Against all odds William, Zlata, Nathia and Rachel manage to keep Michael Richmond from meeting the fictitious Stephan Le Blanc, whilst somehow maintaining the ruse that he does actually exist! The restaurant merger is back on! Meanwhile, Rachel’s marriage is at an end. Now she’s in the arms of William. Our hero.
It should be a Happy Ever After... but something is keeping Will awake at night…
Read the previous Chapter (six) here
It’s 2am and something isn’t right.
If my life were a stage play, then right now I should be basking in the afterglow of my very own happy ever after, whilst the audience, on the other side of the curtain, gather up their coats and bags and leave an auditorium of debris for someone to clear up. But instead the curtains are still up, the house lights are down, and the audience look confused: There’s a stage direction that makes no sense. The odd prop out of place. A line in the script that seems wrong somehow. To be honest I’m not really sure what it is, but something in my life isn’t right and it’s keeping me awake. Awake when I should be fast asleep, curled around the beautiful woman lying next to me.
I wouldn’t mind so much if it were just tonight but this is the fourth night running, and my subconscious won’t let up. It keeps finding new things to ask me about. And without adequate answers these queries whirl around and around and around in my mind until I could scream, were it not for the fact that I would wake Rachel.
Oh – here comes another one! Another question to which I don’t have the answer, without which I will be denied any kind of rest:
Why would my agent gatecrash a Steele & Richmond private party?
Four days ago, Rachel and I spent a romantic evening sitting on London’s South Bank, recovering from what had been a rather frantic day convincing her husband that he’d managed to miss an important meeting with a man who doesn’t actually exist. This was all so that a merger between a chain of unsuccessful coffee shops, and a restaurant that Rachel part owns (but her husband doesn’t know about), could go ahead unencumbered by her husband’s racist paranoia. During the course of those shenanigans Rachel walked out of her marriage, and a few hours later, as we watched the sun setting over London, I suggested that she might like to move in with me. And just so she was in no doubt as to what I meant by ‘moving in’, I punctuated my offer with our first kiss.
That was quite a day.
As we entered my apartment a little later I was somewhere between completely and utterly exhausted, and walking on air. I closed the door behind us, and as I did so a stocky ginger cat walked out of the lounge to see who was entering his domain, and more importantly whether they’d brought anything with them in the way of food.
“So this,” I said to Rachel, “is Oscar.”
“Well hello Oscar,” said Rachel, squatting down and instinctively scratching Oscar’s head, “it’s lovely to finally make your acquaintance.” Almost immediately Oscar started to purr. “Has that big bad Spot been eating all your food again?” asked Rachel in that voice that people reserve for animals and small children. “Has he? Has he?” Unsurprisingly Oscar said nothing. He just pushed his enormous ginger head into her hand, whilst I was far too beguiled by this beautiful woman and the affection she was showing my cat to answer on his behalf. “And how did Oscar come to get his name?” asked Rachel, looking up at me. “Another Shakespearian quote?” I tugged on my ear.
“Er, no actually. He was a stray. I found him living in a bush outside the entrance. A tiny feral kitten – all teeth and claws, with enormous ears. Took me forever to actually catch him and bring him in.” Rachel frowned.
“Right!” she said, the penny dropping. “He was wild. Oscar Wilde. Cute.” I smiled.
“Would you like some…” I hesitated, “tea?” Rachel stood up and came closer.
“Do you actually have any?”
“Possibly,” I said.
“You know, black tea is a highly underrated beverage.”
“And what about clean mugs, or will we be drinking out of vases again? Perhaps a saucepan, or other receptacles?”
“You really do want the world on a stick, don’t you!”
Rachel poked me in the ribs.
“You know Mr Lewis, perhaps you and I should embark on a little late night shopping trip to get some provisions. If I’m going to be living here we might need something more to sustain us than black tea.”
“Sorry,” I said with a frown, “I know not of this ‘shopping’ of which you speak.”
“Then it would be my pleasure to introduce you to its delights.”
I pulled her closer. “You know, I really have everything I need right here.”
“Really?” asked Rachel, putting her arms around my waist. “Everything?”
“Are we still talking about food items?” she asked, her eyes locked with mine.
“Not even remotely,” I replied.
* * * * *
The next two and half days were a delightful blur of domesticity. In sixty hours we went from being dinner party acquaintances who’d become friends and co-conspirators to a full-on co-habiting couple. Put like that I’m surprised either one of us didn’t try and make a break for it and run for the hills – but we didn’t. It felt right. More right than anything that had happened to me in a long, long time.
And after that first night together, and an obligatory trip to the shop the following morning, and a day of subtle negotiation over drawer space, wardrobe space, bathroom space, and various other (largely empty) spaces that had really just been waiting for someone to come along and make them feel loved again, it was starting to feel as if Rachel and I had always lived under the same roof. As though all those empty spaces were really just fragmented parts of much a larger space – one that was Rachel-shaped.
Come Monday morning, a new daily routine was beginning to emerge. I awoke to find her side of the bed empty, and when I plodded into the kitchen to look for her, I discovered that Oscar had already been fed, the dishwasher was already humming to itself, and there was a note waiting for me on the kitchen table:
Morning sleepy head!
Gone to work – will call you later.
PS. We need more milk
“More milk,” I repeated, scratching my head aimlessly. So this was my challenge for the day. I reckoned I could handle milk.
By 10am not only had I completed the milk mission, but I’d also managed to pick up a copy of The Stage. I made myself a cup of tea – with milk – and settled down for a day of scouring the pages for an audition, one that might lead to a real part, in a real play, or on a film set – anything – I didn’t mind.
Nor did I mind how big the part was. I mean, okay, obviously I wanted something a little more substantial than ‘extra’ work – I wasn’t that desperate (yet) – but I’d have honestly considered absolutely anything; Doctor Chasuble’s understudy in a Theatre In Education production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, Security Guard Number Three in an episode of The Bill… anything! And surely, in the four or so years since I had last looked for acting work, the world must have moved on and the task of securing some sort of paid theatrical work must have become easier? No?
Nothing had changed.
After an hour or two of scouring the pages, all my old fears and loathing and desperation about trying to forge a career in an industry that limps from day to day, whilst simultaneously having the nerve to exude this bullshit veneer of prestige and glamour, started to creep back into my head.
Nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing! In fact, if anything, the entire theatre community appeared to be in a worse state that it had been the last time I checked! Fewer theatres, fewer productions, no jobs. At all.
When I’d finally accepted that the mythical ad I was looking for wasn’t printed in a microdot amongst an article on the growing number of theatre companies applying for charitable status, I tossed the paper in the bin and chewed on the side of my thumb for inspiration. What now?
Maybe it wasn’t the industry. Maybe it was the lens that I chose to view the industry through, i.e. The Stage. Perhaps there were in fact countless jobs out there, but for whatever reason, our nation’s favourite theatrical newspaper didn’t know about them. I entered the mysterious cavern that was my spare bedroom, moved a dozen boxes of junk, unearthed my ancient computer, and switched it on.
Something had changed.
In four years the number of websites where desperate souls such as myself could upload their acting resume had more than doubled. And the larger ones that I was familiar with now offered a wealth of services “guaranteed” to enhance your chances of making the big time. For instance: for a “small” monthly fee your profile could appear somewhere near the top of the search results, surrounded by blue flashing stars and a yellow box. And that, apparently, could make all the difference when a casting director with money to burn comes looking for the next Tom Cruise.
Something about this situation felt very familiar. And moments later I realised that here I was again, living with a girlfriend who had a job, whilst I played the part of the desperate out of work actor trying to prove to himself that four years of drama school hadn’t been a complete and utter waste of time. Okay, so the girlfriend was different, and the flat was different, but there wasn’t a single part of me that wanted to return to that fruitless existence. Which is when I remembered that I didn’t have to. Looking for work wasn’t my responsibility; I had an agent!
“Zlata – it’s Will. You probably realised that. Okay.” Voicemail. I hate voicemail. “Look, I wondered whether we could have a chat sometime about you finding me some acting work. Real acting work. On stage I mean. Or film. I mean, obviously the flirting courses, are, er, real – but I think maybe it’s time I did something I could… well, that I could tell people about frankly. That would be nice.” I bit my lip whilst I considered what else to add. Then a thought occurred to me. “Oh, and talking about flirting courses, can you confirm the date of the next one. I’ve got the 13th of September in the diary, but that’s a Saturday and I thought we’d decided Sundays were better. Okay. Well erm – give me a call.” I hung up.
It wasn’t really like Zlata not to answer her phone. She was one of those people who relished in taking a call no matter how inopportune a moment it might be. Even when I did seemingly get Zlata’s voicemail, it was usually just Zlata messing about.
In fact, thinking back over all the years we’d known each, I couldn’t recall ever having to leave Zlata a message, ever before.
* * * * *
The day continued its downward spiral.
I called up an old mate of mine over in Wapping to see if I could twist his arm into taking a fresh set of publicity photos for me. I was expecting some resistance. Last time I spoke to Dave he was spending most of his days being paid not insubstantial amounts of money to photograph naked and near naked women for girlie calendars and every top shelf men’s magazine I’d ever heard of. It was difficult to see what I could possibly offer that might persuade him to squeeze me in between ‘glamour’ shoots. But after some initial small talk – and a few awkward moments as I reminded Dave who I actually was – I broached the subject of having some head and shoulders shots, which I’d be happy to pay for, obviously – and then suddenly the deal was done, and we were putting an appointment in the diary for the coming Thursday. Clearly the glamour photography industry wasn’t as lucrative as days gone by either.
I followed this with a call to anyone and everyone I could remember from theatre school. Of those I did manage to contact, not one was earning a living as an actor – most had given up on finding acting work years ago. Only two of us, according to ex-classmate-turned-estate-agent Janice, were actually working in theatre; Carol Brown (and we all know what happened to her), and James Henderson. And whilst it was a shock that out of a group of perhaps thirty of the most talented people I know, only two had forged a career, I wasn’t surprised that Jim was one of them; he’s one of those actors who had spent a lifetime perfecting his art even before he got to drama college, because for Jim – and the many other actors like him – the only way to interface with the world is to develop some sort of socially acceptable mask to conceal the jumble of insecurities and oddities that would otherwise be on full view. He’s the sort of actor who you never really remember simply because when he’s playing a character, that’s all you see. Just the character. What he has isn’t talent, it’s how he makes it through life. So if anyone other than Carol was going to make it, it was always going to be Jim.
Annoyingly Janice didn’t have his number, but she did have an address. I scribbled it down and then sat and looked at it for a full minute and a half. What was I going to do? Rock up, claim to be just passing by, and then casually ask if he could help me get some work? Yes. That’s exactly what I was going to do. I put on my jacket.
* * * * *
My overwhelming thoughts, as I squeezed through the gap that had taken on the ambitious role of ‘door’, was that for an abode it really wasn’t all that secure – tucked as it was down a side road, off the less salubrious end of Brick Lane. I’d stood outside for some minutes checking and double checking that this was the address Janice had given me. But it was. This was the place. Though ‘place’ was quite a generous term for what was actually a twelve foot gap between two old warehouses, transformed into a premises by the cunning use of corrugated iron. And whilst I was absolutely positive that people did live in ‘places’ like this, I’d had higher hopes for a classmate who apparently now worked in theatre.
“Hello?” I yelled into the darkness, whilst I waited for my eyes to adjust. “Is anybody in here?” One thing was for certain; this wasn’t anyone’s home. Couldn’t be. All around me were shelves and shelves of what, to the untrained eye, appeared to be… junk. Old furniture, shop dummies, hat stands, seventies crockery, framed photos, posters, paintings, rolled up rugs, boxes of records, CDs, newspapers (all labelled by decade), briefcases, trunks, stuffed animals, swords, fake machine guns, pistols…
“Can I help you?” said a voice. I span round to see a serious looking man in his mid thirties, around five foot four, sporting a big black paint-speckled bushy beard, and wearing an old equally paint-splattered moth eaten cardigan, knee length khaki shorts, and a pair of moulded rubber sandals. And he was holding a gold sceptre. Complete with emerald jewel. If you’d plucked Moses out of history, rolled back his years, and then dropped him in East London in the twenty-first century, this is exactly what he would look like.
“Hi,” I said, as I waited for my brain to give up making sense of everything, “I’m looking for Jim.”
“That’s me,” said the man.
“Who are you?”
“It’s Will. From LAMDA?”
“Will?” asked Jim, after a pause so pregnant it had given birth to another pause.
“Hi,” I said again. I couldn’t resist; “Do you… live here?”
“Here?” asked Jim, like there might be another ‘here’ I was referring to. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my workshop.” Before Jim could elaborate, there was a muffled pop, and something wet hit me in the face. I recoiled, wiping whatever it was out of my eyes and – when I looked at my fingers, they were covered in blood.
“Bollocks!” said Jim, looking down at the gaping gun shot wound that had appeared in his chest. “Typical, just typical.”
* * * * *
“Yep. Whatever you need – I’ll find it. And if I can’t find it, I’ll make it,” said Jim. The kettle clicked off and Jim began pouring hot water into two ornate china cups, whilst I continued to sponge fake blood out of my clothes and looked around at what functioned as his office. It was like sitting in a fairy tale, or a place where fairy tales were made. In the middle was a table covered with small pots of paints, tubes of glue, bottles of this and that, brushes, tools, a washing up bowl that looked as if it were part fossilized – whilst surrounding us on all four sides were more working areas, and more shelves, only this time stacked with smaller objects than the rest of the ‘workshop’; toys, telephones, spectacles, badges, jars, tins, fruit (fake), flowers (also fake) – and from every era too; next to the art deco Tiffany lamp, which was on and working, was an ancient looking PC with a built in tiny green screen monitor that flickered occasionally in a manner that suggested it was about to breathe its last, and next to that a robust bottle-green cast iron typewriter that would probably continue to work even if you dropped a bomb on it. The entire workshop was like a pinch in the fabric of time itself.
“So give me an example,” I said. “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to make?”
“Weirdest?” asked Jim, handing me my coffee. “Nothing really. I usually end up making run of the mill items that are hard to come by.”
“Police badges,” said Jim with a world weary sigh. “They’re always in demand. You won’t find many of those lurking in charity shops.”
“How on earth do you make a police badge?”
“Plaster of Paris and silver paint. I got a mould from somewhere.”
“Right,” I said. “And your exploding chest?” Jim gave another weary sigh and examined the sticky red hole, prodding it with a finger.
“New type of squib I’ve been working on. Remote control. Though clearly it needs some tweaking. I reckon something else must have set it off.”
“Doesn’t it… hurt? When it goes off?”
“Oh! Stings like a son of a bitch! Looks good though. Just need to get the bastard to go off when it’s supposed to.”
It was fascinating, and at the same time, deeply depressing. Jim had been top of our class. A real talent. And here he was making exploding blood capsules, and fake police paraphernalia.
“So what about you?” asked Jim. “What are you up to these days?”
* * * * *
It was early evening when Zlata finally got back to me. And when she did, it was via text message. Which was odd in itself. In all the years I’ve known her, I’d never seen Zlata send a text to anyone – not when a simple phone call offered so much opportunity for loud talking and expansive arm gestures.
The message read simply this: course cancelled.
So here I am. Lying in bed. At just gone two-thirty in the morning.
You know when you’re watching a particularly sub-standard action-movie, and sometimes there’s that ‘hang on a minute’ moment when the plot kind of unravels inside your head and you realise that nothing you’ve seen makes any kind of sense? Or it does make sense, but only if you’re willing to accept that a staggeringly unlikely – and often extremely convenient – event, has taken place?
So it is with my life.
The events of the previous four weeks, perhaps even longer, just don’t add up. And this isn’t merely a case of my ‘actor’s paranoia’ on overdrive, fuelled by almost a week of insomnia. This is a full-on bona fide conspiracy, with facts and figures and everything.
Let me talk you through the thoughts that are currently buzzing between my ears: I have no idea how many theatrical agencies there are in London but I’m willing to bet it probably runs into the hundreds. Neither have I any idea how many investment companies there are, but I’d stake the entire contents of my spare bedroom that they outnumber theatrical agents 10 to 1. And restaurants; just how many quirky independent brasseries must there be in the whole of London? If you told me there were half a million I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised.
So given these facts, what are the chances that Zlata’s restaurant owning ‘special’ friend, Jarad, happens to the be the cousin, of the wife, of the boss, of her – flirting courses aside – one and only real client, Nathia.
It’s a bit of a coincidence.
More so when you consider that two of Zlata’s ex-lovers – granted, they’re brothers, but they’re ex-lovers nonetheless – also just happen to be clients of Nathia and her boss.
Now I’m no statistician, but I’d gamble my non-existent career that the likelihood of Zlata meeting any of these people by accident must be bordering on… ‘impossible’.
But it goes deeper than that. There are Zlata’s reactions.
90% of acting is reacting. It’s not enough to be standing in the right place waiting to say your next line, you must continually react to the events around you in a manner that’s in keeping with your character. And Zlata isn’t doing that.
In the original plan, Zlata’s remit as ‘cleaning lady’ was merely to prevent Michael from getting downstairs by getting in the way and, in the process, use her watch stealing skills to remove his Rolex. She wasn’t supposed to beat ten bells out of him with her mop! Granted, Michael ‘surprised’ her – that was also part of the plan, hence her headphones – but wouldn’t the normal reaction be to jump or perhaps let out a single scream? It’s a rare person indeed whose natural flight or fight response is to grab the nearest object that can be brandished as a rudimentary weapon and fight to the death!
And then, later that same day, whilst Rachel, Jarad and I were popping champagne corks, Zlata seemed to be more than a little withdrawn. Sullen, even. Like our bonkers plan hadn’t succeeded at all.
And what about that whole business about not wanting to return Michael’s watch?
And her off-the-cuff comment about not being Czech.
I don’t care what time it is, there’s not a hope in hell of ever getting another night’s sleep until I’ve got to the bottom of this. I slip out of bed, get dressed as quietly as I can, kiss Rachel softly on the forehead, and leave the flat.
* * * * *
Zlata sighs as she opens the door. She seems both surprised and not-surprised-in-the-slightest to see me. She stands there in jogging bottoms and a moth-eaten jumper, a tumbler of something pungent and intensely alcoholic in one hand, and a cigarette in the other.
“Now is not the good time,” she says.
“You don’t know why I’m here. Now might be an excellent time.”
“Are you here maybe for the sex?” I’m gobsmacked, but then I remember it’s Zlata.
“Then I have sleeping to do, and I do not want to talk to you.” She starts to close the door. I put my hand against it to stop her.
“Do you mean you don’t want to talk to me now – or do you actually mean you don’t want to talk to me ever again?”
She gives me that weary look again.
“I know what I mean,” she says, and tries again to close the door.
“Zlata, wait! There’s something wrong, isn’t there. I don’t know what exactly, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with you, and me, possibly Rachel, Michael, maybe even Nathia. Maybe even Jarad. I don’t know. But I do know it’s making you miserable, and that possibly I’m supposed to know what this thing is – but I don’t. So I need you to tell me. I’d like you to tell me. Because, whatever it is, maybe I can help. And that’s what friends do. Isn’t it?” She looks at me intently – and I know, deep in my soul, that I’ve said the right thing, and that any moment now I’m going to discover that I’ve forgotten her birthday, or the anniversary of our first meeting, or her Czech name day (even though she’s apparently not Czech) – or something. Then I can make it right, and we can all move on.
“Very nice speech, William,” says Zlata. “Well done. But it is still the night time and you still can’t come in.” This time she succeeds in closing the door. It slams in my face.
“Zlata! For god’s sake!”
“Goodbye William,” she says.
“Five minutes! Just give me five minutes!”
“No! I’m not leaving! If necessary I’ll stay here all night!”
“Whatevers. You can please yourself.”
“Good, because at some point tomorrow you’re going to have to leave that flat in order to get a cup of the sludge you call coffee and a fresh pack of cigarettes, and when you do I’ll still be here, having read your post and chatted to your neighbours.” There’s a long pause.
“I now no longer drink coffee. It is bad for you. I only drink water from the tap.”
“Oh really. And the cigarettes?”
“I have thirteen cartons of duty free. My sister brought them for me from Istanbul. It is very nice place. Maybe I go and live there with her. I will sell carpets.”
I shake my head, sit down on her door mat, and lean against the door. We’re talking at least, though I’d have preferred there not to be an inch-and-a-half of wood between us.
“You don’t even have a sister!” I say when I’m comfortable, at which point the door opens and I fall backwards.
“I think you know not even the one jot about me, William,” says Zlata, looking down at me lying on her carpet.
* * * * *
Zlata Ruzencova was born Zlata Ivanović – not in the Czech Republic as she’d always led me to believe, but in Dubrovnik. Croatia. Back when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia.
Life for young Zlata was a good one; her father – Dragan Ivanović – was a successful entrepreneur, with a small hotel just outside the walled city, and a couple of bars and restaurants near the harbour itself.
Back in those days whilst the Yugoslavian economy was sluggish at best, the tourist industry was booming, and holiday makers from all over the world flocked to the medieval city in search of cheap Mediterranean sunshine.
I have no idea what any of this has to do with the events of the past month – nothing I suspect – but at least Zlata’s talking to me again. And that’s a good thing.
I’m sitting opposite her on an ancient two-seater sofa, trying to ignore the springs that are poking me in places that I don’t want to be poked, and I nurse a tumbler of lethal looking liquid that Zlata poured for me without asking whether I wanted it or not. She’s on her third since I entered her flat, and there’s a cloud of cigarette smog floating just above our heads. I’m trying to ignore that too.
“You know, my parents were very fond of Yugoslavia,” I say in an effort to re-start the conversation.
“And we probably welcomed them with the arms open,” says Zlata – though more to her drink than to me, and with an edge that suggests the welcome may not have been as genuine as it might have appeared. “We welcomed lots of peoples,” she continues. “Especially British peoples.” For the first time in perhaps five minutes Zlata looks at me. And I can tell from the weight of her stare that we’ve finally reached a point in the conversation where things might start to make sense. I hold the eye contact.
“There was one man,” says Zlata. “An English man. He came to stay in our hotel, and he was very charming, and very handsome. He used the long words, and always he spoke in the big voice.” She takes the bottle from the side table, and empties the contents into her tumbler. “And I was stupid young girl,” she adds, and I notice that her hands are shaking slightly.
“How old were you?” I ask.
“Old enough,” she says. “But not wise enough. He would sit in our bar, in the evenings,” continues Zlata, “and discuss with my father anything, and also everything. And I would stay and help with the English words. Stupid,” she says, and takes a sip of her drink.
“Why was that stupid?” I ask. “It seems like a nice thing to do.”
“My father didn’t need help.” Says Zlata. “His English was like mine, also very good. But I wanted… I wanted to be near this man. This handsome man. This charming man.” Her voice cracks ever so slightly.
“Wait a minute,” I say as I remember who I’m talking to. “Did you… did you and the man… did you?”
“One night he came to my room, yes.”
“To your bedroom?”
“He had run out of soap.”
“Right!” I say. “Well that’s perfectly reasonable. Knocking on the door of the proprietor’s young daughter, in the middle of the night, in search of soap!”
“He stayed for the long while.”
“Well, I’m sure the soap was very hard to find!”
“And the next night, I went to his room.” She takes another sip of her drink. “And the night after that. Like I say,” continues Zlata, a coldness in her voice that wasn’t there before, “he was the charming English businessman.” Somewhere an alarm goes off in my head.
“Yes. Like my father. And it was not long before they were doing what businessmen always do. Hatching the deal. Striking a plan.”
I started to say something, and thought better of it.
“This man have big English tourist company with strange name. I remember it my whole life: Vanadium Global. Many customers. Many English peoples looking for lovely holiday. And for just the small investment, they could come to our hotel. Our home in Croatia. And we would be able to charge the bigger prices! And we would build bigger hotel! It was the lifetime opportunity!”
“How small was this investment?” I ask
“Everything we had.” My heart sinks. “And after my father make the investment the big tourist buses, they never arrive. And the peoples, they never come. And our hotel is still small.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“There is no need,” says Zlata with a snort. “I did not mind. My mother did not mind. We did not want big hotel full of English peoples, wanting their chips and their tommy ketchup. But my father, he is proud man. He call the English man, and he says ‘Where are my customers? We have the business deal! You are the English man; English men are honourable.’”
“And what did the Englishman say?”
“There were the many apologies. And the many reasons: it was recession. It was competition. It was new British holiday legislation. But, for just the one more small investment…”
“He asked for more!?”
“And my father paid. And again. And again.”
“More than once?”
“More than once.”
“But where did he get all this money from?”
“From other ‘businessmen’. The sort you hope never to do the business with.”
A shiver runs down my spine, followed by a wave of melancholy from across the room. A part of me doesn’t want to know the end of the story, but Zlata is sitting there, staring into her empty glass, waiting for me to ask her.
“So…” I say, “what… happened?”
“What happened to all of us,” she says without looking up. “The war! One day there was shooting in the streets and my home wasn’t safe place. My mother put me on boat, and told me to flee.”
“She sent you away?”
“Just for few days. To be safe. It would be for me like holiday. But every day it get more crazy. More fighting. More death. Until soon I need new home, in new country, to start new life.”
“So you were basically… an asylum seeker?”
“But you’ve been back? I mean, since the war – to visit?”
“Once. To see my mother.”
“Not your father?” I ask, but regretting it almost the moment the words pass my lips. Zlata shakes her head.
“Shortly after I left, he went missing. He was member of communist party. And it was not the good time to be communist. We think maybe… he was executed,” she says, her voice wobbling just a little. And I’m stunned.
“For being a communist?”
“Perhaps,” she says. “Or maybe, he make the one business deal too many.”
“You mean… with the people who lent him money?” Zlata nods. “Why didn’t you all flee?” I ask. “If it was that dangerous?”
“My parents had money just enough for me. Nothing else. Just big empty hotel and two empty bars. In a warzone. The charming English man, he stole from us our options.” And in that moment, all the revelations of the previous few minutes, and the odd little occurrences for the past month or longer, all start to make sense.
“Zlata,” I say. “Why England? Of all the countries you could have chosen to seek asylum – why here?”
“To steal from you the good jobs,” she says bitterly. “Like all asylum seekers.” I ignore her sarcasm.
“Then why change your name?”
She says nothing.
“Did you come here to find the English businessman?” I ask. “Your charming English businessman?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Is it Michael?”
“Of course,” she says.
I close my eyes and shake my head.
“I need drink,” says Zlata, getting up from her armchair, and leaving the room. From my place on the sofa I can hear her going through kitchen cupboards in search of another bottle, and though the chair is uncomfortable, staying in it would have definitely been the better option. Instead I feel like I should be doing something. Pacing, at the very least. I stand up, take a step or two towards Zlata’s chair, and notice the open book on her side table laying face down. It’s a play. Hamlet. And though I should leave it where it is, I pick it up – just out of curiosity, just to see which scene she’s reading. Which is when I discover the gun.
Simply lying there.
On the table.
I’ve never seen a real gun before. I’ve seen some pretty convincing fake guns – props, toys – but there’s something about the object I’m staring at now that leaves you in no doubt that this is not a prop. Or a toy. This is most definitely the real thing. Even without touching it I can sense its weight – both metaphorical and physical. I can smell it too. A faint, almost odourless vapour that glides down the back of my throat and leaves a metallic taste in my mouth. Without really thinking I reach out to pick it up…
And then stop myself.
I have no idea where this gun has been or what it’s been used for. Nor, for that matter, where it might end up. And as I’m pretty sure that hand guns are still illegal in this country, there’s no way I want my finger prints on any part of it.
Which is when Zlata comes back into the room.
“What is this?” I ask. It’s possibly the most stupid question I could have come out with, but surprisingly Zlata doesn’t berate me or give me any backchat. She just does what she always does when she doesn’t want to answer a question, or the question within a question: she shrugs.
“Where did you get it?” I continue. It’s a better question, but it still doesn’t remotely scratch the surface of what I want to know.
“It does not matter,” says Zlata.
“Is this thing loaded?” Perhaps my most intelligent question so far, but still Zlata doesn’t answer. Instead she lurches forward and snatches the gun from the table. Our eyes lock.
“Zlata,” I say, stretching out my hand slowly, “I need you to give that to me.”
“Why?” she asks. It’s a perfectly valid question. Particularly as only seconds ago I was concerned about finger prints. But everything’s changed now.
“Because it’s a gun,” I say. Which isn’t really the reason, but I’m hoping it’ll do for now.
“So?” asks Zlata.
“Because… I’m not sure you’re in a particularly good place… and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.” Zlata frowns.
“I am not planning to shoot you!” she says.
“Okay, well that’s good to know. Although until you said that I didn’t think you were! But now that you have, I’m a little worried! So, for both our sakes… gimme the gun!”
She’s still frowning. “I am not planning to shoot me either!”
“So… why do you have a gun?” I ask. And though it’s probably my best question of the evening, the answer is in my head almost the instant I’ve said the words, and Zlata’s silence is all the confirmation I need. “Michael!?” I ask.
“Of course Michael!”
“Have you gone completely mad!?”
“You do not understand!”
“When I was standing over him… face to face with that… monster… this devil man, it was like my father was there with me – and finally, I had the chance to make sure he would never again take from anyone!”
“You’d have beaten Michael to death with the mop if I hadn’t intervened?”
“Of course not! It is too hard! I need something better.”
“So you got a gun!?”
“Next time I want to be ready.”
“Next time? What next time? It’s over!!”
“It’s not over!” says Zlata, raising her voice.
“Of course it’s over!”
“My father was executed!”
“Yes, but Michael didn’t pull the trigger!”
“He took our options, William!”
“Okay, yes, sort of, in a way – but your father had choices! He chose to give his money to Michael!”
“There were no choices!” says Zlata, stamping a foot. “Only lies!”
“There is no ‘but’, William! You ask why I come to England? I come to make Michael Richmond pay!”
And I’ve heard these words before. Albeit from Rachel’s lips; another woman hell bent on revenge, and for a brief second I wonder how many other bitter souls are desperately waiting for their opportunity to put right what karma seems to have forgotten about. But the sight of tears running down Zlata’s face pulls me back to the here and now.
“Zlata,” I say as softly as my racing heart will allow. “Don’t you remember what I told Rachel? If there’s one thing theatre teaches us, it’s that revenge is never enough. You will never fill that seething cesspit of anger inside you! And the more you try to satisfy that thirst, the more it will consume you. Sure – you could walk into Michael’s offices with your gun, blow out his brains in some twisted homage to your father – but you’ll spend the rest of your days behind bars. And that will be another life wasted, and who will pay for that?”
“Then help me, William!” pleads Zlata.
“Do what?” I ask. She says nothing for a moment, but it’s long enough for her tears to stop, and for her face to harden.
“Let us take from him all of his money!” she says. “Just like he take from my father!”
“And how are we supposed to do that?”
“We will find a way!”
I shake my head.
“And what about the people who work for Michael?” I ask. “And all the people connected with his company? And all their jobs? What about Rachel and Jarad’s restaurant merger that’s being managed by Steele & Richmond? What about that?”
“There will be other mergers,” says Zlata. “And other jobs. We will help them all!”
“Help!?” I’m gobsmacked. “The past few weeks have been one long train wreck. And all because of you and your secret quest for revenge! Without you poking around in people’s lives Rachel and Jarad would never have approached the Arabian brothers! And all that nonsense with Stephan LeBlanc could have been avoided!”
“Yes, and maybe you would never have met me,” says Zlata, waving her arms around in that way that she does, only this time with a deadly weapon in one hand. “Or Rachel, or Nathia, and you would be working in the Woolworths, not being actor, and selling the pick and mix!” And that hurts. More even than bullets.
“But I’m not an actor, Zlata,” I say. “I haven’t set foot on a stage in almost seven years. In fact – thanks to you – I am nothing more than an elaborate con-man. I’m sorry about what happened to you and your family – really I am – but enough is enough. It’s time for us – you, me, Rachel – to put the past behind us and get on with our lives! Do something we can be proud of!”
“And what about Michael Richmond?” asks Zlata. “We let him carry on taking from people? Destroying lives with greed?” I pick up my jacket and put it on.
“I’m not so sure the greed was his and his alone, Zlata. True, the man is a monster, and true, without Michael I’m sure things would have turned out very differently for you and Rachel, but there will always be monsters, Zlata. Always. And sometimes what the world needs isn’t fewer monsters, sometimes it just needs us to be better people.”
“Did you learn that from theatre also?” asks Zlata, her face now red with rage.
“No Zlata, that’s common sense.” I walk to the door, and open it. Zlata stamps her foot behind me.
“William!” she says. “If you walk away I will never ever speak to you again.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, and close the door behind me.
To continue reading The Truth About This Charming Man pop over to amazon. It’s available right now in paperback or for your smart phone, tablet, or computer via the free kindle app! And remember, books make incredibly good gifts!