Clive Collins

Paradise

     He knew everybody, although he could put faces and names to just three of them.  
     Jimmy was there, queer as a tin cuttlefish, living with the same bloke for nearly forty years but still shy of telling people about it.  If anybody asked him, and sometimes they did, Jimmy would laugh and say the only sort of love he was interested in was the cupboard variety. 
     Arthur stood next to Jimmy, looking as old as he always did, always had.  No kidding, Arthur could have drawn somebody’s pension when he was twenty and no questions asked.  He never changed. Never would, not now. 
     And Pamela was there; of course she was.  Pamela, looking the way she had the day he first saw her, coming out of the supermarket he was going into with his first wife, a box of groceries in her arms, her hair tied up in a red polka-dot scarf, a white sleeveless blouse that showed off her tan and a skirt the swing of which let him see enough of her legs to make him want to see more, cheap rubber flip-flops on her feet.  It didn’t matter that the years had put thirty pounds on her  or that she’d hacked her hair shorter than most boys’ and given up on her teeth completely, so long as they didn’t hurt.  It didn’t matter because, somehow, on occasions like this, she always managed to be what she had been then: the young woman, no more than a girl really, who had stopped his heart from beating.
     Jimmy said they should go somewhere for a drink.
     “And where would you suggest?” That was Arthur.
     “Any suggestions as to why we’re here?” That was Arthur again.
     “We could try The Flamingo,” Jimmy said and music began to play almost as soon as he’d finished speaking.  
     “The Scaffold,” Arthur said.
     “Oh, not Berlioz, not now.”
     “No, Jim, not Berlioz; The Scaffold.  The group: Gorman, McGough and McGear.”
     Yes, he thought, that was it.  They were singing a hymn to the saviour of the human race.  He used to listen to that song on the radio; on the radio but never on the jukebox down at The Flamingo.  What he remembered from there was the way somebody would start “Strawberry Fields” or the Procol Harum song the title of which would not come to him and then, just before the end, nudge the machine to send the stylus skidding back to the start of the record.  It would happen again and again until one of the barmen came out from behind the counter and put a stop to it.
     He remembered that barman coming out from behind the counter with shoulders the size of a coalhouse door, and the memory made him smile.  
     “Something funny?” Jimmy said, and although he couldn’t for the life of him say what was funny, he knew it had to do with Jim; just the way he knew that the light streaming all pink now into the lobby of this hotel had to do with Jim.
     “God, we used to go there all the time,” Pamela was telling him.        “Do you remember?”
     He wanted to say that they didn’t; that he had never been to The Flamingo with her; that the girl he used to go to The Flamingo with was called Carol.  He’d been sweet on her for three years before he found the nerve to ask her out, but once he did, they got serious very quickly and talked about getting married right the way through their third date.  They did get married in the end, but not to each other.  He wanted to say all of this and then perhaps a little bit more, but he didn’t.  He didn’t because he just could not bring himself to contradict Pamela.  Instead, he said that The Flamingo was nowhere near where they were. 
     “So I don’t know what Jimmy’s talking about,” he said, and started to weep, the tears wetting his cheeks, his sobs shaking his body.
     He looked around at the crowd: they all had faces now, but he still only recognized Jimmy and Arthur and Pamela.  “I’m going outside,” he said.  “I won’t be long.”
     “We are outside, more or less,” Arthur said.
     Standing in what had been the street, he looked at the buildings, emptied out, doors off, windows gone, and shook his head.  What had happened here?
     He walked over to a block of mansion flats he vaguely remembered having stayed in once, picked up a sledgehammer someone had left on the pavement and swung it, bringing down a first-floor balcony with the blow.  He watched the two caryatids that served as supports fold down the side of the building like cardboard flaps.  The balcony floor hung flat, an asphalt banner decorated with terracotta tiles.
Back with his friends, he still had hold of the hammer.  “Anybody fancy a caryatid?” he said.  “There’s a lot left.”
     Jimmy told him to wash his mouth.  Arthur went out, looked both ways along the street, came back and said something about a job well done.  Pamela was standing with her arms pushed out in front of her, her hands turned so the palms faced up.  She smiled at him, her teeth two rows of sharp, impossibly white little pearls.  “Is it heavy?” she said.
     He lifted up the hammer so that he was holding it across his chest.  “No,” he said, and gave it to her, a trophy, a prize.
     “Oh,” she said.  “It isn’t heavy at all.  But what will we say to your wife?”
     He did not know.  He knew only what had been true and was true no longer anywhere else but here: that Pamela’s eyes were ablaze with light and her hair had turned the colour of the halo about the head of a saint in some painted Paradise.