victoria’s gift

by uzwi

They met at a pub on King Street Hammersmith then ate tandoori trout at one of the new upmarket Indians just along from the Premier Hotel. Victoria seemed nervous.

“How do you like my hair?” she said.

Thinned out in some way, centre-parted, chopped off with a kind of calculated incompetence a little above the jawline, it clung lankly to the sides of her face and head, curling out tiredly at the ends. “Neo-bluestocking,” she said. “Very effective from certain angles, though I can see you don’t think so.” Over the evening she drank a bottle of house red– “Nothing to see here. No change here” –and talked about her car. Alex said he would stick to beer. When he said he wasn’t much of a driver, she looked down at the charred tails and dyed red flesh of the remains of their meal, the filmy bones like the fossil imprint of a leaf, and said, “Who is? It’s not really about driving. I go to the coast a lot now.” She laughed and made confused steering wheel motions. “Up and down. Hastings and Rodean. Very slowly. Dungeness, of course.” Then: “I think I’ve grown out of London.” And finally: “I love the little spines of these fishes, don’t you?”

“All I see,” said Alex, “is my dinner.”

He then admitted: “I was in a bit of a state when we last met.”

“You aren’t all that much improved.” She laughed at his expression. “Come on! I should talk! I don’t believe I’ve been entirely sane since I was thirteen–”

Alex filled her glass again. “Is that when you saw the corpse?” he said, hopefully.

“–although I did have a moment of clarity in a sauna in about 2005.” She stared around the restaurant as if expecting to see someone she knew. “Eventually you take what you can get where that’s concerned. You have to feel you’re steadying down.”

“There’s some value to that,” Alex agreed, though he had no idea what she was talking about.

“Actually, I’m not even sure it should be called clarity,” she said.

She was too drunk to drive. They left the car where she had parked it in Hammersmith and walked back to 17 Wharf Terrace along the river. There, she poked around his room as if she was out for a bargain in used furntiure. “The bed’s a bit small,” she said, looking at him brightly. Picking through his books, she found a John Fowles; made a face. “You can’t like any of his stuff. Not really.” Then: “And is this the famous shared wall!” She tapped with one knuckle, as if sounding the ancient plaster for its weaknesses. She put her ear to it. “He seems quite quiet now, your unknown nemesis.” Alex found something else they could drink–the end of a litre of Absolut so old the shoulders of the bottle were sticky with all the condensed grit airs of London–and, sitting on the edge of the bed, unwrapped the housewarming present. “Look at that!” she said, as if their roles were reversed and he had given it to her. It was made of silver, with an articulated body five or six inches long and hinged sidefins. “It’s Peruvian,” she said. “It’s a fish. It’s quite old.”

Alex weighed the fish in his hand, moved one of the fins cautiously. Its scales were tarnished and cold. “Hi fish,” he said.

“See,” Victoria said. “You like it. You like it already.”