“Cold Turkey” by Nick Alexander © 2007 – All rights reserved
It never ceases to amaze him, that thing that life does, how quickly it can switch from one state to another.
A year ago, for example, he had been happily married – and that was no cliché: he had been married, and happy with it. And then one Friday evening he came home, and life did that thing that it does.
He had fish and chips under one arm, and a bottle of Fitou in his hand, and he was jangling his keys and Melissa was waiting for him on the couch – as expected – only Tony, the guy from over the road – his squash partner – was there too.
“We have something to tell you,” she had said, and he had known immediately what it was. And that was strange, that knowing, because he had been entirely happy up until that point; he had been one hundred percent convinced that she loved him. And, yet the second she said it, he knew as if he had known forever. It was as if the preceding months had been suddenly rewritten.
The year had been awful of course – the divorce, the needling division of the goods, the objects of their shared seven years together, the arguments about the money, about the debt, about who would get the cat. And by the time it got to November, he was left wondering if he would truly have the force required to make it into 2008 at all. It seemed to him that Christmas, a plate of cold turkey and a wall to stare at, might just send him over the edge.
And that’s why he was in the travel agents that day.
“Somewhere hot,” he had said. “Somewhere where they don’t celebrate bloody Christmas. Somewhere where they don’t serve turkey.”
And as he stepped back out into the drizzling Manchester gloom, his ticket snug and reassuring in his pocket, she had spoken to him for the first time.
“I couldn’t help hearing,” she said. “But you just booked exactly the same holiday as me – a week in Varadero; Christmas week.”
And he thought, “There it goes again. There goes life doing that thing it does.”
Andrea was beautiful, and funny, and skinny – maybe too skinny – but into him. Her teeth were dodgy when she smiled, but that was OK, because, really, it was amazing… I mean, what were the chances of it? It was too good to be true, and he thought that thought – that it was truly too good to be true – and then dismissed it.
For if life could set his wife up with his squash partner and retroactively create a two year past for them, a past of trickery and lies that he was certain hadn’t existed at the time, then why couldn’t life make the beautiful Andrea with the fabulous sense of humour, pert breasts, edible ankles and dodgy teeth manifest outside the travel agents on a rainy December day?
She had invited him for coffee and from there it was all downhill coasting.
He phoned her about the visa formalities for Cuba (sure, he could have called the travel agency instead, but where was the fun in that?) And then she asked if they could meet and talk about where to visit in Cuba and how to get about, and he suggested that they rent a car together, and that somehow did the trick because the second he said that, she had literally launched herself at him. And suddenly he was in bed with her, and he was happy again.
So now he sits, her head lolling against his shoulder, and in three hours time they will hit the tarmac for a week of sunshine and salsa and shagging – astounding really, because as options go it’s clearly better; way, waaay better than spending Christmas in Manchester with Melissa. If only she knew! How jealous she’d be!
An hour before landing Andrea nuzzles his neck and yawns and he looks away – it’s the teeth thing – and then she stretches pushing her chest out (he looks back), and stands and pulls her bag from the locker above.
“God that sleeping pill worked a treat,” she says, her eyelids still droopy from the drug. She actually looks sexier – he decides – when she first wakes up. And that’s a first for him too!
As she sits and leans forward to dig through her bag, he lifts her hair, the shampoo commercial brown locks, away from her eyes.
“Hardly slept myself,” he says. “I watched some awful film with Bette Midler in it. I missed the start though I’m not sure it mattered.”
But Andréa is frowning, distracted by the complex contents of her bag. After a full five minutes of pretending not to think about whatever she’s searching for, he prompts, “Lost something?” which seemingly makes her accept the inevitable and stop looking in the voluminous yet, it has to be admitted, finite space of her bag.
“Damn!” she says with a sigh. “Forgot something. Still, I’m sure I’ll manage…”
He frowns, unsure if he should offer to help, ask what exactly is missing from the bag, but he decides against it. Women’s handbags are like the universe. Known to be vast but best not explored.
At Varadero airport, Andrea is snappy. “Jesus!” she says after less than ten minutes. “How long does it take to load a few bags off a fucking plane?”
Rick blinks at her slowly. She has never sworn in front of him before; has never even expressed a negative opinion about anything, so he’s surprised, and remembers, or maybe actually realises for the first time that he doesn’t know Andrea that well.
They’re still right at the beginning. He strokes her back. “You OK?” he says. “You seem a bit agitated.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she says. “I just expect too much. I suppose one shouldn’t expect too much in a tin pot dictatorship like Cuba.”
“It takes longer than this at Heathrow,” Rick points out, glancing nervously around. He’s not sure that Varadero Airport, surrounded by policeman with machine guns, is the best place to be banding around phrases like tin pot dictatorship.
“Yeah, well, it’s not Heathrow though is it,” Andrea spits. “There’s really no excuse here. And did you see that woman on immigration’s legs. I mean don’t they have razors here or what?”
“Just relax,” Rick tells her. “You’re on holiday. There’s no hurry for anything.”
Andrea shrugs his hand away. “Except there is,” she says. “I need to find a pharmacy. And fast.”
Rick swallows. There it goes again, women’s secret realm, may no man enter! Huh! He grins at the faux pas. For if it truly is the week of the scarlet river then there won’t be a lot of sex going on. Not if Andrea is anything like Melissa. And a week covers their entire holiday. Bummer!
By the time Andrea boards the minibus she’s as irritated as he has ever seen any sane woman. Ever.
“An airport without a frigging chemists,” she says, her eyes bulging at the absurdity of it. “I mean when did you ever see that? No pharmacy maam, but we have a coffee shop and toilets,” she mimics, “Like that’s gonna help!”
Rick is staring from the side window now, trying to freeze out a thought, a terrifyingly familiar thought that is pushing its way in.
“The hostess said there’s one on the complex,” he says quietly – his voice monotone. “I’m sure they’ll have what you need.”
This special voice means, shut the fuck up, but he forgives Andrea for not knowing him well enough to realise that.
“They bloody well better have one,” Andrea says.
“Well, you’re hardly the only woman here,” Rick points out, turning now to look at her. A mistake, he realizes when he sees her expression. Her face has snarled into a caricature of dislike – snarling lip, wrinkled nose, furrowed eyebrows.
She shakes her head slowly. “As if that’s got anything to do with anything,” she snarls.
Rick wide-eyes her, pulls a tight, amazed smile and turns back to the window, and lets the thought slide in. There goes life, doing that thing…
At the Club Med complex, he feels increasingly nervous as he nears the front of the reception-desk queue. They had planned to share a room together, and he no longer thinks that it’s such a good idea. But he can’t think of any reasonable-sounding way out. And he doesn’t want to dump her either.
He needn’t worry though, because when they finally arrive at the desk, Andrea informs the smiling short Frenchman with the plucked eyebrows that, “If at all possible I’d rather have a single.”
She pays her supplement and a single she gets, and before Rick has even fished his credit card out to pay his own enforced supplement, she’s gone.
Shell-shocked from the trip and Andrea’s Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, Rick stumbles along a seemingly endless corridor to his room, where, when the porter finally interrupts his endless spiel about the facilities (because Rick has finally realised that he’s waiting for a tip and pays him), he falls fully clothed onto the bed and sinks into a deep sleep; a sleep peopled with characters who never say or do quite what anyone expects of them.
He’s not sure how long he sleeps, because by the time he wakes up he’s no longer sure what time he went to bed; but when he finds his way to the buffet hoping for breakfast, only to be met with lunch, it seems that he’s been under for quite a while.
He shuffles along in the queue wondering vaguely if the food will be this dull every day, and wondering where Andrea is and if she’s up yet, and if she’s feeling better, when one of the host team thrusts an envelope at him.
“You are Monsieur Sullivan?” she asks. “Monsieur Rick Sullivan?”
He nods and takes the envelope and watches her glide across the room. He nudges his tray along and rips open the end. A flat compliment slip from the complex is inside – on the back a few scrawled words: Really sorry – had to go home. See you when you get back. Andrea x
He re-reads the note. “How?” he says wrinkling his eyebrows. “Why?” he whispers shaking his head.
“I say; could you move along?” It’s the woman behind him nodding towards the empty space that has opened in front. He frowns, says, “Sorry…” waves the note at her and mutters, “Weird stuff,” then forces a smile and moves along.
The woman grins tightly at him as one might humour a madman.
He reaches for a plate, places it on his tray, and then, as the hostess sweeps past, he makes a grab for her sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Her frown shifts to composed polite readiness. “Yes?”
“I don’t understand. Andrea Jackson…” He shakes his head. “Why?”
The woman frowns again, only this time in a friendly way. “Oh!”
Recognition spreads across her face. “The woman who… I’m very sorry, we try very ‘ard. But is prohibited ‘ere in Cuba. The only way is on the black market, and of course we can’t get it for her that way.”
She pronounces, “the” zd zee and, “can’t” as cunt.
“She prefer to go ‘ome.”
Rick nods slowly and tips his head slightly to one side. “I’m sorry, you couldn’t get what for her exactly?”
The woman frowns and tips her head at him, as if he’s an intentionally obtuse schoolboy, then leans in to drop the word discreetly in his ear. “Zee methadone,” she says. “You cunt get it ‘ere.”
She shrugs, says “Sorry, we try very ‘ard,” again, and walks away.
Rick nods slowly. Zee methadone then… Jesus!
The woman behind him coughs loudly and stares wide-eyed at the empty space in front of him prompting him to move forward again.
“I understand you’re not keen,” she says, smiling. “Cold Turkey – it’s what I came away to get away from…”
Rick smiles despite himself, and turns to acknowledge the woman – seeing her in fact for the first time. And she’s pretty – blond, rounded – almost-but-not-quite-plump, blue eyes, lovely teeth; nothing at all like Andrea.
“You a Christmas escapee as well?” he asks.
She snorts and grins at him. “Yeah, I think we all are, here,” she says. “I just split up with my boyfriend and I thought Christmas day staring at the wall might just send me over the edge… if you know what I mean.”
Rick nods and smiles. “Yeah,” he says. “I know exactly what you mean.
“You here on your own then?” she asks.
He nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Apparently so.”
He feels himself blush and stares down at his plate, and thinks, “Life doing that thing…”
“Good,” the woman says, holding out her hand. “I’m Marissa.”