The place we went next would otherwise have been a typically overpriced cocktail bar had it not the unique selling point of being disguised as a New York speakeasy from the prohibition era. To enter you first had to go through a tiny, narrow burrito bar, squeezing past the customers sat eating at the counter, and on through a door at the far end as if you were going to the kitchen. Only this opened onto a short corridor at the end of which was a small, dimly-lit lounge with a bar on the right-hand wall and a row of fixed stools along the counter. I had never been to this place and found it quiet, and at 10pm on a Saturday night it was filled to the rafters.
I wriggled my way through to the bar and grabbed a couple of cocktail menus, handing them backwards through the crowd to Katya, and by the light of a fake candle on a shelf we perused expensive drinks with names like Winter is Coming and Minas Gift. It was noisy in there and Katya shouted the drink of her choice in my ear and I set off towards the bar with the sort of grim determination normally reserved for frontline infantry. It took me over fifteen minutes and a lot more pounds to return with two small but powerful-looking drinks, one of which had cinnamon powder all around the glass. Katya had spent the time either waiting patiently a few metres behind me or had disappeared for a cigarette in the meantime and returned, I don’t know which. She took her glass from me and we looked around for somewhere to stand where we wouldn’t be knocked about by clumsy patrons. Sitting was out of the question. A dangerous looking flight of stairs led down to the toilets from the corridor we came in from and I spotted a landing on the top no bigger than a manhole cover. We could throw our coats over a banister and occupy the landing, provided we breathed in a bit when folk using the toilet needed to pass. And Katya would have to stand very, very close to me.
I positioned her against the banister and stood on the remaining square inch of landing, then slipped my arm around her waist. My body was pressed up against hers with our faces inches apart. The wine from the meal had taken hold and the music and clamour of voices accompanied a lively atmosphere of raised pulses. We clinked glasses and drank. Mine was strong and the glass rim sticky with sugar. I took another slug. Katya lowered her glass and I pulled on the arm around her waist, squeezing her tighter, and kissed her mouth which she’d already opened, our tongues working together. We came up for air after a few seconds, when somebody on their way to the toilet accidentally nudged me in the back.
‘It’s okay here, isn’t it?’ I said, speaking into Katya’s ear from a distance of half an inch. I have no idea what perfume she had on, but it smelled good.
‘Yes,’ she said, with a smile sweeter than a schoolgirl’s. ‘It is. Thank you.’ She leaned in and we kissed again. This time nobody disturbed us.
We continued like that for perhaps fifteen minutes more. By then our glasses were empty. I took a look at the scrum around the counter and the solitary barman pouring complicated cocktails and wondered for the thousandth time why London waterholes don’t employ more staff. At these prices they’d pay for themselves in the first three minutes. I turned back to Katya. ‘You still have rum at your place?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘No. But we pass by the shop on the way home, it’ll still be open.’
‘Okay, shall we go?’
‘Sure,’ she said.
She took my hand as we stepped out of the burrito joint and onto the pavement, and walked in the direction of her apartment.
‘You enjoyed that?’ I asked.
‘I did!’ she said, her New York accent drawing out the words. ‘That place is so cool, I didn’t hear about it before! How did you find out about it?’
The truthful answer was that the Iranian showed it to me after we’d been to the restaurant we’d eaten at earlier. I saw no purpose in telling Katya this. ‘I found it on the Internet,’ I said. ‘It was in some review of bars in this area of London, and I went along after work one day with a colleague to check it out.’ This was partially true: Ricardo and I had been there once on a Friday evening, but that wasn’t my first visit.
‘Well thanks for showing it to me,’ said Katya warmly. I squeezed her hand a little tighter.
Before long we were climbing the stairs to her apartment, a litre bottle of Coca-Cola hanging from my hand in a carrier bag. When we got inside and had taken off our coats and shoes Katya set about putting ice into two tumblers while I sat at the table with the bottle of rum at the ready. I poured us both generous helpings which left a couple of centimetres below the rim for Coke. I had a feeling we’d not be needing that whole litre. I added what I could fit in the glass and handed one to Katya. She took a sip and pulled a face as if she’d drunk bleach.
‘Jesus!’ she exclaimed. ‘How strong did you make it?’
‘You’re Russian, aren’t you?’ I said laughing. ‘Here, give it to me.’ I took a large slurp from her glass, lowering the liquid level by a quarter, and replaced it with Coke. ‘Is that any better?’ I asked, handing her back the glass.
She took a sip the way a gazelle drinks at a crocodile-filled waterhole in the Serengeti. ‘A little,’ she said smiling.
She raised the glass to her lips once more, and I did the same. We looked at each other, and drank again. Neither of us spoke.
‘You’re an awful long way away,’ I said softly, putting my glass down and reaching out with both of my arms.
‘I am, aren’t I?’ she replied, and got up and sat on my lap, drink in hand. My hand slipped around her waist as the dress rode up her thighs. I picked up my glass with my free hand, and we both drank in silence. A minute ticked by.
‘We’re in the wrong room,’ I said quietly, setting my glass down on the table.
‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘We are.’ She put her drink on the table beside mine and stood up. I took her by the hand and led her into the bedroom, and closed the door. We’d not be needing that full litre.
I awoke the following morning from a strange dream as the light was pouring through the gaps in Katya’s hopelessly inadequate curtains. I dreamed I was in some sort of sex club where a man was taking far more interest in me than I felt comfortable with. I felt Katya stir beside me and she opened her eyes as she rolled over and put her arm across my chest. Her naked body felt soft and warm, and I could smell her hair and what remained of last night’s perfume.
‘Morning,’ she said sleepily. ‘Did you sleep well?’
‘I did,’ I replied. ‘But I had a weird dream.’
‘What about?’ she asked.
‘I dreamed I was at an orgy and rather than having fun with a bunch of of girls I had some fat, bearded guy wanting to go down on me,’ I complained.
She laughed, waking up a little. ‘Yes, that sounds like an orgy,’ she said. I assumed she’d read about them somewhere.
‘You were in Pompeii, right?’ I asked. ‘Did you see the frescoes there, of the Roman orgies?’ I have no idea why I asked this.
‘Yes,’ she said.
I continued my train of thought, for no particular reason. ‘I wonder if those things happen here. Orgies, I mean. You hear them mentioned in places like Paris, but I wonder if they go on in London. I suppose they must, somewhere,’ I speculated idly.
‘Well, they happen in New York,’ said Katya with a disturbing tone of certainty.
I stiffened a little. ‘How do you know?’ I asked cautiously.
‘Because I’ve been to them,’ she said.