The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man. Knowing this felt like a summer holiday. It made me relax – and I am quite a tense person. There is something you should know about me. I have a little hump on my back, a mound between my shoulder blades. You will notice when I wear a shirt without a jacket that there is more to me than first meets the eye. It’s strange how fascinating human beings find both celebrity and deformity in their own species. People sink their eyes into my hump for six seconds longer than protocol should allow, and try to work out the difference between themselves and me. The boys called me ‘Ali’ at school because that’s what they thought camels were called. Ali Ali Ali. Ali’s got the hump. The word ‘playground’ does not really provide an accurate sense of the sort of ethnic cleansing that went on behind the gates that were supposed to keep us safe. I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age. Deformed. Different. Strange. Go Ho-me Ali, Go Ho-me. In fact I was born in Southend-on-Sea, and so were those boys, but I was exiled to the Arabian Desert and not allowed to smoke with them behind the cockle sheds.
There is something else you ought to know about me. I write copy for a leading advertising agency. I earn a lot of money and my colleagues reluctantly respect me because they suspect I’m less content than they are. I have made it my professional business to understand that no one respects ruddy-faced happiness.
I first glimpsed Lisa at the presentation launch for the naming and branding of a new vodka. My agency had won the account for the advertising campaign and I was
standing on a small raised stage pointing to a slide of a starry night sky. I adjusted my mic clip and began.
‘Black Vodka . . . ’ I said, slightly sinisterly, ‘Vodka Noir, will appeal to those in need of stylish angst. As Victor Hugo might have put it, we are alone, bereft, and the night falls upon us; to drink Black Vodka is to be in mourning for our lives.’
I explained that vodka was mostly associated with the communist countries of the former Eastern bloc, where it was well known that the exploration of abstract, subjective and conceptual ideas in these regimes was the ultimate defiance of the individual against the state. Black Vodka would hitch a nostalgic ride on all of this and be sold as the edgy choice for the cultured and discerning.
From ‘Black Vodka’
A short story by Deborah Levy
Reproduced by kind permission of And Other Stories