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George stands on his rooftop terrace and looks down over the city. It is nearly time for his guests to arrive and he is feeling bullish. Every movement on the streets below affirms the measure he has of this world and his place in it and as he plays out the evening’s scenarios in his head, he smiles. He has been looking forward to tonight for some time.
The intercom sounds and he goes back inside. After buzzing his friends in, he fixes himself a gin and tonic and a bowl of habas fritas and waits in the doorway of the apartment.
“Tim! Maddy Lovely to see you! You got in OK then?”
“We managed to get past those heavily armed teenagers downstairs, if that’s what you mean,” says Tim.
“Ah, Abdi and Guleed! They create an impression, don’t they? They’re going to be here until the gate’s fixed. They fought in the war.”
“Which one?” says Maddy.
“Do you know I completely forgot to ask? Africa somewhere, I imagine.”
“Started early I see.”
“Au contraire! You bring out the best in me, that’s all.” George grins, winks. “Did you find us alright?”
“Yes,” says Tim. “Though we had to take a detour on the other side of the park.”
“I thought I heard something! Bloody fireworks!”
“Not exactly. Haven’t you seen? There’s been more trouble. In fact it’s still going on. Here, do you want to see?”
Tim takes out his phone. George waves his hand.
“No, I’m good thanks. I imagine it’s the same as it was last week, last month, last year. Nothing changes does it? I sometimes wonder what the point of it is.”
“You’re right,” says Maddy, “it’s such a frightful bore.”
Tim raises his eyebrows in Maddy’s direction, Maddy ignores him and George broadens his smile; he is delighted that Maddy has arrived in the mood to do battle. As the three of them move past the marble table and leather sofas of the apartment’s reception area, they are met by Emma, George’s wife. She greets Maddy with a squeeze of her arm and ushers her away for the tour.
“Seriously though,” says Tim, when the women are out of earshot, “you might want to get onto someone about your gate. How long has it been like that?”
“Not sure. A day? Two days?”
“You’re not bothered? With all this going on?”
“Not in the slightest. Nothing’s going to happen, is it? Besides, Abdi and Guleed aren’t here to make up the numbers. I’d like to see anyone try it on with those two, I can tell you.”
“OK. But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to keep an eye on things. We’re going to need to know the best route home.”
“Oh, it’ll have fizzled out long before we’re done, I can assure you. Speaking of, can I get you gin and tonic? Start as we mean to go on?”
Now it is Tim’s turn to smile. George is irresistible when he’s in this mood. He is right, too. There’s no need to read too much into the disturbances at the best of times and certainly not on a night like tonight, when there are celebrations to be had. “I don’t see why not!” he says, and as he feels his phone vibrate again, he switches it to silent.
Maddy and Emma are on the terrace, sipping gin and tonic. Emma is hymning the view. On the horizon, the far side of the river is lined with tall towers of steel and glass that glint in the evening sun; extending from the near bank are densely packed rooves of houses, stripes of treetops, a patch of dusty green. “You can just about see the lake. Look – over there between the trees. It was one of the reasons we bought here. So many memories.”
Maddy knows the lake well. George once rowed her to the island, where they had champagne and slices of home-made tortilla. Despite herself the recollection makes her visibly reflective – disbelief giving way to indignation – and Emma puts a hand on her arm. “I’m glad you came tonight, Mads. I know the boys have been seeing a lot of each other but it’s been a while, hasn’t it? And we did wonder if you’d fancy it. What with the result and everything.”
Maddy registers Emma’s condescension with barely a flicker of resentment. Emma has clearly taken her cue from George, but her attempt to unsettle Maddy is obvious and ineffectual. “Oh please, don’t worry about that. We arranged this months ago. It just didn’t dawn on us it was the day after the election. Nor that he was going to win.”
“That’s true. But you and George. You do seem to rub each other up the wrong way when it comes to politics.”
“Only politics? Honestly, it’s OK, really it is. We’ve known each other a long time. I know he doesn’t mean anything by it. He just can’t help himself.”
“You’re right. I just thought … well, you know. This whole election has been … it’s been difficult. He’s was a divisive candidate. Some of the things George has told me about him! But it doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Please try to remember that.”
Maddy frowns. For all that Emma is a minor irritant, the charade is becoming painful. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“OK, but promise me you’ll speak to Tim about the ins-and-outs when you get the chance. I know we’ve had our differences, but I’d hate us to fall out over this. George still thinks the world of you, you know.”
“I’d have thought falling out with me would have been the least of his worries,” scoffs Maddy.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, just that there’s a lot of Abdi and Guleeds out there tonight, that’s all. A lot of unhappy people.”
“I know! It’s awful isn’t it? But try not to take on so. Come on. Let me show you the kitchen.”
Emma smiles and, placing a hand on Maddy’s back, guides her back inside. As Maddy swallows her ire, there is a dull thud behind them and a wisp of smoke rises above the trees in the park.
The four friends sit on the terrace around a glass-topped table, eating tapas. The chef has excelled himself: there are chicken livers and prawns and padron peppers, there are slices of ham and sausage, mussels and a salad with cod; the plentiful wine has been carefully chosen and chilled to just the right degree. The conversation too, is taking the form that George had hoped it would: with Emma and Tim providing an obliging audience, he has goaded Maddy by repeatedly raising the subject of the election. True, Maddy has so far denied him the pleasure of rising to his provocation but it is only a matter of time. With the appearance of a bottle of patxaran, George decides to be more direct. “To the mayor!” he says, and winks at Tim. Now the battle is joined.
Maddy shakes her head. “I’m glad you’re finding all this so funny.”
“You never used to mind.”
“Oh you know. Us ribbing each other, having a bit of a giggle.”
“That was a lifetime ago, George. Times change. There’s plenty of people struggling to make light of your mayor just now. Those are police helicopters over there, or haven’t you noticed?”
“Really? And what of it?”
“That’s right – you go right ahead and underestimate us. Just like you always do.”
“Us? And who’s us? That would be you and the rioters would it?”
“Well I’ve got more in common with them than I have with you.”
“Nonsense!” George sweeps his arm in a gesture that is both extravagant and derisive, “look around you. Go on. You do know you can’t actually pick and choose your side don’t you? I mean you do understand that?”
“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? That this is the natural order of things.”
“Why fight it? We are the winners, after all. We’re always going to be the winners.”
An idea comes to George. “OK. Let me put it another way. You see these mussels – do you like them?”
“What on earth has that got to do with anything?”
“They’re from Catalonia. The St Ebro River. They’re the finest mussels that money can buy.”
Maddy can see what is coming. The argument is tired but she has drunk too much wine to respond with the necessary wit. She tries to buy a little time. “What’s your point?”
“You first had them about twenty-five years ago. Do you remember? We were drinking ratafia, in that bar in Barca. And here you are, having them again. So don’t tell me I’m wrong and times change because they don’t. And neither do we. Unless…” He pauses, cocking his head in theatrical consternation, “Unless you’ve stopped liking the mussels. You haven’t stopped liking the mussels have you? Because you seem to be enjoying them well enough.”
“This is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.”
“Just answer the question,” grins George, looming. “Are you enjoying the mussels? That’s all I’d like to know.”
Tim sniggers and Emma suppresses a smile. Maddy has been outmanoeuvred, by the wine, by the occasion. Worse, the space where logic should be is filled with a meaningless guilt, because the mussels are so very good. She pushes her plate away and stands up from the table, with nothing but defiance left. “Fuck you George. Do you know what? I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
“That’s enough,” says Tim.
“And fuck you too. You’re worse than he is. At least George has some balls.”
“Maddy!” says Emma as Tim looks to George for support. But George has been distracted and doesn’t give it. “Quiet a minute,” he says, putting a finger to his lips, looking over his shoulder. “Did anyone hear that?”
He crosses to the edge of the terrace. Everyone stops to listen. They hear traffic and in the distance there are sirens, but there is something else, something more distinct and urgent. It is a commotion from the streets below, breaking glass and voices, shrieks and angry people shouting. “That sounds very close,” says Tim and he checks his phone. “My god! They’re through the park.”
There is confusion around the table. “George?” says Emma as Tim pales and Maddy lurches from alarm to delight and back again. Only George remains calm. Holding his hands up to reassure his guests, he crosses to the intercom and switches on a small screen. “There’s nothing to worry about, really there isn’t. Abdi and Guleed will take care of this.”
The screen flickers into life. It shows the gates to the complex, broken and open, then an empty security hut. There is no sign of the two Africans and no one answers the intercom. “They’re not going to come here are they?” says Emma. “I mean they won’t get that far will they?”
From the street below comes gunfire; first a single shot, then more, one after the other, in a concentrated burst. “No,” says George, “of course not. I mean they can’t. There must be some mistake.”
But for the first time tonight, he sounds unsure.