"The Cold War"

A new short story by Joe Dunthorne.

Illustration by Barry Falls
Detail from an illustration by Barry Falls

“If I say to you, I’ve swallowed all my saliva,” Deshi said, opening his mouth for me to see, lifting his tongue, “and I promise I’ll never spit again, would you believe me?”

It was summer and kids were swimming in the boating lake. I was in a sleeveless vest and basketball shorts. Deshi was the only boy in Tower Hamlets wearing jeans. He worked up a big one and spat on the grass. It sprayed a little.

“And that’s how long it takes to produce chemical weapons,” he said. “Weeks. Days. Seconds.”

He was from Hong Kong. When he lived there, he went to an international school and learned public speaking. But then he came to Mosshill Academy.

We walked towards the pagoda. This was where I’d lost my virginity with Nina Ponti. I hadn’t been able to celebrate with any of my old friends because I’d been lying to them, for years, saying I had slept with lots of girls, including Nina Ponti. So I made friends with Deshi just to tell him about her pubes, longer than the hair on her head. He was impressed and we got talking. It turned out he knew more about military weapons than anyone. We bonded over a World War II video game, Brothers in Arms. His parents approved because it was historically accurate. Sometimes, my old friends popped up in multiplayer and we threw gas grenades that made their throats close.

We walked past a woman on the grass with her top untied. She was asleep and changing colour. She did not know it was happening. “With Ricin, you wouldn’t even realise until twenty-four hours later and then bam, you start bubbling like grilled cheese.” Desh shook his open palms at the sky.

I had promised Deshi I’d help him get laid. A few weeks ago, we started seeing these two girls, Lauren and Mhari. Everyone in school knew them because they got a special commendation from the principal for Social Bravery. They had seen a car leaving a crime scene: this kid, Tariq el Hoss, lying on the pavement. They saw the number plate and invented a song to remember it. E674 RTJ. Then when the police came they sang and got the guy arrested. I had introduced us as “weapons specialists”. We decided that I would play for Lauren and he for Mhari. We were on our way to meet them. Deshi always had a backpack and bounced as he walked. He had a wide face and the beginnings of a mustache which looked like gunpowder. My older brother had been teaching me that you have to be careful not to like a girl too much – or they destroy you. My brother was living back at home because of his ex-girlfriend. We were sharing a bedroom again because he had liked her too much.

So even though having sex with Nina Ponti had felt good, afterwards I concentrated on the negatives. Her long pubes, although silky at the time, were unhygienic. Her tongue, although addictive at the time, was unladylike. I went through everything and remade it, to keep my self safe.

I sat Desh down in the pagoda. I had it all planned out.

“Desh I got something to tell you.” He looked at me and frowned. “Something happened with me and Mhari here,” I said.

I had planted a condom wrapper in the dust by the bin, and I pointed to it.

“No way,” Deshi said, his eyebrows rising. “Did you and her . . . ?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She just came up to me, said time to fuck, and that was it.”

This was not realistic, I know. There was a moment’s wait. A twitch in his eyes.

“Really?”

I nodded.

“You did her?”

“I did.”

There was another wait and I could see it was processing and then he looked up, eyes wide.

“Who are you, Prince Naseem?” he said, and he smiled. Deshi thought Prince Naseem was one of the greats. “You nailed her right here? Player, player boy!”

We high-fived and it echoed in the pagoda. I was pleased because it showed that she wouldn’t be able to hurt him, if she tried.

“But you do realise you’re gonna have to help me find someone else now?” he said. “Just look at me.” He flexed what passed for his bicep. His TB scar had torn downwards so it looked like a keyhole. There was sweat beading among the hairs of his mustache.

 

Once I’d explained it was a test, Desh was pleased that he’d passed. We were late to meet the girls which was how I wanted it. We walked and talked about history.

“Did you know that phosgene gas is invisible and smells like hay? So think about that: you’re in the trenches and Oh it smells like a lovely summer morning then . . .” He grabbed his own throat and made a choking sound.

In exams, it helped to have Deshi’s voice in my head. I was able to fill pages about the U2 crisis of 1960 as long as I imagined him singing And I still . . . haven’t found . . . what I’m looking for then ranting about spy-planes.

It was starting to get dark as we met the girls. We walked to the new railway bridge over the canal. The concrete stored up heat so it never got cold. Lauren was short and her parents were from Malawi and she seemed to have loads of room on her face. There was space for an extra eye between the ones she had. I liked her quite a bit and she texted me at night. Mhari was Irish and had blonde hair braids so you could see her scalp and freckles and sunburn. Desh liked her voice, he said, and how the Mhin her name was pronounced as a V, like the way posh people say very. Lights came on under the concrete bridge. It felt like a bunker. Our last exam, Modern History B, was a week away.

“The American government tried to develop LSD as a weapon. But then the hippies all took it for kicks and ended up protesting against the use of chemicals in Vietnam and some of them got shot by the government which is ironic if you think about it.” I liked the way that Desh just kept going. He never changed just because girls were with us. “And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis but that was just America swinging its dick. And after that they created the US-Moscow hotline.”

Mhari said: “Desh, how come you know so much about so little?” “I am going to be a marine,” he said.

He was just over five foot and wore glasses. “A marine biologist?” she said.

He made binoculars with his hands to peer down into the canal water. There was a striped plastic bag floating. “Jellyfish,” he said.

And she laughed, whether at him or with him, it didn’t matter, and when he took the handbinoculars away I saw his eyes were bright.

“Mhari, let him see your sunburn,” I said.

“No way.”

“Go on Mhar, let him write his name on your back,” Lauren said.

I came towards Mhari and she retreated along the canal. Lauren was laughing.

“All right, back off and I might show you,” Mhari said.

I held up my hands. She breathed deeply.

Deshi was gazing into the canal water, the stolen bikes in the deep. She turned her back on us and, with two hands, slowly unveiled the burnt skin, lifting her white polo shirt. The flesh glowed in the streetlight. As Deshi watched, he got a look on his face. I guess he hadn’t seen this part of a girl before. The tan line from her bra strap looked like a jellyfish sting.

“Desh, put your hand on it,” I said.

Mhari was still holding the T-shirt up. That was the invitation.

“I do have cold hands,” Deshi said, and he went towards her.

I was proud of him because he was both making a move – by touching her sunburn – and being cruel – by touching her sunburn. It was the perfect combination. With fingers spread, he brought his hand slowly down just to the right of her spine. She made the noise people make with too hot food in their mouths. In my head I heard him talking about napalm. With Agent Orange, most deaths were women and children.

Then Desh’s phone rang in his backpack. His mother called at this time every night. He took his hand away and, for a moment, a white eye stared back.

We were lucky with the exam questions and I wrote down everything Desh had told me about Vietnam and World War I. Phosgene gas smells like hay, I wrote. A desk fan at the front of the class made absolutely no difference to the temperature but occasionally rippled the tails of Mhari’s braids. She was sat ahead of us, writing hard, a seam of peeling skin at the top of her neck.

I had texted Lauren to tell Mhari that Deshi liked her. All that remained was for him to close the deal. He was hunched over on the table beside me, wearing thin-rimmed glasses that he only brought out for exams. His hand with its bad circulation sped along the page.

Afterwards, my older brother picked us up in his car and gave us a four-pack of Zywiec which tasted disgusting. Deshi found my older brother terrifying because he drove with just the palm of his right hand on the wheel. He dropped us at the park. We didn’t want to talk about weapons and we drank the beer in silence in the pagoda. It was still hot. The girls came to meet us and Mhari sat on the shallow steps in the shade because of her sunburn. She told Deshi to come and sit with her and share his can. He did so, watching her throat whenever she drank it.

Me and Lauren lay out on the grass and held hands. I wanted to kiss the expanse of skin between her eyes but my older brother told me you should never kiss a girl on the forehead because it’s one of the ways she knows she can hurt you. We kept looking over to where Deshi and Mhari were on the shadowed steps. A foot of clear daylight between them. Every time I looked back Mhari had closed in a little. We saw the daylight narrow and narrow until there was no gap.

I walked Lauren home but something had made us feel too adult now, and we did not kiss. It was probably for the best as I needed to find some new ways to not like her.

Later, I got a text from Deshi. He took me to a clearing of compressed mud in the middle of the bushes. There was the empty can of Zywiec, dented in the middle, and a dark patch where it’d spilled. He used the light from his phone to show me the little bits of her skin, like snow - flakes, on the mud.

“It went everywhere,” he said, “when she pulled her T-shirt off.”

“Then what?”

“Then we lay down. We started kissing.”

His eyes were wet.

“Congratulations.”

“And I didn’t love her,” he said. “I was cold. So don’t worry.”

“Good,” I said. “Then what?”

“Then she asked me if I liked her and I said yes but I was lying.”

“Then what?”

“Then we stopped kissing. I think. I think. Maybe I wasn’t convincing. She said she wasn’t really feeling it.”

“What?”

“She put her top back on. She said I shouldn’t feel bad.”

“Was she a virgin?”

“No. I definitely don’t think she was.”

“And how do you feel now?”

“She didn’t take her skirt off.”

“But how do you feel?”

“Terrible.”

And he knelt down and picked up the biggest flake, the size of a stamp. He cupped it in his palm, then put it in his pocket.

“Are you drunk?” I said.

He looked at me with his damp eyes.

We went to his house and played co-operative multiplayer on Brothers in Arms because he said he didn’t want to sleep. We had to play it with the sound off because his parents were next door. He lived in the flats by Arnold Circus. Whenever I stayed over, his parents gave me little packets of fluorescent earplugs because of the sirens.

Deshi and I completed the Normandy landings together. We came ashore, and captured the beachheads. We blew up Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway. In the bonus game, we had to try and break the spirit of the German people, so we circled the city looking for beautiful or ornate buildings, then we dropped our firebombs. There was a sidebar that showed the enemies’ morale each time we hit something valuable.

Joe Dunthorne’s most recent novel is “Wild Abandon” (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99) throat and made a choking sound.