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One Day, Page 5

David Nicholls

  ‘Oh, you know. Got to pay the rent.’

  ‘And there’s nothing else you can do? You can’t temp, or live with your parents or something?’

  ‘I need to be in London, I need flexible hours . . .’

  ‘Why, what’s your stroke?’

  ‘My what?’

  ‘Your stroke. Everyone who works here has a stroke. Waiter-stroke-artist, waiter-stroke-actor. Paddy the bartender claims to be a model, but frankly I’m doubtful.’

  ‘Weeeeeell,’ said Ian, in what she took to be a Northern accent, ‘I suppose I’d have to say that I’m a comedian!’ Grinning, he splayed his hands either side of his face and gave them an end-of-pier waggle.

  ‘Right. Well, we all like to laugh. What, like a stand-up or something?’

  ‘Stand-up mainly. What about you?’


  ‘Your stroke? What else do you do?’

  She thought about saying ‘playwright’ but even after three months the humiliation of being Emily Dickinson to an empty room still burned bright. She might as well say ‘astronaut’ as ‘playwright’, there was as much truth in it. ‘Oh, I do this—’ She peeled an old burrito from its carapace of hardened cheese. ‘This is what I do.’

  ‘And do you like it?’

  ‘Like it? I love it! I mean I’m not made of wood.’ She wiped the day-old ketchup onto a used napkin and headed for the door. ‘Now, let me show you the toilets. Brace yourself . . .’

  Since I started this letter I’ve drank (drunken? dronk?) two more beers and so am ready to say this now. Here goes. Em, we’ve known each other five or six years now, but two years properly, as, you know, ‘friends’, which isn’t that long but I think I know a bit about you and I think I know what your problem is. And be aware that I have a lowish 2.2 in Anthropology, so I know what I’m talking about. If you don’t want to know my theory, stop reading now.

  Good. Here it is. I think you’re scared of being happy, Emma. I think you think that the natural way of things is for your life to be grim and grey and dour and to hate your job, hate where you live, not to have success or money or God forbid a boyfriend (and a quick discersion here – that whole self-deprecating thing about being unattractive is getting pretty boring I can tell you). In fact I’ll go further and say that I think you actually get a kick out of being disappointed and under-achieving, because it’s easier, isn’t it? Failure and unhappiness is easier because you can make a joke out of it. Is this annoying you? I bet it is. Well I’ve only just started.

  Em, I hate thinking of you sitting in that awful flat with the weird smells and noises and the overhead lightbulbs or sat in that launderette, and by the way there’s no reason in this day and age why you should be using a launderette, there’s nothing cool or political about launderettes it’s just depressing. I don’t know, Em, you’re young, you’re practically a genius, and yet your idea of a good time is to treat yourself to a service wash. Well I think you deserve more. You are smart and funny and kind (too kind if you ask me) and by far the cleverest person I know. And (am drinking more beer here – deep breath) you are also a Very Attractive Woman. And (more beer) yes I do mean ‘sexy’ as well, though I feel a bit sick writing it down. Well I’m not going to scribble it out because it’s politically incorrect to call someone ‘sexy’ because it is also TRUE. You’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of Confidence. Either that or a scented candle.

  I know from your letters and from seeing you after your play that you feel a little bit lost right now about what to do with your life, a bit rudderless and oarless and aimless but that’s okay that’s alright because we’re all meant to be like that at twenty-four. In fact our whole generation is like that. I read an article about it, it’s because we never fought in a war or watched too much television or something. Anyway, the only people with oars and rudders and aims are dreary bores and squares and careerists like Tilly-bloody-Killick or Callum O’Neill and his refurbished computers. I certainly don’t have a master plan I know you think I’ve got it all sorted out but I haven’t I worry too I just don’t worry about the dole and housing benefit and the future of the Labour Party and where I’m going to be in twenty years’ time and how Mr Mandela is adjusting to freedom.

  So time for another breather before the next paragraph because I’ve barely got started. This letter builds to a life-changing climax. I wonder if you’re ready for it yet.

  Somewhere between the staff toilets and the kitchen, Ian Whitehead slipped into his stand-up act.

  ‘Have you ever been in, like, a supermarket, and you’re in the six items or less queue, and there’s an old lady in front of you, and she’s got, like seven items? And you stand there counting them, and you’re like, soooo angry . . .’

  ‘Ay caramba,’ mumbled Emma under her breath before kicking open the swing doors to the kitchen where they were met by a wall of hot air that stung their eyes, acrid and infused with jalapeno peppers and warm bleach. Loud acid house played on the battered radio cassette as a Somalian, an Algerian and a Brazilian prised the lids off white plastic catering tubs.

  ‘Morning, Benoit, Kemal. Hiya, Jesus,’ said Emma cheerfully and they smiled and nodded cheerfully back. Emma and Ian crossed to a noticeboard where she pointed out a laminated sign that showed what to do if someone choked on their food, ‘as well they might’. Next to this was pinned a large document, ragged at the edges, a parchment map of the Texas–Mexico border. Emma tapped it with her finger.

  ‘This thing that looks like a treasure map? Well don’t get your hopes up, because it’s just the menu. No gold here, compadre, just forty-eight items, all the different permutations of your five key Tex-Mex food groups – minced beef and beans, cheese, chicken and guacamole.’ She traced her finger across the map. ‘So, moving east–west, we’ve got chicken on beans under cheese, cheese on top of chicken under guacamole, guacamole on top of mince on top of chicken under cheese . . .’

  ‘Right, I see . . .’

  ‘ . . . occasionally for the thrill of it we’ll throw some rice or a raw onion in, but where it gets really exciting is what you put it in. It’s all to do with wheat or corn.’

  ‘Wheat or corn, right . . .’

  ‘Tacos are corn, burritos are wheat. Basically if it shatters and burns your hand it’s a taco, if it flops around and leaks red lard down your arm it’s a burrito. Here’s one—’ She pulled a soft pancake from a catering pack of fifty and dangled it like a wet flannel. ‘That’s a burrito. Fill it, deep fry it, melt cheese on it, it’s an enchilada. A tortilla that’s been filled is a taco and a burrito that you fill yourself is a fajita.’

  ‘So what’s a tostada?’

  ‘We’ll get to that. Don’t run before you can walk. Fajitas come on these red-hot iron platters.’ She hefted a greasy ridged-iron pan, like something from a blacksmith’s. ‘Careful with these, you wouldn’t believe how many times we’ve had to peel a customer off these things. Then they don’t tip.’ Ian was staring at her now, grinning goofily. She drew attention to the bucket at her feet. ‘This white stuff here is sour cream, except it’s not sour, it’s not cream, just some sort of hydrogenated fat, I think. It’s what’s left over when they make petrol. Handy if the heel comes off your shoe, but apart from that . . .’

  ‘I have a question for you.’

  ‘Go on then.’

  ‘What are you doing after work?’

  Benoit, Jesus and Kemal all stopped what they were doing as Emma readjusted her face and laughed. ‘You don’t hang about, do you, Ian?’

  He had taken his cap off now, and was turning it in his hand, a stage suitor. ‘Not a date or anything, you’ve probably got a boyfriend anyway!’ A moment, while he waited for a response, but Emma’s face didn’t move. ‘I just thought you might be interested in my—’ in a nasal voice ‘—unique comedy stylings, that’s all. I’m doing a—’ finger apostrophes ‘—“gig” tonight, at C
hortles at the Frog and Parrot in Cockfosters.’


  ‘In Cockfosters. It’s Zone 3 which seems like Mars I know on a Sunday night, but even if I’m shit there are still some other really top notch comics there. Ronny Butcher, Steve Sheldon, the Kamikaze Twins—’ As he spoke Emma became aware of his real accent, a slight, pleasant West Country burr, not yet wiped away by the city, and she thought once again of tractors. ‘I’m doing this whole new bit tonight, about the difference between men and women—’

  No doubt about it, he was asking her out on a date. She really ought to go. After all, it wasn’t like it happened very often, and what was the worst thing that could happen?

  ‘And the food’s not bad there either. Just the usual, burgers, spring rolls, curly fries—’

  ‘It sounds enchanting, Ian, the curly fries and all, but I can’t tonight, sorry.’


  ‘Evensong at seven.’

  ‘No, but really.’

  ‘It’s a nice offer, but after my shift here I’m wiped out. I like to just go home, comfort-eat, cry. So I’ll have to give it a miss, I’m afraid.’

  ‘Another time then? I’m playing the Bent Banana at the Cheshire Cat in Balham on Friday—’

  Over his shoulder Emma could see the cooks watching, Benoit laughing with his hand to his mouth. ‘Maybe another time,’ she said, kindly but decisively, then sought to change the subject.

  ‘Now, this—’ She tapped another bucket with her toe. ‘This stuff here is salsa. Try not to get it on your skin. It burns.’

  The thing is, Em, running back to the hostel in the rain just now – the rain is warm here, hot even sometimes, not like London rain – I was, like I said, pretty drunk and I found myself thinking about you and thinking what a shame Em isn’t here to see this, to experience this, and I had this revelation and it’s this.

  You should be here with me. In India.

  And this is my big idea, and it might be insane, but I’m going to post this before I change my mind. Follow these simple instructions.

  1 – Leave that crappy job right now. Let them find someone else to melt cheese on tortilla chips for 2.20 an hour. Put a bottle of tequila in your bag and walk out the door. Think what that will feel like, Em. Walk out now. Just do it.

  2 – I also think you should leave that flat. Tilly’s ripping you off, charging all that money for a room without a window. It isn’t a box room, it’s a box, and you should get out of there and let someone else wring out her great big grey bras for her. When I get back to the so-called real world I’m going to buy a flat because that’s the kind of over-privileged capitalist monster I am and you’re always welcome to come and stay for a bit, or permanently if you like, because I think we’d get on, don’t you? As, you know, FLATMATES. That’s providing you can overcome your sexual attraction to me ha ha. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll lock you in your room at nights. Anyway, now the big one—

  3 – As soon as you’ve read this, go to the student travel agency on Tottenham Court Road and book an OPEN RETURN flight to Delhi to arrive as near as possible to August 1st, two weeks’ time, which in case you’ve forgotten is my birthday. The night before get a train to Agra and stay in a cheap motel. Next morning get up early and go to the Taj Mahal. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, big white building named after that Indian restaurant on the Lothian Road. Have a look around and at precisely 12 midday you stand directly under the centre of the dome with a red rose in one hand and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby in the other and I will come and find you, Em. I will be carrying a white rose and my copy of Howards End and when I see you I will throw it at your head.

  Isn’t that the greatest plan you’ve ever heard of in your life?

  Ah, typical Dexter you say, isn’t he forgetting something? Money! Plane tickets don’t grow on trees and what about social security and the work ethic etc. etc. Well don’t worry, I’m paying. Yes, I’m paying. I’m going to wire the money to you for your plane ticket (I’ve always wanted to wire money) and I’m going to pay for everything when you’re here which sounds swanky but isn’t because it is so DAMN CHEAP here. We can live for months, Em, me and you, heading down to Kerala or across to Thailand. We could go to a full moon party – imagine staying awake all night not because you’re worried about the future but because it’s FUN. (Remember when we stayed up all night after graduation, Em? Anyway. Moving on.)

  For three hundred pounds of someone else’s money, you could change your life, and you mustn’t worry about it because frankly I have money that I haven’t earned, and you work really hard and yet you don’t have money, so it’s socialism in action isn’t it? And if you really want you can pay me back when you’re a famous playwright, or when the poetry-money kicks in or whatever. Besides it’s only for three months. I’ve got to come back in the autumn anyway. As you know Mum’s not been well. She tells me the operation went fine and maybe it did or maybe she just doesn’t want me to worry. Either way I’ve got to come home eventually. (By the way, my mother has a theory about you and me, and if you meet me at the Taj Mahal I will tell you all about it, but only if you meet me.)

  On the wall in front of me is this massive sort of praying mantis thing and he’s looking at me as if to say shut up now so I will. It’s stopped raining, and I’m about to go to a bar and meet up with some new friends for a drink, three female medical students from Amsterdam which tells you all you need to know. But on the way I’m going to find a post box and send this before I change my mind. Not because I think you coming here is a bad idea – it isn’t, it’s a great idea and you must come – but because I think I might have said too much. Sorry if this has annoyed you. The main thing is that I think about you a lot, that’s all. Dex and Em, Em and Dex. Call me sentimental, but there’s no-one in the world that I’d like to see get dysentery more than you.

  Taj Mahal, 1st August, 12 noon.

  I will find you!



  . . . and then he stretched and scratched at his scalp, drained the last of his beer and picked the letter up, tapped the edges together and laid the stack solemnly in front of him. He shook the cramp from his hand; eleven pages written at great speed, the most he had written since his finals. Stretching his arms above his head in satisfaction he thought: this isn’t a letter, it’s a gift.

  He slid his feet back into his sandals, stood a little unsteadily and steeled himself for the communal showers. He was deeply tanned now, his great project of the last two years, the colour penetrating deep into his skin like a creosoted fence. With his head shaved very close to the skull by a street barber, he had also lost some weight but secretly liked the new look: heroically gaunt, as if he’d just been rescued from the jungle. To complete the image he had acquired a cautious tattoo on his ankle, a non-committal yin-and-yang that he would probably regret back in London. But that was fine. In London he would wear socks.

  Sobered by the cold shower, he returned to the tiny room and dug deep in his rucksack to find something to wear for the Dutch medical students, smelling each item of clothing until they lay in a damp, ripe pile on the worn raffia rug. He settled on the least offensive item, a vintage American short-sleeved shirt, and pulled on some jeans, cut off at the calves and worn with no underwear, so that he felt bold and daredevil. An adventurer, a pioneer.

  And then he saw the letter. Six blue sheets densely written on both sides. He stared at it as if an intruder had left it behind, and with his new sobriety came the first twinge of doubt. Picking it up gingerly, he glanced at a page at random and immediately looked away, his mouth puckered tight. All those capitals and exclamation marks and awful jokes. He had called her ‘sexy’, he had used the word ‘discersion’ which wasn’t even a proper word. He sounded like some poetry-reading sixth-former, not a pioneer, an adventurer with a shaved head and a tattoo and no underpants beneath his jeans. I will find you, I’ve been thinking about you, Dex and Em, Em and Dex – what was he thinking? What had seemed
urgent and touching an hour ago now seemed mawkish and gauche and sometimes frankly deceitful; there had been no praying mantis on the wall, he hadn’t been listening to her compilation tape as he wrote, had lost his cassette player in Goa. Clearly the letter would change everything, and weren’t things fine just as they were? Did he really want Emma with him in India, laughing at his tattoo, making smart remarks? Would he have to kiss her at the airport? Would they have to share a bed? Did he really want to see her that much?

  Yes, he decided, he did. Because for all its obvious idiocy, there was a sincere affection, more than affection, in what he had written and he would definitely post it that night. If she over-reacted, he could always say he was drunk. That much at least was true.

  Without further hesitation he packed the letter into an airmail envelope and slipped it into his copy of Howards End, next to Emma’s handwritten dedication. Then he headed off to the bar to meet his new Dutch friends.

  Shortly after nine that night, Dexter left the bar with Renee van Houten, a trainee pharmacist from Rotterdam with fading henna on her hands, a jar of temazepam in her pocket and a poorly executed tattoo of Woody Woodpecker at the base of her spine. He could see the bird leering at him lewdly as he stumbled through the door.

  In their eagerness to leave, Dexter and his new friend accidentally jostled Heidi Schindler, twenty-three years old, a chemical engineering student from Cologne. Heidi swore at Dexter, but in German, and quietly enough for them not to hear. Pushing through the crowded bar, she shrugged off her immense backpack and searched the room for somewhere to collapse. Heidi’s features were red and round, like a series of overlapping circles, an effect exaggerated by her round spectacles, now steamy in the hot humid bar. Bad-tempered, bloated on Diocalm, angry with the friends who kept running off without her, she collapsed backwards on a decrepit rattan sofa and absorbed the full scale of her misery. She removed her steamy spectacles, wiped them on the corner of her t-shirt, settled on the sofa and felt something hard jab into her hip. Quietly, she swore again.