Fiction Romance

Bangkok, 31 December, 2021

In this city, no-one goes to bed early. Unless, thought Ben, you mean the early hours of the morning. Krung Thep, City of Angels. No shortage of them, if that’s what you want. Right now, with ten minutes of 2021 remaining at 100.5 degrees east, what Ben Proust wanted most was a tasty meal. He sat down on the simple plastic chair, at the equally simple Formica-topped table, under the fluorescent tube’s honest glare, at the noodle stall on Sukhumvit Road. A patched street dog, lazing next to a concrete post, gave him the once-over out of one lazy eye. The pert young waitress was there in a moment. Ben ordered his favourite Pad Thai. ‘Ka’, she nodded quietly, with a radiant smile, the one syllable emphasising her femininity as no other language could. The girl trotted away, a dissipating bubble of sex appeal her only legacy. Left with just the dog, he felt an irrational and intense sense of loss.

Ben cast up and down the pavement. The bars and stalls on Sukhumvit and its sois were slowly coming back to life. Having studied history, Ben knew pandemics could be canny things; the Spanish flu of 1918 had ravaged the world for three long years, with the third year the worst as the final wave hit.

So, where was Norman? With five minutes to go, Ben was the only farang in the street café. To his right, a Thai man, about twenty and overweight, inhaled his noodle soup like his last meal. Ready for the end of the world, Ben thought. Norman was cutting it fine tonight. Perhaps he’d given up. Would this be the first one he’d miss?

The scrape of a chair on the concrete pavement. Ben’s head jerked up from his recently arrived, steaming hot Pad Thai.

Black, casual, light jacket, broad shoulders, pale grey hair with bald patch. Right on time; three minutes to go. Ben’s pert waitress appeared from nowhere. Norman turned toward her. “Kway teow lukchin neua, kap,” he intoned.

Ben dropped his wooden chopsticks and metal spoon. Before his sweetheart could frame her fetching ’Ka’ he was out of his seat, with a mission. “Happy new year, Norman. Now get your order right. You want sen lek lukchin neua sod. You’re like someone ordering fish and chips in a chip shop. They’d roll their eyes. Cod or haddock? If you’re after thin noodles in soup with fresh beef rather than stewed rotten crap, order like I told you.”

The dig into Ben’s left upper arm stopped his lecture. “Perfume mai, kap?”

Ben inhaled with mouth slammed shut, ready to tell the hawker where to go. But the slim, young, polka-dot shirted man moved faster, as if anticipating rejection. The atomiser sprayed a cloud of fragrant droplets and, in a moment, Ben was no longer on a dirty pavement between Sukhumvit sois 21 and 23. He was on the back seat of his father’s car, aged 17, parked by the canal, the local lovers’ lane. All of his universe was Becky’s blouse and lips, both parted. This was seventh heaven. Her sweet, light hair, the perfect whorl of her ear... his hand slid boldly down her exposed midriff... wow, that scent....

“Elizabeth Arden, Memoire Cherie, kap.”

Ben crashed back to the grey, harshly lit Bangkok street. Mocking the stolen climax of his daydream interruptus, fireworks burst overhead in a million colours. Norman turned and smiled as Ben shook his head, dismissing the pavement pest and his perfumes.

“Happy New Year. How are you, Ben?” Norman asked.

Sawasdee pee mai. Oh, about the same as this time last year and a bit older,” Ben replied, as expected.

This was their fifth meeting. To see them together, you might think they’d known each other since boyhood. In fact, Ben and Norman had spent only an hour or two, in total, in each other’s company. The story had begun like this.

Cheltenham, 31 December, 2017

It was good of them, Ben Proust thought, to allow him a coffee break to let in the new year. Government Communications Headquarters boasted its own Starbucks, where those on night surveillance duty could fuel up on caffeine for the redeye shift. Whenever terrorist chatter elevated the UK security level to Threatcon Charlie or above, someone would have to stay up nights. Ben felt like it was always him.

Quarter to midnight and a good range of coffees on offer.

“Go for the coffee of the day,” said a voice at Ben’s elbow.

The speaker was a broad-shouldered man with pale grey, thinning hair.

“I’ll go with your recommendation, thanks. Ben Proust.”

“Norman Shay. Nice to meet you. Graveyard shift?”

Ben smiled, nodding. “Just me to defend the realm from the barbarians. Until 6am, anyways.”

Norman Shay returned the grin. “And me, of course. Don’t forget the tech boys who capture those messages you people spend hours scrutinising. We’re the ones who steer the ship.”

Funny analogy, Ben thought, but he let it go. Everyone in GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 thought themselves the indispensable core of the operation, the Jesus pin that kept the whole edifice from collapse.

The coffees arrived - two French filters. The rich aroma instantly jerked Ben from Gloucestershire to northern France. Tears welled and he wondered why. This was embarrassing. He must have had the very same brew on that school trip to the Great War battlefields. Ben had not expected the place to affect him so devastatingly. Everyone knew the loss of life in that war was beyond imaginable (although the flu pandemic that followed claimed far more lives) but Ben had not been ready for the emotional gut punch as the wind moaned through the Thiepval monument, bearing over seventy thousand names of fallen soldiers, amid endless white headstones. All had perished in a single battle, a good number in its first few minutes. Now, a whiff of coffee, and he was straight back there. Ben snorted into his recycled Starbucks serviette.

“Sorry, Norman. Came over a bit funny then. I’m OK now.”

Norman did not inquire further. It was almost, Ben thought, as though the man didn’t need to ask because he already knew.

“So, what troubles you, this new year’s eve?” The question was straight from left field. Ben wondered how to reply. He found himself saying, “Well, I guess my life lacks direction, just now. I mean, I enjoy the work here, but I can’t see myself being here forever. That said, I’ve no idea how to plan for the next step. I was over the moon to get onto the training programme and since then it’s been a proper adventure ride. Not sure of the long-term prospects, though.”

Norman Shay’s eyes twinkled. “Lacking direction. So, you need someone to direct you, not just help you choose your coffee.”

The barista turned up the wall TV and Big Ben’s chimes rang out. “Happy New Year,” everyone said to everyone else - there were a couple of clerks at a nearby table - as the fireworks began, Roman candles blasting forth from the London Eye, a pall of coloured smoke over the Thames.

Ben kept thinking it was over; each time, a new burst of colour lit up the televised London skyline, to a soundtrack of rapid fire explosions, and the cheers of the partying throng on the embankment. The coffee lasted until the final firework. Ben rose to return to his duties. “Thanks for the recommendation,” he told Norman, earnestly.

“Not a problem,” responded his new acquaintance. “While you’re protecting these shores into the new year, remember whose hand’s on the tiller. See you again.” With a sardonic smile, that Ben thought he should find irritating but didn’t, Norman Shay was gone.

Knightsbridge, 31 December, 2018

Ben had not given Norman Shay a single thought since dry January ended. Strangely, he had not seen the man at all since their new year coffee. Although GCHQ was a big place, you expected to see people you recognised from time to time. Ben guessed their coffee breaks had not coincided.

How quickly the year had gone by. So much seemed to have happened and, at the same time, so little. There had been the brief fling with Sandy. Workplace romances never worked out and Ben wished he had listened to himself, rather than get into something that could only lead to misery. Warming and sweetening grey February, the sex with Sandy had been to die for, but a few weeks later he had been alone again. As for promotion, forget that. His line manager kept telling him his big break would come if he just kept his nose to the grindstone. The surveillance work was tedious in the extreme, far less glamorous than the Le Carré world many imagined within the glass doughnut.

The weather hadn’t looked great so Ben had opted for indoors. He liked this pub; it was quiet, and even on New Year’s Eve there was no problem finding an empty bar stool. Quarter to midnight. Ben ordered a pint and a Grouse chaser, intending to down the shot as 2019 rolled in.

“Let me get those,” said a familiar voice to Ben’s left. “That is, if you don’t mind me joining you?”

A drink or two already inside him, Ben slapped Norman soundly on the back. “Bloody hell, Norman, you covert old bugger. What a coincidence. Great to see you. Can’t believe it’s a year. Where the hell have you been?”

If Norman was surprised by Ben’s gushing welcome, he did not show it. “Well, I’m not based at GCHQ any more. Can’t say more than that just now, or I’m afraid I’d have to shoot you. How’s the direction of your life?”

The drinks appeared. Both men raised their glasses with the usual greetings and new year wishes. Midnight came and went; they made the most of the extended licensing hours. Norman commiserated with Ben on his clean break with Sandy, although Ben had been almost sure, in his alcohol-fogged state, that Sandy had dumped him. Ah well, same difference. Ben bemoaned the ongoing stagnation of his career and asked Norman if he had any tips. Norman listened patiently, then leaned confidentially inward. “Ben, the best advice I can give you is this. Start directing your own life. If you don’t, it won’t end well. It’s a kind of Darwinism, you see. If you go from year to year hanging on some bloke’s words and letting him make all your decisions, well, it’s not the way to do it. Trust me. Oh, and ask Sandy out again.”

More drinks flowed; everyone in the Nag’s Head was everyone’s bosom friend. That is, except one elderly man, sitting alone at a corner table. When Ben saw him, he felt a sudden, inexplicable dread that his beery mind could not place. Ben omitted the man on his tottering hug-and-handshake new year tour of the lounge bar.

When Ben surfaced at midday on 1 January, 2020 with a monster headache and a sick stomach, he paid little mind to Norman’s words of the night before.

Blackpool, 31 December, 2019

Sandy’s arm squeezed Ben’s waist on the top deck front seat of the 1930s English Electric ‘balloon’ tramcar. The promenade illuminations, a staple attraction of the seaside town, looked extra special for New Year’s Eve. Tramcars bristling with bright, richly coloured light bulbs rolled and clanked up and down Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Themed lights hung over the beach road. Lasers lit up the iconic Blackpool Tower; the thrill rides of the Pleasure Beach rattled on far later than they normally would. Ben felt a warm tingle as he recalled the Ghost Train, about an hour before, and the stomach-churning plunges of the Big Dipper as Sandy pressed compliantly into his side.

The old tramcar reached the end of the line. It was a return deal. The driver stepped out and unhooked the long, wooden pole to swing the electric pickup around for the southward leg, back to Starr Gate. Accustomed to the routine, the passengers stood up, swinging the upholstered seat backs across to make the seats face the other way. 

As a woman on the next row changed her seat over, her coat brushed against Ben’s face and he caught a sniff of trapped tobacco smoke. Without warning, he was ten years old, quaking in the headmaster’s smoky study, a gnarled shillelagh club hanging from the papered wall. Ben’s 2019 eyes widened as the buried memory replayed on the screen of his mind. He wished to God the film would stop, right now. If it continued to the next bit, where the old pervert came around the desk, pink, pudgy, repulsive hand extending toward... Ben thought he might throw up. Mercifully, he found himself back with Sandy. But now he knew what had terrified him a year ago in Knightsbridge - the old man in the corner had once been his school headmaster.

Outside checks completed, the driver took up position on the cold seat in the southern cab of the tram. Ben and Sandy’s end was the rear now. Gazing ahead, toward the forward end of the tram, Ben saw an arm wave frantically. One man appeared to have the two double seats of the southbound front row all to himself and was motioning to them to join him. Even from this distance, there was only one person it could be. How the hell had he found them? Ben had told no-one they were coming here for new year.

They were soon all seated together. The top deck was pretty full, but all the other passengers faded into the background, dull and faceless, plain clothed in the truest sense.

“Five minutes to go,” announced Norman, checking his watch. “We’ll be passing the Tower when the display goes off. It’s worth seeing. By the way, great to see you two going strong again.”

Ben leaned across the gap between the two benches, to pump Norman’s hand. “How in the hell did you find us? Well, now you have, what’s this year’s pearl of wisdom?”

Norman’s face was serious for a moment. “Ben, I’ve told you. You’ve got to start running your own life. It’s no use waiting to be led by some old git you only see for a few minutes a year. You need to take seriously what I’ve just said. But, if you want a pointer, take your eye off Islamic State for a bit, and check out that Wuhan virus they’re all talking about. More to that than meets the eye.”

Ben thought for a moment. “You think that’ll come to anything?”

“It might,” replied Norman earnestly.

Then it was midnight and the fireworks and lasers went completely crazy.

Paris, 31 December, 2020

“Surely he won’t find you up here,” said Sandy.

For an answer, Ben raised his champagne glass and clinked it with hers. “Here’s to us,” he declared. “Just over a year since we got back together. Best year ever. And this is the perfect place to celebrate. Ten minutes till 2021.”

Inwardly, he winced at the cost of each sip - he hadn’t told Sandy that the champagne here, on the top deck of the Tour Eiffel, started at €150 and stopped God knew where. This fizzy little number was certainly no cheap house fizz. Still, it wasn’t something he planned on making a habit of.

“I guess I needed someone to guide me. Norman rocked up in Starbucks at just the right time. I was on my own for new year, working overnight. A friendly face was what I needed. I never thought it would turn into an annual thing. The irony is, he’s told me before that I need to start directing my own life rather than turn to him for advice all the time, and that’s exactly what I plan to do from now on. It’s just that I haven’t the guts to tell him. You’re right; he’ll not find us here. I paid cash for the tickets, nothing online, no trail he can follow. We’re safe.”

They were quiet for a moment, reflecting on life’s twists and turns. Sandy had liked Ben when they first met, but he had seemed to want to get too serious too fast and she had shied away. It was only afterwards, when she couldn’t bear to be in any of their old haunts without him, that she realised how much she missed him and wanted him back. Swallowing her pride, she’d told him as much, and here they were, one year steady.

“You really do make a lovely couple,” said Norman, from a distanced table behind them, as he removed his face mask. “You know, I’m proud to be your guide and mentor. Cheers.”

The fireworks erupted over the Seine.

Antarctica, 1 January, 2023

The champagne glasses on the Café Parisienne’s white, circular table were rock steady as the Warlord Vortigern cruised through the calm millpond of the Southern Ocean. 

“Hey, wasn’t the sea just like this the night the Titanic sank?” giggled Sandy, taking another sip.

Ben smiled, feeling content for the first time in, how many new years’ eves? Midnight had passed with no sign of Norman.

Sandy snuggled up to him. “Hey, cowboy, who did you spend new year with last year, on your solo trip to Thailand?”

Ben hugged her waist. “Well, the noodle bar waitress was quite sweet...”

She pouted and mock-kicked his shin, then she met his eye, grinned and hugged him back.

“Ben! Sandy!” The speaker, resplendent in immaculate white uniform with four-striped cuffs and peaked cap, extended his hand. The face and voice were unmistakeable. “I’m proud to be steering your ship, Ben.”

Neither Ben nor Sandy could breathe, let alone speak.

Beyond the ambient warmth of the café, beneath a clear, starry sky, a towering, menacing iceberg loomed directly in the giant cruise liner’s path.

December 30, 2021 20:22

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Debbie Wingate
22:45 Jan 08, 2022

Great story! I loved the detail of where each new year took place, and how something would trigger a profound memory. I could be way off base, but I got the sense that Norman was a part of Ben, or maybe he was Fate, Either way, the ending was phenomenal. Thanks for an enjoyable read.


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Jon Casper
12:26 Dec 31, 2021

What an immense saga for so few words! Astounding, really. The construction of it is a delight. Rich with detail and personality. You build such complex characters, and the dialogue is sheer perfection. Awe-inspiring work, Rob.


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Bruce Friedman
21:39 Dec 30, 2021

Congratulations Rob. A complex and rich story. I need to read it a couple more times at least to extract all it has to offer.


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