He met the boy outside Porchester Baths. It was late, almost midnight, and the boy was sitting on a wall and smoking a cigarette as if he were waiting for somebody. He looked Arabian, the boy. Martin hitched up his backpack. He had forgotten to buy cat food. He would call by the 7-11 on the walk home. The boy was looking at him. Martin had seen that look before, in Lebanon and Morocco. Martin stood where he was and smiled. The boy climbed off the wall.
– I have a friend, said the boy, just like me. You want me to call him?
– Why not? said Martin.
The boy whistled. He hadn’t quite been telling the truth. The second boy, who materialised at the sound of the whistle, was bigger than the first boy and coarser-looking, with a bum-fluff moustache and small eyes. The boys wore the same kinds of clothes, loose-fitting with designers’ names printed large.
– This is Ahmed, said the first boy.
– Hello Ahmed, said Martin.
– And my name is Ali.
– Hello Ali, said Martin.
Ahmed and Ali fell into step with Martin, one on either side, shoulders sometimes rubbing against his.
– I must buy some cat food, said Martin. The moggies.
Ahmed and Ali talked quickly to each other in Arabic, too quickly for Martin to follow what they were saying.
– My friend, said Ali, says that you look like a nobleman.
– I am a nobleman, said Martin.
– What are you called?
– Sir Stephen, said Martin.
– You live in a palace?
– Only some of the time. In London I have a small flat.
Ali explained this to Ahmed. Ahmed seemed disappointed. Martin shrugged. They went into the 7-11 and Martin bought three tins of Whiskas and one tin of Pal dog food for Siam the Siamese who refused to eat anything else, except for, on occasion, smoked salmon.
Ahmed carried Martin’s backpack the rest of the way home. Martin tried to hang on to it himself but Ali explained that Ahmed would feel insulted if Martin refused to grant him the privilege. Martin tried his Arabic on the boys but every question made them laugh and talk even faster together so finally he gave up and just enjoyed the sensation of walking through Paddington with two beautiful escorts (one, if he was honest, who came with a dubious friend, but what was the point of utter honesty?).

1940. A gorgeous Sunday afternoon. The novelist Nathanael West (born 1904) was driving home in his Buick station wagon after a weekend of hunting in Mexico. Nathanael West was famous for his wit and prose style, and also for his terrible driving, which got worse when he was drinking. But Route 111 in California was usually safe even for him. It was a straight lonely road through country that was empty and flat, and no other roads approached it except for Route 80, which was similarly straight and lonely and showed itself for at least an hour before crossing Route 111. That Sunday afternoon West may have been drinking or maybe he was imagining a book that he hadn’t written yet, or maybe he was talking with his wife about their hunting trip or about the worst cases they knew in Hollywood, or maybe it was just because he was a terrible driver, that he didn’t notice the Pontiac that had been coming along Route 80 for the past hour or so. It was a ludicrous crash, maybe even self-willed. The Pontiac had the right of way but Nathanael West didn’t stop at the stop sign and his Buick and the Pontiac smashed into each other, and Nathanael West died of a broken skull on Route 111 in California.

The boys didn’t approve of Martin’s flat. He should have given them a better preparation for it and maybe he shouldn’t have acted out the Sir Stephen business. The boys had tolerated the entrance hall to the building Martin lived in, but they showed their disapproval as he led them up uncarpeted stairs and then into narrow rooms. They didn’t appear to like cats either. Martin filled the cat bowls in the kitchen while Ali and Ahmed sat side by side on the drawing room sofa, perched on the edge, knees neatly together.
– What, said Martin, can I get for you?
Ali had a lovely smile. He was smiling his lovely smile as Ahmed talked fast and quietly into his ear. Ali shook his head, then nodded, then lost his smile for a moment, then found it again.
– Would you care for something to drink?
– Coca-Cola, said Ali.
– I’m afraid, said Martin, I don’t have any Coca-Cola at the moment. Do you drink alcohol?
– Beer, said Ahmed.
– Ali?
– Yes, thank you, beer. Please.
Martin gave them glasses and poured them out beers which they held for a moment and then without taking a sip each placed his glass carefully on the coffee table.
– Excuse me, said Martin. I must just tidy a couple of things up.

1884. Allan Pinkerton (born 1819), private detective, secret service man, Glaswegian exile in Chicago, the founder of the American detective agency, ardent Abolitionist, ardent strike-breaker, master of disguise, author of ‘Strikers, Communists and Tramps’ (1878), stumbled one morning, bit his tongue and died five days later of the gangrenous wound.

In the bay window alcove was the round wooden table where Martin had his work station. Martin was at work on two projects. The lesser project, for which he wasn’t being paid half enough money, was to compose brief lives for a biographical dictionary. Most of Martin’s entries had been sent back for rewriting because, the editors said, they were ‘morbid’ and ‘showed too much character’. Next to the computer were the proofs of Martin’s book, his greater project. The book, his first, was about his journeys through the Middle East. It was a good book. He was pleased with it, his publishers were pleased with it, and the cover had just been sent to him, which Martin liked very much. In the author photograph he looked very strong and practical in black jeans and white T-shirt and his new short haircut.
He had left the computer on before, when he had been making his revisions, and now he exited the file, switched the machine off.
– Do you have games? asked one of the boys, he wasn’t sure which one because his back was to them and he was concentrating on checking that the final revisions on his list had been properly transferred to the proofs.
– I’m sorry?
– Games.
This was Ahmed asking in the aggressive tone of voice that Martin realised was customary to him and didn’t actually signify aggression. Martin giggled because suddenly an image of the three of them naked playing Twister together had popped into his head.
– Chaos Warrior. Street Fighter Three. Astro Fear.
– Computer games, said Ali.
– Oh I see. No. Sorry. No games. Just lots and lots of words.
Martin yawned. This was getting to be dull. He had had a long day and he was tired. He worried that the boys might consider it rude if he asked them to leave. Ahmed got up and started to wander around the room. He looked at the candlesticks that Martin had brought back from Aleppo, and then at the golden oyster shell that had been a gift from Mira and which he was now picking up and holding much too hard.
– Excuse me but that’s awfully delicate. Do be careful. Please.
Ahmed looked at Martin for a long blank time and then at Ali, who shrugged, still unchangeably smiling, and then at Martin again before replacing the shell without care on the shelf and leaving the room.

1927. Isadora Duncan (born 1877) was strangled the same year she published her autobiography. Isadora Duncan (interpretative dancer, lover of diaphanous Grecian robes, hater of cats) was an insufferably affected woman who adored the prettiness of her own nose. It was a cold day as she and her lover were about to set off for a drive in his car. The car was a Bugatti. So was the lover. Isadora’s friend Mary tried to persuade Isadora to put on a cape. Bugatti offered her his leather coat. She refused them both, choosing instead her red woollen shawl, the one she always wore when she danced the Marseillaise. She wrapped the shawl around her neck and tossed it back over her shoulder and said, ‘Adieu mes amis. Je vais à la gloire.’ The car slowly started. Isadora’s friend Mary noticed the fringe of the shawl dragging in the dirt. There were no mudguards on a Bugatti racing car. The fringe caught in a wheel. Two revolutions of the wheel pulled Isadora Duncan’s face towards the shiny interior panel. Another revolution and her pretty nose had been crushed. The final turn of the wheel broke her neck and severed the jugular vein.

Ahmed had found Martin’s cosmetics box on the dressing table. Something about it angered and amused him at the same time. He brought it into the living room.
– Oh please be careful.
– Look, said Ahmed. Look! Look!
Ahmed drew lipstick shapes on the back of his rather over-hairy hand. He dipped his fingers into the pot of foundation and examined the stains they created on his fingertips. Ali, Martin’s ally, was still just sitting there, with that same lovely smile. Martin started to speak to him but a warning flickered in Ali’s eyes and the notion occurred to Martin that not only was this all a little annoying and inconvenient but somehow everything rested on Ali’s ability to hold that smile, they must all help him in his task, protect the smile, build a fortress for it; their destinies somehow rested on Ali’s triumph with his smile.
Then Ahmed threw aside the makeup which landed on the floor and scared away Siam and Scheherezade, who had been amiably inspecting Martin’s guests.
– Where do you keep your money? asked Ahmed.
Martin hadn’t taken his anti-histamine that day. Soon he would be about to sneeze. He wished the boys away. He wished himself alone and asleep, curled up in bed with the mogs.
– I hardly have anything, said Martin. Look. I’m getting quite tired. I’m sorry to drag you all the way here. I’ve got a tenner here, you’re welcome to it and maybe we can get together some other time?
Ali, still smiling, hit Martin. He got up and hit Martin hard with his open hand to the left side of Martin’s face. Martin could feel his face rawing and blushing. He suddenly was dry and watchful and resolved. This situation was awkward but he would find a way through it.

1931. Arnold Bennett (born 1867), novelist, playwright, essayist, was a shy man. He stammered and he suffered from lumbago and hypochondria. Shy men like Arnold Bennett usually believe in cities. At an outside table of a Paris cafe Arnold Bennett was sitting with his lover. He filled his glass from a jug of untreated tap water. A waiter leaned towards him. ‘Ah,’ said the waiter, ‘ce n’est pas sage, Monsieur, ce n’est pas sage.’ The waiter’s reproof made Arnold Bennett feel uncomfortable. He avoided looking his lover in the face. But Arnold Bennett believed that the stories about the dangers of drinking untreated tap water were scare-mongering. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘everyone here drinks it all the time.’Defiantly, Arnold Bennett drank down his glass of water. He might then have dabbed at his lips with a handkerchief to stop them glistening in the sun. Arnold Bennett died three months later, from typhoid fever, contracted from Paris drinking water.

The cats had scarpered, they were probably all hiding in their special places. Ahmed was walking around the flat returning with random (or so it seemed) prizes, which he put in Martin’s suitcase that had been his father’s and was the only thing Martin had ever liked of his. A couple of times Martin had protested and each time Ali, still smiling, had hit him harder on the face.
– Where’s your money? said Ahmed, beginning to pull apart Martin’s computer. Ahmed’s elbows were digging into rejected entries for the biographical dictionary. So far he’d avoided damaging the proofs of Martin’s book.
– I told you. I don’t—
Ali hit him again in the face. A back molar became dislodged which Martin (born 1966) couldn’t resist touching with his tongue.
– Where’s your money?
– My wallet’s in my backpack but there isn’t much there.
– Get it please, Sir Stephen.
The thing to do was to acquiesce, without piteousness or weakness. Accept the situation, make it comfortable for his aggressors, allow them to have what they wanted and then they’d go and then there’d be the bore of police and insurance and bank cards, and the Visa card was so over the limit that he would probably have to fight to be given another which was tiresome. But there was something inside Martin that was rebelling against this strategy. Each time he tongue-flicked his loose molar that something grew stronger. And finally he made a roar like a lion and threw himself onto Ahmed who had just come back into the room with some costume jewellery brooches that he was foolishly treating as if they were valuable.

1918. Chung Ling Soo (born 1874), the celebrated Chinese magician and friend to the poor, was shot dead in the face while performing on a London stage. He had not quite perfected his latest, most audacious trick, of catching a bullet between his teeth.

Martin was being tied up. This would probably have happened anyway so his attack on Ahmed hadn’t been too precipitous but they were being rough with him. They tied his hands with the dressing gown cord and then his feet with the electrical flex of the standard lamp. Then, even though shouting for help had not occurred to him, because what they were transacting seemed exclusively between the three of them, here, in this room, they gagged him with a leather thong that someone had sent him as a joke thank-you gift for hosting a dinner party. Martin was turned over onto his stomach and Ali—who might still be smiling, how could one tell?—commanded him not to move and Martin wanted to explain that he suffered from asthma and the thong was too tight in his mouth and please could they loosen it, he would promise not to shout, it was not in his way to do so, but any time he tried to communicate with them, one—he assumed it was Ahmed—kicked him in the ribs and so he was silent, staring at the green strands of the rug he was lying on, which were tickling his nose. And already he was having trouble breathing so he told himself in his strongest mental voice not to panic.

Fifth Century BC. Zeuxis (birth and death dates unknown) lived in Herakleia and then Athens. He was the great painter of his age. His painting of grapes was said to be so realistic that it deceived birds, who tried to eat them. Zeuxis pronounced the work a failure. If the boy holding the grapes had been better painted, said Zeuxis, he would have frightened the birds away. Some people described Zeuxis as arrogant. His friend Socrates though called him the complete gentleman. Zeuxis—despite being a gentleman—found ugliness amusing. He laughed so hard at the painting of a hideous hag he had just completed that Zeuxis burst a blood vessel and died.

1999. Ali and Ahmed were gone. They’d left the flat door open, whether out of consideration or negligence or contempt Martin couldn’t decide. But he couldn’t move towards it, they’d attached him to the coffee table somehow and he couldn’t move his arms or his legs. The thong was still in his mouth and his nose was still squeezed against the carpet. There were times when he couldn’t breathe and times when he could, or at least felt he could. The cats came sniffing around him and Siam licked his face, which made Martin sneeze and that scared her away as if she had been doing a bad thing and Martin felt so bad for the misunderstanding with the cat and the impossibility of clearing the matter up that he cried.
Martin cried for quite a long time, feeling sorry for Siam and sorry for himself, and all the while he cried busy parts of his brain were recollecting telephone calls that hadn’t been made, and rudenesses that had been improperly repented, and nights when he had got drunk, and invalids who required visiting, and other writers who needed his encouragement and flowers, and Mira who would be worrying for him without their usual bedtime chat; and Martin cried for the boy at the florist’s, and for the girl with the badly-cemented nose at the cafe whom he had been planning to take under his wing, and for his mother and his sister and perhaps his father, and for his book with its cover and author picture and familiar words, and for his entries in the biographical dictionary that someone else would have to revise, and for his friends and for 2000 which had been meant to be his year, and even for Ahmed and Ali, with their cruelty and stupidity and smile; and he found himself crying for Tennessee Williams (born 1911) who had died in 1983 after pulling the lid away from a jar of barbiturates with his teeth so his hands would be free to take out the pills, but then had struggled, asthmatically, for breath, so had opened his mouth wider which allowed the lid to slip over his tongue all the way to the throat, and the jar had dropped out of his hands and the pills were scattering as the dying playwright failed to cough out the plastic lid that was choking him; and Martin cried for his lost achievements and for all the things he hadn’t done yet, and he cried for whoever would find him in the morning, undandyishly trussed and dead.

(first published in
Esquire magazine, June 2000)