© Tom Spencer
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Samuel acted like he was staring into space, as the other two dared each other to throw something. “Is it really a good idea to court trouble,” he said.
Chloe blew cigarette smoke in Malcolm’s direction, giggling. Malcolm blew some back and gave her the two fingers.
“What exactly do these people do on holiday?” Chloe said. “Do they just drink?”
Their table was covered with glasses and many bowls of snacks, only some of which were being eaten. An ashtray was filling up fast. Pushed to one side was a chess set, untouched for some time.
“Have they mentioned the wristbands?” said Malcolm.
Chloe inspected a bowl of olives. “Qua?”
Malcolm set his cigarette against the ashtray and undid another button of his shirt. Though only seventeen, his rugby-player build and chubby face made him look much older. With his legs spread and arms draped, he looked as if he had spent years in bars like this one. The other two looked younger, but they could play the part in this foreign country.
“They’ve got these wristbands,” Malcolm said, “that allow them unlimited drinks at any bar in the complex.”
Chloe cackled, cigarette shaking in her hand. “Oh yes, they’re so proud of them, like they did something really clever to gain the privilege, rather than just paying a load of money.”
“They’re looking in our direction,” said Malcolm. “Nobody make eye contact – let’s not have a repeat of last night!”
“Go on - throw that beermat, I dare you!” said Chloe, waiving daintily at one of the men. “Samuel’s even scrunched it up for us.”
They sat on the same bar terrace they had managed to grab every night. With room for just one table and four chairs, it was perfect. Tonight, however, one chair was empty.
They had views over the entire hotel complex and the sea beyond and, of course, the beach-hut-style bar below. Not a bar they had seriously considered themselves – it was all happy hours and thunderous techno – but for people-watching it was like having your very own live showing of Big Brother, said Chloe. Big Brother goes to Greece!
Among the holidaymakers down below there was one guy actually wearing a shirt; he was handing out bits of card or paper which the others licked and stuck on their foreheads. He tried organising everybody into pairs but with little success.
“Look,” said Chloe. “It doesn’t look like they even know how to play!” she laughed.
She turned her attention to Samuel, smoke swirling around her pale skin and mountainous cheekbones. “Sam, why don’t you take off your jumper?”
Samuel pretended to check his phone. His beer he drank without relish. That morning he had woken up to find his pillow caked in vomit. He’d hidden in his bathroom as the cleaners dealt with it. Fortunately Malcolm hadn’t woken up.
“Be a bit more like the men down there,” Chloe said, tugging his jumper. “So what if you’re slimmer than most guys? Some women *like* less muscle.”
“Is this all because you lost today?”
“That girl, look, I think she also wants you to take it off. She wants everything off,” Chloe said, tugging some more.
Samuel tried pulling away. “She wants the mad bitch to shut up.”
“*Everything*! She wants if off!” cried Chloe, tugging hard and tickling Samuel’s neck.
“Fuck off,” said Samuel, getting up from the table.
They were there for the chess tournament – the European Junior Championships. They were playing in the under 18 age group, Chloe in the girl’s section. The other younger England representatives and coaches and parents were back at the hotel, perhaps already asleep.
Tomorrow was the rest day, the halfway point. On the other side were another five games, even more critical than the first five. It was the last time any of them could play in the tournament. Their lead coach Jonathan had gone to make a phone call; he said he’d return shortly. That was hours ago. Samuel tried calling him, twice. He tried texting.
“Damn, we’re out of cigarettes,” sighed Chloe from the table, tossing aside an empty packet. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if one of us was to pop down the road, to that cute little shop by the roundabout, and maybe buy another packet? Is there a star shiny enough to do that, I wonder?”
Once Malcolm was gone, Samuel felt a stroke on his arm. “I cut my leg shaving this morning,” Chloe said, looking up at him dolefully. “Can you see?” She raised one side of her skirt. “The stupid razors over here are so hard to use.”
Samuel sat back down, pulling his chair out a little from the table. “I guess when you have that much hair, scissors are probably more suitable, at least to start with.”
Chloe flung her head back in laughter. “You are *so* mean.” She ran her hands through her brown hair, tossing it back. She finished her glass of beer. “Samuel, how come you didn’t do double maths?”
Samuel sloshed his beer around the glass, unsure how much more he could handle. “I was seated at the back of the classroom. I couldn’t really see the whiteboard well enough. It was before I started wearing glasses. My test results kinda suffered,” he said, laughing lightly.
“Didn’t the teacher do anything?”
“That’s disgusting. Teachers like that should be sacked and made to work in call centres,” Chloe said, examining the ends of her hair. “I mean, Malcolm is never going to do well academically – that’s obvious – but you’ve clearly got brains,” she said. Her blue eyes set on Samuel’s face and seemed to explore it, as if it were an interesting piece of art. Samuel watched for some change in the size of her pupils.
They turned to look at the scene laid out in front of them. Hotels pushed up hugely into the sky. In the distance the onsite nightclub – ‘The Dome’ – already flickered, like a giant lightbulb erupting out of the earth. Further out, the sea pressed the shoreline beneath a darkening sky.
They ordered three more beers. Chloe spoke about the time she had nearly drowned as a girl, it was why she rarely went swimming. Given the choice, she would have had the whole tournament in Athens. Samuel said he had never been. He didn’t much like swimming either.
Malcolm returned to the terrace, breathing heavily, and threw two packets of cigarettes onto the table. “Don’t say I never do anything for you,” he told Chloe.
Chloe gave him a long hug; playing with a loose button on his shirt, she told him how much she loved him. Always her favourite chess player.
“I saw that bird of yours down the road,” said Malcolm, wiping sweat from his face.
“What, on the roundabout?” Samuel said.
“No! In one of the other bars. That Amelia. The French one.”
Samuel shrugged. Chloe leaned forward and lit a cigarette with Malcolm’s outreached lighter. She blew a stream of smoke across the table. She said Amelia was really cool, like something out of a Fellini movie, particularly her hair, and her eyes.
“I’d get in there quick if I was you,” said Malcolm. “Those Dutch boys don’t hang around.”
Malcolm took his beer and cigarette over to the edge of the terrace. “The Ukraine girls are out,” he said, crouching. Chloe and Samuel joined him by the railings, also crouching. At the bar below, one of the holidaymakers, a big man, tattoos on half his body, was having his chest sprayed with whipped cream by two bikinied girls. A baseball cap was thrown back and forth. “The cards have been put away then,” laughed Chloe.
Chess players from several countries were also down there. Some spread themselves out at the bar, others hung back, conferring. All of them had changed since their games earlier in the day.
“The one with the messy, just-been-fucked hair. She’s my favourite,” said Malcolm. “I’ve had my eyes on that one for days.”
“I’m sure she’s been watching you just as closely,” said Samuel.
Malcolm slapped a hand on Samuel’s shoulder. “Girls from outside the EU are best. The passports. Romanians are always very grateful – they think you’ll be their way in,” he told Samuel, who nodded with the utmost seriousness. “Especially with all the shit going on around their border.”
“I’d be on the lookout too,” Chloe said, eyes on the Italians, sipping her beer. “But I know that if I did anything it would get back to Josh.”
“Do you think he’d really care?” said Malcolm.
“Who would you go for Sam?” Chloe said. “Who would get the jumper treatment?”
Samuel ignored her.
“What about that one?” Chloe said, pointing to a bikinied girl lapping up whipped cream. “She looks nice. Kind of intellectual.”
“One of these days, Chloe. One of these days.”
Once back at their table they ordered cocktails because it was that time. Chloe also asked the waiter for some more olives, this time with slightly less stuffing. Malcolm asked if they did any proper food. The ashtray soon domed with crushed cigarettes. Clouds of smoke loomed over their table.
Chloe spoke of university applications. The parents didn’t mind what subject she ended up studying, as long as it was Oxbridge. They’d started mock interviews at her school, but in its wisdom the school had decided the best person to conduct interviews was Mr Reedman, famous for having Chichester’s worst ever stutter. “Each interview lasts about two hours,” she laughed. “It’s so sweet.”
She rocked an olive between finger and thumb, giving it little squeezes, regarding its tumescence. “Oxford, obviously that’s where Josh wants me to go. But how can you really know? I mean – you can’t go around every single college.”
“Was probably Josh that set you up with that Reed fella,” Malcolm said, grabbing some olives.
Samuel said the whole situation sounded very difficult.
“Oh god, what sort of school would elect someone with a stutter to conduct mock interviews,” groaned Chloe, burying her face in her hands. She lifted her face moments later, her cheeks freshly pinked. “I do love Reeders though. His music is fantastic, particularly his Bach. A part of me does kind of want to have his babies.”
Their cocktails arrived, along with more nibbles. Darkness had settled across the complex. More lights came on in the hotels which stood latticed against the night sky. Lamps twitched on the ground beside palm trees and swimming pools and bars that throbbed with music. Laughter twinkled through the warm air. The Dome flickered more and more and was drawing people towards it, along the small pathways that spread like capillaries through the complex.
Chloe ground her cigarette into the ashtray and lit another one. “It’s funny. From where we are, all the people seem as small as ants. The size of something you’d flick with a finger,” she said. “Yet up close they’re every bit as human as we are, feeling all the same stuff.”
“For them, this conversation will never exist,” said Samuel. “They will never know.” He tipped the chess pieces into their box and folded up the board.
“Seriously,” Chloe said. “The only sign of us they’ll see will be the end of this cigarette.”
“They’ll be able to hear you,” said Malcolm.
Inside the bar most people had left, tables and chairs were being cleared away. The crowd down below was thinning out. Malcolm took from his pocket a small bottle of aftershave, sprayed himself from numerous angles and offered it to Samuel. Samuel’s phone beeped several times. It was time for their final stop of the night.
They walked around the Dome twice, laughing at couples on the beach as they waited for Jonathan to arrive. He was already there, sitting on the sand, they just hadn’t seen him.
Samuel noticed a strip of sellotape wrapped around the bridge of Jonathan’s glasses. His trademark ginger beard seemed even wilder. Down his t-shirt was a fresh stain. He had taken off his trainers and held them to his chest. They listened to what had passed over the phone between Jonathan and the English chess federation. They stayed on the beach a while afterwards, looking out onto the black rumbling sea.
The Dome was already busy, the air swarmed with chlorine. Players from various countries were all there, but different with the night: many of the girls in mini-skirts tight as cling film, flesh spilling out of tiny tops. Some of them had already taken the dance floor, dancing close, their hips and the music, like they had known how for years. Boys hovered nearby, clutching their beers, not sure when to go. Disco lights – purple, gold, blue – sashayed over the swimming pool that lay at the far end of the club.
Putting their chess set in the cloak room, they queued at the bar which ran like a smile around one half of the club. They put Jonathan’s card behind the bar and took their drinks to a table near the dance floor. Malcolm pointed out the girls that would get it the hardest. Jonathan advised him to go for the smokers, who were usually a bit easier. Samuel and Chloe discussed Nietzsche. “He was a psychologist more than anything,” said Samuel, fighting to be heard above the music. “What he said wasn’t always meant to be literal. It was meant as provocation, to jolt people from their stupor.”
Chloe said she didn’t understand why Nietzsche seemed to so dislike women. “It’s like all women are superficial in his eyes.”
Samuel said he was one of the greatest geniuses of all time. “Freud took most his best ideas from Nietzsche.”
They spoke more about such matters and Samuel recommended books and Chloe wrote them down on beermats. They brought their faces closer together as they spoke more deeply, and for a while their surroundings dwindled. They were pulled from their conversation by the sound of Jonathan’s machine-gun laugh, as Malcolm demonstrated how he liked to pull the hair tight while going at it from behind. Chloe asked if he always had to be so crude, and then couldn’t help herself laughing. The four of them ordered another round of drinks as more and more people pressed into the Dome. Some guys removed their tops. Bodies on the dancefloor began to meld. The music raged louder and faster. People hurled themselves into the swimming pool, cheers and laughter billowing out. Malcolm leaned across the table and told Samuel he had just seen Amelia enter the nightclub, followed by one of the Dutch. “You need to get in there quick,” Malcolm said. “You seen the dress she’s wearing?!”
Jonathan stripped back and reapplied more firmly the sellotape on his glasses. “Which one is she? Your one?”
“I guess,” shrugged Samuel. “I mean, I am single,” he said, trying to chuckle.
“Samuel,” Chloe groaned, “do you want to stay celibate for the rest of your life?”
Malcolm chuckled and pointed at an adjacent table. It was the holidaymakers from earlier. Mr Whipped Cream stood over the table, still topless, handing out shots.
“How long have they been here?” asked Chloe. “Have they spotted us? Those tattoos are ridiculous!”
“She’s actually got quite a cute smile,” Malcolm said of one of the girls.
They drank more and their gazes set heavily on each other. More drinks came and were finished. Shots arrived courtesy of the next table, the holidaymakers. Malcolm told them he was much obliged, he was just sorry he hadn’t seen them earlier. The rest of them smiled politely. The whipped cream man said not to worry – the interesting parts of the night were still to come. “Lots of fancy totty in this place,” said another one of the holidaymakers to Malcolm. Wearing a baseball cap – ‘Engineering is rarely civil’ – this man was also topless, though without the smudges of whipped cream. Soon enough Malcolm led them both away to find the Romanians; Jonathan disappeared to take another phone call from the federation. Samuel watched Chloe as she observed bodies on the dancefloor. He watched the amused smile that played on her lips.
“You have got no idea. You know nothing about real life.”
Chloe looked at him quizzically, her lips forming half a smile, ready for the punchline. “What are you going on about?” she said, realising it was no joke. “Oh, what, just because I don’t agree with you about Nietzsche?”
Samuel gripped tightly the base of his pint glass; he examined his whitened knuckles. “You think your double maths and Oxbridge application are a mark of *your* cleverness. But you’ve done nothing to deserve them, you’ve just been given them. You just *happened* to have rich parents.”
“Is this because of what I said earlier about that girl in the bikini? Oh come on Samuel, she is rather skanky! All of them are, and those two Malcolm has gone off with. That guy with blond hair and the shirt, he would be quite fit-”
“They’re just ordinary people, on holiday. Not everybody has cello lessons, Chloe.”
She turned her face away and smiled ironically.
“When I go home, Chloe, I return to classes at the local comprehensive,” he continued, leaning his face closer to hers. “The average A-level results are two Cs and a D. Does *anybody* in your whole year get results that low? Our teachers don’t notice if you’re there or if you fail or anything. We’re not nourished by the school, we just pass through it. At my school Bach would be something off a tree. A cello you would hit people with.”
Chloe swept hair away from her face, tucked it behind her ears. “Why are you having a go at my background all of a sudden? Am I supposed to apologise-”
“I sleep in the front room of a two-up-two-down terrace house in a shit-poor part of Kent,” Samuel interrupted. “Outside of these tournaments, this privilege,” he pointed around him, “*that* is my daily existence. I moved into the front room after my brother was busted for dealing drugs from the bedroom we shared.”
Chloe looked at Samuel as if he was experiencing some kind of breakdown. She looked around for Malcolm or Jonathan or someone. Samuel kept his eyes hard on her face.
“Life for you is older boyfriends, making out in the back of cars, private tutors, giving up cello to take up the flute. It wasn’t watching your mother hit your bloodied dad while your sister screamed down the phone to the police.”
Chloe looked down at the table, shoulders sloped forward, her lips parted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know any of this.”
Samuel stared at the bar, weighing something up inside his head. “Two years ago, at the Hastings tournament, over the Millennium,” he said. “You remember that?”
She nodded minimally.
“At Hastings, just after New Year’s, I caught a glimpse of your cleavage during one of the games. You were bending over to get something out of your bag. You know what I did?” he asked.
Her head shook slightly. Samuel swirled the last of his beer around his glass, taking his time. “I stored the image in my head as carefully as I could – I didn’t want to damage it – and then I rushed to a toilet, I locked myself inside a cubicle and I jerked off. And it was the best moment of my whole Christmas holidays,” he said. “Either side of that moment, either side of the tournament, all I had was empty weeks. A moment in a toilet cubicle, alone, wanking – over you! – that was the highlight of my festive period. *That’s* the nature of my life.”
Around them people moved as if in a parallel world that had merely fallen into their field of vision. Smiling faces knocked against tables and chairs, spilling drinks.
Chloe placed a hand on his arm. “I really didn’t know any of this.”
He almost smiled. “There’s no reason why you would.”
She leaned closer. “Samuel, aren’t there any enrichment courses you can go on?”
There was a man standing at their table; one of the holidaymakers, the whipped cream. “Hey, you’re playing in that chess tournament,” the man smiled. “I’ve seen you in that big room with all the chessboards!”
They both tried to smile.
“You’re friends with Andy!” said the man.
“Andy?” said Samuel.
The man pointed towards a huddle of girls in which Malcolm was busy.
“Ah, Andy,” said Samuel. “Of course. We love Andy.”
“He said you two are the intellectuals,” the man said, settling himself down next to Chloe. Up close, his tattoos were even more incredible. The man held out his hand for Samuel to shake and introduced himself as Nietzsche.
“Pleasure to finally meet you,” said Samuel, shaking the man’s hand. “We’ve had many conversations – inside my head.”
The man’s friend also joined them at the table. The baseball cap. Offering his hand to Samuel, he introduced himself as Freud. “It’s nice to see the two of you together,” laughed Samuel.
Jonathan returned to the table, sitting down in between Nietzsche and Freud. “So that’s me done,” he said. “Finished. I’m officially banned from coaching at any more junior tournaments.”
“That’s bang out of order,” said Nietzsche, offering his hand for Jonathan to shake.
“You could probably sue,” said Freud, also offering his hand to Jonathan.
“Improper fucking conduct,” said Jonathan. ”What does that even mean?”
“Exactly,” nodded Freud. “It’s a nonsense.”
They drank more and watched people changing upon the dance floor, taking many steps into things unknown. Samuel wondered if Freud was an actual engineer.
“So, chess, does it make you happy?” asked Nietzsche.
“Would we be here, really, if it did?” said Jonathan, cradling his pint glass against his chest. “On our fiftieth drink?”
Jonathan wiped a wet hand through his beard. “You think I can make enough just from playing? Think I want to really be here? No offence,” he looked at Samuel. Samuel waived it away.
Jonathan nodded his head erratically to the music, spilling his drink. Samuel tried to mop up with a beer mat and he spread the wetness around the table.
“You his missus?” Nietzsche asked Chloe, indicating Samuel.
Chloe shook her head. “My boyfriend is back in England. At Oxford.”
Freud said he had been to Oxford. Chloe said new builds had really fucked up the outskirts.
“Lots can happen when people are away from home. Not in Oxford now,” Nietzsche chuckled, patting the small of Chloe’s back.
Chloe sat upright, her back arching like a harp. “We were thinking of going to our rooms quite soon,” she said.
Heavy nods from Nietzsche and Freud. Chloe tried to take a cigarette from the packet but her hands couldn’t work the flap. Disco lights hit Nietzsche’s face, bringing out the stubble like needle heads. He leaned closer to Chloe.
A tray of shots arrived at the table, quivering in the lights. Nietzsche’s eyes crawled over Chloe’s face as he placed a shot glass in her hand. He worked in business, he said, stocks and shares – mainly from Asia and the Middle East. Freud said he worked in extreme sports, had spent the last month in Kilimanjaro. “We’ve got some pictures in our room, if you -” said Nietzsche, whispering in Chloe’s ear.
Samuel grabbed her hand and pulled her from her seat. Her body moved with doll-like obedience. “Just going for a dance,” Samuel told the men. “But I’ll be back for more of those shots!” he pointed.
“Come on – they’ll leave you alone once they’ve seen you dance,” he told Chloe. He led her by the hand through the people and onto the dance floor and he buried them both deep inside the forest of bodies.
They danced clumsily, watching too much what each other did, overthinking everything. They tried to dance with irony, exaggerating everything, but soon that grew old. Gradually as the songs changed they found a rhythm. Bright lights took the colour from Chloe’s face; her blue eyes seemed grey; Samuel noticed tiny pores and hairs on her skin. They came close, they moved slow.
“Would you like another drink?” Samuel said finally.
“Maybe just water?”
He strode past all the bodies and around the tables and chairs. Resting his arms on the bar, he called to the bar staff. At the far end of the bar he saw a now-topless Malcolm burying his face in somebody’s neck, his arms tight around her waist. Her hair like something from a movie.
Also at the bar was one of the men from earlier. Nietzsche. “I’m back for my shot,” Samuel said, giving the man’s arm a squeeze.
The man smiled.
“I want to say sorry about before,” Samuel said. “No disrespect!”
The man nodded and looked about, as if checking something.
“It’s just cos her boyfriend isn’t here,” Samuel said, spreading his hands, trying to explain. “I feel a bit protective over her.” He steadied himself against the bar and blinking tried to settle his vision. “I’d like to buy you all drinks. She’s not what she seems.”
“I think you feel more than just a bit protective,” the man said, winking.
Samuel steadied himself again against the bar.
“You played the valiant card very well,” the man said. “What’s my commission?”
Samuel laughed heartily. On the dancefloor he couldn’t see Chloe. Once he had the waters he’d suggest they call it a night. Malcolm they’d see tomorrow. Or next Millennium.
“Shake my hand fella,” the man said.
Their hands met and the man dropped off his stool and wrapped his arms around Samuel’s waist and tried to hoist him off the ground. “I’ve got him, I’ve got the chess master,” he cried giddily.
Samuel tried to free himself but his arms were pulled back behind him. He tried to kick out as he was lifted up under his knees and carried thrashing through the crowds.
“Just gonna cool you down a little bit,” laughed the voice of Freud.
The water swallowed Samuel whole, roaring in his ears, sweeping up his clothes. He thrashed about slow beneath the surface. It felt a long time before he got out. He moved his way through the crowd that stood laughing by the pool, water rushing from the clothes that clung to him. Chanting rose up around him, louder and louder. ”Nietzsche! Nietzsche! Nietzsche!”
By the nightclub’s exit he tried wiping his glasses. He tried unblocking his nose and ears. He didn’t bother to check his wallet. He felt a hand on his neck.
“I can’t believe they did that to you,” said Chloe. Their faces were too close for them to see each other properly; instead she looked down at the pool of water spreading around his feet.
Samuel laughed, wringing out his jumper.
“I still can’t *believe* they did that. I’m surprised you’re not more annoyed. You should tell Jonathan. I definitely will.”
Samuel blinked repeatedly, trying to clear the sting from his eyes. Chloe put her arms around his neck and pressed herself against him. He placed his chin where her neck and shoulder met and it felt like they stayed that way a long time.
They were interrupted by a voice, asking if they were okay.
It was another one of the holidaymakers. Shirt buttoned all the way up. In his hands were the glasses of water Samuel had ordered. “I’m sorry about the conduct of some people in my group,” he said. “It was deplorable.”
“You guys are such losers,” Chloe said.
“My friends didn’t mean anything by it, I promise. They just went too far,” he said, coming slowly forward and handing them the waters. The softer lighting by the exit bathed his blond hair and drew out his cheekbones. He was the one with the cards earlier.
“Oh, and you think that somehow ameliorates things,” replied Chloe, holding the glass loosely, as if about to let go.
“I don’t think it ameliorates,” said the guy. “Nobody should have to put up with that sort of behaviour,” he said to Chloe, touching her arm. “Can I buy you a drink to say sorry? To show we’re not all arseholes.”
“We’re actually going to bed now,” Chloe said.
Samuel looked down at his glass of water; he laughed. They looked at him. He sipped the water and considered its taste. “I’m going to my room, but this lady here will have a drink. Because you seem like a good guy.”
Chloe shook her head. Samuel nodded and nudged her. Chloe shook her head. “No.”
“I’ll leave you guys to decide among yourselves,” the guy said. “I’ll be just by the bar, if you are kind enough to let me apologise in full,” he said, saying goodbye to Samuel and to Chloe.
After watching him go, Chloe turned back round to Samuel. “We should get the lift up, so that you don’t slip on the stairs.”
“Go over to the bar. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Let that nice guy apologise.”
“You go and enjoy yourself. You’re away from home.”
She stared at Samuel, her eyes large and questioning. She opened her mouth but she didn’t speak. Her face relaxed into something far away. She went to hug Samuel but he stopped her. “Don’t get yourself wet.”
He tidied a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. He flicked water from his fingers onto her cheek; as he did so, she closed her eyes.