It’s 11pm and my last night in Venice has been spent in the hostel bar, after a lonesome meal by the canal on a candlelit terrace, where the waiter felt sorry for me and gave me free wine, with a wink. I was extremely humbled and grateful until the bill came and I found I’d been given free wine but charged 4 euros for a glass of tap water. Bastardo.
I was hoping to meet the Toronto girls from yesterday and chill, but they’ve gone to the opera. I had a look at tickets and they were around 40 each, so no. Instead, I sat myself at a central table in the hostel bar and nursed a beer, my eyes roving around the bar for a friendly face. A group of Spaniards in animated chatter, no; a rabble of droopy eyed Englishmen all attempting to charm the same one American girl, no; a middle aged Chinese couple knotted up in each other on the sofa, no. So that’s the kind of evening it was to be, then. I began to unpack my bag with a sigh, reaching for Kafka, my most loyal friend of late; a twisted, morbid companion, but a companion nonetheless.
‘How’s it going, mate?’
My eyes swivelled in the direction of the grimy London twang. Waggling his ringed fingers at me was a lanky white kid around 22, with long golden dreads and sharp eyes that screamed mischief. We introduced ourselves as I shuffled down the table to sit near him and shake his hand. His name was George, and he was from South East London. What immediately struck me was his voice. He sounded like Jack Sparrow, and dressed not too far off, a baggy shirt, three quarter length trousers held up with suspenders, and boots.
We talked about the usual backpacker stuff, where we had been, where we were going, so on. Before long we were joined by a German called Frederick who had met George the previous evening, who was very enthusiastic and innocent, with a loud, rolling laugh. He lives in Berlin too, just one stop from me on the U Bahn. He doesn’t like clubbing too much, however we swapped numbers so we can go for a beer in the city at a later date.
George, during lulls in the conversation, would turn his head to smile at a girl of dark hair, skin and eyes, who was perched on a chair next to the pool table. He told me he was travelling with her. ‘She’s mad, that one,’ he said. I looked over. She was wearing an Adidas jacket and heavy eyeliner, and was watching two blonde American guys play pool. Her expression was one of immense disdain. She saw us looking over, and hopped off her chair to join us, taking a seat next to George. I looked down at the doodle I was scribbling on a receipt, and pretended I wasn’t listening.
‘Those fuckers can’t play pool for shit.’ She was from London, too. ‘Honestly, those Americans are so fucking thick. They don’t even know the rules.’
She caught herself, and looked over at me.
‘You’re not American, are you?’
George told her my name. Hers was Hannah. I smiled, and averted my eyes in embarrassment at all the attention. Hannah turned away from me, to George, muttering ‘He’s hot.’ George gave a slight nod and a shrug, and I pretended not to notice, while feeling my battered white flag of an ego bolstered slightly for the first time in a long time.
I’d seen the pair of them breezing through the hostel together previously, and had assumed they were together. She was carrying a large gift wrapped rose with her everywhere they went.
I continued my conversation with George, telling him about my time in Paris and Barcelona. He asked me where I stayed in Paris, and he began to reply that he knew the area when Hannah cut him off.
‘Oh, did you know he used to live in France? For eight years. Don’t forget that, eight years. He tells every single person we meet. “I lived in France for eight years!”‘
George looked at me in embarrassment. I shrugged it off, seeking to save his dignity.
‘That’s cool man.’ He looked grateful.
Frederick had been quiet until now. ‘These two broke up a month ago, and there is much tension between them,’ he chuckled.
I didn’t know how to respond to that odd sentiment, so turned the conversation back to Paris. He told me he had lived in Normandy, but I didn’t pick up many details as my mind was ticking over with questions. Hannah interrupted George in his storytelling.
‘It’s really important you know that he lived in France. For eight years.’
‘You see,’ said Frederick, grinning, ‘tension.’
George was looking at me apologetically.
‘There’s no tension, we’re best friends. We just love wrecking each other,’ Hannah told me.
‘The wrecking goes mostly one way,’ George mumbled.
‘He left me for a man. He likes vibrators in his arse,’ Hannah shrugged, and took a sip of her drink. She smiled at George sweetly.
It took all my might to keep a straight face. I leaned back and avoided George’s gaze. I felt determined to help him.
‘Hey, who doesn’t? No judging here.’
‘See, this is why we broke up,’ George told her. She hit him playfully.
The pair of them got up to order food, leaving Frederick and I alone. I drew close to him and asked him what the hell deal was with those two.
‘They booked this trip two months ago, and they broke up one month ago. Now zer is tension. She says he is gay,’ he beamed. ‘It is weird.’
They came back to join us, and together told me of their previous two nights spent running drunk through the Venice streets. We lamented the lack of nightlife together. Then Hannah spun around on her chair, eyes searching the bar.
‘Ugh, I met the hottest guy in the world last night. He was fucking beautiful.’
George snorted but didn’t say anything. I asked what he looked like, and she showed me a photo she’d taken with him. He was American, and undeniably he was very good looking, but blandly handsome, like a yearbook photo of a high school quarterback. I told her as much, and George threw up his hands in agreement.
‘Whatever. I just want to sit on his face,’ Hannah concluded.
Another lull in the chat. I busied myself with my doodle, while the ex couple talked in lowered tones.
‘He’s boring looking,’ George stated.
‘What’s up? Are you jealous?’
George gave her a low smile. ‘Do you want me to be jealous?’
Hannah sipped her drink and grinned. ‘Fuck you.’
I couldn’t help but like her, despite being immediately terrified by her. I’ve been in George’s position before, and was overwhelmed with sympathy. Nothing cuts a man down so quickly as a pissed off girlfriend toting a bottle of wine. I’ve been publicly sliced to ribbons more times than I can count. There’s nothing you can do – if you argue back you look petty; if you don’t, you look stupid. Lose, lose.
George checked his phone, and Hannah addressed Frederick and I, although truly she was speaking to nobody in particular.
‘Bet he’s got a bigger dick than George, too.’
George’s ears pricked up.
‘Size eleven feet; turns out shoe size doesn’t mean a thing.’
Hannah smiled at him, and he swore at her.
‘He gets so sensitive about it.’
I nodded. ‘As does every man in the world.’ Frederick and George quickly agreed.
‘Take the man with the biggest dick in the world and tell him it’s small, and he will still react the same,’ George added.
Frederick then took the opportunity to lurch into a monologue about micropenises, which was difficult to stay abreast of, such was the pace of his broken English yarn spinning. Another silence followed. More determined scribbling on my part. Every time the conversation got too awkward, I had been adding to my doodle. By now, it looked like the Sistine Chapel.
‘You cunt,’ murmured George affectionately.
‘You know I’m only messing. You’ve got a beautiful dick really.’
This comment was said at conversational volume, and I was staring so hard at my doodle I thought my vision might bore a hole in it.
George and Frederick went out for a smoke, where the drunken gang of Englishmen were squabbling about the American girl. Hannah and I sat alone, and without George’s presence she was suddenly much more grounded. The transition was jarring.
She explained their situation to me. They worked in a bar together, George was her supervisor, and despite having other partners, they had both cheated and got together. With a sigh, I told her it wasn’t so uncommon. They were together for a couple of months, then broke it off as being together at work and at home was too intense, and they went back to being best friends. She told me that although they went on holiday together and were drinking together every night, and had even shared a bed, there was no longer any desire for one another. I had my doubts about this, but kept my mouth shut.
‘George isn’t really gay. I just enjoy telling people my boyfriend left me for a man.’ She then explained to me that they’d entertained themselves for hours the previous evening by feeding increasingly bizarre rumours about their relationship to Frederick, who believed every word.
George rejoined us and told us that it looked as though a brawl was ready to break out outside. Perhaps someone would end up thrown in the canal! How exciting. For the rest of the evening we talked about Berlin, and partying, and drugs. For all her bravado, it turned out that Hannah was fairly unaware of much of what George and I discussed. When George began to describe some new drug in detail to me, she declared, ‘See, this is why we broke up.’ That was their refrain; they kept rebounding the accusation between each other all evening.
At 11pm they left for a train to Rome, where they would spend the remainder of their trip. George and I shook hands and said goodbye. Hannah went to hi five me, I went to shake, and in the end we pitifully swiped palms. She grabbed her rose, they finished their drinks, and the two bounced out of the hostel.
I sat there alone, thinking that they were both undeniably absolutely mad, and that despite their madness, or possibly because of it, the world had seemed a little brighter for a couple of hours, and I would really quite like to see them again.