THE MOSCOW MULE

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Chapter One

‘Flight to Oman’

Bo once told me that happiness was overrated. Well, what he actually said was: ‘Happiness is bullshit, Billy. Go after love, or money, or whatever makes your dick hard. But don’t try and be happy. Happiness is for idiots, and people who think star-signs are real. Happiness is death.’

I remember it clearly, because it seemed an odd thing for him to say. Bo was the sort of person everyone else wanted to be – the gravitational pull in the room, the steadiest shoulder to cry on, the guy you’d cut your whole arm off for if he told you he needed a hand. Think of that one exceptional day, when you were more you than you’d ever been, when every shot you took found its mark, and the world seemed to be made of pure gold, just melting at your fingertips. Well for Bo, every day was that day. If Bo wasn’t happy, then who was?

It took me a long time to understand what he’d meant. His words would flit through my mind over the years, unbidden, unwanted, and yet unshakeable, as if whenever I found myself at the dead-end of a dark path, or heard the sorry tale of some unfortunate person or other, Bo would be there, drawling into my ear, that easy grin tickling his cheeks. Happiness is bullshit, Billy.

Billy. Nobody calls me ‘Billy’. Always ‘William’. Names are the first friends we make, and I’ve never liked people fooling around with mine. When most people nick your name, what they’re really doing is cutting you down to size, packaging you up nice and neatly into something they can understand. But when Bo did it, well, somehow he managed to elevate my name into something more than it had been, something… greater.

I think I know now, though. What he was trying to tell me, that is. At the time I thought he was just winding me up, which was a fair assumption, as you could never tell when Bo was being serious. He seemed impervious to the dull and earnest, his feathers unruffle-able, a shelter from whatever storm you found yourself caught in. But sometimes, when it was just the two of us, a part of him would open up, and I’d catch a glimmer of what was really going through his mind. And on that day, as he sat beside me on the warm rock of the cliff, skin shining, half-drunk, meeting the sun’s fiery gaze as it bounced off the waves of the Gulf of Oman, I’m sure now that he was every bit as lost as the rest of us. He just did a better job of hiding it.

I wish I’d known that then. Not that anything would have been different. Bo would still have met Lara. And Lara… well. Lara would have been Lara. She couldn’t have been anyone other than herself, nor done anything other than what she did, not if all the gods of all the worlds had come together to haul her off the very wheels of fate themselves. But maybe I could have been better. Maybe I could have done something, before anyone had got hurt. And everything might have been different. I wish I’d known that then.

***

I wasn’t happy when I first moved to Oman. Harriet had only given me the elbow a few weeks before, and I was just beginning to re-acquaint myself with tastes, colours, emotions, and that sort of thing.

She didn’t come up to Wellbridge to tell me, of course. No, that would have been far too uneconomical a use of her time. Everything was a calculation for Harriet, and once she’d decided she was no longer invested in our relationship, it made little sense for her to waste time and money making a trip out into the sticks when she knew I’d be coming to see her in London the following weekend.

We met up at a lively sort of bar in Holborn, which was suspicious in itself, as Harriet had an aversion to crowds, drinking, and crowds drinking, which had only got stronger in the years I’d known her. But perhaps she was doing what she liked to call ‘mingling with the masses’. I spotted her through the crowd, clutching a tonic water and trying to pretend she felt very much at home perched on a bar stool.

‘Let’s sit,’ she snapped, expertly blocking my kiss with her left earlobe. We fought our way to the only empty table in the bar. Harriet scraped fleeing strands of auburn hair into her bun, ignoring the crowds of chattering drinkers that pressed in on us from every side.

‘Are you going to tell me why we’re here?’ I asked, when neither of us spoke. ‘Have you decided it’s time to give the hoi polloi another shot?’

‘Don’t try to be funny, William. I know you think you are, but you’re really not.’

‘Sorry.’ I took an awkward sip of lager. It was best to be diplomatic when Harriet was in one of her moods.

‘How’s your novel going?’ she asked abruptly.

‘Good,’ I lied. ‘Been doing a lot of research, outlining, that sort of thing. Really starting to sink my teeth into it.’

‘You haven’t even started it, have you?’

‘What! Come on. That’s not fair. I mean, no,’ I said hastily, as she glared at me. ‘Not as such. But I am starting to get a good handle on what it’s like to be a detective. Those brooding, alcoholic types don’t write themselves, you know.’

Harriet pursed her lips.

‘This isn’t a joke, William,’ she said, taking a measured sip of tonic. ‘Don’t you think it’s time you started taking things a bit more seriously? It’s been almost a year since we finished uni. And what have you done? And, please don’t say ‘cleaning windows’, because you know that isn’t what I mean. You’ve been saying you’re going to write your novel for months, but you haven’t written a single word. I’ve got a new job, a new flat, new friends. And you’re spending your life wiping dirt off of glass, for peanuts, in the middle of nowhere.’

‘That’s a bit much,’ I protested. ‘I’d hardly call Wellbridge the middle of nowhere. Do you really want to have this conversation again, Hettie?’

‘God no.’ A muscle in Harriet’s cheek spasmed, which seemed to be the closest she could manage to a display of indignation. ‘I’m as sick of talking about this as you are. Actually, that’s why I wanted to meet tonight. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and...’ She pinched the little finger of her left hand until it went white, something she always did when forced to confront the distasteful. ‘I feel that it’s time we extricated ourselves.’

I stared at her. ‘Pardon me?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Harriet went on, her face expressionless. ‘I just think we’ve started to move in different directions over the past year. I’m working absolutely nonstop, trying to make something of myself. And you’re just, sort of, floating through life, like a punctured balloon. It’s all a bit... wishy-washy. Do you know what I mean? I have to spend more time focusing on me.’

‘Oh.’ Suddenly all the noise had filtered out of the bar, and been replaced by a horrible, blank buzzing.

‘People break up all the time, William,’ she continued, as though I’d expressed a belief that every couple lived happily ever after. ‘That’s just a part of life. If you think about it, ninety-nine per cent of all relationships are destined to end up on the scrap heap. So I think we had a pretty good run, all things considered, don’t you?’

I couldn’t believe she could be so blasé about the demolition of our delicate partnership, as though it were some own-brand teacup she’d knocked onto the floor. I didn’t reply, but focused instead on a strand of Harriet’s hair that had refused to be coerced into the bun, and curled defiantly over her ear. I wondered if I should tell her about it. Maybe if I did, she’d change her mind about dumping me.

‘Hettie,’ I began. ‘You’ve got a...’

‘Is everything alright for you guys?’ A smiling waiter had appeared at our table. I didn’t answer.

‘Yes,’ said Harriet. ‘Everything’s lovely, thanks. Can we get the bill please?’

I took a sip of lager, which now seemed to just be flavourless, fizzy water, the bubbles popping unpleasantly against my tongue.

‘So I’m not staying at yours this weekend?’

‘Oh, god no. That would just be too difficult. For both of us. There’s a train back to Wellbridge at quarter past eight,’ she continued brightly. ‘I checked. You can still make it if you head off now.’

The waiter returned, and placed the bill on the table between us.

‘Shall we split it then?’ said Harriet, rummaging for her purse.

***

I didn’t get out of bed for a week. Hettie had been my ballast, my rudder – the only thing tethering me to my old life in London, to my new life there as well. We were going to get married one day, to live in a nice big house in Kensington, madly in love, feathering our nest with all the wonderful money we’d made. How did she imagine we were supposed to do that if she’d gone and broken up with me? Most of my customers were very understanding about the dishonouring of my work commitments, though some were a bit grumpy about their windows having to remain mucky for a Not Very Good Reason. I felt bad, but thought it best to start tackling solid food again before undertaking any new commissions.

Mum and Dad were worried. They tried to coax me out of my room by renting my favourite films, cooking my favourite meals, and bribing my cousins to drop by the house with their most charming single friends in an effort to distract me. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it. All I wanted to do was to escape, to get as far away as I could from Harriet, from Wellbridge, from all of it. I lay in my unwashed sheets, surrounded by half-empty glasses of wine, flicking madly through the junior atlas I’d borrowed from school when I was in Year Six. But nowhere really appealed to me. Spain. Too hot. America. Too far. France. Too… French.

Finally, Mum, sick of seeing me lolling around in bed all day like a disoriented crab, took matters into her own hands:

‘I’ve written to your aunt Maude,’ she said to me one day, as I sat huddled at the table, my duvet wrapped around my shoulders. ‘And she’s agreed that you can go out to stay with her and Uncle Stanley for a while.’

‘Aunt Maude?’ I repeated, pulling the duvet more tightly around my shoulders. ‘Where is she again?’

‘Muscat. In Oman.’

I blinked. ‘Where is that again?’

‘The Middle East.’

‘Oh. But I haven’t seen Aunt Maude since I was about... three? I don’t even know what she looks like. And isn’t she a bit… weird?’

‘Maude’s been through an awful lot,’ said Mum, in her please-be-more-sensitive voice. ‘And she’s not weird, she’s just… particular. You’re her nephew,’ she continued, seeing my expression. ‘She’ll be over the moon to have you there.’

‘Right. I’ll be sure to add it to my shortlist. Oman with Aunt Maude.’

‘I’ve already written to tell her you’re going,’ said Mum, smiling. ‘So that’s final. Come on William. It’s Ramadan at the moment. I imagine that’ll be quite something, won’t it?’

‘I’ll consider it.’

‘Good.’ She poured herself a cup of coffee. ‘Now, will you please take that thing off and get changed? You look ridiculous.’

***

I took the train down to the airport the following week. I didn’t know much about the Middle East, except that it was hot, sandy, and apparently full of crotchety-looking people with a penchant for monochrome. I knew even less about Oman, and was still not totally convinced it was a real country.

None of this was particularly compelling, but I didn’t care. I was only relieved to be off, and the way I saw it, anything was better than drinking half a bottle of wine every night and scribbling angry poems to Harriet in my old uni textbooks.

As the plane flew higher into the sky, I watched London out of the window until it had ceased to be a big, frustrating city, and become an unappealing grey smudge. It was a miserable day: the first of September had brought fog and drizzle, an end to the cheery blues and yellows of August, and a grim taste of what was in store over the next few months. So long, Hettie, I thought, glad for the first time that I wouldn’t be sharing them with her. Then, plucking her from my thoughts and flicking her out the window like a piece of old chewing gum, I settled back into my horrible aeroplane seat and tried to get some sleep.

The flight was uneventful. I woke up after two hours, and spent the remaining three drinking complementary whiskey and pondering who I was going to dedicate my novel to now, amongst other important writing things. Muscat was three hours ahead, and it would be eight o’clock in the evening when we landed. Once we’d begun our descent, I reached into my bag and took out the letter I’d received from Aunt Maude a few days before.

Dear William, it read.

Your uncle and I are very much looking forward to your visit. The last time we saw you you were just a small boy, but I’m sure you’ve changed a great deal since then.

We aren’t used to company, I’m afraid, and especially not that of a young man like yourself. My sister tells me you’re suffering from a ‘broken heart’. In my experience, there’s no ailment of the soul that can’t be cured by good, hard work. Hard work, and a hefty dollop of faith of course. Muscat can be a little chaotic at times, I’m sorry to say. But you’ll be pleased to hear that ‘chaos’ is not a word that is tolerated in our house.

As your uncle and I like to keep our routine of an evening, we won’t be coming to meet you at the airport. You should have no trouble finding a taxi, however, as there are always plenty outside. The address is: 15, Marmul Street, Ras Al Hamra. Make sure to ask the driver to turn on the meter. If he refuses, note down his number plate. If he still refuses, tell him you’ll call the police.

When you arrive, please message me on the enclosed telephone number. DON’T call. DON’T knock. DON’T ring the bell.

Wishing you a safe and blessed journey,

Your aunt Maude.

I’d hoped the letter might seem more encouraging upon second reading, but was disappointed. ‘Hard work and faith’. Who were these people? What on earth had I been thinking? Why hadn’t I just caught a quick flight to Barcelona or somewhere? I could literally be sipping tinto de verano with a pretty Catalonian barmaid by now, instead of en route to the Arabian Amish.

Replacing the letter in my bag, I fastened my seatbelt and watched the steadily-growing glow of orange from my window. Very little of Muscat was distinguishable from the night sky yet, but I saw that the neat rows of now distinctly individual lights were extinguished on one side by a soft, sweeping wave of darkness. Knowing that Muscat was a coastal city, this, I surmised, was the sea. As we prepared to land, I allowed my eyes to wander away from the lights and slip over the border, compelled by the endless expanse of inky blackness.

When I stepped out of the plane, the first thing that hit me was the heat. A gust of fiery air rushed into my face, releasing me from the vacuum of the cabin like the warm, sticky breath of a steam room. But the smell was what really struck me. By the time I’d recovered from the initial blast it was already inside of me, coating my lungs like a strong perfume. Even now, such a long time since that first trip, I have no difficulty in recalling it. I’ve always described it as spice – as cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon; as hot dust, sea salt and palm oil; as fresh black coffee and acacia gum; as sweat, mutton fat, and agar resin. But really, it was the smell of Arabia – the smell of a land wholly alien to the breezy woods and fields of the country I was born in. It swept into my nose, folded into my hair, and impregnated my skin, chittering gleefully of love, and betrayal, and the slow seduction of madness. It was a smell unlike any I’d experienced before. It was the smell of adventure.