Stephen wanted to talk about the ledger. It was all "the ledger", all in that voice of his, so that if you turned your head away to look at the artwork in the café you'd think a child was speaking, and when you looked back at him you'd think: that child has a moustache.
He spoke about the ledger in his high, clear voice, you owe me this and you owe me that, the ledger, the ledger.
– I'm sure I do owe you, said Nigel, who was sitting on the moulded plastic seat beside mine.
– Yes, things, said Nigel.
– And it's all in the ledger.
– Things that are always being repaid, said Nigel. Because I do favours for you as well.
Stephen nodded a little and reached over and removed a chip from Nigel's plate. We all had plates of chips in front of us and they were all in various states. He massaged Nigel's into his own ketchup and we all just watched it happen and watched it bend and then burst. He didn't eat the chip.
– Then I do more for you, Stephen said, and I do more for you, and I do more. It's been like this for fifteen years. If we were to look at the ledger.
– And then I pay you back, Nigel said. I always pay you back, I pay you back.
– I don't know what you want from me. I got rid of all those people on my phone, all those numbers. It was part of my new routine.
– I'm not asking for a number for any of those people.
– And I got rid of the number of that Vietnamese woman-person as well.
– Don't be disgusting.
– You've asked for his number, or her number, or whatever he is, or she is, in the past.
– This is about your father, said Nigel.
Decades ago Stephen understudied for the lead child in the original production of Oliver! so he knew an expression he could use when vice entered the den, something that could be adapted for blackmail. It was defiance with added nostril flare. At this point in my life, and at this point in a long afternoon, I was really tired of actors' faces. I was tired of Nigel's face and Stephen's always had the look of an understudy.
– If you tell my father anything I'll just tell him first, said Stephen. I'm not afraid of him anymore.
– I don't want to tell him anything.
– I'm not afraid. We had a talk, me and him, and after a while he said "God forgives" so all that stuff from the past is cleared up. You've got nothing on me.
– We weren't going to tell him anything.
– And anyway I've got stuff on you, he said to Nigel, and because of the lift in his voice it sounded like a taunt you'd hear on the playground from a child with a moustache.
One theory about Stephen's voice was that his father had castrated him to keep him in the choir, but it unravelled because he had never been in his father's choir and it failed to account for Bettina, who had said she'd return to the café in half an hour and, before she left, smeared a half moon of lipstick on his cheek after a big kiss. Somewhere in London there could well be Polish women acting as beards for castratos, but the love between these two checked out. Their flirting matched: he adjusted the front of his tracksuit bottoms with his hand; she adjusted her red bra strap with hers. They didn't break eye contact. They kissed three times before she left but the ones on his lips didn't leave lipstick traces because Stephen licked his lips a lot.
– I don't even like you talking about my father, he said. I don't like you referring to my father.
– We need an action from your father.
The word "father" was not doing good things to the chips on Stephen's plate. We were past eating; we were hurting chips. I was torturing mine too, but slower and more tastefully, and with a fork, like exquisite pain.