Melbourne Packet climbed into his hired Cadillac, closed the door, and stared blankly through the windscreen. His suit was soaked with sweat. The meeting didn’t go well at all. He had lost control; he never had control to lose. There was something about that waiting room, something about his isolation, that had disrupted his usual manner. He had allowed himself to be railroaded; he had barely said one word of the many he intended to say. The meeting had been a farce, over in minutes, and he left with nothing to justify his airfare.
But that was the business, to an extent. There were always exploratory costs. Some were written-off as projects went unfulfilled, but sometimes the investment would pay off handsomely. And the business could fund a lot of write-offs from each blossomed venture. This didn’t make it any less dispiriting when you were taken for a ride. But then: this was unusual, actually. Because he, Packet, was the big man, the alpha male. In the meeting room, he was the man with money to spend, who could hire loyalty. And he didn’t need this. This was one project, potentially a write-off anyway, so who were they to manipulate him, to make him feel like this?
It occurred to him that he was still parked outside and they would be watching him, so he started driving. He checked his notes, took a left, pulled over, and walked a block, to the Garden of Paradise.
He knew this was a two-bit job, waste of time, PR disaster in the making. No businessman he had ever heard of had ever gone to Paradise. What business was there in Paradise? The only business in Paradise, it had occurred to him, when he was told of the assignment, was the business of copulation. Fuck was the only game in town.
Packet had a life in London; he had a presence there, at base-camp. In London were: his wife, two children at exclusive schools, a mistress, and a few escorts he found reliable. But a life like that required precautions, in layers, and over time Packet had found himself drained by his diligent track-covering efforts. Thoroughly drained. But in a job like his, there was plenty of scope for getting out of town. And Paradise: was out of town.
At first, everywhere was out of town. Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Texas: out of town. Nigeria: way out of town. But over the years, he had got to know people. He knew people everywhere. Soon he found he knew too many people. Everywhere. The trips he used to look forward to: Paris, to see Marie; New York, to see Ana, then later Jo, then eventually both of them; Houston, to see Natasha; Singapore, to see Amber, who was perhaps technically male (but all this world travel had by this time opened Melbourne’s eyes). There was a world of possibilities! There was a world to fuck!
But the last days of Rome couldn’t last forever, because there were too many people. And so his precautions became more advanced. Even in Lagos, he wiped his fingerprints from door handles as he vacated brothels. He changed sim cards, utilized aliases… all of this when he could have been fucking. And then it came to feel as though the bureaucracy of fuck had become overburdensome. His trips became nine parts cover-up to one part carnal. This, he noted, left no parts available for the specious purpose of his trips, which was something to do with assets and liabilities, profit and loss. But with so much effort devoted to falsely accounting for his movements, he could barely concern himself with his ledgers.
So, okay, maybe he’d been losing his powers prior to finding himself in that room, that meeting, that dressing down. Maybe he wasn’t the forceful entrepreneur he styled himself as. Maybe he’d just been found out, and it was always going to happen eventually. But in Paradise! To find himself bent over with his pants down in some banana republic… it was an emasculation that he could have lived happily without. He was due in New York next week… why not then? He could take a fuck up the arse from an oligarch in the centre of the empire, just about. He knew his place.
He had failed before of course; especially recently, with the distraction of precaution. And if there was one thing he could always do, that would rejuvenate him, that would eclipse his failings, then that would be to go and have some fuck.
So he stood on the corner of the block, eyeing the Garden of Paradise’s rooftop terrace. His precautionary days had taught him to scope out his adventures. But it should be safe: he didn’t know anyone here. Nobody did.
He checked in at his hotel and said, ‘Can you clarify the dress code, please?’ having noticed that the woman at reception was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. ‘Is nudity only permitted in the pool area and bar?’
‘I think you have us confused with someplace other. Keep your trunks on outside your room please.’
This news somewhat spoiled his initial free can of Craft Lager, but the news that further such cans were available for a dollar cheered him. His bank balance and wallet may have bulged with crude, black cash, but who doesn’t appreciate a bargain? He switched off his phone, asked for a further three cans, and retired to his room to spend some time disrobed.
Lying on his bed, his head propped by a folded pillow, with his lager on his paunch, he studied himself in the mirror. Dark hairs started from his ankles, thickened towards the anus, and thinned towards a hairy mound with a lager tin balanced on it. Above the tin were a set of eyes and a nose, below black eyebrows, a lined forehead, and a thinning black side-parting. He exhaled, and the mound rose. Admittedly this wasn’t his best angle, but still. Should he have gone for a wax? How far should that be taken?
But of course, he couldn’t. That wouldn’t be compatible with taking precautions: those fatiguing precautions. He wasn’t that fat. He wasn’t that hairy. But he wasn’t muscular, nor toned, nor tanned, nor even manly. He decided to stop thinking about it and read his beer can instead.
It made no claims of purity, or heritage. There was nothing about small batches, or cask ageing. It contained hops and barley, and it was brewed in St Louis. It tasted alright; like it would go well with a shot.
He didn’t, of course, drink beer and a shot when at base-camp. In fact, in the places he frequented, in the places where people go, he was renowned as something of a wine buff. On sampling a ten-year-old Haut-Medoc, he was known to authoritatively state the included grape varieties and their proportions. Of course, if he was ever correct it was by fluke. Early in his career, he took the time to read a few beginners’ guides to fine wine, on the assumption that a little knowledge on this matter would lend him some gravitas. And indeed, many who knew him assumed him to be aristocratic.
‘Where is your family’s estate?’ they would say, and he would chuckle, swing back in his chair, and say, ‘oh, I wouldn’t really call it an estate, you know, nothing quite as grand as that. But, you must tell me, what was it like coming up in the state system?’
So he never said that he’d boarded at Eton before reading PPE at Oxford. What he said was: ‘This is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe more, and the rest is actually Malbec (!), although you wouldn’t know as they must have harvested it late in the season.’
He had studied at a small private school, unheard of beyond the semi-rural part of mid-England where he had been raised. His origin was not aristocratic: his father was a commander in the Navy, his grandfather also. They owned no land, no titles, no estates. His mother was a housewife with artistic pretensions and Greek roots. Both wished for him to follow in their footpaths. His mother had died first, in a suicide pact with an Orthodox priest with whom she had eloped to Athens. Her note read,
‘Dearest Melbourne, I leave you all I have: my spirit and curiosity. I know you will take them and make better than what I did. You must respect your father, but you mustn’t obey him. I love you infinitely and eternally.’
She signed it with her Christian name. His father’s exit had been somewhat less dramatic. He had retired, aged fifty-five, in good health, and then spent the first two years of his retirement dying from bowel cancer. He never spoke of his wife to his son, not that he got the chance, as by this time Melbourne was employed in the oil business, with his base-camp in Aberdeen, and his life everywhere except by his father’s death-bed.
To daddy’s credit, he proved useful in Melbourne’s obtention of a wife. Melbourne was young; Aberdeen was a city of rich, white, intercontinental men; and its bars were full of expensive women. She was a student when he met her. She wasn’t a gold-digger, although it wasn’t long before she became accustomed to a certain manner of living. No, she was innocent then. They chatted, and he could see she wasn’t falling for him. He tried to force a tear, which wasn’t forthcoming, but this at least intrigued her to ask what was the matter.
‘It was my father’s funeral, a week ago, I’m… upset.’
It was a risky move, as it precluded coitus that evening (with her at least). He told her the story of his mother’s terminal elopement too; described a miserable childhood for her as well. They were married within a year. He wasn’t sure what the rush was, or even what the why was, but it was all his. All his colleagues had wives, he’d always assumed he’d have one, so he supposed he just got one. If he was asked how married life had changed him, he would venture that it had made him more likely to volunteer for foreign sales trips. Oh, and, of course, it had necessitated the precautions.
His wife wasn’t from Aberdeen, and soon couldn’t remember why she had ever been there, so they resettled in London. She moved in a permanent way, he simply started stopping by there with diminishing regularity. And everything had been perfect for a while, until the people and the precautions had started ruining everything.
Paradise, he had thought: Paradise will be a return to Eden.
He drained his lager. Not the thing for the evening planned: this evening would be a wine evening. Of course, they wouldn’t have anything of the standard he was accustomed to; but just to order the best they had would set him out from the rest.
After dining in his room, he signed out for the evening at reception and took to the street; eschewing his hired car. He strolled down the darkened streets confidently, in appearance at least. He had largely managed to inhibit his memories of the morning; he had drunk through the pain for the most part. He was not stumbling drunk, not imbibed such that he had no memory, but, he had, he thought, conquered his doubts. A bad business meeting—ah well! It can happen. Now he could focus on the true purpose of his trip.
His activities were those of a normal, red-blooded gentleman abroad. His activities were cultural. In an honest world, he would be venerated for his broad-mindedness.
He slowed his pace a little, took a deep breath. He wanted to live forever in this moment, this walk. He wanted to savour the anticipation. Here he was, in Paradise, of all places, and he had gone back in time. He was in a place where nobody was real, where there could be no indiscretion, where no precautions were required. He was young again, free again. His problems were forgotten. He sucked the air in. He was swollen. He was young again and free again. He was going to have some fuck. It took almost all his willpower not to masturbate right then, in the street; he had nothing to be ashamed of.
Yet he pulled his shirt down to hide his engorgement, and slowed down. He was getting ahead of himself. He mustn’t peak too soon. Calm down: let the blood drain back in. Not the place—not quite the place, yet. He scrunched his fingers and toes and pictured the place.
He pictured the Garden of Paradise.
The entrance, with its uniformed guard. ‘Good evening, sir,’ he says, with a respectful nod.
The stairs: have sand on them. Not for soaking up blood, or piss, or vomit; but for tactile stimulation, to begin the intoxication of touch. From the toes on up a silken tingle rises.
He ascends the stairs effortlessly, as though drawn to his maker.
He comes to a white door, with lights spelling ‘touch’ above a maroon, velvet cushioned pad; it is orgasmic to touch.
He slides his head and neck against the pad and the door is opened; he can’t breathe and doesn’t need to.
Two girls—they must be pop stars, or models, or actors—naked, with alert, pert breasts, tanned bodies, white teeth and nipple-length hair; they usher him in, holding their breasts against his arms. He’s a saline volcano, ready to erupt, but he bites his tongue until he tastes iron.
Another girl—the same or better than the first two—straddles him. They are sinking into a couch together (it is consummately sprung and it feels like fur) and she puts a straw in his mouth through which he sips piña colada, and he’s young again, he’s free again, he’s in Eden, and there is no sin, no judgement.
Oh God, he thought, and stopped walking. He was almost sick. That was not the way to calm down. He mustn’t get ahead of himself.
He could see sparse crowds on the main drag, he could see the corner where the entrance was, and he could see the roof-top terrace, still quiet. He looked at his watch, for no reason. He gathered himself, cleared his mind.
He took measured paces down the road, feeling as though he was not in his body, feeling above himself, lighter than the air. In a minute he was there.
He approached the guard, who didn’t look up. ‘ID,’ he said. Gosh, thought Packet, and fumbled in his pocket. He was forty years old. He passed the man his driving licence. He studied it, looked up at him, and then shrugged. ‘Have a nice night,’ he said, and returned the card.
The stairs were just normal stairs, off-white vinyl tiles with black tread. There were grey footprints on them. They climbed a while, turned right, climbed a while, turned right, then they reached a hallway. A sign said: ‘<— BAR’; and ‘WCs and CHA GING —>’. Someone had graffitied a little tail on the C, and a G where the N once was.
So the factual wasn’t quite the same as the fantasy. But that’s why we have fantasy, he reasoned; if reality was as fantasy is, then all dreams would be of dirty tiled floors, vandalized signage, traffic jams and spoilt milk.
He walked right, first to the WC, to micturate and inspect his glans, which he was relieved to find slightly distended, but inoffensively so. Then he went to the changing room and undressed under the buzzing fluorescent light. It had the same dirty tiles as the stairs, a wooden bench down one wall, and a row of lockers down the other. The ceiling was low, and on the bench side, at the top of the wall, there was a window running the room’s length with hatched wire on the outside. He placed his clothing in a locker, inserted a quarter, and found nothing to pin his key to. He held it, along with his wallet. There was no mirror.
He felt within himself again; his environs had normalized the experience, as far as it could be normal. It was unambiguously no longer fantasy. He wanted to go to the door, to the bar, but his feet, still clad in loafers (the tiles being sticky), wouldn’t take him. Not without concerted mental effort. Then he did it. He charged out the door, down the short corridor, and pushed the double doors to the bar open with gusto: he immersed himself completely and instantly, dived into the cold water, in the knowledge that the shock would dissipate and within minutes he would be so comfortable that he would struggle to comprehend the trepidation that went before.
Oh: the water was very cold. The pool was baltic.
He felt the eyes of strangers upon him, lasers burning him from every angle. He was scared to move even his gaze, scared to fully comprehend his situation. He stood there, holding his
paunch in, clutching his wallet, feeling his prick shrivel back into his pubic hair.
This moment never ended.
‘What can I get for you pal?’ said the barmaid.
He looked at her, focussed, then sauntered towards her, and pulled up a barstool. She passed him a paper towel to sit on.
He was dazed. The room he was in was about half filled; the gender ratio was: almost all male. The nudity ratio was: almost just him. There was a group of four or five young women, topless but with concealed pudenda, who were chatting together on the terrace. He was the only naked male. He quickly guessed that he was the only undressed person who was not employed by the establishment in some way.
Most of the men were blue-collar workers; they were single, or divorced, or errant husbands; there were a few sex tourists; it was the same crowd as found in any titty bar in any city in any outpost of Western liberalism.
The barmaid was staring at him. He realized she had asked him something a moment ago that he had not responded to.
‘Can I see the wine list? please,’ he said.
‘That’s a real nice accent you got there. Sophisticated. The wine list is red, white, pink, or fizz.’
Then he looked at the bar, read a beer-mat. Number one clothing optional bar in Paradise, it said.
And this was his night: each new drink was justified by the last. Every further minute was justified by the one that went before. The time to withdraw was instantly. Having not taken that option, he had no option but to remain, until the end, until he was removed, asked to leave. It was his tragedy and he had to bear it. He sat alone, on his paper towel, speaking only to the barmaid, only to ask for another red. He looked at nobody. He heard the doors swing open from time to time, sometimes the incomer would whistle or hoot, and he understood that he had made a fool of himself. He did not look at them, but he knew they were male, and clothed.
He had nothing to read but the beermat, nothing to do but drink. 100% merlot, he guessed. Non-vintage. Californian. Each sip was justified by the last. It occurred to him that he must have had quite a lot to drink. He must have drunk a bottle and a half of wine since he arrived, four or five beers before. He hadn’t been to the lavatory since arriving; he was ashamed to stand up. Somehow, he was less visible if he remained stationary, on his towel, reading his beermat. He couldn’t get up, couldn’t go home, and couldn’t let them defeat him.
So he kept on drinking. He switched to shots, because why not? and he lost track of time. At some point, he felt something cold on his back, and turned to find that someone had spilled a drink on his back. He felt its chilly trickle between his buttocks. He heard tittering; he didn’t care. He didn’t care if it was on purpose, or whether it was an accident. He didn’t care if they laughed at him.
He gave them a thumbs up, and almost fell from his chair. Someone patted his back. Someone shook his hand: ‘you’re alright man,’ someone said. Blurred faces smiled, dudes congratulated him. And he kept drinking—he drank the drinks that were lined up in front of him on the bar. They multiplied. He wasn’t paying for them, he didn’t care who was. He kept on drinking, and the past stopped justifying the present, and the present became justified by the moment, by the next drink, and soon, suddenly, he became aware of his need to urinate.
He was no longer scared to be seen, no longer feart to move. He was among friends; or among nobody (he couldn’t remember); for nobody was anyone in Paradise. What was clear was that he had nothing to fear.
And when he came around, naked, lying in piss that he hoped was his own, without his wallet or his clothes, with a headache from drink and with a black eye from when he had slipped and clattered his head against the bar, he told himself again that nobody was anyone in Paradise. And he hoped dearly that this included him. And he knew surely that he needed a strong drink and the rest of the bottle.