When I return to our table the game has already started. It involves Mr. Greenwood (note to myself, ask Alexander about the title-thing) reading questions out loud and people scribbling their answers on a piece of provided paper. Apparently we have to work in groups of two because people are whispering into each other’s ears.
“We’re one group,” Alexander confirms my thoughts as I sit down to his right. “I’ve taken the liberty and written down the answers to the first questions. Now…” He leans closer to me, his eau-de-cologne wafting over to me. It’s surprisingly good. “Do you perchance know the location of the Olympic Games during the last five cycles? I have Rio de Janeiro, London, Beijing, Athens…” He has lowered his voice to barely audible, and his breath tickles the side of my neck, his lips almost touching my ear. I try to ignore the goosebumps rising up all over my arm and shoulder.
“Sydney,” I murmur.
“Ah…” he says and goes to write it down on our piece of paper.
I snatch the paper from him. “What’s that?”
“That? The third man on the moon, of course,” he says. “I already answered that, obviously.”
I put the piece of paper closer to my face. “Looks like chicken scratch!” I exclaim.
Catherine peeks over to us.
Alexander flaps his good hand at Catherine. “No cheating, sister. Use your brains for a change.”
“I wasn’t trying to cheat,” Catherine cries defensively, her cheeks coloring pink. “We have all questions answered already. Besides… no one can read your shit handwriting, brother, not even I can.”
“See, it’s good for something,” Alexander turns to me, triumphantly.
I snort and wrestle the pen from Alexander’s grip. “Let me write. We won’t win if no one can read it.”
Alexander huffs quietly but he relents.
For a while we debate about the answer to the next question: number of steps to the Eiffel tower.
“Phew…” I say eventually, never having been to Paris, and gesture to a waiter to refill our glasses. Sitting next to Alexander, his powers seem to have transferred to me as well and our glasses soon sparkle with deeply red liquid that smells fantastically.
Alexander shrugs one shoulder. “We simply need to estimate the height of that platform and then the height of each step and…”
While he calculates some numbers in his head I devote my time to the wine. It’s exactly as I like it, heavy and rich. “Honestly, your writing is abysmal, did you sleep when they taught you in school?”
“Hmmm? Please write 700. I’m afraid I can’t pin it down any better.”
I do as he says, and write the answers to the other questions in my own perfectly readable handwriting next to his shitty one. “So?” I can’t let it go although I think I probably should. It most certainly has something to do with his condition, although otherwise his right hand really seems relatively okay.
“What can I do?” Alexander mumbles defensively. “I was born left-handed.”
I spit wine across the table. Catherine shrieks and pulls her sprinkled paper away, shooting daggers at me. I fish for a tissue and wipe wine from my chin. “What?!”
Alexander looks at me with his jaw set. “You don’t believe me.”
I giggle into the tissue, trying to muffle the sound. “No, I’m sorry, Alexander, I’m sorry. I believe you.” I really wish I could just stop laughing. “I do. It’s just… so unfortunate! What are the odds?!”
“0.023 percent,” Alexander deadpans with a straight face.
I blink at him, surprised. “Seriously?”
“Ah, so you can’t pin that down any better, huh?” I jab, and hope he will forgive me for laughing at something that probably isn’t funny to him at all.
To my immense luck Alexander stares at me for a few seconds and then starts grinning. “Yes…” he says, scratching his chin. “I’m so fucking special.”
And there’s that.
The game is over quickly and the musicians enter the stage again, accompanied by a few more strings and a harp.
“It’s dancing time, everyone!” Alexander’s father announces over the speakers, even more red-faced now than before, and pulls a young woman from the nearest table over to the side where a large dance floor has been opened up.
The music starts, people clap and jeer and soon everyone is either still nodding along or already mingling among the other dancers. Alexander’s father is in the very middle, switching dance partners more frequently than I take a sip of my wine.
Alexander and his sister are the only people left at our table, except for me.
“Is that your mother?” I ask when Alexander’s father pulls a woman to his chest that could be the first he’s dancing with who is a tiny bit older than half his age.
“Our mother is dead,” Catherine remarks icily.
“Oh… sorry,” I mumble.
“Yes, but if she were here, she would be the one everyone would look at. And not because she was beautiful, which she was, but because she could dance…” Alexander muses, his eyes distant. “She was a professional dancer, won the championship twice. She could get every man she wanted with just a slight shift of her hips.”
“Yeah…” Catherine mumbles, twirling her empty wine glass between her fingers and talking more to herself. “And she chose Dad.”
“Well… he must have something…” Alexander hints, grinning.
Catherine glares at him. “Idiot. He’s your father.”
“Did I say anything?” Alexander smirks.
At this moment someone hugs me from behind. “Emmaaa!”
I groan. Charlie. “Leave me the shit alone!”
“Dance with me!!” Charlie cries and tries to pull me from my chair, with no success. It would take two of his size to make me move an inch, I guess. Minimum.
“Charlie, seriously, stop it! I don’t dance!”
“Awww,” Charlie whines, sways a little and eyes Alexander next to me. “Maybe your cute company-“
“No!” I thunder and grab Charlie’s hands that have moved over to Alexander who looks at us a bit startled. “Go dance with someone else. Dance with uh… Catherine! Catherine likes to dance.”
“Wha- no!” But Catherine has no chance against Charlie. He sweeps her off her chair, twirls her around and catches her in a perfect dance position.
“Oh yes!” Charlie cheers.
Catherine looks like she wants to kick him in the crotch. Why she doesn’t do it I have absolutely no idea.
We can hear Catherine’s protest all the way to the dance floor but when they have absolved their first round, surprisingly graceful for an odd couple like them, I catch a smile on Catherine’s thin lips. Yep, leave it to Charlie to find a way to crack the hardest shell.
“Do you dance?” I ask Alexander.
“You must be joking,” Alexander retorts drily and frowns.
I grin. “Well... More wine?”
“I'd rather indulge in... Whiskey.” With that he pushes off his chair, straightening slowly with his right hand pressed flat onto the table. “Care to join?”
The bar is to the other side of the dance floor and we have to cross half the room and walk past several deserted tables to get there. Alexander is faster now, albeit limping considerably. If he doesn’t care so much anymore because less people are watching or because he’s already a bit drunk I don’t know. His gait is still mechanical, even more so now, his left arm bent and pressed to his chest and his upper body leans some to the left and a lot to the right with every other step. It’s strangely hypnotic and I force myself not to stare while following him.
“Hi Alex!” We’re greeted by the young guy behind the bar. “How are things?”
“Excellent, RJ, excellent. Like always,” Alexander says.
RJ beams at me, his large ears red at the tips, his hair standing in spikes from his head. “Oh, then that's-”
“Emma,” Alexander says quickly. “Tell us, RJ, what can you recommend to us?”
The guy beams at us, seemingly proud he was asked. “Glenfiddich, 22 years old, if you want to stay with the classics. Or, if you feel adventurous I would recommend our newcomer. It’s a young indie distillery, from the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides...”
“Is this going to be a Scottish tourist commercial?” I whisper into Alexander's ear.
RJ has heard me and stops talking, blinking at me confused.
“Sounds perfect, RJ,” Alexander says, not looking at me but squeezing my left arm slightly. “Not too smokey?”
RJ's smile comes flicking back on again and he weighs his head. “May be a bit too much for your taste. But it comes with a bit of citrus flavor. I like it a lot actually. It's going to be big.”
“Sure. I would actually believe you if you hadn’t said that too often and the distilleries somehow all went bankrupt within years.” Alexander grins.
RJ pouts. “That's not true. The one from two years ago is still operating.”
Alexander chuckles good-naturedly. “Wasn't it bought up by a bigger company?”
RJ looks sheepish. “Uh... yeah.”
Alexander laughs and knocks his right fist on the counter. “Okay then, give us two from your latest discovery.”
We carry the drinks over to a free table and Alexanders places his glass down before tackling the bar stool. With the fingers of his right hand clenched around the table’s edge in front of him, he lifts his right foot up onto the first foot rest and slips his butt over the edge and onto the seat. He looks a bit unsure for a second but when he has scooted backward and lifted his left foot up on the foot rest as well he seems comfortable enough to let go of the table.
We raise our glasses and taste the Scotch. It has indeed a rich smoky flavor but also something that definitely reminds me of lemonade. And something else.
“Salmon?” Alexander suggests.
I knit my brows together and take a second sip. Warmth spreads through my chest and the taste in my mouth seems to want to stay forever. “Huh… somehow? Strange…”
“Maybe it’s the lobster talking to the Scotch?” Alexander muses. “Interesting…”
I watch RJ over at the bar tend to new customers, his smile wide again as he undoubtedly launches into another breathless story about the alcoholic beverages he sells. Alexander follows my gaze and he chuckles.
“RJ… he’s a great guy,” he says. “Priceless.”
“He’s working as a bartender… for your family?”
Alexander shakes his head, watching the golden liquid swap around in his glass. “He's the son of our gardener. Unfortunate developments forced him to throw college and work as a bartender for some time. Now he leads a Whiskey shop and is an expert in trading specialties from all over the world. He only goes back behind the bar for this event.”
“And lucky me. I’m his biggest investor.” Alexander winks at me over the glass. “Better not upset him, you hear me?”
I roll my eyes. “So… you're working in Whiskey trade?”
“No, that’s just RJ’s passion and I’m helping him out. I’m doing this and that.”
Which is not a job description that I am familiar with. “Did you go to university?”
“Bachelor in Economy. It’s what you do in my family when you neither have a particular talent in playing an instrument nor in dancing. Not that I lacked trying, though.”
I chuckle, narrowing my eyes playfully. “Oh, yeah, I can see you in a tutu.” I wave my hand in front of Alexander's face.
Alexander gives me an offended look. “I meant playing an instrument.”
I grin. Of course I guessed that much. “We should do a trio, you, your sister and me.”
Alexander shrugs. “That was quite some time ago, when my father still thought music would magically heal me.”
I laugh. “Spoiler alert, it didn’t?”
Alexander looks at me funnily and shakes his head. “Indeed not. And turns out, it wasn't really my thing either.”
I know which instrument he might have played and don’t need to ask. There’s really only one instrument that can be played with one hand. I look at Alexander, the Scotch and the wine from before making me a bit heady, and try not to let my eyes slip down to Alexander’s left arm which he holds close to his side, fingers twitching a little.
“You can ask, you know,” Alexander says, staring right back at me. “I don’t mind.”
I swallow and feel the unfamiliar heat of a blush on my cheeks. “No, no… it’s… I…” I sigh. Oh damn it. “Spill.”
Alexander smirks and downs a big portion of his drink before placing it down again. “Well...” He shoves his glasses up his nose with one finger. “I have a condition called cerebral palsy, which is an umbrella term used for a group of non-progressive disorders of movement and posture caused by abnormal development of or damage to the motor control centers of the brain.”
“Ah… Huh…” I roll my eyes in an attempt to not let on how weirdly interesting I find that, even if I understood only fragments. “And now in like… words for normal people?”
Alexander grins, obviously rather delighted. “Hmm… Okay, let me put it simpler…” He looks at me, relaxing some more. “Imagine something was wrapped tightly around your limbs and squeezed together, so it would be rather difficult to move at all, right? And as you‘re working with all your strength against the constraints they would suddenly snap and give way, but just a little. That’s how it feels for me. The muscles in my legs and back are constantly tight which makes it hard to move fluidly or coordinated. Plus my balance isn’t the best.”
I nod. “Um… that sounds… weird.” I decide not to ask about his left arm although I noticed that he left it out of the explanation. I might be a bit of a social disaster but I’m not that much of a brute.
Alexander, for all it’s worth, laughs.
We sit and drink our Scotch and then another Whiskey. RJ joins us in the minutes that he has no customer at the bar and entertains us with more stories about distillation, crops, types of earth and wood. I listen with only half an ear but to Alexander it seems to be a favorite topic and the two launch in engaged discussions about flavors and aging of Whiskey.
We watch people dancing and drink a third glass of RJ’s recommendations. I learn that Alexander has a minor in music, that ‘this and that’ mostly means that he manages the family assets, most of which are in trusts, charities and real estate, and that he loves the opera.
“Oh…” I blurt out. “My father plays first cello in the opera orchestra.”
“That’s amazing,” Alexander exclaims, beaming. “Do you often go and listen when he plays?”
I chuckle. “No, ‘course not. I meant the opera orchestra in Budapest.” Seeing Alexander’s confused expression I add: “That’s where I grew up.”
“You’re from Hungary?” Alexander asks, disbelieving.
“My father is. My family moved when I was three but my father never found a good job here. They moved back when I got into college and he took up his old position again.”
“Impressive. I always wanted to visit Budapest. Did you know that-” Alexander freezes suddenly and stares at a point over my shoulder, his eyes going wide. “Shit…”
I want to turn around and look behind myself but Alexander grabs my wrist with a warning sound in his throat. “Care for a dance?”
“Come on, Emma!” He slides off the bar stool, his hand like a vice around my arm. “Just one song!”
I want to protest some more and it would have been easy to put my weight against his unsure gait but I let myself be dragged to the edge of the nearby dance floor. Alexander turns around to me and takes my left hand. Even I know that it is supposed to be the other way around but I play along and place my right hand on his left shoulder. His left fist leans against my side.
“I really have no idea how to dance, Alexander,” I hiss. “I hate dancing, for fucks sake!”
Alexander forces a grin. “Between you and me, I don't think you have anything to worry about,” he mumbles grimly.
I feel a bit guilty then.
In fact, we don’t really dance, not like the other couples do at least. It’s more a swaying motion while we’re shifting weight from one side to the other. Alexander is turning his head around, watching out for something or someone, while we slowly traverse the room among the much faster dancers.
Strange enough, I find myself enjoying having him this close, feeling his body move in its particular way. His high cheekbones are even more pronounced in the bright light from above, and his dark brown eyes are lively behind his glasses. Once in a while the fingers of his left hand twitch, trailing over the fabric of my dress, and every time this happens an electric surge runs through me. His right hand is soft and sure around mine and although he moves less than gracefully it’s with a certain determination that impresses me. Somehow we manage not to bump into anyone, Alexander always pulls us out of harm’s way with a quick step to the side, avoiding collision in the last second, and clings to me to regain his balance afterward, his body warm against mine.
“Now!” he hisses, as if he has counted down in his head the entire time, and we push through a gap of dancers and leave the dance floor opposite of the side from where we entered it, maneuver haphazardly around a deserted table and more or less fall through a small, well concealed door in the nearby wall.
Alexander lets go of my hand and leans against the back of the closed door, breathing heavily. “That was close.”
I squint in the half-dark, only a weak light bulb illuminating the naked walls and a spiral staircase leading upstairs. “What’s the matter? What was that, Alexander?”
Alexander starts giggling, sliding a bit sideways and catches himself on the door handle. “That was amazing, I’d say.” He pushes off the wall and brushes some dust off his sleeve. “Fun, almost. Come, I’ll show you the other rooms of the castle.”
But Alexander doesn’t acknowledge me, leading the way up the stairs, his right hand braced against the wall since there’s no handrail, feet unsure on the polished stone steps. It’s slow progress.
“I’m not coming as long as you don’t tell me what just happened!” I growl after him.
Alexander stops and chuckles but doesn’t turn to look back down at me.
“I mean it, Alexander. I’ll simply go back inside and ask RJ for more Scotch,” I say, folding my arms. I should really do just that, it occurs to me. That guy really did know his business.
Alexander sighs, carefully turning a bit around to me with his hand flat on the wall, swaying on the step. “My aunt. That’s what happened.” He huffs, rolling his eyes. He gestures with his right arm but it throws him off balance and he manages to catch himself in the last second. “She’s been pestering me for months. Unbelievably impertinent person.”
“What does she want from you?”
Alexander hesitates. “She seems to thinks that she has to substitute as my mother.”
“Ah…” I still don’t understand but I find myself slowly climbing up the stairs. “What does she think she’s supposed to do, as your mother?”
“Find me a wife, of course,” Alexander says, gravely.
I scoff. “Really?”
Alexander snorts. “Yes. Is that all you want to know now?”
I shrug but have almost caught up to him, grinning.
We continue up the stairs and when Alexander reaches the top of the first flight of stairs, he limps through the door and into a dimly lit corridor.
I walk through after him. The sound of our steps is muffled on the thick, dark green carpet. “Geez, what’s that?”
Alexander turns around to me and indicates with his good hand to the paintings alongside the corridor’s high walls. “May I present to you: the ancestral wall! All my great-great-and-so-on uncles and their like.” He starts marching down the hallway. “Old Jonathan here was big in the coal business, back in the days when everything was substantially less… bureaucratic than today.” He stops and points at the painting of a tall, slender man, with a cream colored coat and hat, and a thick moustache. “And William right next to him had a well-running newspaper service before he sold it and made his money in whores. Which of course isn’t told in the official version of my family’s history.”
I laugh. “Enough, enough I get it. Your family’s a bunch of criminals. I kind of guessed that before, though, but-… holy shit!” I have surpassed Alexander and stopped near the middle of the hallway. He picks up speed to close up with me. “Why is Ignáz Bognár here?! What in all hells is he doing on this wall?” I study the painting of Ignáz Bognár, a pale man with a white wig and white shawl around his neck. It’s surreal to see a face from my study books appearing on this wall.
Alexander stops next to me, swaying slightly, and looks at the painting. He grins. “As far as I’m informed he married someone in the family shortly before he died, my father’s great-great… niece or something. I don’t even know why he’s here. I guess my father’s proud to have a composer in the family, even if it’s a barely known one. That’s my father, by the way.” He points to a younger version of the short, round man, a few more paintings further down the hallway.
When Alexander resumes walking, his left foot catches on the carpet briefly, causing him to stumble and only barely avoid falling.
“Are you alright?”
Dark brown eyes meet mine and Alexander pushes his glasses back on the top of his nose as he tries to straighten himself more. “Splendid. Why do you ask?”
I roll my eyes and change to his right side. “Here. Don’t be a fool.” I lead his reluctant right hand to my left arm.
Alexander grimaces. “I should be able to walk among my ancestors without needing assistance,” he mumbles.
“Then you should have maybe drunk less,” I retort under my breath although I’m not so sure about that. From what I’ve seen of him walking sober already, falling must be one of Alexander’s specialties.
We continue along the hallway until we arrive at a pair of large wooden doors. Alexander tries to pull one open but it’s too heavy for him alone and we end up pulling at the brass handle together.
“Not bad,” I say as I step into the ancient looking tea room, with colorful tapestries, heavy cream-colored curtains guarding the windows from the high ceiling to the floor, pastel red plush sofas and armchairs grouped around a large empty marble fireplace. I pat the head of one of the winged lions flanking it. “Very… modest.”
Alexander opens what looks like a tall window but turns out to be a door to a small balcony. I follow him outside in the crisp winter night. Orange lanterns illuminate the naked trees and bushes in the vast park-like garden below us, and a few lone snowflakes dance in the light.
“And?” I ask, wrapping my arms around my chest because the warmth escaping through the door in our back isn’t entirely enough to ward off the icy air outside. “Was she successful?”
“Who?” Alexander asks, angling himself back to look at me with a hand braced on the low stone balustrade.
“Your aunt,” I clarify.
“Ah…” Alexander shrugs. “Apart from a few disastrous dates, no. We might have a slightly different taste in women, I’m afraid.”
I feel strangely satisfied hearing that.
“Or…” Alexander sighs, turning back from me again. “I might have a talent in driving them away.”
“How so?” I ask, and step up next to him, despite shivering badly now. “I’m sure you can enthrall every lass with a good story about the influence of peat on the distinct flavor of Scotch,” I taunt.
Alexander laughs, but it only lasts shortly. “Yes…” He rubs his left arm with a fist. “In fact, there was one… we met online.” He meets my gaze and sighs. “Yes, I know what you think. It was just that-“
“You don’t have to explain,” I say, shrugging. “There’s nothing wrong with online dating.”
Alexander nods, not convinced though. “Hmm…” I guess his aunt isn’t a fan of online acquaintances. I assume you don’t come across a lot of noble ladies and duchesses and such in the internet.
We’re standing so close to each other now, my right arm is almost touching his slightly twitching left one. Suddenly I don’t feel the cold anymore. “I tried online dating myself not much time ago and…” I sigh a bit. “It didn’t turn out so well, but that doesn’t mean it’s got to be like this all the time.”
Alexander hesitates. “What happened?”
I grind my teeth. “Well… the usual, I guess. He wasn’t what he said he was and when we met… It suffices to say it turns out he was an asshole. I never saw him again.” But if I did, I’d fucking rip his balls off.
Although I don’t say that I’m sure it’s visible on my face.
Alexander nods, his lips set. “Did he hurt you?” he asks quietly.
I scoff. “Not in that way.” As if he could have. I would’ve crushed his tiny, sorry form to dust if he’d tried. However, I couldn’t have known that he would take photos of me, as I changed, in the bathroom, and later, when we… Well.
The thought of eager hands on my ass makes me shudder.
Although I went to the police and measures were taken to remove all photos from the internet I’m pretty sure they’ll be forever traded among his friends, in underground forums and groups of people dedicated to having a “liking for bigger girls” as he put it. Fuck him. His preference didn’t bother me, people can like whatever they want. But I never agreed to be jerk-off material for half the world.
Alexander turns to me and leans his hip against the balustrade. The fingers of his right hand settle carefully on one of my arms that I have wrapped around myself. “You're cold.”
I shrug again and wish his hand would stay longer but Alexander immediately turns to walk back inside. He struggles briefly at the ledge leading to the interior, his movements substantially stiffer now than before. I wonder if he has a problem with the cold.
I close the door behind us and we sit on the sofa on the side of the wall, Alexander groaning under his breath as he stretches his legs out, tugging one-handed at the fabric.
“So, what happened with your internet date?”
Alexander rubs his forehead. “She was great. I mean… she was cultivated, intelligent and she liked my stories.”
I laugh out loud and he punches my side, playfully though. “Yes, she did!”
I nod just to make him go on, still giggling though.
“We talked for months, we even skyped a few times. We really liked each other and eventually decided it was time to meet.”
“And?” I urge him on. They seemed not to have hit it off and I’m strangely curious as to know why.
Alexander throws me a quick glance before watching his knees again. He sighs. “She never came to the meeting point.”
“What?” I sit upright, eyebrows raised. “Why?”
“That’s what I’m asking myself.”
“Did you never ask her?”
Alexander looks at me, his expression sober. “Well, when it was clear she had stood me up I was understandably crushed. However, when I was just about to drown my despair in spirits, I instead met someone else.” He smiles at me sadly for a moment before looking away. “And that person made the evening so much worthwhile that I almost forgot about its beginning.”
--> Chapter 3
--> Chapter 3