Genevieve’s Vinyl Café: A short story for Christmas by John Vane

Genevieve’s Vinyl Café: A short story for Christmas by John Vane

Genevieve’s Vinyl Café

A tale of change and marvellousness

 

One

 

It was an old, shabby door next to a shuttered shop with the entrails of a dead bell sprouting from its frame. Behind the door were unknown people and food.

Ben reached for the knocker, a novelty design in the shape of a stiletto-heeled shoe. His diffident one-two set the door swinging open, to reveal a dim tableau of junk mail on the floor and bicycles mounted like sculptures on a wall. Opposite the bikes hung a poster urging people to “stay weird”.

A single light bulb flicked on overhead.

“Good evening,” came a voice from above. It belonged to a female silhouette at the top of a flight of stairs. “Are you Ben? I hope so. Otherwise, you are an uninvited stranger who could turn out to be unpopular.”

“Yes, I am Ben,” Ben returned. “But I am still a stranger and I might be unpopular anyway.” Squinting, he saw that the silhouette was wearing an over-large cardigan, a beret and fingerless gloves. Her hair was in plaited bunches. Ben could not yet make out her face.

“Well, join us, stranger!” the silhouette resumed. “I’m Genevieve, by the way. Let’s find out if you’re nice!”

Ben mounted the stairs, a carrier bag dangling from his right hand. He tried not to smile too much: he was pleased with his “unpopular stranger” comeback line but didn’t want this to be obvious. He followed Genevieve up a few more stairs to where a door stood open. From beyond it came a reddish glow, the smell of cooking and the sound of a piano in pain.

“I explained that a had a puncture, I believe,” said a soft male voice, tentative and east European.

“The police think riding a bicycle is a crime,” came a sternly English female reply. “And this country has always hated Russians.”

Genevieve stepped into the room, spun on her ballet pumps and said. “This is Ben! The Silvertown Supper Club is complete!”

Ben stood, grinning, feeling the obverse of completeness but determined not to socially fragment. The kitchen-diner had scarlet walls and strings of fairy lights hanging in low loops above the table where three fellow guests eyed bowls of guacamole and kettle crisps, each perhaps waiting for someone else to make the first dip. The piano, a small upright, was in a corner by the window. Its torturer was a young woman dressed like Morticia Adams.

The woman at the table had grey, defiantly unsculpted hair and wore a T-shirt bearing a declamatory message from which the word “Trump” clinchingly emerged.

“I’m Val,” she said with unnecessary firmness, as though the fact had been outrageously contested. “Are you local? We are.” Here “we” embraced the man beside her. He was gaunt, bespectacled and of a similarly certain age.

“Lance,” he declared with an ascetic nod and looked away. Ben fought an impulse to make a joke about boils.

The man with the east European accent got to his feet. “I am Anatoly,” he said, offering Ben a formal hand. “I am pleased to be meeting you.” Anatoly was in his mid-twenties and so not much older than Ben. He a wrist full of friendship bracelets and chin with a scrub of hipster beard.

“I’m pleased to meet you too Anatoly,” said Ben.

“Hi Ben,” called the pianist, rising from her stool with a gauzy rustle as the folds of her Hammer Horror frock unfurled. “I’m Ming. As in vase.” She announced this with a soft lugubriousness that seemed to hold a hint of irony, though Ben could not be sure.

“And what is this?” cried Genevieve, relieving Ben of his bag. She peeped inside: “Oooh, it looks delicious!”

Ben hoped so. He’d spent more on the wine than he could really afford, but hoped the investment would pay off. His eyes met Genevieve’s. Dare he dream of such a sweet return?

“Grub’s up,” said Ming, haunting the kitchen nook.

“I’d better sit down then,” said Ben, fumbling for something to say. “And, yes, by the way, I am local,” he added, shuffling to the chair next to Anatoly’s. “But only recently. I’m quite new in London, actually.”

 

Two

 

The food was vegan and presented in bowls of green, moulded glass that resembled giant lettuce leaves. A quinoa crockpot chilli with black beans and avocado garnish was accompanied by a salad. “Cauliflower sumac,” Genevieve announced. “Without the walnuts, in case of allergies.”

To Ben, the salad looked far too exotic for anything as small town as cauliflower to be involved. There were chunks of pepper, herbs, dustings of spice and some sort of knobbly bits mixed in too. He spotted that the knobbly bits were pomegranate seeds, but decided not to ask what “sumac” was.

Ming appeared at his elbow with a stack of plates, also of glass and also green.

“It’s still a bit sexy,” she said, distractedly.

“What is?” asked Genevieve.

“Oh! The salad!’ said Ming, with a guffaw of self-reproach. “I meant the salad. I had a good sniff of it earlier.”

She sat down in a shimmer of synthetic fibres, tugging the frock into position as she descended.

“I love a sexy salad,” said Genevieve as she pulled the cork from Ben’s Waitrose rioja.

Ben noticed that the salt and pepper grinders were shaped like breasts.

“Help yourselves,” urged Genevieve, neatly taking her place at the end of the table, opposite Ming. She was still wearing her hat and gloves. “I’ve had such an exciting day,” she went on.  “The mad Italians round the corner are selling all their stuff. I picked up lots of bargains for the café.”

“Excellent, I believe,” said Anatoly.

“It was! All kinds of crazy posters, a guitar, some old movie theme records. A treasure trove!”

“And a cake stand,” added Ming.

The young women’s eyes met with a scintilla of complicity that both stirred and intimidated Ben.

“Not forgetting the cake stand,” Genevieve confirmed, with ersatz gravity. “Did you notice the café, Ben, when you arrived? It’s right below where we are sitting. Of, course it’s all closed up at the moment. It’s called Genevieve’s Vinyl Café. I opened it six months ago. It’s very kitsch. I adore it. Je t’adore.”

“I expect your café is important to the community,” Val declared.

“It is,” said Anatoly, agreeably. “It is very important to the artist community. It is the place where we meet.”

Genevieve touched him on the arm. “That is so lovely to hear. And you know you and your friends are always welcome there.”

“I am thinking so,” Anatoly agreed. “And I’m so excited about my new installation.”

“So am I,” said Genevieve. “So am I. Now Ben,” she continued, switching her earnest eye contact to him. “Tell us some things about yourself. Tell us something marvellous.”

“Something marvellous?” stammered Ben, caught off guard. He was fleetingly transfixed by Lance’s circumspect assault on the salad. The serving implements were giant plastic sunflowers, entirely unsuited to their task.

“Yes! Something marvellous, please,” said Genevieve.

“Well, I’m from Spalding,” said Ben. “But I don’t think that counts as marvellous.”

“Spalding, yes…” smiled Genevieve. “How wonderful!” It was plain that she had never heard of it. She added, coaxingly. “And…?

“Well, I’ve come to London as an intern.”

“Oooh! What kind?”

“Um, with a financial services company, in Canary Wharf.”

“Is that a bank?” barked Val. Lance’s helping of salad, precisely corralled, was interrupted on its journey to his plate.

“Not a bank, no,” said Ben. “A hedge fund.”

“I see,” said Val, and there was something ominously confirmatory about Lance’s salad coming in to land. Val looked away and sipped her wine.

“What is a hedge fund?” inquired Genevieve, sweetly, as though humouring a foolish child.

“Well, it’s nothing to do with topiary,” Ben said. No one laughed.

“What is it then?” asked Genevieve.

“Well, it’s a sort of service for financial investors. We invest people’s money in thing we think will make them more money, I suppose. And it’s about reducing risk.”

“What sort of projects?” Genevieve asked.

“Oh, anything really. Even debt.”

“Debt?” said Genevieve. “I’ve got some of that. How exciting.”

“I did accountancy at university,” Ben explained.

Ming let off another laugh. This didn’t surprise Ben – accountancy, he’d learned, was frequently a cause for mirth.

Now Lance spoke. “Speculative capitalism,” he uttered, beadily, handing the sunflowers to Val. “High stakes gambling, essentially.”

“Yes, you might say,” agreed Ben.

“Topiary,” said Ming, holding up her phone to show a picture of a bush trimmed into the shape of a swan. “I looked it up. Hedge fund. Got it. See?”

“Yes, I had got it actually,” said Lance with the pained smile of an affronted vicar.

“That’s really funny!” said Ming, with a great guffaw.

“Thanks,” said Ben, who had been hoping the topiary joke moment had passed. Anatoly looked blank – for him, it had never arrived.

“But how can debt make a profit?” Genevieve asked. She was leaning forward now, fixing Ben with a liquid gaze.

“Well, people who have lots of it – businesses, that is – sometimes need help getting out of it,” said Ben. “Companies like the one I work for at the moment provide that service as part of their own business.”

His “at the moment” was designed to intimate to Val and Lance that his involvement with speculative capitalism was merely the inquisitive dalliance of a harmless maths nerd.

“How amazingly clever,” said Genevieve. “I never heard of such a thing. I asked you to tell us something marvellous and now you have!”

Ben blushed. “Well,” he said, rallying furiously. “I always try to have a little marvellousness to hand.”

Anatoly studied him respectfully. “You are extremely English, I believe.”

“He certainly is,” said Val, with the grim satisfaction of a medical researcher recognising an unpleasant disease.

Ben kept a low profile for the next hour, smiling, nodding and gently frowning in response to things other people said, as seemed appropriate. On visiting the bathroom, he was unnerved by a candid jam jar full of tampons cresting the toilet cistern lid, but, returning to the table, drew comfort from none of the other men present wanting to talk about football.

He listening well too. He determined that Lance was a history professor, much concerned with industrial disputes at the nearby sugar factory, which was, unlike their present location, actually in Silvertown rather than the more prosaically-named Plaistow. Val said that she and Lance had previously lived in Dalston but that, “Frankly, it has become far too commercial.”

Dislike of economic growth formed common ground for Ben’s fellow diners. Even Lance, though inclined to take a verbal scalpel to almost anything anyone other than Val said, conferred his pokerish blessing on Genevieve’s dislike of, “Big, ugly flats, sprouting everywhere, that no here can afford to live in!”

“They are not very beautiful, I think,” Anatoly gravely affirmed.

The food, though, was beautiful. A vegan Eton mess brought up the rear. Seized by a lurking impulse to surprise, Ben asked if anyone would mind if he played the piano.

“Of course not, Ben!” Genevieve said, though she wasn’t giving him her full attention. That, once again, was on Anatoly.

Some elderly sheet music was propped above the piano keys. It was for a song called A Foggy Day (In London Town), which Ben had never heard but didn’t look too hard to play. He worked the keys. The tune came easily. The table talk faded, attention turned his way and when he finished there was a wavelet of applause.

“That was marvellous,” enthused Genevieve.

“Classy,” said Ming, gilding her appreciation with a yawn.

But Val and Lance, already twitchy, announced that they must leave, and quickly did so.

“I too must say goodnight,” said Anatoly, standing and bowing to Ben and the two young women.

“I’m off to the lav,” said Ming, kissing Anatoly loudly on both cheeks and sailing off to do her business. Genevieve accompanied Anatoly down to the ground floor, from where grains of muffled dialogue floated up, chafing Ben’s curiosity. Did lowering a bicycle from a wall bracket really warrant such pregnant murmuring? At least he now knew that Anatoly didn’t live with Genevieve, or anywhere in the building above her Vinyl Café. He wondered, though, where Ming fitted in.

Genevieve reappeared. “You can stay tonight if you like,” she said.

“Can I? Um…?”

“Yes, there’s a whole empty flat you can have all to yourself! I can let you in.” Seeing Ben’s puzzlement, she added: “The landlord is a beast, but he depends on me, you see. You don’t really want to go back to your…wherever you live…this late, surely?”

And it was true: Ben rented a room in a house he shared with two glum PhD students from Birmingham and a Japanese waiter who kept irregular hours, but the sharing was confined to taking turns in the bathroom and kitchen.

“Well, not really,” he said.

“Follow me then,” Genevieve said, lifting a key from a row of hooks and leading Ben up a further mothy flight of stairs to a door on the next floor. “Here it is,” she said, letting them both in. “A bit musty, but more comfortable than my sofa.”

The layout was much the same as her own flat and the furniture would have been at home in it, notably a three-piece suite straight out of a 1950s TV ad. “This is very kind of you,” Ben said.

“You’re so sweet and polite!” Genevieve said. They were in the hall, next to the bedroom door. Genevieve turned to leave. Ben felt a lurch of disappointment and relief.

“Goodnight,” he said.

At the flat door, Genevieve turned abruptly back.

“Nearly forgot,” she said, and tossed the key to Ben, who failed to catch it. “You don’t want any strange women sneaking in at dead of night,” she added on her way out, as Ben groped for the key on the floor.

 

Three

 

Whatever woke Ben – disorientation, worry, a morning ache of which he was a bit ashamed – it woke him early. He sat experimentally on the vintage sofa and looked out at the grey street and reluctant late November dawn. He opened the flat door, listened and heard no one. He closed the door and wondered what to do. Then, footsteps – slow, heavy, descending, heading his way. They stopped outside. Ben waited, fretfully. Would there be a knock? Would he answer it or pretend to not be there?

The downward footsteps resumed and receded. Ben scurried back to the window. He heard the front door close at street level below. On the pavement, a plump, dark haired man wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase came into view. He crossed the road. Reaching the other side, he turned and looked the building up and down. Ben watched him from behind a velvet curtain. The plump man wore a suit, a tie and a horseshoe moustache. A few cars passed. The man kept gazing, taking his time. Finally, he walked away.

Ben went back to the bedroom, put on his coat, dropped his phone into his pocket and left the flat, locking the door quietly behind him. He walked down to the next floor and sidled up to Genevieve’s door. He thought of knocking, but was deterred by a blue reverie. Where, he wondered, had Ming spent the night? A practicality intruded. Where should he leave his key? Lacking a better idea, he placed it on the floor, tiptoed down the long stairs he had walked up the previous evening and crept out of the building like a thief, using the stiletto knocker to pull the door closed. He checked nervously that the plump man was nowhere to be seen and walked off in the opposite direction.

Ben walked and walked and walked. He didn’t know where he was walking and he found he didn’t care. He walked past three people at a bus stop, another loafing outside a closed nail bar, two more sitting like assassins in a parked car. He was on a wide road now, and kept on walking: past a fire station; past the entrance to a green walkway; past a school. There was a big crossroads and an underpass, then a park and an old library on the right. Soon, a huge building loomed, emblazoned with the word ExCeL. Ben went left past a bus stop then, on a whim, turned off the road up a pedestrian slope, coming out opposite a tall Premier Hotel.

There was a different atmosphere now – an eerie sense of uncompleted newness. Ben walked round the hotel with its purple neon glow, half expecting to be challenged and arrested. Instead, he came upon a flat expanse of water stretching away in long, vast slab. He knew then, where he was: the Royal Victoria Dock. Up ahead stood his workplace, Canary Wharf, a cascade of lights amid the gloom. Behind him was a road bridge and behind that, City Airport. A plane approached, swooping low. There was a frontier feeling about the place; a gold rush vibe, a mix of the deluxe and the bare minimum.

Ben pushed on, through the dead space beneath the bridge and up on to the road, past a towering goddess statue and a sign that told him he really was now entering Silvertown. To his right, an avenue of clustered modern flats was served by a raised Dockland Light Railway track, which curved away towards the Isle of Dogs like some post-war science fiction monorail. Ben followed it, skirted tailored cycle tracks, then, suddenly sure of his destination, followed an arrow up some steps on to a walkway through a sculpted park. A level down, a decorative maze had been sheared out of foliage, but Ben’s focus lay ahead, on the wide grey furrow of the Thames.

Above the water, idly mystic, a morning mist waited for sunlight to break its spell. Ben headed towards it. Strung across the river, the housings of the flood barrier gates loomed like space age beetle backs. Ben took out his phone and searched “foggy day lyrics London Town.” He felt a stranger in the city and had a feeling of self-pity. What to do? What to do? What to do? And then the phone buzzed in his hand. Ben answered it and Genevieve said: “Ben! Where are you? Have you evaporated? Don’t you want some breakfast at the café?”

“I went for a walk,” said Ben.

“I know, I found your key. Now please walk back here straight away!”

 

Four

 

When Ben got back, Genevieve’s Vinyl Café was open, its name picked out in cream geometric font against a background of lime green. It was loudly evident that it sold more than food and drink. The window display was jammed with showroom dummies festooned with frocks and scarves and hats whose unifying feature was that none appeared to date from after 1975. Pride of place was given to a Dansette record player mounted on spindly legs.

Ben pushed open the door and was almost pushed back out by an overload of artworks and artefacts, baubles, drapes and postcards and plastic Biba heads. Down one side, elderly long-playing records in worn, colourful sleeves were alphabetically arranged in wooden flip boxes fixed to the wall. A serving counter with a curving edge and mock chrome trim was graced with a gleaming Gaggia.The scruffy wooden tables that looked as if they’d been extracted from a skip during the Blitz. At one of them sat Anatoly. Also present was Genevieve, wearing elevator bootees and purple paisley mini dress. She was standing on a chair, writing on a blackboard with a big stick of white chalk.

“Thank heavens you are here Ben!” Genevieve enthused. “You will be able to help me with my maths!”

“What maths might those be?” asked Ben, eager to show willing and in so doing lightly conceal his suspicions about Anatoly’s fragile yet insistent presence so very early in the day.

“These maths here,” said Genevieve, fact-of-fact. On the left hand side of the blackboard she was recording the café’s balance sheet. Income and outgoings were set out in two neat columns of curly script: gas, electricity, coffee, tea, bread, flour, butter, icing sugar, cheese. The income column also listed sales of what were headed “ravishing retro items”.

“What about rent?” Ben inquired.

“Ah yes, of course,” said Genevieve. “How stupid, I can’t remember what it is.”

Now, Ben was looking at the right hand side of the blackboard, where the café’s menu was displayed. He saw that all the sandwiches had names: Susan, Wilma, Kevin, Brian. There was also a carrot cake called Trudy.

“Are you hungry?” Genevieve asked, stepping down from her chair and standing before Ben, feet neatly together, eyes rolled up in expectation. Ben was, having had no breakfast. He quite fancied a Brian, but couldn’t bring himself to order it by name.

“I’d like a tuna sandwich please,” he said, affecting a distracted manner to camouflage his embarrassment.

Genevieve turned and bellowed, “One sourdough Brian please, for lovely Ben.”

Ming’s voice came straight back, “Oooh, a Brian, my favourite,” which, from her tone, might have been entirely true or the exact opposite.

“Sourdough is very healthy,” Genevieve explained. “Why don’t you sit with Anatoly? I will make you a vintage coffee.”

Ben did as he was urged. He was still processing his surroundings, a clamouring montage from the 20th century’s core decades. A large video screen was showing an old movie. Sailors were singing, “There aint nothing like a dame.”

Anatoly looked up wanly. He greeted Ben with the same solemn deference as the night before.

“Ben, it is a good morning, I think.”

“Quite misty.”

“An autumn mist, I believe. We have them in Russia too.”

“Excellent,” said Ben. “Um…”

“I am meaning to ask you, Ben,” Anatoly resumed. “About your piano-playing. It was amazing.”

“Oh, not really.”

“Yes, yes, I think so. It was charming, I am thinking.”

“Well, thank you.”

“And I was wondering if – if I may – you might like to meet some other musicians and, who knows, make a band, play a concert, maybe even here in the shop?”

He made a shrug of hopefulness and his eyes rolled round the café’s panoply of wonders, as if in this western world anything were possible.

“It’s a nice idea,” said Ben, taking a look around too, partly from politeness but also to avoid Anatoly’s beseeching gaze. “But I’m really much better at maths than music.”

“The thing is,” Anatoly said, confidingly. “The artist community here, it is still quite small. But I am encouraging it, you see.”

Genevieve brought the coffee, placed it before Ben and sat down next to him, neat as a kitten and just as curious.

“So, Ben,” she said, deadly grave. “Do like my Vinyl Café? Do you think I’m brilliant or mad?”

“Mad,” said Ming, flatly, from behind the counter.

“Yes, mad!” announced Genevieve with joy. “But maybe I am brilliant too. Ming and I created this decor together. What do you think?”

“I think it’s lovely,” said Ben, surveying the chaotic montage, the waistcoats, corsets and gaudy costume jewellery arranged on hangers, hooks and pegs, the musical treasures like exhibits from a magpie’s museum.

“Marvellous!” said Genevieve. “Can you go into detail? Just to make my head a little bigger?”

“OK,” said Ben, feeling his way into this latest game, with its quickening hints of challenge and exposure. “The window display is, well, eye-catching and beguiling – rather exotic for Plaistow, I suppose.”

“But that is exactly the idea!” Genevieve said, lifting up her feet up and hugging her knees but without taking her eyes off Ben as he glimpsed the shadowed space between her heels. “Keep talking, I insist!”

“Ah, well…”

He was saved by the sourdough Brian, which Ming served with an ironic flourish. She was wearing a floral blouse and a grass skirt. “Topiary,” she said. “Love it.” She walked off, chortling, and relieved a Biba head of its fedora.

The shop door opened. Val walked in, accompanied by two younger people, one male, one female, each wearing the face of an Jesuit inquisitor and a Peruvian bobble hat. Their hands were full of leaflets. Val advanced, proffering copies with an air of priestly munificence.

“I thought I’d leave some of these with you, if I may,” she announced, handing a batch to Genevieve. “It’s about a protest tomorrow, outside the Perch Corner building. Developers want to turn it into luxury flats. The council is in the thick of it, of course. The community is up in arms.”

“But this is terrible,” said Anatoly. “We must stand up for beauty!”

Val turned her evangelical gleam on Ben.

“Yes, I think I’m free,” he said, knowing perfectly well that he was. As free as a bird, in fact – a far-migrated bird, looking for a new place to call home.

“What about you, Ming?” called Genevieve.

“Yeah, whatever. Always up for a ruck.”

“Val,” said Genevieve. “I would love to be there too. But on Sundays, I am a prison visitor. You know, I help them with their reading. I couldn’t let them down.”

“Of course,” said Val, approvingly. “We are expecting a good turnout. I’ll see the rest of you tomorrow.”

She left, taking her entourage with her. Ben devoured his Brian and listened politely as Anatoly spoke of his creative vibrations while secretly watching Genevieve as she primped and tweaked the cornucopia of cast-off furnishings. The old film was called South Pacific. Ming cut herself a slice of Trudy and sat watching it, devotedly.

Ben thought he’d quit while he was still in credit. He left, promising an insistent Genevieve that he would come back soon. He spent the rest of his day adrift in Soho and in a West End cinema watching Mortal Engines on his own. He didn’t really know what the demonstration the next day was about, but he was looking forward to it anyway.

 

Five

 

Ben positioned himself an innocent distance from two chatting policemen and joined them in observing the protesters as they gathered across the street. There were around 30 of them, half a dozen carrying placards. The threatened building itself, a glum three-storey pile of blackened brick, displayed no external signs of wishing to be saved or of containing life within.

Though small, the group was eclectic: grey-haired white people, blue-haired white people, green-haired white people, no-haired white people and orange-haired black people. Some of the group handed leaflets to passers-by, who took them but kept on walking. Some unfurled a black banner with pictures of skulls and crossbones beneath the words Class War. Others hand-sold a thin newspaper with a red masthead and brandished a petition. A wooden crate was produced and a grey-haired white man climbed on to it. As he raised a megaphone to his mouth, Ben saw that it was Lance from the supper club.

“Are you lurking?” said a voice at his side. The voice belonged to Ming. She wore a huge black fake fur coat, a matching Cossack hat and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Her right cheek bulged and a lollipop stick protruded from the left side of her mouth. She looked at him with reserved amusement.

“I suppose I am,” Ben replied, recovering from his surprise as, across the way, the protestors listened respectfully to Lance’s brittle Queen’s English delivery. “The coun-sil, the Mayor and the political establishment have colluded in these appalling demolition plans, which will continue the process of tearing the heart out of this community,” he said, to a small outbreak of cheers.

Ming withdrew the lollipop from her mouth with a faint pop. ““They’ll trash a hipster coffee shop, later,” she observed, casually.  “That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?”

Ben looked at her closely, but Ming wasn’t looking at him any more. He wondered if she’d been talking to herself. For politeness sake, he said, “Yes, it would”.

“Here I go then,” Ming announced. Reinserting her lollipop, she set off across the road. Ben watched as she rooted in a coat pocket, drew out a compact camera, and began snapping the protesters, pushing her way into their ranks with blithe and total confidence.

Lance was in full flow. “We are in danger of losing our city to the greed of developers, to speculative foreign money and the rapaciousness of global capital,” he declared. “But with unity and solidarity our demands will be heard and our battle will be won.”

“Woo!” said appreciative voices. Ben spotted Val, nodding approvingly. There was a clatter of stout applause. Ben considered moving closer, but didn’t want to become one of Ming’s photo studies or make an unplanned social media appearance. Or be spotted by Lance or Val. So he hung back and watched the ritual unfold: speaker after speaker; denunciation after denunciation.

A dozen newcomers arrived, skinny figures clad in black. Their faces were covered, in some cases with scarves, in others with plastic masks: Edvard Munch’s The Scream; a likeness of Guy Fawkes; a disturbingly gleeful Micky Mouse. The two police officers stiffened. One received a radio message. Ben spotted a police transit nose out of a side street. And suddenly the scene of placid piety became one of rapid movement and stark proximity as the black-clad group rushed en bloc across the street towards where Ben was standing. He scuttled sideways as a rock flew through the air and hit a window he had been standing in front of.

“Move!” said one of the police officers, as he and his colleague rushed to intercept. Ben did as he was told and, looking back, saw that the pack’s quarry was not him but the office of an estate agent. The rock had cracked the frontage glass, creating a crystalline flaw. Now, the masked figures formed a swarm round it and Ben heard the sound of shattering from within.

Police piled out of the transit, wielding batons. The black-clad guerrillas scarpered. Two pelted straight past Ben, who simply stood, amazed, unable to react, as though stunned by virtual reality. After them came Ming, camera raised in one hand, hat clutched to her head with the other. She seemed not to notice Ben. He looked on, as cops made collars and shoppers paused to take in the spectacle before resuming their contended consuming.

 

Six

 

“State of those wankers,” drawled Harry Shawcroft. leaning back in his chair. He slurped his latte and studied his phone. It was lunchtime and Harry, Rory and Ben were spending their short hour in a coffee shop near London Wall.

“Which wankers might those be?” Rory inquired, with equal languor.

Manchester wanking United,” Harry said. “Can’t believe they dropped points again.”

“Up the Spurs,” said Rory.

“Up the Arsenal,” retorted Harry.

“Up the Arse,” Rory observed, turning to watch a girl walk by.

Harry switched his attention to Ben. “Got a team, Benny-boy, mathematics super star?”

“Not really,” Ben replied.

“Haven’t got a team? D’ya hear that, Ror? The Benster hasn’t got a team. Better put that right.”

“I’ve never really liked football,” Ben explained. “I’ve only been to one match. That was with my dad, to see Spalding United.”

“Spalding United!” Harry sat up and slapped his thigh. “Spal-ding Yoo-Nite-Ed! Now you’re talking!”

“Lads on tour!” said Rory, laconically, and punched the air.

Ben smiled at them: “My dad took me, but I felt sick and we left at half time.”

“Price-less!”

“Top bants!”

“I think on that day I knew my destiny,” said Ben.

He was at ease in the role of hedge team bumpkin nerd, which Harry and Rory had cast him in. It gave him a niche in the office group dynamic, one that inherently honoured his winning way with numbers and made few demands on him, other than to play up to it now and then. Ben had worked out early on that Harry and Rory were of a special City boy breed that burned out by the age of 30 and then become designer Buddhists.

“Hey, look at this in Plaistow,” said Rory, flicking through his tablet.

“New Hipsterville,” said Harry. “That’s your manor, young Benny, I do believe.”

“What’s happened?” asked Ben.

“Dramatic scenes,” said Rory. “Protestors, demonstrators. Wuh-ho! Estate agent window destroyed! Anarchist hoodlums! Harry, we’d better get young Ben out of there!”

“Show me,” said Ben. Rory passed him the tablet. “MOB ON RAMPAGE AFTER HOUSING PROTEST” declared a local news website from within a thicket of invasive ads.

Ben recognising the scene he had witnessed at close hand the previous day. “Seems like such a nice neighbourhood too,” he said, handing the tablet back.

“Party’s over for capitalist bastards,” Harry said, heaving himself to his feet and yawning.

“Revolution on its way,” signed Rory, doing the same.

“I’ll see you in a minute,” said Ben, staying put and punching numbers into his phone. “Just need to quickly call my mum.”

“Gawd bless the Benster,” Harry said in his best drawling mockney as he and Rory sloped away.

Ben put his phone to his ear until they were out of sight, then went online and searched “plaistow” + “mob”. He found the news report Rory had shown him and read it carefully. Lance was mentioned by title and surname: Professor Lance Dourbridge, historian. There was a photo of the smashed estate agent window and some video footage, which wouldn’t load because the wi-fi was too weak. But later, after work, having wandered through Leadenhall Market and Bishopsgate, Ben found a seat and sat and watched it, listening through headphones as little waves of global humankind flowed by.

There was a statement from the council and soundbites from demonstrators and local people, including a middle-aged woman with a real cockney accent and a twinkle in her eye. “What it is, I don’t mind who comes to live here, not really, s’long as they don’t ride their bicycles on the pavements, know what I mean?” She hogged the camera’ attention. “And, you know, they bring a bit of life to the place. You gotta laugh, though, some of the art. But I don’t mind a nice mural. Nice cat on the side of a building, I think they’ve got one in Poplar, is it? Why shouldn’t we have a nice cat too?”

Ben’s mind’s eye saw Genevieve and Ming up a long ladder laden with aerosols, brushes and paint. From Liverpool Street, he rode the Underground east towards his drab room. It was late and the District Line trains were half empty. Ben felt oddly at home among the overtime commuters, light sleepers and day dreamers – the Big City nameless, companions he would never meet again. Lost in thought, he didn’t notice that his train was now above ground. When his phone rang, he answered in a fluster.

“Hi Genevieve.”

“Ben. Where are you? Can you come and see me?”

“Um, well, where are you?”

“I’m in the café. I’ve had a marvellous idea.”

“Oh. What is it?”

“Don’t ask. You’ll spoil the fun, and that would be terrible.”

“Well, fun-spoiling is not in my skill set,” he said, rallying valiantly.

“Haha! Ben, you are so funny! How long until you get here?”

“Um, about 20 minutes, I should think.”

“Please try and make it ten!”

 

Seven

 

The café was closed when Ben arrived, so he knocked with the stiletto and the tatty door swung open as before. Genevieve was waiting behind it. She wore a little black dress, a red cardigan and a red rose fascinator.

“Hello,” she said. “You must be the popular Ben!”

Ben said: “That’s right. I sent the unpopular Ben away.”

“Haha! You always say such marvellous things! Follow me.”

Ben hadn’t notice the small door by the foot of the stairs before. Genevieve opened it and led him through. Ben watched the red rose bob as she walked. They came out in the café kitchen, which was tiny and furnished with chessboard Fablon.

“Ming’s idea,” said Genevieve, reading Ben’s mind as she swept through, plucking a tumbler from a shelf along the way.

They emerged behind the café counter. A light was on by the corner table, where they sat down. On the table stood a bottle of red wine, another tumbler, half full, a Tate Modern pencil case and a notebook swathed in Op Art illusions.

Genevieve half filled Ben’s glass, clinked it with hers and said, “Cheers, as you English people say.”

“Cheers to you too,” said Ben, wondering nervously what Genevieve’s idea might be.

“How wonderful,” she said. “Now, listen.” She leaned forward, giving Ben her Earnest Eyes. “I’ve been speaking to my landlord. He is a beast, but he depends on me. He has asked me a favour, which is to ask you if you would move into the spare flat – the one you stayed in the other night. What do you say?”

Ben knew what he wanted to say, which was a combination of, “Yes please, yes please, yes please, I will even do it today,” and, “But I’m not sure how it would be, where it would lead, what it might mean.” But he kept all that to himself. Instead, he said: “Wow. How nice. Um…”

“It’s such a beautiful flat,” Genevieve enthused. “You can have it rent free for a while if you move in straight away, to make up for losing your deposit. Mates rates after that. That place you’re staying in now sounds so miserable. You’d have a lovely neighbour – me – and be near the café, and all your other new friends.”

New friends? Well, yes, he supposed so. But things were moving very fast.

“Just do what I say,” urged Genevieve. “It’s so much easier that way.”

Ben couldn’t look at her. She seemed to be reading his mind and he didn’t want her reading it much more.

He said, “It’s a lovely idea. I feel very honoured,” and Genevieve laughed loudly, so that her fascinator shook exquisitely.

Seeing him watching it, she said. “Do you like my silly hat? You must think I’m completely mad, but I just had to try it out. You find these gorgeous things and then it seems a shame to sell them, so I have a bit of fun with them while I can.”

She grinned and wobbled her head again, just for extra effect, and Ben laughed obligingly. The café’s unfamiliar quiet and the absence of other company created a new frame through which to look at Genevieve, and he sensed in her a mix of hungry imagination and needy urgency.

“Who else lives above here?” asked Ben, thinking of the man with the horseshoe moustache and his heavy footsteps on the stairs.

“Well, no one, really,” Genevieve said, “apart from me”.

“Doesn’t Ming live here?”

“No, no. She lives in a squat with Anatoly. Why, did you think we are lesbians?”

“No! No, I don’t.”

“Tut tut! You boys and your fantasies!”

“I, ah…” Ben bent to do up his shoelace, which wasn’t undone.

“Now I’ve embarrassed you, which is so unfair of me. Maybe Ming and I should be lesbians. What do you think?”

Ben abandoned the shoelace, fought for composure and replied: “I might not be the best person to give careers advice.”

“Haha! Ben! You are so brilliant!”

“Oh, not really. But I saw a man leaving the building the other morning, just after I woke up. I assumed he was another tenant.”

“Ah, him,” said Genevieve, raising a slim finger in recognition. “Mr Mystery, I call him. I don’t know his actual name. He’s sometimes here and then he’s not here. Sometimes he’s gone for weeks. He must be some sort of businessman, I think. I suppose this place is handy for the airport. Yes, he lives here, but he doesn’t really count. Otherwise, for the moment, it’s just me.”

“So where does Ming live?”

“Oh! Haha!” said Genevieve. “Didn’t she tell you?”

“No. Tell me what?”

“She lives in that building Val and Lance are trying to save. The one they had the demonstration about!”

“She never said so.”

“No. Well. Ming has a sense of humour.”

Ben struggled to grasp how this could be thought funny rather than just a little odd, but he had seen enough of Ming to recognise that, in her case, the distinction wasn’t clear. And he quite liked her sense of humour: after all, she had enjoyed his topiary joke.

“What about Anatoly?” he asked.

“He lives there too,” said Genevieve. “There’s a little group of artists living there, at least for now. It’s a ‘meanwhile space’. The building’s owner actually invited them to stay there free until the place gets done up or knocked down, or whatever. It’s rather sweet and cosy. Val and Lance didn’t mention all that, of course. Perhaps thy didn’t know!” Her voice became confiding. “By the way, don’t ask me what the sleeping arrangements are.”

Ben didn’t. He was more interested in something else: “Anatoly didn’t tell Val he lived in that building either. You know, when she came round with the leaflets the other morning.”

“That is because he likes it there,” said Genevieve. “He doesn’t want to get involved with protests against the owner! Also, he is afraid.”

“What of?”

“Being in trouble with the authorities. He made sure he was nowhere near that building on the demonstration day.” She shrugged: “He’s a foreigner.”

“Is he here illegally?” Ben asked.

Genevieve shrugged again. “I don’t know. Maybe. But even if he isn’t, you know how it is. If they decide they don’t like you, what chance have you got? Honestly, Ben, I spend half my life expecting to be thrown out of this country! Maybe just for being mad!”

Ben, seizing a moment, asked: “Where are you from, Genevieve? I mean, If you don’t mind…”

“No, no, darling, I don’t mind at all! I’m from France! From Paris! Can’t you tell?”

“Um, well I had wondered. But your English is extremely good. There isn’t even much of a French accent.”

“Why, thank you Ben! I like to think of myself as a citizen of everywhere. And why not? The world is in constant motion, after all! Now, what must I do to persuade you to accept my generous offer?”

Ben said, “Do you mind if I think about it?”

“Of course not, Ben,” said Genevieve. “Knowing you as I do, I am quite sure you will do the right thing.”

 

Eight

 

Tuesday was Ben’s day off work for Christmas shopping. He headed for the Stratford City Westfield soon after he heard his Phd housemates leave, though not before spending more time than usual in front of his bedroom mirror.

At the mall, he wandered distractedly, consulting his gift list, forgetting what was on it, consulting it again, then realising he didn’t know which floor of the mall he was on, or at which end, or which shops he’d already browsed in.

After an hour he gave up, found a quiet spot next to a bespoke biscuit boutique, sat on the floor and consulted his Lonely Planet pocket guide to London. He did this furtively because he didn’t wish to be mistaken for a tourist, even though he still often felt like one. Ben had lived in the city for just three months and was still finding his feet. Yet now he was contemplating a leap into one of the less familiar of its many landscapes, where the terrain, though tempting, was uncertain.

He took the Tube to Barbican, where a foreign man, who explained that he was local, gave him directions to Charterhouse Square, home of Tudor halls and Black Plague skeletons. He wandered in the Christmas market then went to the café, where he sat among retired ladies and sipped a black Americano.

What gifts did his parents want, again? He checked the list his mother had sent him and thought of seasonal Spalding and old school mates about whose friendships he had grown ambivalent, especially the one with a certain girl. His university friends were scattered far and wide.

He meandered some more, past Smithfield, to Holborn Viaduct and then, somewhat to his surprise, to the apron of St Pauls. Taking the Tube again, he headed for South Kensington, where instead of visiting the Science or Natural History museums as he had before, he went to the V&A, where he gazed at Iconic Furniture and evening gowns by Alexander McQueen.

Ben emerged into the dusk, wondering where the day had gone and mindful that the dying daylight was just the prelude to the onset of the evening commuter peak. He was in no rush to join it, but as he idled on Museum Street decided it was time to step out boldly. He took his phone from his pocket and a deep breath. He composed a text to Genevieve: “I would like to move into the spare flat, if you are sure that is OK.”

The reply came speedily: “How marvellous! How soon?”

 

Nine

 

When he looked back, Ben could not be sure whose idea the Vinyl Café Christmas Spree had been. Had it emerged from a collective, creative chemistry, as Genevieve had joyfully proclaimed at the time? Or had the notion of a showcase evening, with art, entertainment, seasonal refreshments and the opportunity to find that unique gift no high street chain could offer, formed rather less spontaneously? He was sure only that the conceiving of the event, the chaotic planning for it and the excitement of all concerned defined for him the special magic of that time in his life and the intoxicating pleasures of being with Genevieve and in the company of others drawn to her.

It had followed the exposé of Val and Lance, as Ming would humorously call it. Anatoly had instigated this, though not with any malice or even intent. Perched in the café one evening, frowning through a book about Stuckism, he said thoughtfully: “They are quite bourgeois, I am thinking.”

“Who are?” inquired Ben, who had become more relaxed about the Russian. It was a fortnight or so since he had lugged his belongings out of his room in the shared house, crammed them into an Uber van and heaved them up the stairs to his new London accommodation. He had since concluded that Anatoly had not been sliding dreamily under Genevieve’s duvet as he had feared. Comforted by this, he was starting to appreciate the bicycling artist’s sleepy charms.

“Valerie and Lance,” Anatoly said, wonderingly. “They are, well, revolutionaries, I believe. And yet they are bourgeois. How can that be?”

“Well, you’re the Russian,” Ben replied between bites of Kevin on spelt.

“I don’t understand,” said Anatoly.

“I’m sorry,” said Ben. “I know what you mean. I’ll look them up.”

He set his laptop googling and soon compiled a rough timeline of the endeavours of Professor Lance Dourbridge and Doctor Valerie Frost. Back in the 1980s they had hosted some kind of soirée at their home, where they and an array of fellow academics, radical politicians and prominent actors had composed a denunciation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on behalf of the working-class. It had been duly published in the Guardian. Their home at that time was in Canonbury, a neighbourhood in Islington.

“Posh,” observed Ming, who was attired in a tweed suit that Genevieve had bought from an Oxfam shop. “My mum used to run a pub round there.” She also wore a deerstalker. Her words came out oddly due to the briar pipe protruding smokelessly from the corner of her mouth.

“I thought they said they lived in Dalston,” said Ben.

“Trendy name for the same thing,” Ming replied. “Well, practically.”

“Wow, big houses there cost millions,” said Ben. “Even the Dalston bit.”

“Lord and Lady Newham now, then,” said Ming.

Ben thought for a moment. “If they’ve downsized, they’ve either got a fortune in the bank, or a second home somewhere.”

“Maybe they’ve bought a house for their children,” said Genevieve, who’d just walked in. “How else can a young person get a place of their own in this city?”  She wore a black cocktail dress, a wide-brimmed hat and dark glasses. She held a long cigarette holder with no cigarette in it.

“Audrey Hepburn,” said Ming.

“Sherlock Holmes,” said Genevieve in return.

In her other hand Genevieve held a plate of jam doughnuts. Ming, as was her custom, sniffed them appraisingly.

“God, I love them,” she said. “I was once so into a doughnut I got on the wrong train and ended up in Billericay.”

“That bad?” said Ben.

“Ooooh, shady” said Ming. “He’s learning.”

This was true. With the key he had once failed to catch now secure on a fob in his pocket, Ben had quickly settled in to his new life. His working days were little changed: he took the same route to work wearing the same two suits on alternate days; he continued to amiably live up to his characterisation by Harry and Rory as a boy wizard sheep-worrier. But his evenings and weekends were no longer voids filled with quietly desperate sightseeing. Now, knocking off time marked the start of his stepping in to a dimension of dazzlements; of faux art deco furnishings, mirror balls and vintage 12-inch discs; of flapper frocks, corduroy suits and Chelsea boots. At his suggestion, a proper lock had been installed in the front door. Genevieve had paid for this. The beast of a landlord would reimburse her, she’d explained.

Now, Ben felt bold enough to say: “Should we have a Christmas party? I mean here in the café.”

“Ben!” said Anatoly, suddenly alive. “You could play the piano!”

“Well, maybe,” said Ben.

“A cocktail evening,” mused Ming. “I could mix martinis.”

“What a beautiful idea,” cried Genevieve. “In fact, I had been thinking of holding a Christmas sale. We can have music and dancing and an art exhibition. We can invite the whole community! It will be a Christmas spree!”

And so it was decided. Anatoly and Ming would design the posters. Ben would find a place to get them published. And Genevieve would send out invitations.

 

Ten

 

The Christmas Spree began in the middle of the Saturday afternoon. Ben was in a state of high anxiety and alert. Some of his fretfulness centred on the electronic keyboard one of Anatoly’s friends had brought to the café for him to play in a theoretical impromptu band. It was squashed into a corner with an acoustic guitar and some African tom-toms. For the moment, music was flowing from the Dansette, whose tinny speaker gamely emitted the guitar twangs and saxophone rasps of a tune called Peter Gunn. Ben rather liked it. He felt the Spree would go with more of a swing if its soundtrack was left to Duane Eddy.

He also had doubts about some of the art exhibits that had been shoehorned in for the day – works he had helped transport from their “meanwhile” space in the old building Val and Lance had vowed to save. The space was both large and largely derelict. Ben had seen that Ming slept on the floor of her improvised studio, on a thick piece of foam. A changing screen concealed a clothes rail bearing a collection of garments that would have shamed a theatrical costumier. As an artist, Ming specialised in collage: mosaics of street scenes and objects and snapshots of people who’d caught her eye. On one of her canvasses Ben spotted protestors and rioters from the demo. He found that he was disappointed that it lacked an appearance by him.

Ming’s creations were large, but flat and not too heavy. Anatoly’s was unshapely, rather frightening and weighed a ton. What was it, exactly? A dayglo tree trunk? A giant’s melting ice cream? A likeness of a rude rock formation? “It represents my personal growth while here in England,” Anatoly said. Three doting females helped him heave it to a wheelbarrow, which he and Ben to trundle round to the café where it now stood on a table, huge and ambiguous, menacing the trays of canapés.

But Ben’s biggest fear for the Spree was that it would be a flop. Would even regular customers be put off by the newly complex challenge of finding somewhere to sit down? He felt a protectiveness that was less towards the café and its intensified clamour of contents than the high hopes for the occasion of Genevieve and Ming.

He need not have worried. As afternoon turned to evening, the lights on the overdressed fake Christmas tree outside the door shone more brightly as December darkness engulfed the street and seemed to bring more people in. Some were familiar, others wholly new to Ben and quite unlike the Vinyl Café’s usual clientele.

Along with the boho girls and beardy boys were older, slicker people who stood in small, closed groups, spoke quietly and looked around appraisingly. Some flipped through the record racks, occasionally releasing a middle-aged whoop of recognition. Genevieve, wearing a red and green sequin dress and bowler hat, welcomed them without fear, tilting her head and cocking her wrists and giving them the Earnest Eyes. “The Silvertown Supper Club, yes! You really should come. Oh, I know we’re not really in Silvertown, but isn’t it a gorgeous name…?”

Ming, who wore a silver evening gown with matching tinsel halo, played the supporting hostess role, taking photo after photo with her phone and wielding the cocktail shaker like a pro. Ben heard her say to an intrigued man in a suit: “Yes, it is an unusual name. And I have a sister called Willow – Willow Pattern. ” She laughed at her own joke like a drain.

On the Dansette, a Shangri-Las album faded to a crackle. Ben, relaxing, slid on to the stool behind the keyboard, adjusted the skinny black bowtie he’d bravely donned for the occasion and began playing. He had increased his repertoire: A Foggy Day (In London Town); London Pride; A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. People actually danced.

It was around 7:00 when Ben saw that Mr Mystery had walked in, wearing the same suit and tie as before. Balancing a bulging Wilma on a cardboard plate, he sipped a prim glass of Prosecco and made a slow, solitary circuit of the premises,  taking in every item and decorative detail. Then he was talking to Genevieve, privately, in a corner. People were laughing, drinking, finishing the last of the mulled wine, but Genevieve was listening, nodding and listening some more, as Mr Mystery and his moustache loomed over her. Ben could not recall her holding her silence for so long, or ever seeing her not lit up like a firefly.

 

Eleven

 

Ben rose on the Sunday morning to get the café open. Leaving the flat, his head was clear but his mind not entirely at ease. He listened for heavy footsteps. He saw that Genevieve’s door was closed. He entered the café expecting to be alone with other peoples’ dregs and his own nagging ennui, but the café was already open for business. He heard someone singing in the kitchen – singing rather beautifully.

“Some enchanted evening…you may see a stranger….you may see a stranger….across a crowded room…”

Ben stopped and listened. The singer stopped singing and Ben feared he had been heard, but then the singer started up again.

“I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair, and send him on his way…”

Whose was this mellow contralto? Ben stepped softly to the kitchen doorway, trying to make enough noise to announce his presence but not too much, too suddenly, to cause alarm.

He looked in. The singer was Ming. She turned, saw him, and placed a hand theatrically on her heart as if to forestall a coronary.

“Morning,” she said. “You made me jump. Crap singer, aren’t I?”

She looked different. It was the clothes. The glimmering creation of the night before had given way to old joggers and a big jumper. Paradoxically, these made her look smaller in Ben’s eyes. For the first time she didn’t seem larger than life. The novelty of it freed his tongue.

“I think your voice is lovely,” he said.

She weighed this comment carefully.

“Bollocks,” she replied, switching on the dishwasher. “Let’s sit down, I’ve made tea.”

They shuffled to their usual table, ignoring the few plates and glasses Ming had yet to clear. She brought a teapot, milk and two mugs on a tray. “PG Tips,” she said, putting the tray down.

“Shall I be mother?” ventured Ben.

“You’ll need an operation.”

“I’ll be the judge of my own gender, if that’s OK.”

Ming gave one of her snorts. Then a customer walked in. She was not the usual kind: a woman in her mid-forties, businesslike, tentative yet purposeful. Warily, she scanned the chalkboard menu having given Anatoly’s sculpture a wide berth.

“Hello. I’m hoping you can help me,” she said.

“I’ll certainly try,” said Ben, politely.

“I’m trying to find someone called Vitoria,” the woman said. “I think this is her café. I think she might live here too. Upstairs.”

“There’s no one called Vitoria living here,” said Ben. “I actually live in one of the flats, and I know who all the others are.”

“Are you quite sure?” the woman asked, giving Ben a gimlet gaze.

“Well, um, what does she look like?” he asked.

The woman fished in her handbag, a severe, chic, serpentine affair. She produced an A3 envelope and drew from it three photographs, which she spread precisely on the table top beneath the noses of Ming and Ben. “That’s Vitoria,” she said.

It was Genevieve. Ming and Ben swapped automatic glances.

“Um. Who are you?” asked Ben politely. ‘If you don’t…”

“I’m her mother,” the woman said.

“But this is…” Ming began.

“Genevieve to you, apparently,” the woman said. “Vitoria to me.” She arched an eyebrow, and there was something familiar about her air of irresistible insistence.

“I know she was here last night,” the woman said. “Can we see if she’s in now?”

“Well, I’m not sure..,” began Ben, struggling to keep up.

“Listen,” the woman said. “I’ve come a long way.”

It was less a statement than a command. Ben said, “Yes, of course.”

He led the way up to Genevieve’s flat, knocked on her door and called her name, but there was no reply. The woman slipped a business card under the door. Ben remembered that Genevieve did her prison visiting on Sunday mornings, but he decided not to mention that for now. Instead he said, “Can I offer you a cup of tea?”

The woman looked at him evenly. “You seem a nice enough young man,” she said. “I won’t have a tea, but I’d kill for a double espresso. I’d like a croissant too. But I’m not going to call it Clive.”

 

Twelve

 

The woman’s name was Joy. Back in the café she sat down, smiled mirthlessly and said: “Shall I explain?”

“Yes please,” said Ming, all ears.

“I used to be a detective with the Metropolitan Police,” said Joy. “But that had to stop. The reason was Vitoria’s dad. I’m from Bayswater – the Hallfield estate. It’s quite famous, actually. Thought up by…Lubetkin, is it? The architect that built the penguin pool in London Zoo. But I digress.”

Ben was impressed. He’d been to see the penguin pool as part of his Lonely Planet schedule.

“Bayswater is sometimes known as Brazilwater,” continued Joy. “That is because of, guess what, all the Brazilians there. I used to go to a Brazilian restaurant. That’s where I met him – Eduardo, Vitoria’s dad. He was the owner. And a small time diamond dealer. And very charming he was too…”

Joy let her pregnant pause gestate.

“Well, one thing led to another. I move in with him, get married, we have a child – Vitoria. For a while, sweetness and light. Then, one day, cops raid his office. They find two hundred grand in cash and they arrest him. Suspected money laundering. And I’m a police detective. It took me months to persuade them that I knew nothing about it, and by that time I’d left the force. Too embarrassing. He was convicted. I left the country too, taking Vitoria with me. We moved to Paris – my mother’s French, I speak the language. Vitoria was 13. I got a job with a detective agency. Her dad went to jail. Unfortunately, she’s never blamed him for what he did. Or disowned him, unlike me. And that is pretty much why I’m sitting here now.”

Ben and Ming looked stunned.

“Hard to believe?” said Joy, reading their minds. “Look at this.” She produced a tablet, found a bookmark, called up a news site and placed the tablet on the table next to the photos. The story was all there: Eduardo Nascimento, born in Sau Paulo, came to London 1980s to study business, opened a restaurant in Bayswater, fell into bad company. The court heard in mitigation that he was a hapless loser, trying to keep up with Brazilian London’s Joneses. He hadn’t really known what he was doing. His wife, a now former Met detective, had been questioned but released without charge. The couple had a child, a teenage daughter. Neither the wife nor the daughter were named. But the mugshot of Eduardo left no doubt: the shape of the face, the winning smile, the Earnest Eyes. This was the father of Genevieve.

Joy drained her coffee. Ming gave her a refill.

“Vitoria’s a Daddy’s girl, you see,” continued Joy. “Always was. I suppose she goes to visit him in prison. Maybe that’s where she is now.”

Ben kicked Ming under the table. Ming said: “How long is it since you saw her?”

“Nearly a year.” Joy shrugged. “She’s eighteen now, so she can do what she wants. But she might have told me she was going.”

“You mean she just disappeared?” asked Ming.

“Jumped on the Eurostar one day. She sent me a text when she arrived, which was considerate by her standards I suppose. Not a lot since, though. She’s never told me where she lives or anything.”

“How did you find her?” Ben inquired.

“I’m a detective,” replied Joy. “It’s what I do.”

“Yes, but…”

“I saw the pictures on Instagram. That was the clincher. I know my own daughter when I see her. Hashtag vinylcafé. Hashtag christmasspree.” Joy looked knowingly at Ming. “Lady Flamingo, I presume?”

Ming nodded, bashfully. She wasn’t an exotic bird just now.

“Don’t worry,” said Joy. “It wasn’t yours that brought me here. It was the estate agent’s. Hashtag foxvilles, or whatever they are. They seemed very impressed: ‘up and coming vibrant cultural quarter’ and all that.”

“Estate agent?” said Ben.

“The one that’s selling this building for my ex-husband,” said Joy.

“Selling it?” said Ming.

“Selling it,” said Joy. She looked at Ben and Ming quizzically. “Didn’t you know? Well, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

“You mean…” said Ben.

“Vitoria’s dad owns this building, or some company he owns does. I’ve known that for a while. I also knew he was trying to sell it – that’s just a google search. What I didn’t know until last night, when I was sitting at home in Paris and saw her in the photos, is that Vitoria had a connection to it. And now I know she calls herself Genevieve, that she apparently runs this café, and that she lives upstairs.”

“Blimey,” said Ming, aghast. “I never knew any of that.”

“Incredible,” said Ben. “Neither did I.”

“Little cow,” said Joy. “By the way, did you spot a fat bloke in his fifties here last night? Bad suit and a villain’s moustache? He was in the Insta pictures too.”

“He rings a bell,” said Ben, cautiously.

“He’s her dad’s accountant,” said Joy. “His name is Bruno Barbosa. You want to keep an eye out for him. Wherever Bruno is, there’s money to be made.”

Joy gathered up her tablet and photographs.

“I’d better go,” she said. “I can’t sit here all day, hoping she’ll turn up. I’ll find a hotel and hope she calls.” She used a napkin to crossly wipe away a tear.

“Can we give her a message?” asked Ben, gently.

Joy thought for a moment. “Tell her I like her café. Tell her I’d love to see her.” She rose and headed for the door. “It was nice meeting you,” she said. “Merry Christmas.”

 

Thirteen

 

As Ming climbed on to the bus, she took Ben’s hand. “I think we ought to tell her,” she said.

“I think so too,” said Ben, not taking his hand away.

They had decided they should go and see Ming’s mum. Anatoly was minding the café. He had wafted wanly in clutching his sketch pad, accompanied by two young women with hopeful faces. By then, Ming and Ben had done a circuit round their moral dilemmas. Genevieve had deceived them, but should they blame her? Should they tell her that her mother had dropped by? She would find out when she found Joy’s business card behind her door, but would it look odd that Ming and Ben hadn’t told her already? Had Genevieve treated Joy badly? Had Joy treated Genevieve badly first? Was Eduardo a dangerous criminal? Was Mr Mystery a dangerous accountant?

The bus lumbered away from the bus stop. Up on the top deck, Ben and Ming tried phoning Genevieve. No answer. They texted her, emailed and What’sapped. No reply. Ming took Ben’s hand again and held it all the way to East Ham, looking resolutely out of the window. Ben couldn’t help secretly looking at her.

The short journey ended quite close to the scene of the demo. “This way,” said Ming, linking her arm through Ben’s. She led him down a tatty terraced street until they came to a bright purple front door. Ben recognised Ming’s mum as soon as he saw her. And heard her. She was the local woman in the “riot” video  who’d talked about a cat mural in Bow.

“Hello, I’m Mrs Smith,” she said to Ben. “But because you’re good looking, you can call me Chanelle.”

“Hello Chanelle,” said Ben.

“That’s Mr Smith in there,” Chanelle said, nodded at an open doorway as she led Ben and Ming down the hall. “You can call him lazy git. I know I do.”

Mr Smith was reading a book and wearing a pair of antlers. He saluted cheerily from his armchair.

“He’s not really lazy,” said Chanelle, confidentially, as they entered the kitchen. “But don’t tell him I said so.”

Ming sat down at the table, motioning Ben to do the same. “A weird thing’s happened, Mum,” she said. “You’ll laugh.”

“What could be weirder than you?” replied Chanelle, winking at Ben. “Actually, you’re rather subdued today, aren’t you? Not dressed like Lady Gaga or the Wicked Witch of the West. What do you think, Ben?” She quickly answered her own question. “I shouldn’t tease. She ploughs her own furrow. Good for her. Why shouldn’t she?”

Chanelle took some mugs out of a cupboard. Ming looked at Ben and rolled her eyes.

“So, what’s the weird thing?” Chanelle asked.

“Well,” said Ming. “It turns out that Genevieve, my mate from the café, she’s…well, I don’t know.”

“An imposter?” suggested Ben.

“Well, sort of.”

“How do you mean?” asked Chanelle, poised by the kettle as it boiled.

“Genevieve isn’t her real name and her dad is in prison.

“Oooh! What for?”

“Money laundering,” said Ben. “Genevieve told us she visited a prison to help rehabilitate offenders. But really she was visiting her dad.”

Ming said: “And it turns out he actually owns the café, and the flat Genevieve lives in. And the other flats too. She used to talk about her beast of a landlord. But it was her dad, all along. No wonder she didn’t worry about the rent. And now he might be selling it. I don’t know what to think. We’ve been really close. But she’s been bullshitting all along.”

With that, Ming burst into tears.

Chanelle carried the mugs, milk and a teapot to the table. The teapot was swaddled in a Christmas pudding cosy. Chanelle sat down, poured milk into the mugs and said: “How do you know all this?”

Ming and Ben recounted their encounter with Joy. Chanelle listened, then said. “Well, you haven’t done too bad.”

“What do you mean?” wailed Ming, mopping her face with a tea towel. “Genevieve has played us! She’s a fraud!”

“Do you like her?” asked Chanelle.

“Yes!” said Ming, thumping the table with her fists.

“Do you hate her now?”

“Yes! No! I don’t know!”

Chanelle poured the tea. Ben said: “I don’t hate her.”

“Why’s that, then?” asked Chanelle.

“Well, she was nice to me,” said Ben. “She made me laugh.”

“You fancied her,” said Ming.

“Shhh!” said Chanelle.

Ben blushed, but soldiered on: “She introduced me to new friends. Like Ming.”

“Aaah, sweet!” said Chanelle, putting her head on one side, like Mother Goose.

“And she let me move in to my flat,” Ben said. “Though I suppose that might turn out to be rather temporary.”

Ming still looked miserable. Chanelle put the Christmas pudding cosy on her daughter’s head. “There, now,” she said, soothingly.

Ming blew her nose.

“She paid your wages, didn’t she?’ asked Chanelle.

Ming nodded. The tea cosy bobbed.

“Meant you didn’t have to get a proper job.”

Ming sniffed.

“And a whole family of free sandwiches,” Chanelle mused. “Kevin, Susan, Brian.”

“Not forgetting Trudy,” said Ben.

“We all have our secrets,” Chanelle said. “It’s just some secrets are bigger than others. And there’s some secrets you don’t want to share.”

 

Fourteen

 

Back at the café, Anatoly was coping bravely in the kitchen while his harem took orders and staffed the till. Art students tried on feather boas. Bing Crosby vibrated the Dansette. There was still no word from Genevieve.

“It’s great here,” said Ben to Ming, above the noise.

“Don’t think it’s going to last, though,” she replied. “Maybe Valerie and Lance are right. The developers will eat it all up in the end.”

Ben shrugged and went to help Anatoly. Ming tried on a gangster moll two-piece.

They closed up at half past six, after everyone else had gone home. As Ben brought the shutters down, Ming sniffed his neck. “You smell nice,” she said. “Other boys don’t.”

“There’s a film on you might like, down in Peckham.”

“What is it?”

“Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Oooh, yeah. My dad likes that.”

“You’re dressed for the part.”

“You’re not.”

“I’m a maths nerd. We’re deep.”

“Bet you say that to all the girls.”

“I do. It never works.”

Ming gave him a sideways look. “There’s always a first time.”

 

Fifteen

 

The next morning, Ben and Ming woke together in Ben’s bed. There hadn’t been any sex – they had agreed to be too shy for that, but maybe to get over it in time.

There was still no word from Genevieve. Ben, becoming anxious, called the hedge fund to say he was unwell. Ming wondered whether or not to open the café. Without Genevieve around, she wasn’t sure she had the right.

They pondered a walk to the river, taking the route Ben had followed the morning after the Silvertown Supper Club, when he had found the real Silvertown. The Supper Club, of course, was where he’d met Ming and Genevieve for the first time. Geographically, he had moved just a few streets since then. In other ways, he had travelled a thousand miles.

He and Ming tried kissing. Then a text came through on each of their phones. It was Genevieve: “Hi! Sorry! All a bit mad! Do you want to know where I am????”

Ben and Ming looked at each other. Ben texted a reply: “Yes we do.”

Genevieve replied: “Who is we?!?!?!?”

Ben (niftily): “Everyone.”

Genevieve: “Where are you?”

Ben: “In the flat. Where are you?!?!?!”

Genevieve: “Stay where you are. Mr Mystery has a message for you.”

Ben: “Mr Mystery!?!?!?!??!”

Genevieve: “Just wait.” She added an emoji face in shades.

Ben showed the message to Ming, who shrugged. Ben got up and went to the flat door. On the stairs, heavy footsteps were descending. They paused, then continued their descent. Another text arrived from Genevieve: “Go down to the café. Mystery awaits! And I will reveal all!”

Ben returned to the bedroom. “We have to go down to the café,” he whispered.

“Why are you whispering?” whispered Ming, as she searched for her socks.

“I don’t know,” whispered Ben.

They tiptoed out, not knowing why they were tiptoeing. Ming listened at Genevieve’s door, but there was no sign that she had returned. They tiptoed on and down into the café where Mr Mystery sat waiting at the table looking at an open laptop, then up at the big screen, then back at the laptop and finally at Ben and Ming.

“Good morning,” he said, standing and bowing rather formally. “I am Mr Barbosa. I am hoping you have heard from Miss Belarose.” Ben and Ming looked puzzled. “Genevieve Belarose,” said Mr Mystery-Barbosa questioningly.

“Ah, Genevieve, yes,” said Ben. He’d never known her by a surname and neither had Ming.

“Please watch,” said Mr Mystery-Barbosa, indicting the big screen. “I will repair to the kitchen.” He hit a key on the laptop and headed for the Fablon annex. Ben and Ming did not wonder why or challenged him. In his courtly way he acted like the owned the place, which, oddly, it sort of seemed he did And, anyway, they were too busy watching Genevieve. She smiled out of the big screen at them, confidentially.

“You won’t believe this! I’m in Portugal!” she said.”

She held up a bottle of beer and a little custard tart. “Sagres, et une petite pasteis de nata, if you’ll pardon my French.”

Of course, none of this meant she wasn’t in Stockwell. But after Joy’s visit it was easy to believe that Genevieve had gone off to a different country without a word to anyone until she got there. She was wearing a grey, wide-brimmed hat, with a deep ribbon round the crown. Her crisp white shirt had a bow at the collar and there were glimpses of might have been a bolero jacket round her shoulders. She’d basically gone full Iberian.

“How did I get here?” she inquired of the camera. “You might well ask, dear Ben or Ming or whoever is watching this. Well, by plane of course! But, seriously. What am I doing in this rather lovely place, which you can’t see of course, when only – When was it? Yesterday? The day before? – I was at our marvellous Christmas Spree in Silvertown? Well, roughly Silvertown, anyway.”

Ben had to smile. It was hard to be cross with Genevieve for long.

“I know it’s shocking, but I just had to get away,” Genevieve told them, frowning prettily. “It’s all rather complicated, but so is my life, in case you hadn’t guessed. Of course, I don’t know what my mother told you about me. And thank you, by the way, for letting me know about her little visit. But whatever she told you, and whatever you know or believe – or whatever you don’t know what to believe! – you will be aware that she is cross with me. And that’s why I had to get away.”

Ming rolled her eyes. Ben touched her hand.

“Anyway,” said Genevieve, “I just wanted to tell you not to worry. As you will have gathered, Mr Mystery – not his real name, you’ll have guessed! – isn’t actually that much of a mystery, at least to me. He kindly met me at the airport with my passport. I decided I would visit my aunt out here in Sintra, where the vegetation is lush and the beach is tranquil. There’s a gorgeous Moorish castle too.” She shrugged. “Well, I did say I am a citizen of the world. But there again, perhaps I am a citizen of nowhere.”

She paused, composed herself and switched on the Earnest Eyes. “I suppose my message to you, Ming and Ben, if you are there, is to please just carry on as normal. I have arranged with the, ah, landlord, for Ben to stay on in his flat, rent-free for the time being. And if you and whoever else, would like to continue running Genevieve’s Vinyl Café, well that would be just marvellous. The landlord thinks it would a very good thing, and Ben is the sort of tenant he approves of. Mr Mystery agrees. You can trust Mr Mystery completely, by the way. He’ll take care of everything.”

At that point Mr Mystery walked back in, carrying a bag of coffee beans and a pint milk. He took these behind the counter and gave Ben and Ming a gracious salute from behind the splendour of the waiting Gaggia.

“And now it’s time for me to say goodbye,” said Genevieve, with a forlorn air that really might have been completely genuine. “I hope I will be back before too long. Feliz Natal! Eu te amo para sempre!” She mustered a brave smile and blew a kiss and then the screen went blank.

“Merry Christmas,” said Ben to Ming.

“Is that what she said?”

“I think that was part of it. But I haven’t lived in this city very long. Perhaps we’d better look it up.”

 

THE END

 

 

 

Categories: Culture

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *