Simon Farrow looked like he’d just seen combat. His eyes stared far into some imaginary distance, his hair was unkempt, he was dressed in clothes from last night, he smelled a bit. He rang the buzzer. Though it was the headquarters of a newspaper, the receptionists never bothered with what were supposed to be the proper security precautions - asking name of visitor and purpose of visit. They simply buzzed him in.
He’d been there a few times already, working, so the receptionist gave him a “Hello!” in that cheerful young receptionist kind of way.
Simon barely noticed, but he was English after all, and courtesy came almost automatically to him. “Right,” he managed to croak.
He lumbered down the hall. The Sentinel was billed as “Central Europe’s First English-Language Newspaper”, but it was dead last in terms of comfort and warmth. It was 1994 and the building was several years away from its Communist past as a state-run housing agency, but the office had never shed its dirty gray carpet, gray telephones and gray desks, all straight from central planning. The walls, last whitewashed during some forgotten five-year plan back in the 1960s, were taking on a somber, funereal shade of gray. It was as if every color in the place was degenerating towards that same hopeless shade.
If moods were colors, Simon would have been ash gray, perfect camouflage for the walls and desks. Or possibly even a dull shade of black, such was his state of mind.
He turned the corner of the L-shaped corridor.
This was Editorial, the section of the paper where the content was written and most of the interviewing done. At the end of the L was the largest space on the premises, the newsroom. Simon, had he been inclined to listen, might have heard the chattering of an editor, one or two reporters and the Sentinel’s translator as they phoned or wrote or scratched notes on pieces of paper.
Somehow, an obscure corner of his brain - possibly the one that moved his legs without him giving too much thought to the process, or made sure his food was chewed properly - guided him towards the lounge. This was a niche halfway up the long part of the L hosting an ugly brown couch.
Simon sat on the couch. He stared at the gray wall opposite. Suzy, Suzy...
There was a door across the hall from the niche, and from this little room, which served as the office for the paper’s business section, emerged a young woman. A.J. Martinelli was a small, dark-haired American, chatty and smart. A.J. was the second person Simon had met at the Sentinel. Actually, she was the second person, full stop, Simon had met in Prague since arriving six days ago. To be really technical about it, A.J. was only the second person he had ever had a conversation with outside of England.
She saw Simon and stopped.
“Simon?” she asked, as one would inquire of a man who appeared dead before checking for a pulse.
Simon didn’t answer. He was busy looking at the wall.
A.J. inched closer. “Simon? You all right?”
He nodded. Well, half-nodded. He sort of shook his head a little up, a little down, a little right, a little left. At least he was alive, thought A.J.
She wasn’t a shy girl, this American. She came over, stood in front of him. “Simon?”
Nod, shake. Up, down, left right. What the hell did that mean?
“Siiiiimon. Come in, Simon. This is Houston calling, do you copy?” A.J. waved her hand in front of his face.
This at least broke the silence. “Oh,” he answered, as if his cat had just wandered in. “Hullo, A.J.”
“Hullo yourself. Are you okay?”
“Er, ah...yeah. I’m ah...ah...” He drew a deep breath. “I’m...fine...” He nodded and shook some more. “How are you?”
“I’m okay, but you don’t look so hot, dude. Did something happen?”
Simon moved his head up and down. He was getting more consistent with the gestures, at least. “Ah, my...my...”
Heroin problem? Grandmother died? Car got towed? A.J. wondered what was coming next.
“...girlfriend” Simon finally managed.
“Girlfriend?” A.J. asked back. “You mean she broke up with you?”
Simon continued nodding. In a voice as thin as paper, he answered, “yes.”
“Your girlfriend ditched you? Jesus, I thought it was something serious!” A.J. answered.
For the first time that day, Simon stared at something besides a wall. He looked, hard, at A.J.
Who backed down. “Sorry. Sorry, man, I just thought...ah, that’s pretty tough. I’m sorry.”
Their discussion was jarred by a booming American voice in the hallway. “...MONSTER tits, man. Like freakin' GODZILLA in a dress. Big ones, real pointy. DEFINITELY D cup territory.”
The owner of the voice strode down the long part of the L. He had been talking, or shouting, to someone in the newsroom. As he walked, he turned his head forwards and noticed A.J. And Simon.
“Yo Simon, my man. Happenin', buddy?” he asked.
Cutting off the beginnings of sentences was one of many odd habits possessed by Frank Conine. Frank was the newspaper's political reporter, a big, pot-bellied American whose 42 years made him nearly twice as old as much of the rest of the staff. A.J., for instance, was 24, while Frank's boss, news editor Josh Weinrib, was still several years shy of 30. Simon was all of 23. Chip Hathaway, the paper's largely absentee owner, had just turned 27.
Old Frank had met Simon only briefly, but he liked him. This was possibly because Frank had managed to mooch several cigarettes from him during that meeting.
“Look so good, man,” Frank said to Simon, chopping a perfectly good sentence nearly in half. “Something wrong?”
Simon sighed again, shook his head. He said nothing, so A.J. broke the news.
“His girlfriend broke up with him,” she said.
“Girlfriend? JESUS, THAT'S IT? Looked like something serious.”
Simon moaned. It wasn't even a good moan, more a low, hopeless “oooohhhhhh...” He dropped his head in his hands.
“He's pretty broken up about it, dude,” said A.J., stating the painfully obvious.
"I see," Frank said, nodding his head. He hoped Simon wouldn’t cry. Comforting weeping men was not something Frank could have done well.
Nevertheless, he tried to help. “You know, I got these guys, these Ukrainians, take care of her for ya. They got baseball bats, they got Uzis, they got rocket-propelled grenades...”
Simon lifted his head from his hands. Frank and A.J. looked at each other. A.J. shrugged.
Frank was being paged, which at the Sentinel meant that someone was desperately shouting at him from the newsroom. “Frankie! Hey Frankie!” barked Milan Vesely, the paper's translator. “We got the fax back from the ministry! I think you has to see it...where are you? ”
“Lounge, Milan,” came the answer.
Milan footed it down the hall. He was another one of the Sentinel's youth brigade, like Simon a fresh university graduate. With blond dreadlocks, Milan looked as if a mad scientist had blended Bob Marley’s DNA with that of a pale, skinny Eastern European student in a petrie dish and grown a person from it.
The Sentinel was Milan’s first job.
He was almost out of breath. He noticed Simon. “Hey, Simon. What is up?” Simon didn't notice. Not very much was headed up in his life just then, anyway.
“He okay?” Milan asked his co-workers. He looked concerned. “Simon, do you hear me? What is wrong?”
A.J. shook her head. Frank answered, “Girlfriend ditched him. Fuckin’ bitch.”
“Oh, that's it?” said Milan, relaxing a little. “I thought it was something ser...”
“Shhhh!” ordered A.J. and Frank at the same time.
Milan didn’t know quite what to say. To do something, anything, he handed the fax paper to Frank.
“This boy needs comforting,” said A.J. after a moment of thought. “Should we do the usual?”
She looked at Frank and Milan, raised her eyebrows a few times. After a few seconds, the two men got it.
Almost at once, A.J. and Frank announced, “Pizza Diablo!”
Along with revolution, democracy and free speech, the early 1990s brought pizza culture to Prague. At best an uncommon fast food during Communism, thanks to its low cost and ease of manufacture it was quickly becoming the Cool Thing in Czech restaurants in 1994.
The Sentinel was a beneficiary of this trend, as nearly across the street was the famous Pizza No Problem. The specialty of the house was Pizza Diablo, a hellish blend of red and green peppers, onions, garlic and spicy Hungarian salami. Some at the Sentinel had discovered that, when consumed the right way, the Diablo could be very therapeutic.
A third beer had been placed in front of Simon when he was near the halfway point of finishing his Diablo. A.J., Frank and Milan watched him, comforted by the fact that he was going through at least a few glasses of alcohol. That, after all, was the point of ordering a Pizza Diablo.
In another good sign, Simon had at least started to speak in complete sentences. Even though they all seemed to center on one topic:
Suzy. Suzy who had cruelly dumped him only two nights before. The very Suzy who, as the three had heard already when they first met Simon, was to move to Prague to study Slavic languages. The beloved woman whom Simon was to stay with during her studies, as he took a break following graduation from university to figure out what to do in life. The sweetheart who had been Simon’s first and thus far only serious girlfriend, for almost three years. The woman whose hand he was planning to ask in marriage in the immediate future. The bitch who decided to stay in England and build a full and satisfying life without him.
Perhaps due to his upbringing as the son of a policeman, Simon didn’t consume drugs and generally stayed away from booze. Which meant that the beer went to his head alarmingly fast.
Simon drained his third mug, tilting his head back far. Recoiling from the swig, he realized his balance was unsteady.
“Er, I think I’m getting drunk,” he said to those assembled. All three smiled surreptitiously.
“Prosim vas! Prosim vas, pane!” cried Milan to a waiter, immediately after Simon slapped his empty mug down on the table. The beer waiter, a harried, sweaty fat man with a mustache, came over, already with several full mugs circling around a meaty fist. This was typical for Prague: pour the beer, walk around with it, and impose it on the customers before they even had a chance to order. “Jeste jedno, jenom pro pana,” ordered Milan, pointing to Simon as he did so. The fat man, grunting, grabbed the empty mug, replaced it with a full one, and with his free hand scratched another tick on the handwritten bill. He left as soon as he came.
Simon went through two more beers before the Diablo was finished. He left the crusts, which Frank quickly descended upon and ate.
“I don’ understand...whh...whyyy she did it. Din’t she love me? A.J., din’ she love me?” Simon asked, really sloshing his words around now.
“Sure, Simon, sure. Do you want another beer?” she asked.
Simon waved his hand, knocking over the empty pizza tin. It fell to the floor with a clang. “Wh-hoooops, I’m sorry,” he said, blearily staring at the tin on the ground. “What’s for dessert?”
They ordered Simon another mug, but by that point it wasn’t necessary. He finished a few sips, announced, “I’m jus’ going to have a bit – a bit – of a lie-down. Don’ mind me,” then folded his arms on the table, placed his head on them, and promptly fell asleep.
“Time is it, Milan?” Frank asked his young colleague.
“Time to get a watch, you big freeloader,” came the answer.
“His bedtime,” said A.J., pointing at the comatose Simon. “What are we going to do with him?”
She looked at Milan and he pointed to Frank, who was busy picking his way through the rest of the complimentary bread rolls. “Me? Why you looking at me?” Frank asked.
“You’re the one with the big apartment, the couch, and the absent fiancé,” said A.J. “Looks like you’re the one’s gonna be hosting him this evening.”
“Awright, awright. Lemme just work on these rolls,” Frank said. “Milan, can you call a taxi?”
Milan nodded, and left the table for a pay phone. A.J. looked over at Simon, who was sleeping peacefully.
The peacefulness wouldn’t last. Tomorrow would bring sobriety, and the realization that he was still a bachelor.
But that pain would fade, as it always did, and in this city he would build an entirely new life, with new women. A.J. continued to look at Simon, passed out and oblivious.
Just like magic, she thought. Good old Pizza Diablo.