Daniel sat in the corner, next to his bag, watching the man in the corner who was watching him. Several decades divided them, and on the floor separating where each of them sat was the generation in between. They were mostly men, old enough to be Daniel’s father, or the sons of the one observing him, but here and there a woman stood too, idly smoking or drinking, bemused, not quite fitting in. From time to time they would step aside and the eyes of Daniel and the man would meet. Then the people would cross back over, blocking the view, and the two again would have to wait. But they would not wait long, this much Daniel knew. He looked again at the man and thought: this night is for me and you.
The stranger stood up from his chair and started to cross the floor. As he came out of the shadows and into the light, his years visibly increased: the slick grey hair was thinner than it had seemed, and around the mouth, with the pearly teeth that had glinted in the darkness, were grooves that ran to his cheeks and down his chin. But his gait was straight, and even if the buckle of his belt was partly obscured by the belly that hung low in his shirt, a flame of vitality shone in his eyes, the sort of flame that shines so bright on the very cusp of its final decline.
“English?” he asked as he stopped by Daniel’s side. His tone was complacent, as if even a negative answer would be no hindrance.
“English,” Daniel replied.
The man smiled and sat on the seat to Daniel’s right. He had a glass of white wine which he placed on the table, beside Daniel’s water.
“Daniel,” Daniel replied.
“I’m Lev,” the man said, and held out his hand.
Daniel took the hand and shook it. He noticed how the man didn’t look straight back at him, at least not for long, rather his gaze flickered up and down, taking in Daniel’s brow, cheeks, mouth and chin, as if assessing a sculpture rather than a human being.
“Where are you from?” Lev asked.
“Near here.” It was the same Daniel said to everyone, and they seldom pried further, even those who returned a second time.
“You?” he inquired, not because he cared, but to be polite.
“Oh, my home is the world,” the man replied, as if exacting a subtle revenge for Daniel’s evasive answer. He had a strange, mongrel accent that was hard to place.
“But anyway, don’t worry, I’m just passing through here.”
“I’m not worried,” Daniel took a sip of his drink.
Again a smile passed over the man’s face. It was a smile of confidence, of one who enjoyed a challenge.
“I was born in Latvia,” he said. For a moment he paused, as if sunk in some childhood memory of his mother, of his home, of those decades far behind him. Daniel watched him closely, wondering was he drunk. “My parents called me Lev – the lion. But you can call me Leo if you want. Most people do.”
“I’ll call you whatever you want me to,” Daniel said, and for the first time he too now smiled. This seemed to relax his companion.
“Very kind,” Lev said, then asked: “Are you here every night?”
Daniel shrugged. “It depends. Sometimes.”
“But you’ve been here all night. I’ve been watching you.”
“Yes,” Daniel said, “I noticed. And I’ve been waiting all evening for you to come over.”
“Oh.” Lev reached for his glass. “If I’d known that, then I might have joined you earlier. I wouldn’t have wasted my time over there. There’s a lot of riff-raff here tonight.”
“If you say so.”
Looking up, Daniel noticed another man standing at the bar, gazing over: He was about 50, slim and well-groomed, probably a politician or entrepreneur of some sort. He’d been eyeing Daniel earlier, too, but had lacked the courage to approach of his own accord. Now that he saw another in his place he stared all the more intensely, as if to say: “See what you’ve ended up with. If you’d been a little smarter it could have been me.” There was a trace of scorn in his eyes, but also regret. Daniel stared coldly back at him until the man looked away. Then he turned back to his companion:
“You know, I don’t share my seat with everyone.”
“Oh. Then I suppose I should feel honoured,” Lev said, though his voice rose at the end, as if he were not quite sure whether to phrase this as a statement or question.
They looked at one another a moment, saying nothing. They were like two players who were still trying to establish the rules of their game. The man gestured to Daniel’s glass, which was nearly empty.
“Another drink for the young man?”
Daniel looked at the glass, then that of the older man, which contained not much more than his own, and back to where the offer had come from.
“You know somewhere nice?” Lev asked.
“I thought you might. Where are you staying?”
The man smiled, and Daniel asked himself, as he often had before: does he think I’m an easy one? That I’m his plaything now? That he has me in his hand, ready to be devoured?
“I can’t remember the name,” Lev said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “But I can tell you it’s very nice. I’ll show you, if you’re willing to come with me. If you have the time.”
With an offer like that, from a man like this, Daniel was not going to refuse.
“Let’s go,” Daniel said, and stood up.
It seemed only natural that Lev paid for both their drinks on the way out.
* * *
It was a large room with a king-sized bed and a grand old chair in the corner. Golden curtains framed the windows, which looked out over the city and its cracked and rusty rooftops, now bathed in a murky, nocturnal light. On the middle of the bed was a silver bucket with a bottle of champagne in a bath of ice, glistening under the glow of the lamp. Next to the bucket were two fine glasses, tall, engraved with double-headed eagles, and a folded white napkin, laid out on a tray. It had all been there when they arrived. Either Lev had expected company or had somehow, without Daniel noticing, managed to order ahead.
Daniel sat on the bed, clothed apart from his jacket and shoes, which were placed side by side at the door, while Lev went into the bathroom to take a shower. Daniel had asked should he, too, have a wash but his companion said no, all Daniel should do was relax and make himself comfortable. Lev invited him to read, pointing to a collection of dubious stories he’d picked up in a bookshop called Another Country while out sightseeing that day. And yet as Lev showered he left the bathroom door open, as if to say that were Daniel to invite himself in, his company would not be refused. Daniel did not move, but stayed, his little bag by his side, the book untouched, and waited for Lev to return.
Five minutes later the older man emerged, feet bare and still dripping wet, not seeming to care if they stained the floor. He was wrapped in a navy dressing gown that was a size too small.
“Pour yourself a drink, it’s what it’s there for,” Lev said, gesturing to the champagne on the bed.
He almost sounded put out that Daniel hadn’t helped himself. Some were like that, insisting on informality. Others were the opposite – nothing to be done without their command.
“I don’t drink,” Daniel said.
It was a lie, he drank when occasion called for it, but it was time to see what the man would permit and where he would draw the line.
“Very well,” Lev said, wandering over to the bed and loosening, but not untying, the belt on his gown, “then I’ll have to drink alone.” He sat down and poured himself a glass, his lips forming a pout. His stomach forced the folds of his gown open and a mound of fat, covered in grey fuzz, peeked out.
He tried one more time: “You’re sure? It’s the very best, you know. You won’t taste champagne like this every night. And it is so lonely to drink on one’s own.”
“All right,” Daniel said and smiled, “but just a small one.”
The old man grinned like a child. He even filled the two glasses to order: his own to the brim, Daniel’s halfway to the rim.
As they drank, Lev pulled up his pillow and sat leaning against it, his back at the head of the bed, the base of his glass resting on the dome of his belly, which gently swelled and subsided, like an ailing balloon. Looking down the bed, Daniel saw that there was no nail on Lev’s big left toe.
“Come,” Lev patted the space beside him, “there’s no need to be shy. We don’t have all night. And off, off,” he said, with a sudden gesture that was half irritable, half playful, waving his free hand at Daniel’s shirt and trousers. “No need for all that. We’ve got privacy here. No one’s going to come in.”
Daniel unbuttoned and slipped off his shirt, exposing his hairless torso, then did the same with his trousers, folding them neatly on the back of a chair. He crossed back to the bed in just his sleek white pants and reclined beside his partner. How often he had done this before, yet so seldom with the same person, for even those who enjoyed it were not prone to come back a second time. He drank his champagne and ran his tongue, the bubbles still dancing upon it, along his sharp row of upper teeth. He then pulled his bag towards him and waited for the question to come, as it always did, now when he was stripped to his pants and would soon be relieved of these:
“What have you got in there?”
It was, Daniel knew, the defining moment of the night. Some would sound giddy, as if anticipating a toy of some kind. Others, grown paranoid from decades of a double life, would tense up, fearing they’d fallen into a trap. All that mattered was that it came at the right time, when he lay there, offered up to them, when it was too late to turn back.
“It’s something I brought for you,” Daniel said.
“Oh?” Lev looked at him with curiosity. “A present?”
“If you like. Yes.”
Daniel opened the bag and pulled the contents out: a pair of grotty old pyjamas, red and white stripes, two buttons missing from the upper part, on the lower a tear at the thigh, the whole lot turning yellow from age and the sweat of previous nights. The smell off them was rancid.
Lev looked at the pyjamas, then back at Daniel. There was no excitement now in his eyes, gone the complacent smile. But to Daniel’s relief there was not that look of repulsion he’d seen in men at other times. Lev merely looked bemused, the folds of his flabby face trembling indecisively.
Daniel held the garments towards him.
“What do you want me to do with these?” Lev held out a wary hand. “You mean I should . . .?”
“Yes. Afterwards you can do what you want to me. After I’ll do what you want to you. But only if you . . . it’s the only way I can . . .”
“You don’t really expect me to . . .?”
“Just put them on,” Daniel said, his tone turning hard. “Now.”
And as he spoke, so commanding was the look in his eyes, so cold the curve of his smile, that it would have taken a very brave man to refuse.
* * *
Daniel woke up first the next morning, as he always did. Whether it was the deep sleep of satisfaction, or the desire to forget themselves in oblivion, the old men never came round before him, or if so kept their eyes closed, feigning sleep, softly snoring. It was these moments he valued most of all: waking at five or six, the first light of day peeping in, illuminating the bed and sleeping face of his partner. He would raise himself on his elbow, his other hand beneath the covers, resting on his own slender leg or belly, which would sometimes be damp from the heat of the night, still sticky with sweat or sperm, and stare down at the one next to him, cosy and unaware and at peace. If he stared long enough, this peace would eventually seep into him.
For a long time he lay like this, until at last Lev started to stir, which signaled to Daniel that it was time to stop staring. He slipped silently, stealthily, out of the bed and crossed the floor, retrieved his pants where they lay crumpled in a ball, pulled them on and sat in the grand old chair beside the door to the hall. His hands resting on the arms of the chair like some juvenile king, he watched Lev, waiting for the old man to awaken and start looking back at him.
When Lev awoke their eyes met, Daniel’s clean and fresh, Lev’s lids bleary and coated with a sticky green substance.
“Why are you sitting there?” Lev asked.
“It’s morning,” Daniel said. “Time for me to go.”
“But it’s still early. Come back to bed. It’s warmer here.”
“I can’t,” Daniel repeated. “My family will be waiting. I need to leave.”
For a moment Lev lay there, unmoving, saying nothing. He then sighed – they were never as charmed or enchanted at the arse-end of the night – and hauled himself from the bed with a sour expression. Daniel never knew who these expressions were aimed at: the old men themselves or him? Maybe both. Lev unbuttoned the pyjama top and untied the bottoms and flicked them from his feet onto the floor, like a sordid remnant of an encounter he’d now rather be rid of. The bottoms must have been too tight, for in the course of his sleep they’d dug in and left a rosy imprint upon his skin. With a hand he reached down and scratched himself. He then picked both tops and bottoms off the floor and flung them over the bed to Daniel, who caught them high up, near his chest, and held them briefly to his mouth and nose, as if to draw the aura and odour in.
Soon they were both dressed, Lev in just a shirt which dangled around his thighs – Daniel supposed the old man would shower and scrub long and hard as soon as he was alone – and Daniel as he’d been the previous night, in need now of a comb through his hair, but still wellturned-out. He put the pyjamas back in his bag while Lev crossed to his trousers. There Lev pulled out a brown leather wallet and opened it.
“What did we say, two hundred?”
Daniel was surprised that Lev had forgotten. Or was he just embarrassed now and choosing to play dumb? Either way, Daniel knew that if he wanted he could probably take the whole sum. But why would he? He’d always been brought up to respect his elders, and that meant – amongst other things – he mustn’t thieve.
“One hundred,” he corrected. “Our special agreement. Remember?”
Lev looked at him, then down at the money in his hand. He stuffed some notes back into the wallet and crossed to Daniel to give him his fee. The notes were clean and fresh and slipped snugly as a secret into Daniel’s pocket.
At the door Lev held Daniel back a moment – it was the first time the old man had touched him since they’d risen. He opened up and glanced out. Probably checking to make sure there was no one around.
“Okay,” Lev said, “off you go.”
Daniel stepped into the corridor and turned. They looked at each other across the threshold. It was at this time the old men sometimes spoke: a word of pity maybe, or some paltry piece of advice. One or two would even laugh the whole thing off as a vulgar joke. But Lev said nothing. Maybe he’d already blanked it from his mind. Perhaps he was appalled. To Daniel it didn’t matter. He knew there were others like Lev, just as he, too, would be replaced by another, tomorrow or tonight, squeezed in between the swanky conference and the departing flight.
“Thank you,” he said, wanting to part in a mannerly way. “I hope I was everything you wanted.” His voice was warm and his smile wide.
“Goodbye,” Lev said.
The door closed in Daniel’s face. He turned from the room to go towards the lift. Through the long window at the end of the corridor bright sunlight was streaming in. For the first time since he’d left home the previous night he became aware of a sensation in his body: a growling, guttural hunger. He checked his watch. It was only eight o’ clock. He would be home by nine, and he already pictured them sitting there, his father and mother and grandma together in the tiny room, surrounded by his grandpa’s personal things. He saw it as he might in a dream: he’d enter and they’d ask him how work had been, and he’d give them his money and invent the story of his night. With a pat on the head they’d thank him, say that if grandpa could see his special boy now the old man would be filled with pride.
Stepping into the lift, the little bag held close to his side, Daniel knew such words were true. But he blocked them out. Morning washed over him, the past receded like a foreign land, and did not return until the coming of night.