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Palm Beach

I’m sitting in a bar in Cologne, nursing a flat beer and wishing I’d been able to sleep. I’ve been up since eight in the morning, installing new mini-bars in a posh hotel in the town centre. It’s boring work, and I hate it. I’d originally got into the hotel mini-bar business as a way to legitimise my assets, and against expectations it was still making me a good living, years later. As the guests got more imaginative in their ability to bypass the security on the mini-bars, our job was to make them increasingly tamper-proof. It was a living. Not enough of one to pay for the life I craved, however. The life I had almost given up on.
Ironically, this place is called the Palm Beach; for years I’d been planning on moving to the Seychelles, seeing out the rest of my life living in a beach hut, perhaps with some local lovely. Instead, here I was, still in Europe, caught up in a life I had invented but did not really want. I’d never planned it like this. Europe was supposed to be just a stopping point on the way to somewhere else.
There’s a large crowd in here: a mixture of pimps, whores and sad old men in suits. I’ve been here before but I can’t for the life of me remember when. A bored looking DJ is pumping out what I guess must be the latest sounds. To me it sounds like rhythmic white noise. The bar is huge, walnut shaped, lined with ultra-violet, paved with wood laminate, and it makes the place look tacky, the neon tubes showing up the food spots on my beige jeans. There’s a small dance floor, with flashing multi-coloured squares lighting up the squares and whores dancing like they’re really enjoying themselves. It’s all about sex, in here, but social convention requires you to go through the motions, even at this end of the scale. I’ve parked myself on a stool at the far end of the bar, in a relatively quiet spot, where I can watch the ancient rituals of sexual pairing. The girls want sex because it pays the bills. The guys are not really sure why they want it. Their social and biological programming convinces them that they should. They convince themselves it must be fun. They don’t really understand it; they don’t understand why their laughs are forced, why they have this indiscernible feeling that this is not as enjoyable as it should be. They probably never understood much on the road to ending up in here. They’re just going through the motions. Most guys just want sex to prove some sort of point. That they’re virile. That girls find them attractive. That they’re not gay, even though they think about it occasionally. It’s all about masculinity, and their perceived perception of their peer’s perception of it.

In other words, it’s all bullshit, and I am not going to pay fifty Euros or more for sex I do not really want. I wish this girl who’s jabbering at me would get out of my face. The music allows me to pick out about one word in ten, but I’m sure I’m not missing anything. She’s quite attractive in a skanky, too experienced kind of way. Her skin is the blended coffee colour of Caucasian genes mixed with pure African. The more I look at her, the more I realise that she is actually quite beautiful. I’ve no doubt that she could get me off, in spite of the booze swirling around inside me. I’d better keep my pants on and my wallet in my pocket. The words of The Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck” pop into my head.

“So you here on business?” she asks, taking a sip out of the twenty Euro fizzy water she’s just been bought, by the guy who just left, as he realised his wallet was empty and he didn’t have any idea where the last three hours had gone. She’s sipping it slowly, trying to work out if I am going to buy her another one, or whether to make a move on the grey guy in the grey suit next to me who keeps grinning like he’s just heard the funniest joke in the Universe. She has already told me her name is Vivian, and I’ve introduced myself as Mark.
I always get asked if “I’m here on Business”.
“No, I’m here on holiday” I lie. Old habits die hard.
“Why you come to Koln on holiday?” she asks, her leg rubbing mine. I can smell talc on her, submerged below the cheap perfume.
“Why not?” I reply, taking an exploratory feel of her fishnet stockings. Nice legs. “It’s a nice town.”
“People don’t come here on holiday,” she informs me, her hand straying onto my leg. “Only during Carnival.”
“Where are you from?” I ask, watching her hand creep up my leg as if it’s happening to someone else, disinterestedly.
“Swaziland”, she answers, taking a sip of her “champagne”
“Oh yes? I used to live there” I reply, immediately regretting it. I don’t want conversation. I’m only here because I couldn’t sleep, and it’s the first open bar I found.
“Really? Whereabouts?” she asks.
“Manzini”
“Manzini? I’m from Manzini,” she answers, smiling, looking in my eyes for the first time since she sat next to me.
“Nice town” I reply. I need a beer.” You like a drink? Beer?”
“OK, I’ll have a beer” she replies, sensing that I am not going to buy her anything more expensive. For the moment. I signal the barmaid for two beers. Two Kolsch, the tiny little beers everyone seems to drink here in Cologne.
“So do you miss Swaziland?” I ask.
“Of course. It is my home. I miss my mother”
“Your mother still there?”
“She died a few years ago.” I could tell her that she’d still miss her mum if she was back in Swaziland, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.
“Sorry to hear it”
“She was sick for a long time”
I take a sip of my beer and look at my watch. It’s three thirty in the morning, and I have a plane to catch at seven.
“What was your mum’s name?” I ask, on the off-chance that I might have known her. Swaziland is a small country. This girl must have been born around the time I was living in Swaziland.
“Noni. Noni Dlamini” she answers, and a cold shiver runs up my back. I’d known a Noni Dlamini in Manzini. I’d known her well. I’d had a brief affair with her, which ended when she attacked me with a stiletto heel in the Pink Flamingo bar. She’d walked into the bar one Saturday afternoon and found me talking to another woman. It was only then that I realised she thought she was my girlfriend. Noni had a kid while I was still in Swaziland, which some of her friends claimed was mine. She tried to hit on me for maintenance, but she never had much chance of convincing me the child was mine. Not when I knew at least three people who had fucked her in the same period. One of whom had been my best friend: not that I took it personally or anything. In those days, pre-AIDS, sex was sport, and none of us were interested in serious relationships. There was too much fun to be had. I do some mental arithmetic. She could only be nineteen. This was possibly the baby of uncertain paternity.
“How old are you?” I ask, pulling a cigarette from the packet on the bar.
“Twenty one” she answers. I’m sure she’s lying. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I might have known your mother.” There again, half the population of Swaziland are named Dlamini. I wonder if I should just leave. A strange fascination with this girl is developing, and I’m not sure if it’s the remote possibility she might be my daughter, or if it’s because I fancy her. I have not felt so unsettled, or so excited, in years.
“Really? How did you know her?”
“Uh, we just used to drink in the same bars” I reply, “If it’s the same girl. Woman.”
“When was this?” she asks, staring into my eyes. Suddenly, she looks genuinely interested in me, and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. The beads of moisture in her soft brown eyes refract fathoms of pain.
“1984 or thereabouts” I reply. I can’t hold her gaze: her eyes bore into mine, looking for some truth. She really is beautiful.
“I was born in 1985” she tells me. “Was this woman pregnant when you knew her?”
“Yes.” My mouth has dried up, and I’m finding it difficult to speak. Somehow, we both know we’re talking about the same woman. “I never knew if she had a boy or a girl, though. She disappeared from the scene.” It’s a small world, as the cliché says. I can’t tell her that her mother was a bitch, that she chewed men up and spat them out like used gum. She sure knew how to party, though. I wondered what sort of mother she had been to this girl. At least she was not around to witness her daughter following in her footsteps.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I ask her. A last stab at denial, perhaps.
“I’m an only child. Did you know my father?” she asks.
“I don’t think so” I reply. “What was his name?”
“Sullivan. James Sullivan” she replies.
The name hits me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
“I have his surname” she says, with a note of regret. Her face turns sour for a moment. James Sullivan. There was a name I had not heard for years. I knew James Sullivan alright.
“No. I don’t think I knew him.” I lie, wondering how much she knows about her supposed father. “You still in touch with him?”
“I’ve never met him. My mother loved him, but he left her before I was born.” I could see small crystals of tears welling in her eyes. What a bastard, I thought, to let this beautiful girl go, to let her slip into this life of seedy bars and paid sex. But it is what I had come to expect from James Sullivan.
I try to attract the barmaids’ attention. I need another beer. Apparently Vivian sees this as a sign of boredom, so she changes tack.
“So you want to go with me?” she says, forcing a smile.
“I’ve got a ‘plane to catch at seven” I reply, placing my hand on hers, which still idly strokes my leg. I’d love to go with her, but I can’t. I’d love to just hold her in my arms, to take her away from this life she has fallen into. I’d love to tell her about her supposed father.

James Sullivan disappeared fourteen years ago while being hunted by the police in connection with a series of bank robberies in South Africa. After a shoot-out at a house in Bryanston, Johannesburg, he had been the only one to escape. Three weeks later, a yacht he’d bought under a false name was found, capsized and with it’s mast missing, about a hundred miles off Cape Point after a severe storm. His body had never been found. As he had very little sailing experience, it was assumed he’d lost control of the yacht and been swept overboard. The last remaining member of the gang, Mark McFadden, a businessman who had turned to crime when his trucking company in Swaziland had failed, was the only other member of the gang who was never caught. He had not been at the house in Bryanston when the police turned up. The press speculated that he had turned the rest of the gang in in return for a new identity. He had never been seen since.

I buy her another beer and give her all the cash I have in my wallet. It’s just over three hundred Euros, and it’s nowhere near enough.
She looks surprised; a glimmer of understanding in her eyes, perhaps. She tries to persuade me to stay. She looks confused. I kiss her gently on the cheek.
“Go home” I tell her, closing her hand around the money. “Take a few days off.”
“But…” she starts, and I can sense the confusion coursing through her.
“It’s better this way” I interrupt, hating myself for saying it. Dropping my last five on the bar, I pick up my coat from the stool. As I walk away, she is already turning to the grey suit, still grinning to himself in the corner. I should have asked for her mobile number, I think to myself, but I know it is not a good idea. The past is dead, and so should remain. She might be my daughter, or she might not. If not, then there is a good chance I killed her father. Mark probably fucked her mother more often than me.
I will never know the truth, and neither can she. It’s probably better that way.
Somehow, though, I am comforted by the fact that her mother chose my name for her daughter. After all, I can’t use it myself, anymore.

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