‘It feels like misery,’ Alison said.
‘No,’ Max said, ‘sunny and clear.’ He thumbed the screen and held the iPhone up to her face so she could see the yellow ball. ‘See: sunny.’
‘I don’t think you heard me,’ she replied.
He was gazing into the shiny, black glass.
‘That’s not what I said, Max,’ she repeated.
He touched the iPhone screen. ‘I wasn’t really listening,’ he said after a long pause.
She snorted, and turned to look out of the tram window. It was a glorious Easter weekend, a romantic city break, their first getaway since their honeymoon six months ago. The cherry trees tossed their petals into the air like wedding confetti; Alison watched them fall into puddles on the pavement. Alison preferred tulips.
‘I wonder what Amsterdam was like before the tulips,’ she said.
‘You know, before they imported the tulip bulb. Before the Dutch went mad for them, in the 1600s. What was it like before that? Before they had farms and horizons of colour. Must have been horrible. All flat and grey.’
‘You mean Holland,’ he said.
‘You said Amsterdam, not Holland.’
‘I doubt they ever farmed them in the city,’ he said.
She should murder him, she thought. She should kill him and that would be the end of it. But she didn’t have the strength, she felt eroded, weary. She watched him stare into the iPhone, sometimes stroking his black goatee. It wasn’t his fault; it’s just how he was. It’s what made him so good at what he did. Tax and acquisitions. He was incredibly focused, that’s all. Logical, precise: a perfectionist. She was sure he didn’t mean any harm by it.
The tram was spinning along, picking up speed; the bicycles darted around and in front, like dolphins around a great ship.
Alison had loved living by herself; she did as she liked and worked very hard. Still did. God she worked. She was a buyer for a major department store; she’d started on the ground floor and she’d worked her way to the top, she already had an industry award. But at thirty, her private life turned awkward: too often the third wheel at dinner parties, she grew embarrassed by her friends’ attempts to pair her off.
Max seemed the sensible solution; and there was something familiar about him. At first she enjoyed it, the way he showed her off to his friends Bill and Helen, and boasted about how she had ‘come from nowhere’. At first she thought he’d meant, ‘come into his life like a miracle, a shooting star, an angel from heaven,’ something like that. It made her feel good.
They’d married and bought a house, not the new build in Surrey that she’d wanted but an old forge with bad plumbing in Kent that was the envy of his friends. Now she and Max had everything he wanted.
The tram stopped at a monumental brown brick building with Heineken Bouwerij in enormous white capitals along the side. Max put the iPhone inside his coat. ‘We’re here,’ he said and stood up. She looked at him. No squeeze on the knee, no my darling. That was to be expected, that was normal; she knew that. It was marriage.
Max was ranting and berating the person at the ticket booth. He did that a lot. How was it she’d never noticed? Alison knew she had always been a bit unaware. All right: detached. Life had been easier that way, but she was beginning to realize that when you weren’t paying attention a lot of things got past you. Important things. Like what the person you were marrying was like.
The tour was lining up against the wall, listless but obedient, and a guide was starting to speak. Max was motioning her over with some impatience. Alison came and stood beside him and touched his arm, but Max already had his earplugs in, listening to his music. He was checking another site off his list and waiting until they got to the beer. Alison didn’t really like beer or tours but it was something to do together. She knew alcohol was important to people, well there was all the evidence of home, growing up.
‘What a wonderful world this could be,’ the song from the old Heineken marketing campaign foamed over the glass entrance. Alison was looking forward to smelling open cauldrons of barley mash stirred with long wooden paddles. Maybe seeing Shire horses with carriages and barrels. The tourists jostled into a circle, they angled for position, ready to go.
Alison watched a Paris Hilton type push past and thrust to the front, all the time talking loudly on her phone in a thick Glaswegian accent. ‘Ah dinnae gie a fuck aboot it . . . nae wey.’ The young woman held everyone up fumbling around in her pack for her tickets. ‘Haudin youse up?’ she snorted.
No one said a word. Perhaps everyone was afraid to, Alison supposed. You could never tell with strangers nowadays, they might pull out a gun and shoot you if you made the slightest remark.
Paris was wearing skinny jeans, and white converse trainers. Her friend wore black jeans and had a grape Ribena bottle stuck out her back pocket. It matched the sporty pink skull on her oversize sweatshirt. How stylish rudeness and death had become. These two were the straight up version of people like Bill and Helen; at least Alison had dodged spending this weekend with those two.
Alison was fascinated by the selfish, wee Hilton and her skull fashion friend. They chewed gum. Ribena girl ground and torqued and chewed with real determination. If Alison did that her jaw would tighten like cement, she’d get a piercing headache and the tinnitus would start up. Not these two healthy specimens: they certainly had no problems with their bite.
The group was lured into the fake theatre of a traditional Amsterdam pub; a new guide dressed as a barman pointed at a huge screen and that’s where the horses and barrels were, all that was left of them now.
Then the pounding started: blaring, hip happy tunes; and they were drawn into the flashing, spinning, hyping, huge screen world of Heineken. They proceeded through a tunnel of beer sloshing all around them, green and yellow foaming on the walls and ceiling. Alison realized it was all going to be like this: surround sound and simulation.
Maybe Max had had enough too; he still had his earphones in. She touched his arm. He took out one earphone.
She said, ‘Do you want to go? I don’t think there’s going to be any real exhibits where you can see them actually brew the mash and smell it.’
He looked at her like she’d lost her mind. ‘We’ve got Brew-U and free beer yet,’ he said in that tone she’d learned was a warning.
It was the same voice he’d used on their honeymoon, during that surprising argument about Glasgow, Bill and Helen. A special whisky-tasting event in Scotland was coming up in a few months. Alison didn’t want to do everything with Bill and Helen, why couldn’t it just be the two of them? In the end they’d agreed just she and Max would go to Glasgow for the whisky ceremony, and they would also do things she liked, maybe that people’s history museum. Although how that would work she didn’t know: Max was usually so hung over.
The group was shut into a dark little room, everyone positioned like a choir on a platform. They faced an enormous screen and the conceit of a little man inside a giant copper vat, now he was part of the mash, now he was boiled, he was swirling in the barley water becoming sugar becoming alcohol, splashing and swimming in beer, he seemed to her to have Max’s face. The platform floor was tilting and rolling; she was an empty bottle rattling down the conveyance system, filled, capped, in boxes, shaking, moving in a truck, and the box opened, a hand came in and snatched her up into a party scene.
The door opened and they were released into another hallway. Alison had been brewed and bottled witless.
The tour was entering the tasting area now. From every direction, red stars on green backgrounds seemed to wink at her; surely it was almost over. Above them, light flickered across the bases of ten thousand green beer bottles, a ceiling of scales, wide and undulating like a dragon’s belly.
She turned to Max. He had his earphones in but was giving the free beer his full attention. He got two half pints from a circling tray and held on to them. Alison realized he meant to keep both, so she took one from the tray for herself.
‘This is really quite good,’ she smiled and took another sip. It seemed frothy and bright and light. A friendly, happy beer. She drank again. It was delicious.
Max had swallowed his first beer and was finishing the second. He didn’t look pleased. ‘They should have some sausages or something,’ he searched the room with disapproval. ‘Some snacks. I’m hungry. There wasn’t much breakfast.’ He frowned at Alison now. ‘I’m ready to go,’ Max said. He drained the second beer and looked around for the exit.
Alison still had half a glass left. There was no way she could swallow the whole thing at once, and she handed it to him without thinking.
‘Good for you,’ Max said as he took it. Alison knew what he meant: good for you counting calories. He drank greedily, his head tilted back, his throat working on the beer.
They left the brewery and walked along the romantic canals; Alison was very hungry from the beer; in fact, she was starving. Eating had become a particularly reassuring activity. She’d gained a stone in the last six months, which Max was not very happy about. Even so, she was very tall and very blonde, so size 12 was not that big a deal. As they walked, she noticed she was still getting the looks from men that Max took pride in; she saw he clocked these appraisals.
Alison thought she smelled French fries, and the aroma led them down an alley that opened into a vast market, a long street full of stalls: T-shirts, jeans, leather goods, and a bounty of cheeses, breads, fruit, vegetables and flowers.
Max suddenly stopped beside a flower stall, beside great bunches of lipstick reds and lemon yellows, and reached inside his pocket.
She thought he was going to buy her some tulips. Maybe as a reward for not having the fries. ‘Don’t they look lovely,’ Alison said. But it was his iPhone he pulled out, not his wallet, and he took a picture of a new model SUV beside the stall.
Max checked his photos and then put the iPhone in his pocket. ‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘I want a curry.’
‘Let’s try something traditional, Dutch,’ she said. An old man, a waiter, was setting out a display of goudas, hams and breads in front of a tidy, prosperous looking place. ‘Like that,’ she pointed.
Max was unmoved. ‘I don’t want something I haven’t had before.’
The man had seen Alison’s interest and called out to them. Alison appreciated his sharp blue eyes and energetic invitation; she hoped Max wouldn’t start something. She reminded Max: ‘Sausages are a Dutch specialty. You wanted sausages earlier.’
The two men locked eyes. ‘We have to please the ladies, yes?’ the older man smiled and lifted his shoulders and held out his hands.
Alison knew Max liked to be seen to be a gentleman. Max smiled stiffly, they went in; she wondered if he would get back at her later.
The owner found them a delightful table in an alcove, overlooking the canal. Max asked for wine. Alison relaxed.
She was thinking, this is marriage; this is all part of the give and take. She could do this, she’d spoken up and everything was fine.
There were bright orange tulips on the table, and a fresh breeze coming in through the window.
Now the owner appeared, smiling, with a bottle of white wine and a complimentary plate of donuts in powdered sugar.
Max said, ‘I could murder for bacon.’
‘Bacon, yes. The best,’ said the owner. And then he told them what they would be having: Max would get sausage wrapped in bacon, with gravy and parsnips not patats, and Missus would like the mussels and fries. Mister would have appeltaart for dessert and Missus a cream cake. Dutch coffees au lait, of course. Verkeerd. Married coffee. That is what it would be, and it would be the best. The owner started to sing as he walked back towards the kitchen.
Alison was enjoying this. She wanted Max to enjoy it with her. ‘We’re verkeerd,’ she whispered. Alison wanted reassurance and laughter, she wanted them to affirm their new status together in a positive way, to share some new good secret of its meaning and its changes.
‘I was thinking about Glasgow,’ Max said suddenly. ‘Inviting Bill and Helen.’
Alison’s happy thoughts ground to a halt.
‘I thought we’d decided we weren’t doing that,’ she said.
Max simply swallowed his wine. After a pause he said, ‘You should give Helen a chance. She’s a wonderful person. You could learn a lot from her’.
Why was he back at it? Why Glasgow, why now? Alison felt slapped in the head. The owner came back, looked at their faces, put down the food without a word and went back into the kitchen. Alison picked up her fork and stabbed a few fries. Helen never lacked a way to humiliate Alison. She was like her mother, who used to blow cigarette smoke in her face.
‘I always find it more stimulating when there’s a bit of tension, a bit of friction.’ Max grinned. He had such perfect teeth.
Alison could swear there was some sort of lascivious smirk on his face. Or was she being petty, seeing innuendo everywhere. The remark was probably just payback for her winning on the restaurant. She wouldn’t rise to the bait. Alison picked up the glass of wine and put it against her lips and sipped.
Max reached over, took her plate, and scraped the French fries onto his own. Then he put her plate back in front of her. Clean of fries.
She almost choked. The wine went down the wrong way; it felt like it was in her lung. She needed to breathe slowly or she was going to see spots and black out.
‘But I take it you’d be happier doing something else,’ he said as he smothered her fries in brown sauce, which she hated. ‘On our own. Without Bill and Helen,’ he frowned.
She was going to make light of it, be a little humorous with him and flirt. ‘I like being alone with you. We are still newlyweds,’ she smiled. ‘In fact, other than our honeymoon, this is our first trip without Bill and Helen.’
Max simply shrugged and chewed. His goatee was so black, so perfectly cut.
She twisted her napkin and her courage. She was going to talk like one partner to the other loving partner. ‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘I really don’t enjoy being with them that much. Helen makes me feel like I don’t belong somehow, like I’m tagging along.’ Alison waited for Max to say something but he didn’t. ‘Anyway, we’ve already agreed we wouldn’t do it again.’ There. Mature, engaging, clear. She dared another sip of wine.
Max cleaned the brown sauce away with the last of the French fries.
Alison continued. ‘I’m surprised you don’t notice how she treats me.’ Okay, that sounded waspish. She breathed deeply and tried again. ‘But I can understand Bill’s your friend. Why don’t you just spend time with Bill yourself? Have dinner or a day with him, instead of the four of us trapped for a long weekend.’
Max switched hands with his knife and fork and furiously sawed a sausage. He was frowning. ‘I suppose you want us to have our holidays with David and his wife Peter?’
‘If that makes you uncomfortable, I do have other normal friends,’ Alison said archly.
‘I’m not a bigot, you know. It’s just that you work with David. The two of you will be talking shop the whole time, like at that party. It’s boring.’
‘You work with Bill and Helen!’
Max paused with the sausage at the end of the fork. ‘All right, yes. They do make me uncomfortable. They’re so gay. Dinner is one thing, but a couples’ holiday? Am I supposed to get up on the dunes in Gran Canary and display myself?’ Max laughed like he was hilarious and took a bite off his fork.
For one thing you don’t work out like they do, Alison thought. But she paused. ‘You know, David has asked me if we’d like to come up to him at his place in the country. We could spend a week, there’s plenty of room, and horses.’
Max heard and considered this. He seemed disappointed. ‘You never told me David had a country pile.’ Max started sawing again at the sausages. He said, ‘Bill is going to get his gong one day, you know.’
Alison watched Max bite more sausage off his fork and chew. How strange his Adam’s apple looked. Was that the most vulnerable part of the throat? She poured herself more wine and drained it.
‘Good,’ Max smiled. He examined the pickles and moved them onto a side plate and started to eat his parsnips. Alison realized he never mixed his foods.
She decided to wait and bring Glasgow up when they were back in England. She didn’t want to spend the whole weekend arguing about something that was months away, and that they’d already agreed wasn’t going to happen. Max must be just trying to get one up for her choosing the restaurant.
The waiter brought out the desserts and coffees. Alison waved her cream cake away before Max could intervene. She knew he’d want it if she didn’t. Max raised his hand to keep it, but the owner seemed not to see, and Max watched the cream cake go back into the kitchen. He finished his own appeltaart in two bites.
They had already bought tickets for a canal cruise after lunch; Alison would have preferred to go back to the room and sleep. She was a bit tired, probably from the wine. They got on the boat. Part of the route went through the red light district and the announcer made typical remarks and all the heads turned, including Max who held up his phone and took pictures. Alison rolled her eyes. Max had his iPhone out most of the time checking messages, and usually this would have annoyed her: they had both agreed to put their phones away for the weekend. But she had to figure her feelings out. Even so, she couldn’t reach or hold on to her feelings, she’d see a brown spiny leaf on the water, or look at the kind of hair clip the woman in the seat in front of her was wearing, blue tortoiseshell was a strange mix, and her mind would drift away. She started to fall asleep.
‘Speak of the devil,’ said Max suddenly. He nudged her sharply.
She jerked awake. He must not have noticed she was dozing.
‘It’s Bill,’ he said.
‘Who?’ She wasn’t alert.
‘It’s Bill, his ears must have been burning.’
Alison said nothing. Max flicked the messages back and forth.
What a pity the boat is enclosed, she thought. Otherwise, she could fling herself in the water. Then she’d spring up transformed into a mermaid, no a shark, a witch shark, and she’d snatch the iPhone and take it back into the waters of hell with her and gnash it back and forth in her jaws until it bled out its evil Apple poison and died.
‘Can’t you put that away?’ she said.
‘You were asleep,’ he answered.
‘I’m awake now that you’ve shouted in my ear,’ she said. Alison needed coffee and one of those donuts from lunch.
Max kept staring into the glossy black. ‘Bill says they’ve confirmed the launch date.’
The world’s oldest bottled single malt whisky. It had been sitting in some casket for 80 years and now the weighty decision had been made to bottle it and then make a fresh fetish out of opening those.
Max said, ‘He’s got us in. Do you have any idea how exclusive this tasting will be? The bottle is going to be piped into the Castle, escorted by Highland guards.’
‘What does he care?’ She felt drugged, like she was inside a bottle and couldn’t be heard. ‘You said you told him months ago we would be going off on our own trips.’
‘You’re in a mood,’ he said.
Alison suddenly felt sick, green, trapped in the low, squat boat, hemmed in on all sides and pushed down by the plastic ceiling. She thought she smelled cigarette smoke; someone must be smoking, she craned to see but no one was. She remembered being in the car with her parents chain smoking, all the windows rolled up and not daring to complain.
‘I hope this cruise is over soon, I don’t feel well,’ Alison said. She looked around, trying to see the dock. ‘When is it going to end? I can’t stand it if we go under one more bridge. Really, I need to get out.’ Alison had a fear of being trapped, and she was feeling it now. She could feel another trip with Bill and Helen bearing down upon her.
Max gave her a sidelong look.
Alison thought she could make it if she concentrated. The boat finally lurched into the docking area. She was first out of her seat; she went straight to the head of the queue, first off, fresh air. She walked up the wooden planks and gripped the railing, and breathed in deeply. She turned around, but Max wasn’t there. Where was he? Why wasn’t he with her? She searched the faces coming off, and then she saw him still inside the boat, behind the perspex. Max was talking to the guide; he was taking something from him. He was one of the last people to disembark.
‘What were you doing in there?’ Alison said, confused. Max did not reply. She said, ‘Look, I need to sit down.’ There was a place right beside them on the water.
‘Fine,’ said Max, ‘I’ll join you. I’ll have an apéritif.’
They sat down and Max ordered.
Alison sat thinking what an odd remark. What did he mean, ‘I’ll join you?’ Where else would he go? And: ‘apéritif’? Alison was growing tired of Max’s alcoholic pretensions. He and Bill were odious when they got going: notching up tastings, competing to buy the world’s best Japanese whisky. The constant one-upmanship, the expert remarks.
Oh god she simply couldn’t stand it, sweet jesus, trapped with Bill and Helen and their booze and bullshit. Suddenly, the prospect of an extended sniff and spit tour of the Highlands came toward Alison like a tidal wave of toxic tar particles. All at once she knew exactly what the problem was: it was her taking the back seat. Her with her head down, not looking around, always beating back awareness. She took a deep breath and said: ‘Max, Listen to me. I do not want to go on that trip to Glasgow. You and Bill go.’
Max was texting on the iPhone. He looked up at her as though she were a temporary distraction. The waiter brought their drinks and dishes of peanuts, crisps and olives. Max took some crisps and smashed them in his mouth. He swallowed and said evenly: ‘This trip to Glasgow with Bill and Helen was always going to happen, it’s time you realized that.’ He took some peanuts in his hand and tossed them in his mouth.
The wave of smoke and gases hit her. Alison sat back against the café chair as if she’d been shoved. Her jaw dropped. ‘Are you saying, that they were always going, they always knew about this?’ Max chewed his peanuts. Alison blinked and then looked straight at him. ‘Why would you do that?’ she wailed.
Max’s phone beeped and he picked it up quickly. He waved her quiet as though she was interrupting him, distracting him from his essential message. He held the phone close to his body and read. Then he turned it upside down on the table and reached again into the peanuts.
Alison felt a wild hilarity well up in her throat. She gathered up her voice and it was a loud one. ‘Well, I won’t do it! I won’t go!’ Alison was unstoppable, she became louder: ‘You lied, and that’s what it’s always like with them and with you, doing whatever they want no matter what’s agreed, it’s devious, and you know what?’
Alison felt terrific. She felt like a full blown, in control, fearless healthy adult in a marriage. ‘You can bloody well text him right now that I’m not going, and I don’t care how embarrassing it is for you! I am not going to be manipulated into this.’
Max threw his peanuts down his throat. His jaw muscles worked furiously. He leaned forward very close to Alison, spitting little bits and said, ‘I will not be dictated to by a jumped up little salesgirl from perfumes.’ Then he sat back and glared. ‘I’m telling you: you’re my wife and you’re going to be there as such.’
Alison guffawed. She picked the iPhone up off the table and held it out to him. ‘Make the call,’ she said.
Max leaned across the table and snatched the phone out of her hand. He stood up abruptly and loomed over Alison, shaking his finger and the phone in her face. ‘We’re going to Glasgow with Bill and Helen and that’s final. You can have the rest of today to get used to the idea.’ He grabbed his backpack and rooted around in it. Alison thought of wee Paris Hilton and laughed. This seemed to confound Max. He pulled out her plane ticket and threw it on the table, glared at her for effect and then stormed off.
Alison looked down at the ticket on the table and smiled. She realized where he was going and what he was doing. This was Amsterdam, for the love of god. Get real, she told herself. He thought he was going to pick a woman out of a window. That had probably been a business card he’d taken from the announcer on the boat. And he’d expect Alison to say nothing. It would be her fault; he might even expect her to apologize. In fact, that’s probably what his little drama of Glasgow was feeding into: getting the afternoon off. Certainly timed, at the very least, to kill two birds with one stone. They probably had a name for that kind of play in Acquisitions where he worked.
Alison reached in her purse and pulled out her Blackberry. Her mind steadied. She punched the numbers.
‘Hello,’ this is Alison Aikins. ‘My husband’s just had his wallet stolen with his credit cards . . . He’s just in with the police now . . . yes please, he wants to make sure all his cards are cancelled . . . Terrific . . . Two weeks for replacements, that’s fine.’
She knew he didn’t carry much cash. Just that black credit card of his. So: good luck on that sex trade.
Alison ordered a sparkling water and logged onto the airline site. She cancelled Max’s ticket, moved herself to an earlier flight and changed both their passwords. ‘How do you like your little salesgirl now, my love?’ she said to herself as she worked the keys. She’d be first back at the house in Kent, where she would batten down the hatches for the divorce proceedings.
A sparrow landed in the dish of crisps, and another. Alison was happy to see nature reclaim the area so quickly. She checked her watch, and set out along the canal to catch the tram to the train station and from there the fast link to the airport. Green and black boats jumbled and hugged the wall, bobbing in the sun. Ducks glided in the water, sifting through the debris, picking out bits of food.
‘Bloemen, fresh flowers. Closing up price,’ a young man called from a small white hut on the corner. He caught her eye and smiled broadly. ‘Let me go home early, yes?’ He pointed to tall plastic buckets overflowing with all the tulips in the world.
She bought everything. Great bunches of every colour: reds, yellows and white, the blooms fresh and ready to open. He wrapped them quickly, folding brown paper tight around the stems. There was enough for home and work, enough for David and Peter. She should call them.
‘David, it’s Alison. Are you and Peter busy tonight?’ He was hesitating. ‘I’m in Amsterdam but I’ll be catching the next plane out.’ He wasn’t sure; he hedged. ‘It’s okay, David, it’ll just be me. No more Max. I’m getting a divorce.’
David shouted and Peter was there, they were both on the phone, talking at once; they wanted details. They’d meet her at the airport, they insisted.
The tram whirled over the bridge and opened its doors; Alison got on with all her flowers. So beautiful, she thought. They completely filled the seat next to her. She realized which charity shop would like Max’s collection of Japanese whisky.