stretched out in the back seat. ‘I thought I’d never get rid of

him!’

‘Sorry,’ said Johnny. ‘Sorry, I don’t speak much German yet. What you say?’

‘She hardly speaks any English. She–‘

‘Ariel be us < was ist Ubersetzer?

‘Translator. She says I must translate for her.’

‘Yeah, come to think of it, why’s your English so brilliant?’

‘I want to study languages at university. They’re a big obstacle in the EU, so I think–‘

‘Hang on. You want to? How old are you?’

‘Eighteen.’

‘What, you still at school?’

‘Yes. Final year.’

‘Shit. Management said we must never touch school kids. The tabloids go crazy.’

‘So who is touching?’

‘Ahaha. Quite. But just being in my car is enough for them, bloody vultures. To

in sin uate. Hey,’ he looked in the rear-view mirror again, as the GPS told him, in

English, to turn left at the next intersection. ‘We haven’t been introduced.’

‘This is Noodle, my best friend.’

‘Wazzup. Noodle?’ He swung left. ‘Your parents call you that?’

‘No,’ answered Ariel. ‘Her real name is Heidi. She hates it because it sounds like <

you know <‘

‘Yeah, the pigtails. I get it. The yodeling.’

Ariel laughed. ‘Noods? This is–‘

‘Juan Baptista.’ Noodle read from her phone. ‘Brilliant attacking midfielder, recently

transferred from West Ham to Bayern Munich for eighteen million Euros! Earns a

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weekly salary of <’ she whistled. ‘Horny monkey! If he wants to attack your midfield,

Ariel, I’d let him.’

‘Yeah yeah. Call me Johnny.’

‘Promising teenager in the junior leagues, much talked-about,’ continued Noodle.

‘Selected for the England squad in the last European Championship, but injured his

knee. His favorite color is red. Favorite movie is Braveheart. He drives a <’ she paused,

frowned and looked around at her surroundings. ‘No, no he doesn’t. Stupid internet.’

‘Any juicy stuff?’ asked Ariel.

‘Just a minute.’ Noodle scrolled. ‘Um < here we go. Girlfriend. Betty Blonde. Model

and pop singer. Bitch. Should I search her?’

Johnny, already glum, looked glummer when he heard the name. ‘I broke up with

her,’ he muttered.

‘Oh wait,’ said Noodle. ‘They broke up.’

‘Why?’ asked Ariel.

‘Doesn’t say. Hang on.’

Ariel smiled at Johnny. ‘One thing I don’t understand. It says you’re English, but

your name is, what, South American?’

‘Portuguese. My Dad. He got work in an English hotel, met me Mum. She’s a

schoolteacher. I grew up mostly with her, but they were married for a while.’ The GPS

told him to turn right.

‘Aha!’ said Noodle. ‘I knew it. Nasty little slut. Says she slept with another footballer,

name of Ernst Thorvenson.’

Johnny groaned.

‘He was devastated. Poor Johnny. His form declined. There’s a picture here,

unshaven, wearing a hoodie. Kinda sexy, actually. This is sweet, says he has a heart,

which was < roasted on the fires of celebrity! Woman writer, you can see she’s hot for

him, and who can blame her? I mean, honestly. Ooh, smoldering dark eyes. Blah blah

15

blah ... mmmm, great six-pack. Then his manager told him to get a grip and dropped

him from the team, um, okay. Triumphant return, scored a goal against Chelsea. Sweet

left foot. Ah, a photo of Betty Blonde, charging by the hour. Oh my, you should see this,

there’s a picture of him without his shirt on-’

‘Okay, eeen ough! ’ He shook the steering wheel. ‘It’s bad enough she should read this

crap, half made up anyway. But when I don’t even under stand what she’s saying–‘ The

GPS interrupted him in its silky, feminine voice, instructing him to turn right. ‘Aaah,

shut it already!’ He slapped the off-button on the GPS, swung the car to the empty, tree-

lined curb and slammed on the brakes. ‘Look, I broke up with her. She rebounded onto

Ernie after. Okay? What’s she been reading about me?’

‘It says you’re gay,’ said Ariel sweetly. ‘That you had an operation to castrate

yourself, because you were lusting after your teammates.’

What? ’ He twisted back and lunged for Noodle’s phone. Noodle hardly reacted, just

sliding it away to avoid his grasping fingers and carrying on scrolling with her thumb.

She giggled as he grunted and twisted further, fending him off with her elbow.

A photo opportunity just too good to miss. Ariel tugged her phone out and lent back

for a good angle. With his arm bent back at the shoulder he was facing her, and he saw

her fiddle the buttons and aim. A passing car splashed headlights onto the impish

wickedness in her face and he sighed and slumped, dropping his head, his arm still

bent behind him.

His hand, she thought. His hand is so eloquent. It hung loosely above Noodle’s knee, no

longer trying to grab her phone but still claw-shaped, the fingers curved and trembling,

grasping at empty air. So expressive. It’s saying … frustration?

If I could just get a picture of that hand, but she closed the phone and put it away. He

raised his head again, and his eyes were moist. They hurt him. They wound him with their

sick fascination. She raised a soft hand and caressed his cheek. He’s too beautiful, and still

just a boy.

16

We just became his worst nightmare.

‘Oh wow,’ said Noodle. ‘That old David Beckham underwear advert? They just

offered it to Johnny here, like the new Beckham. There’s speculation–‘

‘Noods, keep quiet. Put it away.’ Ariel switched languages, ‘I’m so sorry, Johnny. I

was only joking. No-one thinks you’re gay.’ She leant forward and gently kissed him on

the corner of his full, red mouth. He sighed and brought his arm forward, and then they

were kissing, their lips pressed hard together but still soft and yielding. Her breath

caught and she drifted away, but he slid his hand into her hair, pulled her back and

kissed her again.

‘Tum-te-tum,’ murmured Noodle in a sing-song voice. ‘Don’t mind me.’

They broke off, laughing, swimming in each other’s eyes.

‘No, I mean it. Don’t mind me. That was super-sweet. I think I’m going to cry.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She said < never mind. Let’s just go to the club.’

17

3

Freddy had never wanted to be paparazzi. Even now, he hated it. It was ironic, given

his amoral job stealing images of private lives, that he had started out as an idealistic

young policeman. That had been a step to his ultimate dream, to be a Private Eye. He

had seen himself clearly at middle age, a tough, cynical individualist with a heart of

gold, just like in the movies. A lone wolf ripping at the evil underbelly of the city,

steely-eyed, irresistible to women, impervious to the temptations of money, and always,

in the end, no matter how much he fucked everyone up, the hero.

He had followed his dream and found it banal; divorces, petty fraud, thieving shop

assistants, years of struggle to pay the rent. Then one day, on a rooftop opposite a hotel,

he had spotted a senior conservative politician with two black prostitutes and click! A

single photo that made him more money than a whole year of ripping at the evil

underbelly of the city. Now he was fifty, disgusting to women with his pear-shaped

body and sad eyes, and paparazzi.

A long-lens specialist. Not for him the jostling on the pavement, the shouting and

shoving at the airport. So when the old witch had contacted Tease magazine and offered

to rent a window above the private entrance of an exclusive, invite-only nightclub, he’d

been assigned. A week, so far, of sitting in this cat-puke chair, drinking cat-piss tea and

eating salmonella sandwiches, and nothing. A few snaps of some revolting boy-band

cavorting in the courtyard, but such clean, wholesome fun they could’ve been publicity

shots. A shot of Bono striding by in a long black coat, doing nothing but jutting a

thoughtful jaw. A major Austrian soap-star with a woman who wasn’t his wife - Freddy

had been briefly excited about that one, but the editor had BBM’d back that it was his

sister, for God’s sake. A parade of celebrity innocence, so far. Enough to make you sick.

18

A bunch of footballers had just come through with what looked like a prostitute, so

there was still hope. He sighed and scratched his belly. At least the old witch had gone

to bed, taking her stink of loneliness with her. She gave Freddy the creeps, the

screaming heebie-jeebies, to tell you the truth. He could swear that there was some sort

of awful red light glowing faintly from her eyes. Ridiculous, of course, it must be a

reflection of neon from outside or something, but still, sometimes it looked like it came

from inside her. He couldn’t wait to be finished with this job.

The iron gate swung open and three bright young things sashayed through. Freddy

recognized the kid in the middle and hefted his camera. Another footballer, the English

one with the greaseball name, just bought by Bayern. Young, rich, super-fit, hot babe on

either side with their arms linked through his. ‘Piece of shit, I hope you die,’ he

muttered, and took a good shot of them striding across the gravel, smiling and

laughing. The blonde was a real stunner, long legs, big tits, lovely tight jeans, like one of

those Swedish porn stars. The dark-haired babe was more shadowy, her hair swinging

forward over her face, her clothing more modest and subdued. Nice contrast, a babe

menu for the kid. Good stuff for the Personality page. Tease traded in envy, and the

losers and wannabees could wallow to their heart’s delight with this one.

They approached the doorway. Probably a better shot, as they paused and huddled

together, all sweet and cozy. As he pressed the button, the dark-haired babe suddenly

looked up and stared directly into the lens. Freddy knew that she couldn’t actually see

him – the room was dark and the outside lights threw reflection off the window, he had

checked – but he jerked back and ducked down, swearing under his breath. Spooky. As

if she had somehow sensed he was there.

A rasp of dry breath at his shoulder. A waft of the old woman’s rancid smell. He

twisted around. She was standing close behind him, bending over, her yellow teeth

bared in a smile that was more like a snarl.

19

‘Let me see?’ she hissed. ‘The last one?’ He fumbled at the camera and showed her

the screen. ‘That’s a lovely picture. You should use that one, don’t you think?’

Now it was unmistakable. Her eyes glowed, like a glimpse of flame through dark

smoke. Freddy could not control the wave of sheer terror that passed through him. He

screamed, threw himself to his feet, and ran for the door.

The old woman remained standing where she was, rocking back and forth, staring

out at the empty courtyard. Muscles worked along her swollen, drooping jaw line, as if

there was some living thing under her skin. Then she groaned, took a step back, and

spoke in a high, faltering voice, a child’s voice:

‘Mama? Is it time for school yet? Mama? I dreamed again, I pointed at Rachel. She’s

my friend, Mama, we play in the wheat-field. I pointed to her. She’s running to the

forest. She’s running <’

She paused and closed her eyes. Then she opened them and spoke again, this time in

a deep voice, with a growling accent that was not her own.

‘You pointed to her.’

‘I pointed to her. I didn’t know. They asked me. I pointed.’ Her hand rose slowly up,

a trembling finger against the black sky.

‘You never confessed.’

‘I’m telling you now, Mama. I want to go to school. I promise I’ll be good–‘

‘Too late.’ She closed her eyes again, rocking back and forth, back and forth. ‘Might

as well take you with me right now.’ Then she opened her eyes one last time, sighed,

and fell forward over the back of the armchair. Then she twitched, let out a single,

rattling breath, and lay still.

Behind her, an old Siamese cat slowly emerged from its hiding place beneath a

cupboard. It crept along the wall with its hackles raised and eyes wide. Then it hissed

up at the ceiling and bolted for the open door.

20

In the future, long after he’s dead, Freddy’s second photo will become one of the

most famous on the planet. There will be so few pictures of Ariel Jaeger before Africa,

before the scars that marked her face forever. Cell phones will be discarded, computers

consigned to recycling. But this photo, along with several others from that year, was

preserved on the web and in the digital archives of Tease magazine. It will be

reproduced over and over, even on the cover of a seminal history textbook.

Look, you can see why. To one side stands Ariel, staring straight up at us, dark,

cascading hair framing the pale beauty of her young face. It’s an iconic image.

Something about the eyes. She looks like she’s in love with the whole world.

On the other side stands poor Heidi Blum in profile, looking down, also smiling. But

there’s a delicate melancholy to her image, even if it’s only seen in retrospect, a

poignant reminder of how fragile we are.

In the middle stands a young man. Good-looking, leather jacket, a slight blur to his

features as he turns towards Ariel. But most captions won’t even bother with his name.

Sometimes he’ll be cropped right out. He’ll be forgotten, just one among thousands of

young men who used to kick a ball around for a living.

21

22

4

‘J-Bap! Johnny B! The man of the hour!’ A huge, pot-bellied man with a walrus

moustache swept past Ariel. She leapt back in fright and then tittered, fingertips over

her mouth. ‘Welcome, wel come to my ‘umble establishment! Make yourself at home,

safe from prying eyes!’ He made as if to embrace Johnny, thought better of it, and

vigorously shook his hand instead.

‘You’re English,’ said Johnny faintly, in surprise.

‘Guilty, m’lud. Name’s Floyd. Used to cabaret in Berlin, until this crept up on me.’

He gestured at his vast belly with flamboyant hands. ‘Followed a heartless boy down to

Munich, and < but goodness, listen to me! Prattling on like an old queen. Come, follow

me! Bring your lovely young friends, welcome, welcome.’

They followed him down a passage into the club. The décor was muted and subtle,

midnight-blue walls, grey carpeting, just a dash of royal purple around the doorway.

An alcove held a marble bust – head and shoulders, a nod to Romanesque decadence

but not too camp - and an elegant white orchid in a silver pot. The dance floor was

small and discrete, located behind an abutting wall, the lighting was soft and ambient,

the music smooth soul-house with no lyrics. The effect was pleasurable, warm, like

good red wine. Designed to reward the patrons for being rich, thought Ariel. Feels good. No

cash at the doorway. I wonder how he squeezes their money out of them.

As if he could read her thoughts, Johnny whispered in her ear: ‘Frank says I should

buy a membership. Whatcha think?’

‘It’s very nice. Like < Heaven’s waiting room.’

‘Yeah,’ he chuckled. ‘Good one.’

Floyd knew when not to impose himself. He brought them to a recessed area with a

twirl of his ample torso and a muted flourish, then stepped back without another word.

23

The boys were seated on a U-shaped leather bench around a marbled table, each with

their first drink. There was no sign of Frank or his birthday present.

‘Wooaaah!’ they shouted together, shifting up to make room. ‘Johnny scored

already,’ said one. ‘Can’t leave you alone for five minutes,’ said another. ‘Legend!’

hooted the third. Johnny raised both hands, royalty receiving adulation, and ushered

Ariel in first. He slid in next to her, leaving only a few inches for Noodle, who hesitated

and then perched uncomfortably on the edge, her shoulder to Johnny.

‘Come this side, sweetness,’ said the dreadlocked boy on the other arm of the U,

where there was more room. With a grateful, awkward scamper she crossed over and

settled down.

Introductions were made, hands shaken across the table. Bjorn, the dreadlocked boy,

raised a hand and a waitress in a frilly French maid’s get-up appeared. Johnny asked

politely for sparkling water, Ariel a cranberry juice and Noodle a tequila sunrise. The

girls had to repeat their order because the waitress couldn’t take her eyes off Johnny.

Ariel crept her hand into his, and he gave it a squeeze.

The boys resumed their conversation in a mix of English and German, technical

football stuff about offside traps, wingbacks and lines of midfield attack. Abbo, the pale

skinhead, moved coins, glasses and phones around the table to illustrate the battlefield.

The drinks arrived. Mikal, the long-haired boy, retrieved his beer from the melee, took a

calculating sip and then thrust it back into the heart of the central defense. Johnny

watched thoughtfully, leaned past Ariel and moved a coin to intercept him, raising his

eyebrows. Mikal nodded and withdrew for another sip.

There was something nice about being so thoroughly ignored. Ariel winked at

Noodle and they both shrugged. These were confident young men, taking it as their

due a feminine presence relegated to the sidelines. No fawning, no sideways glances

seeking approval, no false bravado. Much better than the kind of boy they were used to.

And away from stage of the VIP lounge their hairstyles were less dramatic, just

24

ordinary guys, each with their own look. The strategy session ended inconclusively just

as Ariel was beginning to find it tiresome.

‘So,’ smiled Johnny, turning to her. ‘Ariel.’

‘Johnny.’

‘Here we are.’

‘Hmm.’

He lifted his hand and traced a fingertip down the curve of her cheek, then brushed

it over her lips. His eyes were hooded and sleepy, and she caught a whiff of his man-

smell. She blinked and half-laughed, unsure how to respond, not wanting to spoil this

by acting all vampira-sexy, but not wanting to pull away, not wanting him to stop. The

fingertip dropped under her chin and tilted her face up, and he kissed her softly on the

lips.

She closed her eyes. ‘What < what color are my eyes?’

‘Aaah. A test. Let’s see. They’re strange and beautiful. Green, flecked with pale blue,

almost grey? I bet they change with your mood. A golden flare around the pupil.

Okay?’

‘Perfect!’ She laughed and opened them again, to find his closed.

‘And mine?’

‘Haven’t a clue. Only interested in your body.’

He smiled and frowned at the same time. ‘That your final answer?’

‘No, brown. They’re, you know, dark brown.’

‘Right,’ he opened them. ‘Not exactly poetry, but you’ll do.’

‘Thanks. You’ll do, too.’

He kissed her again, just as gently, then brushed his lips down the side of her neck.

Strange, her mind interrupted, how the softer the touch, the more intense the feeling. Like my

nerve endings are reaching out to him. She ran her fingers through his hair and kissed him

back, a little bit firmer to slow the unbearable shivering inside her.

25

‘Oi!’ shouted Abbo. ‘Get a room, why don’tcha!’

‘Yeah,’ sniggered Mikal. ‘Maybe Frank’s finished. You can use his.’ As if on cue, the

music faded and they all heard a woman scream in wild sexual abandon, a great

theatrical orgasm. Ariel and Johnny twisted around. A door behind them marked

Private, half hidden behind a Japanese screen with a motif of butterflies exploding into

flight.

‘Frank’s birthday party,’ said Johnny wryly.

‘Why is it, ladies,’ asked Abbo, ‘that women make so much more noise during sex

than men do?’

Oh no. Ariel’s mind had the answer, and spoke before she could stop it: ‘Because

we’re social animals with a sexual hierarchy. The alpha male could mate with every

female in the tribe. But if he’s infertile, then there would be no babies, so she makes that

noise to let the other males know < you know, that it’s their turn when he’s finished.’

They stared at her, speechless. She blushed, and her mind panicked and kept on

babbling. ‘In fact, in most social animals with a sexual hierarchy, the female orgasm

takes ex ac tly three times longer than the male’s. So when he’s satisfied, then she’s only

one third < oh dear.’

The stare only deepened. Then Johnny rescued her. He slammed his fist on the table,

leapt to his feet and roared, ‘She’s right! Frank! Leave her legs open. I’m coming in!’ The

tension around the table dissolved into laughter. The orgasmic yodeling next door

stopped abruptly, with a squeak.

‘Then it’s my turn,’ yelled Abbo.

‘Then me!’ Mikal.

‘Wait, that’s already four,’ said Johnny, sitting down. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said to Bjorn.

‘You also miss out.’

‘No problem.’ He leered at Noodle. ‘I can last three times longer than any other man.’

26

‘Whoooo,’ the boys sang. Noodle gasped, and took a great flustered gulp of her

drink.

The door behind the screen crashed open and Frank staggered out, a goofy smile

plastering his rat-face. He hitched up his pants and swaggered over to the table, to a

semi-circle of barely-suppressed grins.

‘What? What you maniacs shouting about?’ No answer. He fiddled his privates and

hitched up his pants again. ‘Man oh man. She just can’t get enough of me.’

A gale of fresh laughter hit him and the smug faded from his smile. Johnny came to

the rescue again, raising his glass in a toast. ‘To Frank! Happy birthday and many

happy returns.’ They all raised their glasses and toasted him. ‘Well, at least two more

happy returns!’

The party broke up as the evening wore on. Frank took Abbo and Mikal to a small

bar around the corner. Their voices rose, loud and triumphant, above the music. Ariel

saw Floyd slip through the private door. He did not re-emerge, must be a back door. But

Johnny grew distant, not holding hands, not kissing her, lost in his thoughts. She

silently cursed her big-mouthed mind. At the other side of the table Bjorn was putting a

move on Noodle, murmuring into her ear, touching her hand, her arm, her hair. She sat

quietly, enthralled, wide-eyed with flushed cheeks, certainly not going on and on about

evolutionary theory or anything. Ariel grew a little jealous, and eventually had enough.

‘Johnny? What’s wrong?’

He shrugged. ‘Nothing.’

‘Come on. You’re just sitting there–‘

‘Thinking about what you said. I mean it’s, it’s scary, you know? The implications. It

means by nature all women are whores.’

She almost asked him about Betty Blonde, but thought better of it, saying just, ‘No.’

‘No?’ He glanced up at her.

27

‘No, Johnny. That’s not how it works. Survival, procreation, all that. Everything’s a

strategy. It depends on the environment, in this case, the social environment. We no

longer live in tribal groups, where everyone takes care of the children, and the alpha

male has first choice. Nowadays a woman has to take care of her own children. So by

nature we choose a man who is kind, loving, we choose monogamy, our own man. By

nature, do you understand? Apart from choosing good genes, but that’s a different

story, and not one you have to worry about.’

‘All sounds a bit < I dunno, mechanical. Cold, even.’

‘Yes, I agree. When my mind says that love can be explained by genetic inheritance,

by instinct, it just doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t fit, you know? Sometimes we fall in love

with the same person for our whole lives, even when we’re separated for years, we stay

faithful. We sacrifice everything for love, we have overwhelming obsessions, we die of

broken hearts. Love is real, but not always rational in biological terms. We’ve evolved.’

‘You ever been in love?’

‘Mmm, I don’t know. You?’

He shrugged, then raised his languid eyes to hers with just a hint of a smile. ‘So that

stuff you said before, now you saying it’s not true?’

‘I was talking about inherited sexual response, that’s all. Look, um < I know, grey

seals.’

‘Huh?’

‘There’s an island near Scotland where grey seals breed. On the one side of the island

there’s a big beach with typical seal breeding behavior. You know.’

‘No?’

‘The males fight, and the strongest gets to rule the beach, with a harem of females.

The losers hang around on the outskirts, trying to get a bit on the side. It’s a mess, blood

everywhere, baby seals being crushed by the fighting, females being forced to mate. A

brutal society.’

28

‘Like us. Like we were.’

‘Perhaps. No, I don’t think so. Anyway, on the other side of the island there’s a string

of small, enclosed beaches, little enclaves, and in each there’s a single pair of seals. A

husband and wife. Same species, but they remain faithful to each other their whole

lives, raising a new pup every year. If one of them dies then the other disappears, and

their child takes over, usually with a pup from one of the other couples, although they

sometimes take a mate from the main beach. It’s love, you see. The freedom to choose.

And because they are free to choose, they’re faithful. The females on the main beach

cheat with the outsiders whenever they can. The behavioral dichotomy makes sense,

because if disease wipes out the main group, then the isolated pairs can survive and

repopulate. So I think it’s the same with us. We have different instincts encoded in our

genes, different strategies for survival, which emerge under different conditions. And

so, also, different kinds of people.’

‘Wow. You’re like a major boffin. A super-nerd.’

‘Oh. I’m sorry. I–‘

‘Relax. I like it. Mum was a schoolteacher, remember? She didn’t raise a total idiot.

And after my last girlfriend,’ he shook his head, ‘all she wanted to talk about was

clothes and gossip and < different ice cream flavors. This one’s her favorite, no! That

one’s her favorite. And money, of course. Always money. You know why I dumped

her? The last straw? She bought a handbag that cost a thousand quid. I tell you, a

thousand quid-’

‘'A thowsand quid',’ she imitated his cockney twang. ‘Say that again. It’s so cute.’

‘A thousand quid,’ he said, deadpan. ‘Say, wee willy wonka.’

‘I can’t, come on.’

‘Say it.’

‘Vee villy vonka.’

He laughed. ‘Say woind and woind the wagged bush the wagged wascal wan.’

29

‘Shut up, you meanie. Say, give me a kiss.’

‘Gimme a kiss.’

And he was back again.

‘Boys?’ Frank interrupted. ‘Party’s over. Curfew time. Discipline!’ He clapped his

hands once and strutted off back to the bar.

Johhny groaned and disentangled himself. Bjorn and Noodle just carried on kissing.

‘What < what’s happening?’ asked Ariel, breathless.

‘Got a game on Sunday. Oh gosh, look at the time. Bjorn? We gotta get going, mate.

Video strategy session at nine. Come on, I’ll take you girls home.’

‘Do you have to?’

‘Yeah, absolutely. This is the life.’

‘Okay,’ she sighed.

‘Bjorn! Let’s go. No sex before the game.’

‘What you doing Sunday night?’ Bjorn asked Noodle, his voice husky.

‘She has school on Monday,’ replied Ariel, a bit primly. ‘And we have final exams in

two weeks.’ Noodle shrugged and nodded, her mouth slack and her lipstick smudged.

There was a numb pause, then slowly they began to gather their things, shifting out and

standing up. Ariel asked for Johnny’s number and thumbed it in. She called him and it

rang, a nice ordinary ringtone, old-style telephone. ‘Got it,’ he said. Bjorn and Noodle

exchanged numbers the same way and they drifted out towards the exit.

‘Hang on a mo,’ said Johnny. ‘I want to talk to that Floyd guy about a membership.’

So Ariel went on alone, while Bjorn and Noodle leant up against a wall to kiss awhile

longer. Outside the air was crisp and chilly, a faint autumn breeze bearing just a

whisper of winter. She leant her head back and stretched out her arms. For once her

mind kept quiet, simply enjoying the warmth of the love chemicals infusing her body.

30

A miaow at her feet. She looked down. A white cat – no, Siamese – staring up at her

with eyes as blue and perfect as planets. It lashed its tail from side to side and came

closer, still holding her gaze. She bent over to stroke it, but it ducked away and meowed

again.

‘What’s wrong, kitty?’ She squatted down. There was something wrong, she could

tell, hunger, trauma, some desperate edge to that ragged little vowel. The cat prowled

even closer, right between her outstretched knees, and this time permitted her to stroke

it, but did not purr or arch its back like an extrovert cat flirting with a stranger.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked again in a soft voice. And again, a plaintive meow and

those intense, pleading eyes.

A crunch of boots on the gravel behind her. She jumped up. ‘Made a new friend?’

Johnny asked. He kissed her cheek, running fingertips down her spine. ‘Damn,’ he

sighed into her ear. ‘I wish this night could go on forever. Gonna miss you like crazy.’

He shrugged, took her hand and led her off across the courtyard.

The cat followed closely at her heels, and was still there as they approached the car.

Behind them, Noodle and Bjorn said their clinging goodbyes. The cat meowed again.

‘Wait,’ said Ariel, bending down and gathering it into her arms. It did not struggle.

‘There’s something wrong, Johnny. I think I must take it home with me.’

‘What? No, it belongs to someone round here.’

‘I suppose, but < I’ll come back tomorrow and put up a few notices.’

‘No way, Ariel,’ he said, opening her door. ‘I don’t want some raggedy old tomcat in

my car.’

‘She’s clean, look–‘

‘I said no, okay? This leather’s brand new. You can’t get the smell of cat piss–‘

‘I think she’s sick or some–‘

‘So it’ll puke everywhere. The answer’s no. Put it down.’

31

For a moment she stared back, defiantly. Then slowly she lowered the cat to the

ground.

The Merc purred out of the parking lot while the GPS pondered her curt address,

and then swung left. In the side mirror, Ariel saw the cat slip out onto the pavement

and sit back on its haunches, staring at her as it receded. Something flashed in the air

above its head, wheeled, whirled and took off towards the car, vanishing up out of

sight. What on earth was that? So fast. A hawkmoth?

She checked in the sunguard mirror. Noodle lay sprawled in the back seat, earphones

in, eyes closed, lost behind a dreamy, happy smile.

‘So,’ said Johnny. ‘I hope we can <’ he glanced over and caught her expression.

‘Hey, I’m sorry, okay? We can’t go picking up every stray animal–‘

‘Whatever.’

‘Aah, come on, Ariel. Okay, whatever. Sulk if you want to.’ He fumbled for a CD and

slid it in without looking. Lady Gaga, she noted with distaste. He drove awhile, a

pensive expression on his face. At a red traffic light he glanced at her again. ‘Now I feel

bad. Let’s go back.’

She sighed. ‘No, it’s okay. Just take us home.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yes!’

‘Okay, okay.’ The light turned green and they crawled forward, then picked up

speed. He coughed awkwardly. ‘Um < what about Noodle?’

‘What about her?’

‘Where must I-‘

‘Round the corner from me. We’ll drop her off first.’

‘Okay. So where do you, who do, do you still live with your parents?’

‘Of course, I’m at school, remember?’

32

‘Right, right.’

‘My father, actually. They split. You know.’

‘Sure. You have brothers and sisters?’

‘No. Only child.’

‘What your parents do?’

She sighed. ‘My father’s a businessman. Supplying fiber-optics at the moment. He

travels quite a lot.’

‘Cool. And your mum?’

‘She’s a member of parliament.’

‘Really? What party?’

‘The Greens.’

‘Ah.’

‘Don’t you ah me! When I tell people that, always think they’ve had some sort of

insight. I’m not like her. I hardly ever see her. And we don’t agree on things at all.’

‘Ah.’

She laughed. ‘She was meant to visit me tonight, but she was late as usual, so I went

out.’ And she’d deleted the voicemail without even listening to it.

‘So what stuff don’t you agree on? Saving the world?’

‘Well, no, I mean < when she was my age, they had all this grand ideology,

communism versus capitalism, feminism, Marxism, all that. They lived in this neurotic

world of ideas, and you had to be either one side or the other. And if you were the other,

then you were evil, that’s it. Good guys and bad guys, everything black and white. So

she’s really disappointed in our generation. She thinks we’re superficial, all about

internet and sex and clothes and stuff, so nothing I do is ever good enough for her.’

‘Take it easy.’

‘Sorry.’

33

‘No no, it’s true what you say. It’s like < they fought this hectic battle against the

Evil Empire, and all we do is fart around. But act ually all they did is sit on their bums

and talk a whole lot of shit, while the world carried on getting fucked up, business as

usual.’

‘Couldn’t have put it better myself.’

He chuckled. ‘I get the same vibe from my mum. I dunno, s cornful, y’know? I mean,

she’s not political, but < when I try to get her hooked up to Skype, or Facebook or

whatever, then she’s like, yeah yeah.’

‘That’s the point, Johnny. Our generation’s job is the global communications system,

the information network, the first step to fixing the mess they made of the planet.

Sharing knowledge, finding common ground, transcending the divisions they created. I

mean, as far as I can see, what’s the difference if you’re comrade commissar or a CEO, if

you’re polluting or using up all the resources, then you’re exactly the same, right? And

what was their grand struggle for, if not to give us what we’ve got now, where it

doesn’t matter what color you are or what your religion is or what flag you wave or

whatever? We have very real, practical problems to solve in our lifetime, and all their

old-fashioned ideological posturing doesn’t help us in the slightest.’

‘Gee, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you worked for the Green Party.’

‘Oh, very funny. Anyway. That’s my mother. You asked. Please can you turn this

off? Bitch be like Nero fiddling.’

‘Sure. What kind of music are you into? I’ve got all kinds, I’ve got-‘

‘There, you see? We can pick and choose whatever identity we want. Today

fashionista, tomorrow sexy vampire, or hippy ethno, or punk, emo, metal, house, rap,

pop, we can be corporate chicy-mickey, we can be drop-out skaters, green crusaders,

techno-geeks, whatever we want. Surf the menu, point and click. Put the iPod in shuffle,

be young and have fun. Burn it up. Why not? We’re the free-choice generation. The

eclectic generation.’

34

‘Eclectic electric. But sometimes I think our mothers are right. Maybe deep down

we’re superficial. We think life’s just a game.’

‘What you do for a living again?’

‘I’m a slave, actually. I’ve got no freedom at all. My whole life is under management.

Okay, I make a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m lucky. Eeny-meany-miny-

mo Johnny gets football talent, Ariel gets to be incredibly beautiful and intelligent and

thoughtful and kind to animals and have a gift for languages, and who gets the big

bucks? I live in this < like I’m not part of the world and all its challenges, I’ve been

denied, I dunno, meaning? Purpose? People would laugh, but sometimes I feel like I’m

the one cheated. And you’re the one that’s lucky; you weren’t stuck in the Thoughtful

Academy when you were just a kid. And let me tell you, sometimes I feel ashamed of

being so rich, so young. It’s just < wrong, y’know? Things are changing. This economic

crisis isn’t going to go away, not ever, even if we’re getting used to it. Too many people,

too little to go around. We may think we’re free, but the poor little kids today are gonna

be the hard-choice generation.’

‘Hmm.’ And hmmm said her mind. This is so cool. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he’s not

just a gorgeous frog. Maybe he’s a prince, after all.

35

5

The rest of the weekend was pure torture. On Saturday morning her father forced her

to phone her mother to apologize. And surprise surprise, mother dearest was gruff and

dismissive, obviously bustling off to some imminent unmissable meeting again.

Punishing her with distance, so what’s new? She had studied, or tried to study, but her

eyes kept wandering from the laptop to the blank phone-screen. And she kept

remembering how abrupt Johnny had been when he dropped her off, a quick kiss, a I’ll-

phone-you, and off he drove, leaving her like a stray cat on the grass verge outside her

house. Had she said something wrong? Just when she was really, really starting to like

him, had she driven him away? Was he getting sweaty with some football groupie

during her long, insomniac Saturday night alone? Or a hotel room-full of them, all

looking like models, all barely-dressed in French lingerie and hip-hop hot pants, all

incredibly knowledgeable about offside traps and defensive strategies and

physiotherapy and sex and stuff? On Sunday she had tried to find the Bayern-Bremen

game on TV, but her father shouted at her for wasting time and unplugged it. By

Sunday night she was exhausted and in a foul mood.

And then the phone rang. Caller ID: Johnny. She stared at it, her tummy a sudden

riot of butterflies, and then snatched it up on the last ring.

‘Hullo? Johnny?’

‘Hey, did you see that? What a disaster.’

‘See what?’

‘The game, of course.’

‘No, I told you, I hate football.’ Oh no! Why did she say that? The phone was silent,

clearly shocked. Then, to her relief, a slow chuckle, warm and sweet and Johnny.

36

‘Ariel,’ he said. ‘I swear, I’m probably the first guy in the history of Premier football

to hear that the first time he calls a girl. And you know what? I hate football too. What a

balls-up. How are you?’

‘I miss you.’ Oh, uh-duh. Pathetic. ‘What happened in the game?’

‘I couldn’t stop myself. I kept thinking.’

‘About what?’

‘Just thinking.’

‘That’s bad?’

‘Yeah,’ he sighed. ‘That’s bad. My old coach used to say there’s no time to think on

the pitch. At this level the game’s so fast and precise you have to be pure reflex, pure

instinct. Zen, he called it. Getting in the zone. You have to live in the moment, sharp

and clear as crystal. They even train us how to do it. But I kept looking up into the

crowd and wondering about them, who they were, what their lives are like, what we

talked about, you know, the past, the future? It was weird. It was like the first time I

was seeing them as people, not just < noisy wallpaper. Felt like I was drowning. And I

kept thinking about you. What a disaster.’

‘Thanks a lot.’

‘No, wait,’ he chuckled again. ‘Boy, did that come out wrong. It’s not your fault. I’m

just going to have to separate you from, from all this. You know what? I miss you too,

like crazy. From now on I’m going to be two people. A kid who plays football, and a

man who spends time with you. If < that’s okay?’

She was so overcome she started thrashing her legs around, kicking and dancing a jig

while still sitting down. She kept her lips pressed hard together, lest she bray or scream

or say something seriously uncool. Then her foot caught the leg of the desk and she flew

back, the chair twisting and tipping over, and with a thump she was sprawled on her

back on the carpet. Only an oof! managed to escape.

‘Ariel? Are you there?’

37

‘Yes! Sorry. I fell down.’

‘Literally?’

‘Of course not. When can I see you?’

‘Tonight? I’ve got a couple of hours. There’s a Champion’s League qualifier on

Wednesday, then next weekend we’re away to Cologne, so <’

‘Not tonight. School tomorrow. Exams coming up. So is this how it’s going to be? A

couple of hours a week?’

‘No, my evenings are mostly free. They give us time, otherwise the pressure becomes

too much. And soon you’ll be finished with school, and I was thinking I could buy a

little flat for you-‘

‘Your old coach was right.’ She righted the chair and sat down. ‘You shouldn’t think

too much.’

‘Okay,’ he chuckled again. ‘Getting ahead of myself. Can’t stop. I keep thinking

about me and you-‘

‘You and I.’

‘< both of us together on an endless, white beach, barefoot under the palm trees, the

scent of jasmine and honeysuckle in the morning breeze, our little house behind the

lush frangipani-‘

‘Frangipani?’

‘Yeah, well. It was in a poem me Mum forced me to learn. I wouldn’t know a

frangipani if it bit me on the arse.’

‘So this would be the off-season, then?’

‘Ten years. Even five, and I’ll have enough to set me up for life. Then we can – oh

shit,’ he dropped to a whisper. ‘There’s the manager. He’s looking for me. Gonna give

me the old hairdryer for the way I played today.’

38

’He’s going to give you an old hairdryer?’ Visions rose in her mind of half-naked

men standing around in a steamy change room, wet muscles rippling as they shared

hairdressing equipment and beauty products, the make-up bags, the curling tongs-

‘Football parlance. Sorry. Means he’s going to scream in my face. You know, blow

my hair back-‘

‘I get it. Good luck.’

‘Thanks, I’ll need it. Do me a favour. Don’t read the papers about the game, okay?

Whoops, gotta go. I’ll phone you.’ And he was gone.

So, of course, she went online, where the first reports were already dropping in. He

was right, total disaster. J-Bap takes a nap. Johnny B, Bayern’s multi-million

catastrophe. She caught a video stream of him gazing up, belatedly hacking at a passing

ball and missing it completely. He looked so cute in his little red shorts, the baffled

expression when they zoomed onto his face. She put her arms around the laptop and

then froze.

A headline link. She sat back, opened it and gasped as the photo came up. The man

from the club, the one staring at her at the bar. Much younger, shorter hair, but

unmistakable. She scanned. Croatian war criminal, sought by Interpol for almost two

decades, beats woman to death in an alley behind a Leopold Street nightclub. Police

called after screams heard. Man shot dead, apparently during a frenzied, suicidal rush.

Details sketchy. One quote, from a visibly shaken young policeman: ‚It was him

screaming. Like he was in terrible pain.'

Her phone rang. She snatched it up without looking. ‘Johnny?’

‘No, he’s gone into hiding.’ Noodle sounded smug. ‘Bjorn, on the other hand, was

strong and dependable, and < and a rock in defence. That’s all I can find.’

‘Did you see this? The guy who killed the woman behind the club on Friday night?’

‘No. Hang on. Okay, got it. Shit, that’s where we were.’

39

‘Yes, he was staring at me. Gave me the creeps. Oh God. Do you realize that could’ve

been me?’

‘Well, if she’s stupid enough to go off alone with some strange man-‘

‘And what did you do?’

‘Okay, no need to ... hmm. Scary, huh?’

‘Yes. Very.’

‘Oh well. I just thought I’d phone to gloat. Bjorn’s coming to fetch me in about an

hour.’

‘Hey! School tomorrow?’

‘Who cares? How often will I catch a top-class footballer? I mean, please. School? You

must be joking. Have you heard from your Johnny?’

‘Yes, he called me-‘

‘Disguising himself? Buying a ticket back to England?’

‘No, he was very < happy, actually.’

‘Ah, deluded. The power of love. Anyway, ta-ta. Must put on my face.’

‘Noods, my treasure, be careful. Don’t give it to him right away.’

‘I won’t. Thanks, Ari. And be cool. Don’t be a groupie.’

‘Yes. You too. Take care.’

‘You too.’

She dreamed of lush frangipani, their little house only vague, whitewashed angles

behind it. It grew out from her imagination, generous, fragile leaves, heart-shaped and

broad as beds, white orchids dashed with silver and fleshy pink. A blue, blue sky. She

didn’t have the heart to google real frangipani when she woke up, to see what it

actually looked like. Strangely, he wasn’t in the dream, but he was coming, coming over

the gentle ocean lapping behind her. She washed and brushed her teeth, humming

nonsense, then drifted out into the damp suburbs with soft, warm, tropical sand

40

beneath her feet, a tang of salt air a thousand miles from the sea. A slow pirouette down

the mossy stone path, through the frangipani, through the frangipani. A secretive smile

lingered on her face through the day.

It dismayed her friends. With the Abi exams looming straight ahead she looked, well,

confident. Amused by their panic, like she knew something they didn’t. And for the

next three days she cruised, murmuring goodbyes with half-hearted hugs to people

she’d known since forever, no regrets and few promises, none meant. And all the while

that damn Mona Lisa smile.

Then Tease magazine hit the stands.

It was a mad, uproarious scandal, a pressure valve bursting. They completely lost all

cool, yelling and bouncing around like a German version of High School Musical,

tearing copies apart as they went from hand to hysterical hand. On the last day of their

school career, Ari & Noods became famous.

And for nothing, really. A photo of three friends, arms linked, strolling outside. A

smaller inset, the focal point Ariel’s amazing eyes. A voyeur’s view, happy intimacy

made lurid by the light of the public eye. But the words did the real damage, starting

with SEX v PERFORMANCE? then on to Johnny B’s a naughty boy! and Friday night

threesome frolic blows the game! Two facing columns of copy, the first carefully non-

speculative about what Johnny-boy might have actually got up to with the two sexy

young ma(umluab)dels, clubbing and carousing all over town all night long, draw your

own conclusion. The second passed the ball from the sports pages to teen-zine over

common ground, sex. Does sex before a game affect performance? This opinion and

that. Bragging by implication. Robert de Niro pouring ice down his shorts, you know

he’s gonna throw a beating. Famous athlete’s quotes – ‚It relaxes me' – in giant

quotation marks to club home their veracity. Apropos of no-one in a rhetorical question:

monkey sex, in startling pink font. Turn the page and there’s the implied answer to did

they or didn’t they? NO MOJO across a photo of Johnny hoiking his now-infamous air

41

shot, the daze in his handsome face, serve you right, you smug bastard. Nothing’s for

free.

They had one night’s notice before the last day of school. Ariel dressed down in her

hoodie and jeans, swirling morning mist as she scurried through the gate. Now

everyone knew exactly what had happened. Now they smirked at her, at her first-

orgasm smile.

Noodle went the other way. She dressed up in bright, skin-tight satin and ironic

hair, pinned in curlers the night before, flouncing around a la Hollywood tartlet. Some

got it, for the others she had to ham it up, waving at the crowds and pouting behind her

shades, saying things like ‚Dahhling' and ‚World peace. And a new contract!' and

‚English, please!' She was quietly invited to two clique parties, but proclaimed, loudly

and with relish, that she would be with her fans at the big common-people’s party at

Stefan’s house as planned. By mid-day no-one would speak to her, and still she

laughed.

Some whispered that she was deliberately stealing the limelight from Ariel, and yes,

it was true. But not, as they said, because she was jealous of that photo, the smaller one,

the one boys all over the school were caught staring at, losing themselves, startling up

guilty. At school, if not the editorial room, Ari was the star. And Noods the loud, brassy

supporting role. But she didn’t care. She spread flamboyant wings wide to deflect their

attention, to protect her friend.

Ariel knew it and thanked her, a quick hug and a word in her ear as they passed each

other in the stairwell. That sparked another whisper that it was a kiss, which flamed, in

some circles, into full-on girl-on-girl by the end of the day. Otherwise Ariel played her

part well, Garbo in a dark veil of hair to hide her face, hoodie up, sitting inside alone.

So no-one saw that, despite their best efforts, the smile still lingered on her face.

42

And suddenly, that was that. School’s out. The seed-pod’s bursting, the scatterlings

never to be together again.

That night Noodle celebrated her triumph. A jump up onto a table, an air-punch,

standing high over the bitches. POW! After all they’d been through, the knock-out! On

the very last day. Victory! She made sure everyone knew it, who won and who were the

lo-ooosers, then said ciao-ciao before something went wrong, and because, by the way,

she had a date with a famous footballer, which just also happened to be true. Ariel

stayed away altogether.

Because he phoned her again.

‘Did you see that?’

‘Terrible! How dare they? They just assume-‘

‘What are you talking about? It was amazing, I scored two goals. And I made the

third.’

Oh. The midweek game. She’d completely forgotten.

‘You did? I’m sorry, that’s wonderful. Well done.’

He sighed. ‘I completely turned it around. I wished you’d seen it. One of the best

games I ever had. So now you can read the papers.’

‘So you didn’t see Tease magazine?’

‘What? No.’

‘They had a picture of us, together.’

‘Aah, don’t worry about it. Load of old bollocks. In the real world I scored two goals.’

‘And you made the third.’

‘And I made the third. It was brilliant. I was dancing. I miss you, babe. It feels like <

you’re slipping away, like maybe you weren’t even real. I dreamed about you.’

‘Me too.’

‘Can I see you tonight?’

43

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yeah? Hold on.’ She heard glug-glug-glug, and realized he was drinking water,

really pouring it down the hatch. ‘Aaaah. Just gotta shower, and I’ll be there.’

He was hot when they kissed in the park, literally hot, burning up, his skin several

shades darker in the moonlight, the flesh of his face rippling with fine muscle. He held

her lightly, trembling fingers tracing her hips, back and shoulders, his breathing deep,

as if it took all his strength to be so gentle. She writhed and kissed him back, her hands

in his wet hair. He pressed forward, hard as rock. Their breathing came together for a

while.

‘Mmmm. Nice.’ He chuckled. ‘Man, I wanna < whoo!’

‘You wanna what?’ She swatted him. ‘Huh?’

‘Talk. Just talk. About < like, how animals do it.’

‘Antelope do one hard little poke, and that’s it.’

He regarded her glumly, suddenly deflated. She laughed.

‘Naaah.’

‘Naaah.’

‘Screw the antelope.’

‘Uhh < no.’

‘How ‘bout monkeys?’

Just the wrong thing to say. She grimaced and looked away.

‘What?’

‘Nothing. I should study.’

In a moment he was attentive, swimming sharply into focus, his dark eyes shining in

the distant street-light. He’s not like the rest of us. His time is sharper, his senses quicker. He’s

44

perfectly honed. She raised a soft hand to his face, her fingertips slipping on the sheen of

his sweat.

‘I’m not listening,’ he said. ‘Missing something. Taking you for granted.’

So she told him about the photos, all the madness at school. He listened. She talked

for several minutes, quietly, her hand on his shoulder, his on her hip, touching hands,

cheeks, hair with their free hands. She scuffed at the thick grass with her boots and

broke free from him, and he caught her and drew her back. They kissed once or twice.

Then she stopped, realizing how silly her little story must be to him. Her anonymous

brush with celebrity, one of millions of babes and their fifteen seconds of fame. He

stood in thought a while as if he was still listening. She heard a sigh on the fresh

evening breeze and turned to it. An old couple, a man and a woman, his arm around

her shoulders, watching them. We’re silhouettes under this tree. Eternal. We look so cool, the

way they once did. They moved off, their dog scampering after.

‘I tell you something,’ he said, a slow hand on his chin. ‘I did this. I came here and

dragged you into this pit of hell.’

‘Well, it’s not that bad.’

‘This stinking filthy pit of sin and evil. So it’s my job to get you out. So how about we

< just step out, that’s it! There’s a function tomorrow. Stadium advertisers, some

presentation by the club. I’ll dress you nice and take you, hold out your chair. Find

someone, some freakin’ demon of the mass media, and introduce you. Hi, this is Ariel,

she’s by my side, get used to it.’

‘Are you asking me out on a date?’

‘No. Yes. Of course, sorry.’

‘But what’s the story? Soccer player has girlfriend. Who cares? They screwed us.’

‘No, it’s still a story. One of the better tabloids, it embarrasses this < Tease magazine,

throws their dirty minds back at them. Just hang it out there. It’s worth a try. But we

have to do it now.’

45

‘Can’t I just be anonymous? The mystery brunette, you know, or something?’

‘But why? This is your people, your community. Your friends. It’s why I’m

suggesting it, come barging in here with the paparazzi after me. They lied about us, we

put the record straight. That’s all. It’s beautiful.’

She dropped her hands and swung away, the pale moonlight of her face suddenly

gone, extinguished by her hair. He reached out and then paused, puzzled. She drifted,

with wide, stiff-legged steps, each a balancing act, arms stretched wide.

‘What?’

‘I don’t know.’ She came back to him, head to one side. ‘This is about us, not them.

Why should we be pushed into an announcement that we’re boyfriend and girlfriend?

Into anything? This is only the second time I’ve actually, physically seen you. Maybe

you-‘

‘Don’t say it. Come on, think about it. This is what it is. This is where we live. It’s in

public whether we like it or not.’

‘It? What’s-‘

‘Our relationship. I’m crazy about you. I have to see you. You wanna see me begging

on my knees over there,’ he pointed to her house, ‘in broad daylight, how the media are

going to love that?’

‘So I’ve no choice.’

‘No. You’re coming on a date with me. That’s all. A date. Our relationship? Who

knows? Nobody’s business but our own.’

‘Okay. Okay, it’s a date.’

They kissed again, but for some reason it was funny this time, lips and foreheads

bumping, their eyes dancing. Then her front door opened and her father strode out,

scanning across his field with an out-thrust jaw and worry in his eyes, she could see all

the way from the other side of the park.

‘Come meet my dad.’

46

‘What? No way. I’ll wait here, while you–‘

‘So we can announce to the whole world, but you can’t say hullo to my poor little

papa?’

‘He’s huge! Look at the size of him. Maybe when there witnesses around.’

‘Frighty cat. I mean, what you say, scaredy cat. All right. When will you fetch me?’

‘Tomorrow. Seven thirty?’

‘I’ll be here.’

‘Wait. Earlier. I want to buy you a dress.’

‘I’ll dress myself, thank you.’

Poor Papa Jaeger. Every choice looked wrong. He didn’t like this Eurotrash skulking

away in his fancy black Merc like some rich little cockroach. A boy like that only wants

one thing. But to say no? To Ariel? She’d studied so hard this year. Too much,

sometimes, he’d told her to go get a life. Maybe what she needed for the exams was a

bit of fun. But abi exams < her mother will go Vesuvius. Hopefully she won’t find out.

Bild carried the photos, a quarter-page spread, chosen mostly because of the

debutante, stunning in her silver-white chiffon, lovely hair pinned up just so, fresh and

visibly excited, a scent of sex – he’s an athlete, celebrity-grade good-looking, she’s been

picked from the forests of Bayern like the sweetest cherry. They were smoking hot,

there had to be fire.

He took her straight home afterwards, like a proper date. She waited for the

twitch of a curtain from the upstairs window, and when it came his eyes flashed

instantly up. They talked for half-an-hour, kissing only once. He watched her to the

door.

Noodle wasn’t invited.

47

‘Was Bjorn there, the bastard?’

‘Yes, but alone. I mean, sitting with his comrades. He looked guilty when he saw

me?’

‘Okay. So maybe <’

‘Johnny took me to throw Tease into the bin. You weren’t, you know, you aren’t <

Bjorn probably didn’t even think about it.’

‘Yeah,’ she sighed. ‘He doesn’t do a whole lot of that. Not really his thing. I went to

his place-‘

‘You went to his what?’

‘Well, he said we couldn’t go out because of the paparazzi and everyone, like

ordinary people. Everyone watching us. And he said he’d cook me supper, but it was

pizza, and his place was so sexy. Wow. All chrome and marble and big windows, big

colorful paintings. Lots of energy, lots of < thrust. He put serious moves on me, Ari. I

thought I was going to die. It was so hot, I almost lost my mind.’

‘You didn’t?’

‘No, almost. Tried to talk, to cool him down, you know, just about stuff. Football,

even. Stuff. But he was just like, uh-duh.’

‘Oh well. You know boys.‘

‘No, that’s not the worst of it. Because then, wait for it - he switched on the TV!’

What?

‘I’m so jealous, Ari. You get the prince, I get the penis. What shall we do?’

‘Let’s go out together. The four of us. Give him a chance.’

‘After exams.’

‘Sure.’

‘I’m frozen inside. Fear, I suppose. I’m not even thinking about it. Y’know, when I

started high school, I had this sort of idea, that when we reached this point everything

would crystallize, everything would make sense, it would all < come to a point or

48

something? But now < there’s so much to learn. Like this wall in front of me, and I’m

too scared to even look at it.’

‘You know more than you think. Open the books. You’ll see.’

‘You think so?’

‘Absolutely. And forget the boys for a while. Let him stew. Or go.’

‘Yeah, the bastard.’

‘Enough of this chit-chat. Go open a book. Now.’

She ignored her own advice because the afternoon outside was so lovely, a cheeky

breeze blustering in all directions as if summer was still young, the sun fresh and warm.

It hadn’t rained for days. Barefoot weather. At the grass verge by the gate she paused

and turned back to look at her house. It seemed smaller, the way it looked when she

came home from holiday. The wisteria’s sad, she thought. Needs water. She continued

on her way.

The house would be hers, in time. It had been passed down a maternal line over a

century long and was now owned, on paper at least, by her mother. Her grandmother

was still alive, still kicking her heels in a village altersheim next to the Starnberger See.

Her father paid no rent in lieu of maintenance, and had lived his life in a state of

suspended eviction both before and since the divorce. Recently he had developed a

habit, spending secret, wistful hours viewing properties on sale, from sleek bachelor

pads in town to gnarled old bear-cave houses in the forests south of Munich.

In spirit the house was Ariel’s already, by now Mama would never come home. Ariel

remembered how happy she’d been when she fled, how haunted she was when she

visited, hovering in the kitchen with her coat still on. Recently she wouldn’t even come

in, preferring to wait in the car.

She shook her hair back and broke into a run across the grass.

49

Past the neighbors, the young Hoffenheim couple, with their clean new tile-and-paint

job. Then old Mrs Bledic, one of the scariest witches of Pasing. There she was, pottering

in the garden, her cat in the apple tree. As always she grinned and waved and began

shouting Ariel’s latest astrological update. Ariel waved back and ran on. The Ghanaian

businessman, low maintenance, never home, the tech-design students with the stone

wall, always so boring and studious. Across the asphalt and the tousled green lawn of

the park, down towards the river.

She stretched back on the bench with her eyes open to the restless sky, her mind

reciting the English oral exam, twittering away, happy to be back at work. The words

she had so carefully written sparkled along, brought to life, perhaps, by Johnny? She

hummed his name out loud and broke the train of thought.

A twig crackled, the sigh of fabric on leaf, moving around and behind her. A fresh

breeze arrived, gusting through the autumn trees and swirling leaves to her bench. It

brought an unexpected stink of sulfur, nasty in the clean air, and a snatched fragment of

muttered speech, ‘< lost the scent. You fool! All this green <’ then a noise like broken

gears, but still a voice, human, almost a word. She shivered and slipped off the bench,

back into the copse of trees that hung shade over her thinking place.

From the deep green she saw his silhouette, lurking on the other side of a raspberry

bush. He seemed to be sitting on something, a stool or branch or tree-stump, she

couldn’t see through the branches. Knees up, Buddha-style. It looked crazy, like he was

floating in mid-air. He was familiar, his shape <

‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘Mouse? You following me here, now? What are you <?’ A tree

briefly hid him from view and when she came out into the open he was standing there,

feet on the ground. Cropped grass all around, no stool, no branch, no tree-stump.

‘Wha-? You were sitting on something. What the hell? I saw you!’

‘Excuse me?’

50

‘I saw you. Like you were floating?’

‘But Ari, that doesn’t make any sense.’

His voice was a surprise. Clear, rich and masculine, veined with subtle amusement, a

man’s voice. Here stood moody Mahmoud, the Mouse, Hashishin, the stoner jihadist,

all the names he’d gone by over the years, a German-born Palestinian boy with a

bayerisch accent as thick as a forester’s and a very sulky attitude. This voice just wasn’t

his. He was standing differently too, his shoulders squared, his head drawn back.

Come to think of it, she hadn’t really heard him say anything over the last couple of

years. A notorious weirdo, he had stalked Ariel virtually throughout high school. It had

been intermittently creepy, but he never said or did anything at all, just drifted around

nearby with his red, stoned eyes, staring like some dull beast, so after a while she had

hardly noticed. His eyes were still terribly bloodshot, but for once they didn’t drop

away. He took a deep breath and a step forward.

‘Sorry if I scared you, Ari.’

‘But you were sitting on something. I saw you.’

‘What? Come on.’

‘I dunno. Branches? Looked like <’ She looked at the raspberry bush, but no knee-

shaped branches. ‘Weird. My eyes are playing tricks.’

‘The stress, maybe? Exams?’

‘No.’ She let her eyes drift around, as if searching for clues, then shook her head.

‘Okay, whatever. No, I’m cruising. You?’

‘I couldn’t care less.’

She regarded him for a moment. Quite handsome, actually. Arrogant. A simmering

wildness about him. And strength in that bad-boy sneer. Dangerous? She held out her

hand.

‘Hi. I’m Ariel. Pleased to meet you. At last.’

51

He laughed and shook it. His hand was hot. ‘Yeah, sorry about all the, you know, the

following, following you around.’

‘Why didn’t you just talk to me?’

‘No, I wasn’t myself. Doing a job. I wasn’t a nice person at all.’

‘Job?’

‘Watching over you. Come, let’s walk.’ He took off abruptly then came to a halt,

waiting for her. She paused, then hurried to catch up. They strolled together down the

dirt path towards the river.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You have friends, Ariel. People who care about you. You’re important to us.’

Okay, so delusional, paranoid-schizophrenic, something like that. Not just hash and

Ariel-fantasies. A whole world going on in there.

‘What people? Like a club? The Friends of Ariel?’

‘I just said something crazy. Why aren’t you afraid?’

She stopped walking. He strolled on a few paces and half-turned, a curious smile on

his face.

‘Because I deal with stuff, Mahmoud.’ She used his real name deliberately, and saw

him flinch. She had always hated Mouse. ‘Look, when you followed me at school it felt,

I dunno, not dangerous? Natural? Like it < had happened before, I <’

‘Like a jackal following a lion?’

‘Yes. Cool. More like a monkey following another monkey. But you never came

down here before. You never followed me home.’

‘There are others here.’

‘More lunatic talk, a bit threatening. You’ll probably never see me again, so crisis? An

episode, maybe? Of what? So now I need to deal with you, poor me.’ She came closer.

‘Of course I’m afraid.’

‘Don’t be. I worship you. You’re amazing, magnificent, like an angel. You-‘

52

‘An an gel? Are you mad? Hullo? Here I am. I’m a girl. Just a girl, you know?’ Her

arm flashed out and her knuckles rapped twice on his forehead. ‘Who are you? If I

disappoint you, are you going to, I don’t know, burn the Ariel shrine up in your

bedroom? Cut off my wings? What the fuck do you want?’ She bounced up close to him,

feigned a head butt and danced away, hands low, eyes on his.

‘Ari, please. Not literally an angel. You’re really something very different. Trust me,

I’m not crazy. You’ll remember this.’

‘Absolutely. Remember what?’

‘Quiet now. Listen. You have a great destiny.’

‘Oh<kay?’

‘Your pictures? In the paper? That’s just the start. You’re going to be famous, Ariel.

You’re right, I probably will never see you again. You’ll leave us all behind. I just came

to say thank you. To plant the seed of your destiny. And to give you my blessing.’

‘Your blessing? Fine. Thanks. Blessing accepted. No offence.’

‘Never. Another thing. He may be good for you, but the Baptista boy is only the first

step. Yours is true glory. The money, the travel, the thrill of cheap celebrity, you’ll

transcend all that. The pleasures of the next few years shouldn’t satisfy you, they are

only a taste. Keep preparing. Opportunity will come, I guarantee it.’

‘That’s good advice. Thank you.’ Wow! I mean, wow! Nutjob alert! What a fruitloop! I

can see you in a few years, preaching in the train station, starving and dirty and wearing other

people’s clothes. I’ll give you five Euros – hell, ten, I guarantee it - and walk away. Which is

what I wish I could do right now. ‘Mahmoud?’ Again, something squirmed beneath his

skin at his real name. ‘I really should go home. Exams, remember?’

‘Of course.’ He shrugged, laughed and turned towards her home. They strolled back

up the path together. ‘Sorry if all this sounds strange. I just < had to say it.’ Spoken

lightly, with a self-depreciation that made her unwillingly smile, as if to reassure him.

53

This voice, this posture. Mature, confident … charming. The complete opposite of the Mouse.

Is this multiple personality? A father figure?

Who is this strange boy?

At the street he took his leave with a polite bow. As she crossed the park she felt

suddenly nauseous, the sun too heavy on her shoulders, and had to rest awhile under

the tree where she and Johnny had kissed.

54

6

A weird coincidence, totally unplanned. Three movies in the two days since the last

exam, all set in the future, all horrorshows of human nastiness. And all three quite

unbelievable, somehow. The first, collapsed in front of the TV, a high-tech android

dictatorship versus New Age rebels who looked like homeless drama students, in the

second we were all stuck in these grim, black spaceships (‚Interior design? The best

suicide décor you’ve got. Depressing, get it? The crew must hate each other.') and

seriously wedgie latex jumpsuits, except for the rich who lived in a doomed greenhouse

and wore cotton frocks, and then tonight, by far the worst of all, two long hours of a

gym-bunny Hollywood old guy on steroids killing most of the few souls left on our

dark, dead planet, somehow finding the energy despite the total absence of any food or

water goddamn whatso ever. Oh yes, there had been a hairless cat. Disgusting. And two

old tins of beans from his glory days.

Ariel staggered out of the cinema with a headache, rubbing her tired eyes. Officially

all grown up now, so she made the grown-up decision to get a big, strong drink as soon

as possible. And hopefully catch amnesia.

Noodle had gone to the loo, so she wandered out into the street alone, breathing in

the fresh air of the real world. She loved Munich at this time of year, the lingering

twilight, the buzz of the street at night, the chill of the air crisp and pleasant. Winter

soon, but not yet, not yet. She watched a knot of teenage boys saunter up and smiled as

they stared back. Then Noodle made a hair-tossing, long-stepping entrance out into the

street, and they tangled up with each other before running away in happy confusion.

‘My God. Noods! That was awful. The worst movie ever. We finish school, our

glorious future lies before us, and you take me to that?’

‘It was great. It made me happy, ‘cause I’m not my grandkids.’

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‘What a load of crap. It’s like we’re trying to convince ourselves the apocalypse will

come, has to come, it’s inevitable. I mean, how many people does it take to predict the

end of the world for it to happen? And children? What’s the point? Why not just drink

and fuck myself to death?’

‘Hallelujah! How about there?’ Noods pointed to the bustling Irish pub on the other

side of the street.

‘Wait.’ Ariel’s phone was vibrating. ‘Eeeek! It’s Johnny! Hullo?’

‘Ariel.’ An uncertain smile in his voice. ‘Did you see that?’

‘What?’

He sighed. ‘I scored the winning goal. Kinda the happiest moment of my life, all

that bollocks. No big deal. Never mind.’

‘Oops, I’m sorry. Johnny? Noods came round and we-‘

‘I said never mind. How was the last exam?’

‘Easy. How you say? Easy as pies. A breeze. I’m still surprised.’

‘I’m not surprised at all. Du bist sehr klug. That means you’re clever?’

‘Who’s been teaching you?’

‘They have a guy here. Ariel? I have to < I < I really miss you.’

Did she miss him too? It was odd, but since the spell of nausea in the shade of their

kissing tree she hadn’t really missed him at all, thinking of him only a few odd times a

day. The exams, she supposed, her bossy subconscious pulling the plug on the oxytocin,

dopamine etc. She paused at the curb and kicked an empty coke can into the street. All

this litter, Europa, these foreigners everywhere. She knew he was waiting for her reply,

but this was a pattern that had just happened, she distracted, he worried and attentive,

a puzzled tone to his voice. She hadn’t seen him in almost three weeks.

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She’d dreamed of him a few days ago, making love to her. It was Johnny, but he had

the ecstatic face, and then also the body, of Fernando Torres, one of her hottest crushes

when she was around twelve. A sadness on the phone since, a sense of loss.

She was about to step into the street when a sheet of paper rode a gust of wind

towards her. A flash of recognition, so she watched as it settled at her feet. A tabloid

page, torn and stained but with a big color splash of Johnny, her Johnny, sprinting into

the wind with his arms outstretched, his fists pumped, his face fierce with wild joy.

Unexpected, like a pop-up into the real world – and so beautiful, radiant, a work of art

come to life, framed just so by the dark, grim dirt of the cobblestones. The wind

whipped it away again, and her airy sense of loss became a jolt of pain, deep beneath

her gut.

‘Right-ho,’ he said, his voice brisk. ‘Awkward. Left me hanging again. Look, give

me a call some-‘

‘No wait, John-bon, I’m sorry, I miss you too. I do. I was just thinking.’

‘About what?’

‘About, about you. About how little I know you, really. Talking like this, it’s always

so <’

‘What?’

‘Always something between us, your career, my exams. I have this < this

yearning? I’m dying here.‘

A lie, sure, maybe, but right now it felt like the truth. Yes, yearning. Not loss.

‘I have to see you,’ he said.

‘Me too.’

‘Now. Tonight.’

‘We’re in Haidhausen. There’s a little Irish pub near-‘

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‘No, not like that. All these idiots staring at us. We’re not like ordinary people, you

know, we can’t just go out anywhere. It’s better to < I know, how about I cook you

dinner? At my place.’

She’d heard this one before.

‘Okay.’

Noodle was cool with it, the pub was teeming with all kinds of exotic boys. Ariel

left her at the stairs and began looking for a taxi, just as one pulled up right in front of

her and his address texted through. It whisked her away through a sea of light and then

down into the slow, dark green of the suburbs, arriving at a low-slung building at the

end of a winding cul-de-sac. Three floors, hanging balconies across the front, black

marble, chrome railings, bamboo in earthen pots softening the lines. Each apartment

had the same dark-wood deckchairs for the view over the valley behind her. A man

waiting behind a glass wall swipe-carded the door open and asked, ‘Ariel?’ with a big

grin. She nodded, scampered through and took the stairs to the next floor two at a time.

23, the last door on the left. He had left it open, and she smelled the cooking – real

cooking, something nice and spicy – all the way down the corridor.

‘Hullo–o?’

‘Oh crap!’ he shouted back, from far away. ‘That was quick. Come in.’

She closed the door. Ash-blonde wooden floors, glossy bare walls, white and royal

blue. An ornate entrance table with keys, scattered coins, an empty energy-drink bottle

and a pair of grass-stained sneakers, white socks spilling out. She hesitated then

followed the short, curved passage to the vast living area.

Her first impression was that he was moving out. Cardboard boxes on the floor, no

pictures on the walls – wait, there was one, a big seascape, a ship in a melodramatic

storm, leaning against a wall as if ready to be packed. She walked awhile and found

signs of habitation – a low red sofa in front of a super-sized TV, an X-box, an empty

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pizza box, sports magazines, a wad of used tissue peeking out from behind a flattened

cushion. Space for only one next to the debris, she noticed. Lonely, transient. No female

presence here at all. A wave of relief turned her towards the cooking-smell and there he

was in the off-set kitchen around the corner, a knife in his hand, his T-shirt and

tracksuit-pants molded to his body. He was sweating, his face glowing and eyes bright.

Excited. He put the knife aside and came towards her.

‘Wow. I forgot how beautiful you are.’

‘Oh plea-‘

‘Sssh,’ and he was leaning forward, his lips on hers, soft and salty, all too brief. Her

hands lifted as if to stop him and then settled back to her sides. He swayed back to look

at her again, ran a hand into her hair and kissed her again. Now she touched him,

slipping her fingertips over his stomach, up to his chest, down again, her fingers

rippling over his abs, around the shaft of his midriff and to his back. She slipped away

from the kiss to breathe, resting her head against his chest and glancing down to his

cock, outlined by the soft, clinging fabric. It was swelling and growing fast while he

stroked her back, her neck, her hair and she hugged him tight, melting at his sudden

hardness in her centre, her back arching, hair floating behind her, his lips on her throat.

They tried to kiss, but they were breathless, panting, burning too hot. Music throbbed

like a heart in the background, a smooth, driving rock, so they rode the beat until they

could kiss again. Then he gasped and broke away.

‘Bed.’

‘Yes.’

There was quite a way to walk, across the broad, three-leveled sweep of the

apartment. It turned into a stroll, arm in arm, neither with anything much to say, their

faces numb, eyes shining. Treetops danced and flourished in the wall of moonlit

window and she leaned against him, humming the song. The music grew louder. His

bed was rumpled with duvets and cushions in a dark cave of a room, shuttered

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windows, a thick door, a place of deep, exhausted sleep. His scent was strong here, and

in the half-dark she drew him close and then down onto the bed.

It all slipped into place, natural, effortless, elegant even. Her mind was too battered

from the exams to care, to analyze this biological imperative which drives us to fuck

against all reason, to resist the narcotic power of the chemicals raging though her.

Babies, disease, nothing marred her mood, and he was just as eager. It was amazing. He

wasn’t good, in a gigolo way, just beautiful in the gloom, smooth beneath her hands. The

only moment of awkwardness, the only reminder of all her sexual experience thus far,

was when he fumbled at her jeans and she remembered, as if from far away, how soft

and pallid her body was from the exams. For a moment she panicked, I mean, just look

at him. But it passed quickly, because clearly he loved it, loved her, loved her whole

body. She reached for him and he came quickly in her hand, thrashing around and

crying out, and then he turned her over and lost himself in her with his fingers, lips and

tongue. She stretched out on her back, floating in waves of pleasure, her body

undulating to their rhythm, and then came too, fast and urgent as fire, her first real

orgasm. When she drifted back he was hard again.

She gasped, ‘Condom,’ but he didn’t have one in the bedroom and leapt naked

from the bed, ran to one of the cardboard boxes outside and ripped it open, scrabbling

through the contents. Oh … he didn’t plan this. No preparation. My Johnny. She squirmed

and writhed in sweat-scent of his bed. Then he was striding back, teeth bared as he tore

at the wrapper, his side-lit face for a moment savage and frightening. He put it on with

one hand as he leant over. Her hands fluttered on shoulders turbulent with muscle then

dropped to his waist, and she opened her legs and drew him in.

It seemed like hours, but who could tell? She became a creature of pure feeling, of

skin and smell and taste, a pause in time stretching out forever. Then a sudden raging

thirst, so she croaked his name and patted and stilled his heaving back. He slipped out