from WHOM


[The narrator, Robert Fane, has been persuaded by his friends Carlos and Ravidan to visit a brothel on the war-torn Mediterranean island of Lazar. Waiting his turn in a roofgarden, he drinks too much wine and falls asleep. When he wakes, Carlos and Ravidan have already gone, leaving him to pay the bill.]

I am standing among the shadowy potplants, oval and spear-shaped, dark, pale, striped and spotted. I am trying to explain to the widow that I can't pay. Rain is tapping impatiently on the leaves. As darkness has arrived, the plants appear to have grown taller, so that I now find myself in a rain forest.
    'Please,' the widow says, 'pay now. Three and wine.'
    'But my friends are going to pay, they said so.' Actually they didn't say so, but I assumed they intended to because it was their idea.
    'Friends gone. Three and wine.'
    'Anyway, all I had was the wine. No sex, you understand? Just wine.'
    'Yes, you are screwed.'
    'No, not me. My friends, Carlos and Ravidan. They screwed, I no screwed. Only wine. How much wine, please?'
    'No more wine. Pay now.'
    'No want more wine. Pay wine. No pay screw. Understand?' As if I would actually want to pay for it, when I never even wanted it in the first place.
    'NO PAY SCREW,' I say clearly and simply.
    'Ah,' the woman says, 'SCREW NO PAY NO EXIST.'
    This makes me think. I look into her eyes, expecting to find there a kind of hard sympathy, a deep sexual wisdom. I cannot make out an expression at all in the darkness, and perhaps her remark was just a Mediterranean brothel owner's platitude. Speaking slowly and forcefully, distilling each syllable into an essence of reasonableness, I tell her, 'SCREW NO EXIST NO PAY.'
    I am rather proud of this, but the widow is unimpressed. 'Ah, screw exist!' she replies indignantly. She waves her arms in the air and calls in a high voice, 'Fall-e-la, Fall-e-la!'
    The door opens. A small, meek figure emerges from the brothel. She is wearing heavy robes, which make her look ghostly in the darkness and drizzle. The widow squawks a few syllables in Lazari, and the girl studies my face carefully from the shelter of her hood. Her eyes are dark and religious.
    A stream of harsh consonants and infuriated vowels comes out of the muffled body, like words coming out of a loudspeaker rather than someone speaking. A hand emerges from the bundle of clothes and strikes me across the face. The widow seizes Fallela's hand and begins to shake it, muttering something soothing and urgent through her teeth. Then she tells me, 'She saying you are beaten her.'
    'I never touched her. It must have been Ravidan or Carlos. I drank too much wine and fell asleep.'
    'You are beaten her. Pay, please.'

		3 SCREWS        30 RIBA
		WINE             5 RIBA
		BEATEN          10 RIBA

		TOTAL           46 RIBA
'The watermelon is free,' I say. 'Anyway, I didn't beat her. I didn't screw her either. You can have five riba for the wine.'
    'Watermelon dangerous, war in fields.'
		3 SCREWS        30 RIBA
		WINE             5 RIBA
		BEATEN           5 RIBA

		TOTAL           41 RIBA
    I have no money. Five riba is all I have, look!' I know this is true because I have been counting and recounting the money in my pocket for the last five minutes.

		WINE             5 RIBA

		TOTAL           38 RIBA
Eight riba off the price already. If I did not have such an unsound financial base for haggling from, I might have negotiated a bargain. However, my best offer is:
		WINE            5 RIBA
		TOTAL           5 RIBA
The widow has now realized that I meant it when I said I had no money. She goes into a shocked conference with Fallela. After this, she turns to me very politely, as if afraid she might be about to make an unforgivable mistake. 'No money?'
    'No money.'
    'Five riba?'
    'Yes, yes. Five riba for wine.'
    'We are beaten you,' she says matter-of-factly. I nod to show her I understand.
    Chances of escape: I could run down the stairs, but if the plum-coloured door at the bottom happens to be locked, I will be trapped. I could stay and fight, but if they intend to produce a professional beater, I don't fancy my chances. I am not even an amateur. My morale is low following the incidents of the day and my head is still ringing from the wine.
Meanwhile, the widow speaks again to Fallela, who turns self-righteously and walks with sharp and angry steps back into the brothel. I could jump over a low wall on one side of the roofgarden. There are flat-roofed buildings everywhere round here; possibly one of them is underneath the wall. I look over the edge, but the light from the door does not carry far enough to let me see. However, a spotlight now shines on the roofgarden, touching the oval and spear-shaped leaves with white and turning the rain into hard streaks in front of my eyes. It looks like a roof down there. On the other hand, maybe it isn't. I think I can hear the rain beating on some hard surface. Two brittle young men in white suits run out of the brothel, and I decide to find out. I climb over the wall, lower my body to the other side, and drop.

Slightly revised extract from WHOM by Matthew Francis
published by Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.
ISBN: 0-7475-0391-5

Copyright © Matthew Francis, 2000.

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