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Joseph Hunter


The Birds that are Caught

After the opera Matthew knew he had to find a way of seeing

Valentina again.

Tom gave him the opportunity. A few days after their piss

up in the Finchley pub he asked if Matthew and Emily

wanted to check out the Tate Modern late opening night with

him and Valentina. Yes, said Matthew, they did. But Emily

was busy that night. Matthew went anyway.

The long concrete ramp in Turbine Hall was dotted with

groups of twenty-somethings. They sat together in cliques,

swollen parodies of the school children that populated the

Tate during daytime.

More young people crowded around a temporary bar.

Matthew assumed that would be where he’d find Tom. Sure

enough, there was his friend’s broad-shouldered silhouette,

a little apart from the crowd, gazing up at a glittering

sculptural installation.

Matthew clapped a hand onto Tom’s shoulder. Tom

looked around as if he were waking up from sleep.

‘Yes mate,’ he mumbled.

‘No Valentina?’ said Matthew, trying to sound casual.

‘Be here in five,’ said Tom. He pointed at the glass

structure. ‘Wanna go in there?’

They joined the queue, which was moving quickly. Those

who went inside the structure didn’t stay very long,

emerging with the half-bemused, half-cheated look of those

who have been failed by art, or feel that they have somehow

failed it.

The interior was a labyrinth of short, narrow passageways

made from mirrored glass. They wandered amongst a

constellation of reflections – dozens, hundreds, thousands of

Matthews and Toms. The structure was pristine, every glass

surface spotless. The mirrors were distorted, some so subtle

they had to examine each reflection carefully in order to

identify what the fault was. The men looked at each other’s

reflections. One mirror showed Matthew with a slight fisheye

effect so that as he leaned in his head ballooned to twice its

normal size. Another was angled back so that as Tom walked

closer he seemed to be ascending a slope. Another showed a

true reflection of them both, but the glass had been treated

with a gauzy substance so that their reflections looked back

dimmed and vague, as if their eyes were failing while they

looked at it. The distortions met with those of other mirrors

so that the strangenesses merged and multiplied.

They stood outside the Switch House bar and watched

Valentina approach, a shadow moving through pools of light.

She was wearing a black leather jacket, black leggings, black

boots. Only her face showed pale, framed by hair that hung

loose around her shoulders. When she got near she ran at

Tom, jumped into his arms and clung there before dropping

to the ground and punching him in the chest.

‘You don’t get me a drink?’ she said.

‘Get it y’self,’ said Tom. ‘Been waiting ages for you.’

‘Fine.’

Valentina flounced inside the bar. As she passed Matthew

her eyes met his for a long, long moment.

She returned carrying a bottle of prosecco. Drank directly

from the bottle, then passed it to Matthew. The sour fizz stung

his nose and the back of his throat on its way down.

Valentina began firing questions at the two men about

what they’d seen.

‘There was some hall of mirrors thing,’ said Tom.

‘A what?’

Tom started trying to explain. Valentina cut him off with

a wave.

‘Was it good?’ she said, turning to Matthew.

‘Erm, yeah,’ said Matthew. He had no idea what he was

going to say next, but felt compelled to continue speaking. ‘I

mean, being in a gallery is like being a kid, isn’t it? You’re

surrounded by all these things you don’t understand. You’re

sort of aware you have to behave a certain way, but part of

you doesn’t want to. You’re bored half the time. This hall of

mirrors was like a playground. For adults who feel like kids.’

Tom gave a derisive snort. Valentina was still staring at

Matthew.

‘You’re so good at bullshitting, mate,’ said Tom.

Valentina thrust the bottle at him.

‘Shut up and drink this,’ she said. She stepped back a little,

appraising them. ‘You two are so funny. You are like little

boys together.’

Tom wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

‘That’s ‘cos we were little boys together,’ he said.

Valentina cackled. This time it was Matthew she punched

in the chest, just as he was taking a swig of wine, causing him

to spill it onto his jeans.

‘And now you are big little boys,’ she said.

Valentina was impatient to leave, distracted, not interested in

the galleries. As at the opera, it seemed to Matthew as if she

were less a person than a patchwork of romantic ideas. In all

her fidgeting talk and sudden laughter he imagined he saw a

quiet uncertainty behind her bravado. Then the next

moment’s unpredictability would drive such thoughts from

his mind. The Tate, in any case, seemed to hold little appeal

for Valentina in spite of her oft-declared artistic inclinations.

Matthew’s summary of what he and Tom had seen was

enough for her.

They left the Tate, wandered along Southbank until

Valentina pulled them through the doors of a pub by the

Globe Theatre. Inside, well-dressed groups of people sat at

tables eating steaks by candlelight. Matthew, Tom and

Valentina sat in a corner of the bar. Through the black grid of

the latticed window across the bar Matthew could see the

white-lit dome of St Paul’s in the distance, towering over the

glassy central London skyline against a dark purple sky.

Valentina’s conversation was wild and ranging – sometimes

accusatory, sometimes vague, sometimes exultant. Most of all

it was unrelenting. Matthew tried to match Valentina’s energy.

At first, Tom did not. But after Valentina’s second brief

bathroom trip in the space of twenty minutes, he took

something from her and made his own bathroom visit.

Valentina leaned in close towards Matthew.

‘Do you do coke?’ she whispered.

Do I, wondered Matthew. He’d done it once with Tom

many years ago. A night of strange bravery, running up fire

escapes, shouting in the street. Hours of frenzied conversation

with strangers they’d met.

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘of course.’

Valentina sat back, crossed one leg over the other.

‘You like art,’ she said. It wasn’t a question. ‘He does not,’

she added, nodding in the general direction of where Tom

had gone.

Matthew began to protest. Valentina interrupted him.

‘No, no, he does not. But you do. You are like me.’

Unsure of what to say, unwilling to question her, Matthew

held her gaze for what felt like minutes on end. The darkness

of her eyes seemed to draw him in. Then Valentina smiled. A

warm, slow smile, without her usual knowing aura. She

looked almost childlike.

Tom sat back down beside them. Reached out his hand

low under the table, towards Matthew. They touched palms,

and a paper wad passed into Matthew’s hand.

They walked along Southbank. Lights streamed across

Southwark Bridge above them. They passed underneath it

and walked through the streets around Borough Market,

skirting piles of swollen bin bags. Valentina was preoccupied

with her phone, receiving minute by minute updates about

the delivery of more coke. Tom and Matthew breathed deep

together, talked about shared history. At the back of

Matthew’s mind was the idea that they were surrounded by

dozens of other people who were just out of sight, and a

chorus of supporting voices.

In the taxi travelling west to Valentina’s flat, Matthew

watched the streets, houses, and parks passing by, floating

past and then vanishing again like the ghostly procession of

half-formed ideas in his mind.

Valentina’s flat was as Tom had described, large and

expensively furnished with designer chairs and marble

worktops. It was sparse, too, with empty bookshelves and a

couple of generic pictures on the wall hung by the landlord

or letting agent. Matthew had expected… a statement,

perhaps. A personal touch. Something other than the

temporary accommodation of a rich girl on her way to

grander things.

Valentina dropped her bag, opened the fridge and took

out a bottle of prosecco.

‘Music,’ she said, over her shoulder.

Tom picked up an iPad from the coffee table.

‘Turn that on for me man,’ he said to Matthew.

Matthew switched on the wireless speaker, then sat in an

armchair made from chrome tubing and brown leather.

Valentina breezed over to them, bottle in one hand and

three glasses in the other. She’d gathered her hair up into a

loose bun on top of her head, a strand or two escaping, falling

across her face. These she flicked aside impatiently as she

poured the wine.

‘What d’you want?’ said Tom, flicking at the tablet screen.

‘Beautiful music,’ said Valentina, handing Matthew a glass.

Music from Matthew’s teenage years rippled from the

speaker behind his head. He looked at Tom to find his friend

grinning at him.

‘They’re playing Field Day this year,’ said Tom.

Matthew sat up.

‘No way. We should go,’ he said.

‘Let’s do it man,’ said Tom, nodding.

Valentina took two coke wraps from her pocket and

dropped them onto the table, then stood up as if sitting was

unpleasant to her. She stomped into the hallway and

disappeared into her bedroom. Her voice came echoing

through the apartment.

‘Something classic, not this.’

Tom shook his head, but changed the music.

Valentina re-emerged carrying a large wall mirror. She laid

it onto the coffee table, face up, then perched on the arm of

the sofa and racked three lines of coke onto the surface of the

glass. The new coke was rocky. As she crushed it with a credit

card, she gave Tom the name of an Italian musician.

‘Do you have a note?’ she asked as she tidied up the lines.

The way she said it was quiet, gentle – somehow intimate, the

way another couple might have talked about picking up milk

or remembering to feed the cat.

As Tom checked his pockets, Matthew held out his tubed

note between thumb and forefinger. Valentina took it from

him and in a single movement lowered her head and snorted

one of the lines.

Matthew knelt by the mirror. As he looked down, he saw

his pale reflection looming up from below. This time the coke

stung his nose. He imagined he could feel some of the larger

grains scraping the soft tissue as they went in.

The bigger line hit fast. Matthew was soon filled with a

trembling joy he had no use for. The Italian pop music

stopped sounding trite and became true, each of the separate

layers crystallising as he listened.

They smoked cigarettes, and smoking felt like breathing a

richer air. Time seemed to move more slowly, even pause, and

Matthew had the sense that the three of them were floating

together in an indeterminate space.

They said things to one another, talked over each other,

too. All three of them were full of grand statements, full of

praise even if they could only put it in the vaguest terms.

They had great faith in each other, in the promise each of them

showed in every word and action, and they congratulated

each other for being as they were and promised they would

be always.

But underneath the exultation, the waves of joy that rose

and fell with each new line, part of Matthew remained

detached, calculating. A kind of lizard brain.

He saw that they were strange together, Tom and

Valentina. Quite different, perhaps even opposites. The

physical intimacy between them that Matthew had sometimes

been troubled by was now absent. They sat apart, and

although Valentina was full of great words of praise for Tom

she would often turn away from him as she spoke, looking

towards Matthew.

Matthew watched Valentina, nurtured the desire he felt

for her. He examined every part of her body that he could see,

felt a cold joy when she seemed to see him do it and open out

under his gaze, preening. Tom seemed not to notice anything.

Where had this change between Tom and Valentina come

from, Matthew wondered. From Tom? From Valentina? In

truth he didn’t care. Emily was nothing more than a vague,

insubstantial idea he pushed to the back of his mind. All he

knew or felt he knew was that there was a great inheritance

that was due to him.

So closely did he watch Valentina, in fact, that it was some

time before he realised that Tom was withdrawing from them,

lying back on the sofa, now and then jabbing a finger at the

tablet in response to some request from Valentina.

Noticing this, Matthew tried to bring Tom back to them

again, reminiscing with him about school days and music.

Valentina, excluded from the conversation for five minutes or

so, racked up three more lines and then, after snorting hers,

got up from the sofa and walked over to the sliding doors that

lead onto the balcony. She opened the doors and stepped

outside, her boots clacking on the steel balcony floor. She halfclosed the sliding doors and leaned over the balcony railing,

looking down into the courtyard below.

Matthew ran out of what he was saying. He and Tom both

snorted a line from the mirror. As he felt the now-familiar

warm surge, Matthew contemplated his friend. Tom was

twitchy, wide-eyed. Matthew realised he must look the same.

‘So,’ said Matthew, lowering his voice ‘how’s it going

with…?’

Tom scratched the back of his head.

‘She’s too much, man,’ he said.

‘You mean the coke?’ said Matthew.

‘Sort of. Not really. She’s just…’

Out on the balcony Valentina was a dark shape against the

darker night. She was dancing, her back to Matthew and Tom,

arms stretched above her head, moving her hips from side to

side, twisting her hands at the wrists as if she were trying to

unscrew the sky.

Matthew was sitting on the toilet, staring at his phone. How

long have I been transfixed, he wondered. He’d come into the

bathroom some time ago, started looking at his phone, and

then…

His heart was pounding. He was extremely high, but it

was as if he’d broken through to something different. Why

hadn’t they come to check on him? Matthew flushed the

toilet, washed his hands, checked his face in the mirror, and

left the bathroom.

In the middle of the hallway was a discarded boot.

Through the doorway, Matthew saw a second boot in the

middle of the living room floor. The music was still playing,

but the room was empty.

The bedroom door was closed. As Matthew walked closer,

he heard muffled female laughter and a deep male answering

voice. He walked quickly past the door and into the living

room.

He stood for a moment looking at the empty wine glasses,

the empty bottles, the full ashtray, the upturned mirror on the

table.

The open wrap of cocaine.

As he knelt in front of the table, he heard more sounds

from the bedroom.

Matthew let himself into his flat, taking care to make as little

noise as possible. He undressed, slipped into the bed beside

Emily, who was asleep. Facing away from him, as always. She

didn’t stir, even when he tugged some of the duvet off her to

cover himself.

He lay on his back, stared at the ceiling. His heart was still

pounding but had lost the feeling of certainty he’d had earlier.

Fear was starting to claw at the edges of the room. When he

closed his eyes, sexual fantasies filled his mind, following

their own logic, resolving into visions of strange faces that

loomed out of grey space.

Matthew picked up his phone and scrolled through

Instagram. Skimmed past something, retraced, found it again.

A blurry, black-and-white photo of a long shadow across a

pavement. The caption was a quote in Italian.

La bellezza si risveglia l’anima di agire

He opened Valentina’s photo feed. Most of the photos she

posted did not contain her, or if they did, only in partial

glimpses. A strand of black hair, half a smile. A pale face

reflected in a window.

Matthew closed Instagram, opened his app store, typed

something into the search bar. Once the download had

finished he opened the dating app. There was a search option.

His thumb hovered over the screen. He typed in

‘valentina’, pressed search again. A handful of results, none of

them her. But she wouldn’t use her real name. It would be…

Matthew reopened Valentina’s most recent Instagram

post. He copied the caption, then pasted it into a blank

browser.

Dante. Of course. He reopened the dating app and wrote

‘dante’ in the keywords box.

Fewer results this time. Matthew scrolled, feeling

whatever urgency remained ebbing away. Maybe he should

try to sleep, or…

There.

He held the phone close. Profile name: figliadidante. Age:

23. Location: West London. The preview image was small, but

there was no mistaking those eyes.

Matthew opened Valentina’s profile. There were three

photos. A close-up of her face, half-hidden by strands of hair.

A three-quarter shot of her upper body as she stood behind a

bar, probably back in Rome, pouring herself a drink, wearing

a white minidress with gossamer thin straps, hair gathered in

a loose high bun. A full-length rear shot, the sea and sky

beyond, black bikini bottoms, a light dusting of sand across

her buttocks, a loose mass of hair tumbling down her tanned

back.

Under her profile photo was a small pink button with an

envelope icon on it.

A beautiful and strange vision of Valentina formed in

Matthew’s mind and he wrote it down. When he finished

writing he paused for a moment. He did not reread what he’d

written. He could still see the vision clearly and knew he had

described it as it was. Instead he just waited, to see if

something would change.

Nothing changed. He pressed send.

So that’s how easy it is to do something irreversible, he

thought.


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