The reason I knew there was a lounge bar round the side was that I’d met my parents there a few months earlier to celebrate my father’s sixtieth. I prevaricated over a scarf, but in the end I bought him a wallet. It was a landmark year for both of them: I had joined the queue for the cook book because I thought it would do nicely for my mother’s birthday, also a sixtieth, which was coming up soon. I had come along relatively late in their lives, an only child; these landmarks took on more importance than they might.
Hans and I stepped inside. I selected the same banquette that I had sat in with my parents those few months earlier. Hans removed his overcoat. ‘This I always wear in bookshops,’ he said, ‘It is so much the best for concealment.’ He showed me the lining, which had deep pockets at waist height. A waiter arrived to take our order. Perhaps I had hoped I might be recognised by using the same seats as before, perhaps I imagined I might be taken for a regular, but I was not. Hans ordered a large G&T and I copied.
‘So you stick exclusively to books, then, as far as theft goes?’ I said, once the waiter was out of earshot.
‘I do all kinds,’ he answered, as though my question had doubled as an enquiry regarding what he did for a living. ‘Always I have something going on in my head, that’s my problem,’ he said. ‘You could say I was tortured,’ he concluded, with a sad smile, as if being tortured was his cross to bear. He looked across the top of his drink. ‘I do not know your name.’
‘Benjamin,’ I said.
‘Pleased to meet you.’ Hans held out his hand. His fingers were long and elegant and his palm was cool. ‘Who is Josephine?’ he asked.
We downed a couple more then Hans left the bar to smoke (‘Sorry about your fucking English laws’).
While he was outside I flicked the pages of All New Fruits de Mer wondering to myself what was I was doing. It was lavish, with photographs of skate wings and of glittering mackerel with parallel slits across their sides. Next we had a bottle of Crôzes-Hermitage and two side dishes of miniature crab cakes with piquant sauce.
Over the wine I described, in outline, my basic day. This involved dealing with a series of enquiries from students about the whereabouts of lectures and workshops along with complaints regarding timetable clashes along with further complaints about accommodation. I spun it out a bit to make it seem more than it was and I overplayed the sense of tension as the sign-in deadline approached for essays.
‘Sign in?’ Hans said. ‘Isn’t that all electronic now?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘They have to hand the thing over physically, the signature is the only real proof that it’s been delivered. Otherwise it’s all excuses, “I sent it on time. My email must have crashed.” Etc.’
‘Perhaps this happened with my novel, towards the end, when I was trying the tiny places,’ he said. ‘Then, sometimes, I sent it by email. Printer ink is so expensive.’
‘Perhaps that was it,’ I said.
‘No, not in the main. In the main I delivered the copy by hand to be sure it got there.’
I said nothing.
‘I’m sorry to say this job of yours sounds rather flat,’ said Hans, in an effort to change the subject.
‘Hmm.’ I made the sound as neutral as Robert had earlier. ‘There are often tears when they see their marks,’ I said. ‘Anything less than a First and they can become quite distraught.’
‘What mark is a first?’
‘Seventy percent or more.’
Hans snorted. ‘Seven out of ten is the least they expect back home, even with the new voucher system. Still, it’s your luck that at least some of them are too stupid to get it. You have then the human drama in these scenes of distress. Otherwise you are rather young for the life you seem to have. A life of sliding paper.’
‘A what?’ I said.
‘Perhaps it is the wrong expression. Trust me, the figure of speech is worse than the syntax. The blessing of the little cotton socks, the stitch in time.’ He paused. ‘A paper pusher,’ he said.
‘What a very old-fashioned expression,’ I said. ‘Where on earth did you pick that up?’
He paused again. ‘From my father. “Sliding paper is nothing for me!” This was his motto. Father had a dentist’s practice in Uppsalla.’ Hans raised his hands theatrically at this point and said, ‘Uppsalla is a little further north than Stockholm. Stockholm being the only Swedish city any English person can know.’
‘Gothenburg,’ I said.
He clinked my glass for that.
‘You weren’t inclined to follow in your father’s footsteps, then?’
‘I used to be made to visit his practice when I was a small boy. The white room with the implements and the deathly smell, the faces of the poor victims all swollen. It was not for me. I have nightmares about it even today. My father never wanted to be a dentist anyhow, he somehow couldn’t make the qualifications to be a vet. I never understood why. And then, on the one occasion it could have really been something, it turned out a huge letdown.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘You know Marvin Gaye?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well, years ago, as part of some comeback, Marvin Gaye was to play at a small jazz hall in Uppsalla. Father had tickets, which were, naturally, hot. Father loved soul music, Aretha Franklin and all that. Well, in the morning of the gig, Gaye’s manager phoned the practice to say that, “Mr Gaye needed emergency dental work.” By all accounts his teeth were ruined by drugs. Of course, they cleared an appointment and father sent the receptionist to rush back to our family home to pick up his records and a portable player so that when the patient arrived his own music could be playing, so that when he walked in it would be I Heard it Through the Grapevine or something great. They got it all set up, but in the end Marvin Gaye never showed. He was a most unreliable man, by all accounts. It was past midnight before he came on stage for the gig at the concert hall. Father read that in the papers later: even though he had the tickets he would not go – he was too disgusted by being let down earlier.’
‘That was a shame.’
‘It was more than a shame,’ said Hans. ‘It was a lifetime disappointment. How often does such a chance come by only to vanish away? Father was in a stink about it for months.’
‘Did you put anything about this in your novel?’
Hans fixed me with his halogen eyes, and then he poked me in the arm several times. ‘Perceptive Benjamin,’ he said, ‘Most perceptive. It was the essence of the whole thing.’
We were silent for a few moments and then Hans went outside for another cigarette. While he was away the room began to spin slightly. I had eaten only a salad from a carton and three miniature crab cakes all day. In addition, I had no particular skill at drinking. I left the glass alone for a while and took deep breaths. A group of staff held a conference down at the end of the bar. I squinted slightly to bring them into focus. Hans returned, smelling noxious.
‘Were you any good as a doorman?’ I asked. ‘I mean, you’re good at going in and out of doors, in any event, I’ve noticed that.’
I wanted to say something to distract myself from my queasiness. I could see that he might take my words badly, musing as he probably was on the crass behaviour of Marvin Gaye and the fate of his novel. At first he gave no answer. Instead he removed the Today’s Specials, a sheet of A4, from the menu card on the table and folded it into a paper aeroplane. ‘Put it this way,’ he said as he sent the dart across the room, ‘I would not have employed me.’
He drained his glass in one. ‘I go through there to the men’s room. Leave a short pause and then you follow, yes?’
It was clear what was supposed to happen next. It was like one of those films where a chance encounter leads to the demise of an everyday Benjamin. It starts with a stolen book and it ends in a trail of dead bodies and a siege in a clapperboard house on a dockside in Baltimore. I could no longer cut and run, I had given up that option when I remained in the queue earlier. But I could sit it out. I could allow Hans to roll through the revolving front door, no doubt failing to dash the doorman as he went. In all likelihood that would be the last I would ever see of him. Or I could take up his invitation. I was supposed to walk out casually, of course, as if I too wanted to relieve myself. In that way I would keep the chain of felonies going. But even before the paper aeroplane had sailed across two leather banquettes and landed beneath a hat-stand I had noticed that the barman and his colleagues were talking about us. With Robert and Tight Knickers at work I may have simply been stoking up a paranoia, but in this instance there was no doubt. They were engaging in some sort of speculation, it was clear. So I stood up carefully and I settled the bill in the usual way using money I didn’t have on one of my cards. It came to just over a hundred pounds. The barman stapled the sales receipt to the invoice and handed it to me.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he said. ‘Have a good evening.’
I folded the bill carefully before going through the same door Hans had used, a door which led to the main lobby where it was all marble, mirror, and gilt. Here I found Hans loitering, pretending to be fascinated by a large floral arrangement. He looked up as I walked towards him. I beckoned him outside with a tilt of my head.
While the head doorman put two fingers to his mouth to whistle up a cab I pictured the teeth of my key going into the lock of my front door. I pictured the door opening into the darkness within. The electricians needed to come back to fit a light switch. For days now there had been wires sticking out of the wall where the switch ought to be. The wires were connected to a plastic block that was wrapped round with insulating tape. It was supposed to be safe, but each time I touched it I got this tingle, this slight shock. Still, it was automatic for me to reach out for it as I let myself in, a habit I couldn’t break. As the cab ticked through the city I was reminding myself about that; I was telling myself over and over again to remember about those exposed wires.