Asif brings us both another beer and sits beside me again. The beer is Italian, cold and sweet.
He sits in his usual aloof, urbane manner. One leg slung casually over the other, he rests a delicate manicured hand on his knee while holding a cigarette between thumb and middle-finger to his dark voluptuous lips. His face is unshaven; his thick black hair, tousled. A beige, lightweight pashmina is knotted elegantly around his throat. Wearing the uniform of the young global metropolitan – a canvas jacket, designer jeans and sneakers – he still looks distinct and exactly like who he is: an accomplished Bengali rake and film-maker.
“Are you still looking at her?” His accent has a clear New England lilt, acquired during an adolescence in Vermont, but within that is the whisper of his Calcutta childhood. His enunciation is elongated and quietly musical, somewhat louche. A beautiful voice: intelligent, assured and seductive.
“I am,” I reply.
“What is it about her?” He leans forward and stares, trying to share my fascination.
“It’s her face. It’s very sad.”
“She’s sad?” The tip of his cigarette glows as he sucks on it. “You’re right. She is.”
We watch her for a few minutes. Her smile is strained, eyelids sagging as she talks to those around her. Sat upright, she is meek, arms folded across her belly, shoulders slouched and submissive. Her table, maybe twenty yards away from us, is crowded. Her daughter, who looks about five years old, stands beside the young man who is sat opposite her. Wearing glasses, tastefully dressed in jeans and a sports jacket, he bends down to speak to the little girl who holds up a doll for his appreciation. Next to him sits a young woman, probably his girlfriend. She is brunette, also bespectacled and smartly dressed, and talks playfully to the girl as she presents her toy. The other daughter is an infant, dressed in a tiny lemon-coloured pinafore and matching bonnet. She sits on her father’s lap, beside her mother.
He is significantly older than his wife; his grey hair cropped with ostentatious style. Overweight and dour, he wears brown designer corduroys, a black polo shirt, and inappropriately fashionable tennis shoes – white, retro Fred Perry. His outfit, wife and children, loudly state his affluence, self-regarding cosmopolitanism and delusional sense of vigour. But his face is fat, pale and ordinary. He is, quite obviously, a mediocrity who mistakes good fortune as proof of innate greatness. I imagine the boring work he does – in banking or commodities. Maybe he’s a restaurateur.
“Do you know why she’s so sad?” I ask.
“Because she’s so beautiful … But her children look like him.”
Asif laughs out loud. “You asshole!” Clouds of smoke burst from his mouth and nostrils. “I fucking love you!”
“Wouldn’t that piss you off? … If you looked like her, but your kids looked like him?”
“It would,” he nods. “It really fucking would.”
“Everyone wants beautiful children. Especially the beautiful.” I watch her adjusting her toddler’s bonnet and affectionately stroking her head. “But she still loves them. She’s a sweetheart.”
“She is,” agrees Asif. “She’s a princess … He’s a tosser.” He considers him for a moment. “He’s like John McEnroe … Arrogant. Old and arrogant … He doesn’t even look at her. He can’t bear to look at her.”
I watch them, sat beside each other, and see that Asif is right. The old man can’t bring himself to acknowledge her. She sits dutifully beside him, knees pressed tidily together, her body turned towards him as she fidgets with a bag filled with accessories for the children. Her gaze, focused on the child in his lap, occasionally flits to his face, looking to be returned. He doesn’t give her the merest glance. Instead, he fixates on the baby that he holds aloft as she practises walking on his thighs. Otherwise, he looks only at the other people at the table – never her.
Her long elegant face is tired; wrinkles are etched, prematurely, beneath her eyes and at the edges of her mouth. Only in her thirties, she wears no make-up and carries no sense of youthful glamour; her shoulder-length blonde hair is straight and listless.
“Her mother’s a real cunt, too,” I add. “She doesn’t give a shit about her.”
We watch her husband and mother swap indulgent smiles over the baby’s head. The old woman wears a black two-piece suit, a white blouse with a revealing décolletage, and gaudy over-sized jewellery. A huge gold broach is pinned to her breast; a bulky necklace of semi-precious stones hangs around her neck. Her wrist is laden with thick gold bracelets.
She is indifferent to her daughter’s suffering, maybe even enjoying it. Gesturing with long thin fingers, she chats to her son-in-law with welcoming eyes and a grin that reveals stern white teeth. Ridiculously over made-up – a thick layer of foundation does nothing to hide her age – her lashes are gluey with mascara. Her blonde salon-dyed hair, voluminous and streaked, holds as fast as cement against the breeze.
She’s not much older than him. They have more in common with each other than with his wife: worn-out pride and jaded hatreds. I wonder if she just resents her daughter’s youth and beauty: she was, no doubt, beautiful herself once. Maybe she wants to fuck him.
I turn to Asif. “Do you think he’s banging her mother?”
“No.” He shakes his head. “Guys like that don’t screw women their own age. Not even their wives … I bet he thinks about it though. I bet he gets off knowing that she wants him.” He smiles and sits back in his chair, tipping cigarette ash onto the floor. “She knows we’re watching her.”
I look up to see the young woman’s pose has altered. She sits self-consciously erect, holding her baby’s hand, trying to seem involved in the conversation at her table. She brushes her hair from her face, tucks it behind her ear, showing us her profile, her slim white neck. Turning slightly, she looks at us for a moment and I glimpse her blue eyes, glinting like burnished steel. I recline and hold my gaze. Stretching out my legs, I rest my feet on the empty seat before me. She looks again and I smile. She blushes; her jaw tenses and she looks away, composing herself, hiding her interest from her companions.
“She’s embarrassed,” says Asif. “But she loves it.”
“She’s lovely. She’s worth the attention.”
“You’re going to just carry on looking?”
I watch her fuss with the hem of her daughter’s pinafore, affecting interest in the conversation between her husband and mother. “Why not?” I reply. “Let’s give the princess something to feel good about.”
It is a beautiful evening. The late September sky is a soft and gauzy, candy-floss pink. I lean back and stare into its immensity, and feel an uncommon peace. The terrace is full of people, chatting, sipping wine, enjoying the space and ambience of the Southbank. I watch those standing by the railings, and gaze past them at the river, moving quietly eastwards, and the huge commanding buildings that stand on the other side. To my left is Golden Jubilee Bridge, over which looms the Millennium Wheel, turning slowly.
An elderly Indian couple amble arm-in-arm past our table. He is bald and meagre and seems academic in his slacks, cardigan and spectacles. She is plump and charming in her lilac sari. Grey hair tied in a neat bun behind her head, a stylish brown purse is tucked beneath her arm. We smile and nod. They smile back and continue walking. Several yards away, a Japanese woman stands among Italians in chinos and well-pressed shirts, her face scrunched as she tries understanding their accents. Suddenly, a tall imperious black woman appears in a short emerald cocktail dress and strides across the veranda, her heels stabbing a quick loud meter against the pavement. She captures our gaze with her toned and shining legs and her handsome face, framed by her hair, ironed into a sharp bob. She flips open a compact mirror and stares into it, adjusting the outline of her flame-red lipstick with her fingertip.
“I love buppie chicks,” smiles Asif, watching her shapely behind make it way past us. “They’re so fucking hot.”
I turn and glance at the princess once more and see that she is watching us. Her pedestal is shaken; she seems upset by our interest in the black girl, our attention switching so easily and completely to someone else. Her husband notices our interaction and stiffens. He stares in our general direction, watching from the corner of his eye.
Asif laughs. “McEnroe’s pretty rattled. But he wants to act like he doesn’t give a shit.”
We observe the marital drama that now plays out in front of us. There is a shift: she knows that he has seen us, and that he is unsettled. She is pleased. Though still unsmiling, she has confidence as he suddenly takes interest in her, talking to her at last. Now, it is she that holds the pose of indifference and is wilfully unresponsive. He touches her thigh. She doesn’t return the affection, and simply chats in a businesslike manner.
Glancing at us as he tries engaging her in conversation, he displays a desperate quality, an exaggerated concern as he refills her glass with wine and lifts up a plate to offer food that she ignores. His arrogance wilts with the knowledge that his beautiful wife is the focus of two brazen younger men. He is now a man very aware of his age, limits and misconduct.
I am fascinated as his masculinity cracks and splinters before us. He wants his wife’s attention and wants to be rid of us; but he is overweight and middle-aged, in no shape to challenge us. Sat at a social gathering, unable to make a scene, he is trapped and confused. She revels in this weakness and glances obviously at us, ensuring he sees, while making quiet gestures to cultivate our gaze. Turning her face upwards and stroking her hair, she slides her fingertips along her slender throat.
“Marriage is hell,” I laugh. “It’s a fucking war.”
Asif laughs too. He knows what I mean.
“What made her marry a prick like that?”
“Money,” he replies.
“She was born into money. Her mum is caked in it … She could’ve married plenty of guys with money. Why him?”
“She had to marry the same asshole her mother did. She's a daddy's girl. She had to marry Daddy … I bet he screwed around all the time, and I bet her husband does the same.” He pauses a moment. “White people are great. They think we're weird for letting our parents choose our partners, but they actually marry their parents … They do it every time. They have less choice than we do.”
“You’re right,” I nod. “They don’t have a choice.” I feel the breeze and fold my arms across my chest.
“Do you think Helen did that?” he asks. “Did she marry her father too?”
The sudden reference to my wife discomforts me. “I think she made a big effort to do the opposite,” I say, thinking of Ronny, her sneering, functioning-alcoholic father. “But that's just the same bullshit.” I smile as I remember the idiot and his shabbily barbed utterances – such as asking whether I prefer playing cricket to kabbadi, and his condescending remarks about me not being “from around here”. My smile broadens as I recall how he retired early last year, having been a tax lawyer for almost thirty years, after a sexual harassment case was brought against him, and the red-faced dyspeptic grimace he gives me whenever I make a point of pawing his daughter in front of him – something Helen has always enjoyed – putting my brown hand on what Daddy, no doubt, thinks ought only to be his.
We continue observing the couple at the table. McEnroe now holds his infant in the air, making huge eyes and grinning, mouthing theatrical baby-talk while turning to his wife, trying to involve her. The charade of familial love is absurd. No one at the table believes it, other than the bespectacled young man and his girlfriend. They delight in this show of paternal affection and the baby’s laughter: they obviously want children of their own.
The grandmother sits stony-faced, wearing the simulation of a smile, ill at ease and out of place. The dynamic at the table has changed, isolating her, the father abruptly transformed into a doting spouse and parent. The princess looks only at her baby, eyes wide at the sight of her laughing face. However empty her husband’s actions may be, she can only warm at the child’s happiness.
Her other daughter comes and stands beside her father. He brings her into the play, stroking her face with one hand, holding the baby in the other. He has become the centre of attention. The young bespectacled couple sit holding hands, enchanted by the sight of him. Even the grandmother is making an effort to seem interested, and makes some comment from across the table. At this, the princess becomes annoyed. She takes the baby from her husband, as if the child needs urgent practical intervention, and checks her over. The happy atmosphere at the table subsides. The old man is noticeably upset.
The five-year-old walks over to the mother and says something, pointing at the railings at the edge of the terrace. The princess stands up and looks at the brunette, who gazes adoringly at the baby. She walks around the table and hands the child to her. The younger couple coo over her as the princess leads her elder daughter to the railing – glancing at us on the way, tossing her hair as we return the look – to gaze over the Thames and the people walking on the promenade below.
The old man is crestfallen. Painfully aware of our relentless observation, our appreciation of his wife, he is dismal at her coldness – the same biting froideur he inflicted only minutes before. Elbows on the table, he slumps forwards and sinks his face into his palms. It is patent self-recrimination, yet no one around him appears to notice. The young couple are besotted with the child; the grandmother sips her wine and stares into the distance.
He raises himself up and composes himself. He then stands and, glancing at us and knowing we are watching, walks slowly into the foyer of Royal Festival Hall – probably for the privacy of the toilets.
Asif sits up and unravels his pashmina and then carefully reties it around his throat. The action is done with great delicacy and feminine grace. He tugs at the edges of the cloth with his slim brown fingers, giving the garment symmetry. Picking up his cigarettes from the table, he gives me one, puts another in mouth and lights it. Handing me his lighter, he sits back, blowing smoke. “It’s amazing, huh? … How much you can affect people, the whole world, just by looking at it.”
“Seeing is the most dangerous thing there is,” I say. “That's why no one does it.”
We sit, smoking our cigarettes. The evening has slowly but quite perceptibly darkened; the air, now chilly. The young woman returns to the table with her daughter. Taking her seat again, she is in full view, no longer obscured by her husband. In his absence, she now flirts quite shamelessly. Wearing a plain sleeveless sheath dress, eggshell-white, and closely matching espadrilles, she pushes her chair away from the table, creating space for herself, and stretches out her long leg, showing us her calf. Bending her knee, she removes her shoe, taking out a slim white foot. Her arms are toned and sleek. I think of her at the gym or practising yoga. I think of her hard lithe body, its locked and unspent sexuality.
She massages her foot, squeezing the sole with both hands, rubbing her toes. Sliding her hand over her ankle, she glides it up and down her shin. The action is slow and controlled, deeply erotic. Her blonde hair falls, covering her face. Brushing it back, not wanting to be hidden, she extends her leg once more, pointing her toes. The gesture is girlish and sweet, full of whorish charm. Looking at us a moment, her gaze settles on mine.
Daddy returns. There is a slight commotion and it’s obvious he is urging them to leave. After a short discussion they begin tidying away their things, but the baby starts crying. The princess takes her back from the other couple and examines her. She speaks to her husband. Their faces are hard; the movements of their lips suggest their words are curt. She stands up and, with the baby, makes her way into the building. Our eyes follow her. The others continue putting things away while she is gone. Her husband sits back and stares over our heads, at some indistinct point in the sky, watching us with the edge of his vision. He’s smirking, looking relieved and deeply satisfied.
“Look at him smiling,” I say.
“What’s he smiling about?”
“Because neither of us made a move on her … He’s smiling because after all that, he’s going to take her home and make her suck his dick.” I blow out a stream of smoke and look straight at Asif. “He thinks we’re just a couple of punks.”
The husband now sits with a straight back; raising his glass, he finishes his wine. His arrogance has returned; immense and moneyed self-assurance oozes from him. But occasionally he turns to stare at the same place in the sky, making sure he knows where we are.
“He looks so secure,” I say. “He knows he’s got nothing to worry about … It makes me want to go and hit on her.”
“Hit on her then,” says Asif. “Go and hit on her. Shake him up … Why shouldn’t he be worried?” Asif leans into me, lowering his voice. “Old white boys like that think they rule the world … It’s good to fuck them up now and then.”
“Why me? Why don’t you go and talk to her?”
Asif puts his palm between my shoulder blades and rubs my back. “Because you started all this, my friend.” He gives me an encouraging pat. “Go talk to her … Give Johnny Mac something to think about.”
Until now, I haven’t thought of speaking to her. I’d only been fascinated by her face, her beauty, and the drama that arose once we gave her an audience. I have no idea of what I might say. But I see the smugness in the old man’s face as he looks past us, certain that we pose no threat, and cannot resist the urge to unsettle him – give him one last stabbing sense of inadequacy.
I rise from my seat and stroll past his table, within touching distance. I don’t look at him, but feel his gaze sear into me as I pass by and walk into the building to find her.