by Robert Graham
The first time they meet is in the National Portrait Gallery café, below ground, before Christmas, early in the evening.
‘And that’s for you,’ she says, putting change in the palm of his hand. She speaks with an accent and her eyes are icy blue.
Is she feisty, cheeky, perky? He can’t find the right word. ‘Thank you,’ he says.
‘And it’s not even Christmas.’ A smile flashes across her lovely face.
She waves her forearm like a car wiper. ‘Oh, I’m just thinking loudly.’
He smiles. ‘What’s your accent?’
‘You know, Eastern Europe. You tell me which one.’
She is blonde and fair-skinned. ‘Czech? Polish?’
‘Well Polish, of course.’
He picks up his tray but doesn’t quite move on. ‘I went to Krakow once.’
‘Why not? Is very common.’
Even now he isn’t moving on. ‘When do you finish?’
She pulls a face and shakes her head. ‘Poh. I am finished. Already I am finished.‘ She looks at her watch. ‘I am overtime.’
He takes a sharp breath. ‘Have you got plans?’
She pulls another face. ‘It depends… ‘
Depends on what? he wonders. On what he’s offering? ‘I’m going to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Maybe you’d like to come?’
She nods. ‘If my colleague arrives, I think is okay.’
‘Great. Oh – what’s your name?’
‘Irena. I am Irena.’
‘I’m Joe. Joe Lowe. Friends call me Joe Blow.’
She shakes her head slowly.
‘It’s a joke. Kind of a joke.’ He sees the flashes of ice in her eyes. ‘Great. So I’ll just go and drink this tea, yeah?’
As a consequence of the first couple of cocktails at a table outside the NFT bar, they do not get as far as the concert. As a consequence of the next couple of cocktails, he is telling her about his old girlfriends. She pretends to listen because why would she want to know about his girlfriends? However, she decides that he is only telling her because he is drunk. She thinks she is drunk, too.
She takes out her iPhone and leans in close to him.
‘You listen to me, Joe Blow.’ She taps the flank of the phone. ‘Here is a summer of my whole life.’
‘A summary of your whole life?’
‘Yes. You look here, Joe Blow. My favourite bar in Warsaw.’
He peers from the back of the phone. ‘Sorry. Can’t see. Screen’s facing your way.’
‘Wait. I come across.’ She moves her folding chair next to his. ‘Is better?’
‘Here is my friend Ludmila. Student of demographics.’ Irena sees him looking at her thigh and flicks to the next photograph. ‘And here University of Warsaw.’ She flicks again. ‘Here my lovely parents.’ And again. ‘Is my flat in Warsaw.’
‘No boyfriend?’ he interrupts.
‘No boyfriend I show you, Joe Blow.’ The next photograph is of her parrot. ‘But here is Bogdan, my best boy.’
‘Nice one. Back in Warsaw?’
‘Here in London.’
‘Oh.’ He reaches out for her phone. ‘Let me take your picture.’
‘No! Why I have my picture on my camera? Is for picture of others.’
For a moment he looks at her, then taps the screen. ‘He’s very green.’
And they laugh. It is a good moment, she thinks.
The following week, Irena cooks for Joe and he meets Bogdan.
‘He only speak Polski, my lovely boy.’
And sure enough, the bird squawks something incomprehensible.
‘What did he say?’ Joe asks.
‘He say, I don’t think much of your pickle.’ She laughs. ‘Is crazy guy.’
‘Lech Walesa,’ the parrot says.
Joe says, ‘I understood that.’
Irena kisses the bird. ‘My best boy darlink.’ She grins at Joe. ‘Hold out your arm. You two boys heff to make friends.’
Joe extends his arm and the parrot steps onto it.
‘Yess,’ Irena purrs. ‘Is Joe Blow.’
After a few minutes, Joe asks her to take the parrot off. ‘I think I’m getting cramp.’
She helps the bird back onto the stand. ‘When I get cremp, I always hold my arms up like this.’
‘Does it work?’
‘I don’t know. I never try it before.’
Soon they are staying over at each other’s flats, and Joe is becoming increasingly attached. But the parrot casts a pall over their relationship. Bogdan, he is sure, gets more treats then him. And when the bird comes out with a statement Joe does not recognise, he asks for a translation.
‘He say, What a loser. Not you, Joe!’ She laughs. ‘He like you. Do you not know this?’
But eventually Joe makes the stand that he knows he must.
‘It’s me or the parrot,’ he tells Irena.
She shakes her head slowly.
Robert Graham‘s short stories have appeared in magazines, in print and on Radio 4.