When the Crystal Palace was still standing, when people had come from miles and miles to see the colossi of Abu Simbel and the tomb of Beni Hassan, there had been two ways to get there, via the High Level line or the Low Level line. The High Level line was no longer in use; it was the Low Level platform on to which Melissa and Michael disembarked, climbing the many steps up to the street after a rustling, verdant journey (the foliage thickens and closes in around the tracks along the way, as if you are going into a different world). Dutifully hand in hand they emerged on to the street, into this rolling, hilly town on the far south edge of London, where from the pinnacles of the steeps the city centre is a shimmering, distant valley view of many coloured lights. You can hear seagulls, possibly bound for Brighton, it is so far out, it has a seaside sensation, and they and other birds soar amidst the peaks of the two Eiffels, the taller standing in the park on the flat plane of Crystal Palace Parade, the shorter at the top of Beulah Hill towards Thornton Heath. Up they walked in the frizzing wind towards Westow Hill where all the restaurants were. There were lots of people about, spruced up for Saturday night, people who had moved out here for affordable places to live, thus joining in with the endless expansion of the city, bringing Kent and Bromley into the party, making Brixton central and Dulwich hip. With these people had come the trendy furniture boutiques and wholefood juice bars, the vintage clothes shops and Paperchase, and the indigenous folk, those who had watched all this happen, carried on in their own sweet way, the boys who came down from the tower blocks with their dogs, the old folk who couldn’t believe the price of a flannel in Sainsbury’s these days. There were other couples too, walking hand in hand more naturally, peering at the menus in the windows beneath the awnings.
The place Michael had booked was one of those chic and stately modern places with elegant chairs and no music, where the food is considered the only music necessary and actual music an unnecessary distraction. There was gold panelling around the doors and windows, light grey tablecloths. A stern, unsmiling host placed them next to a pillar in the centre of the room, neither discreet nor intimate, and they struggled in this classy sterility to vibe. Melissa ate wood pigeon for the first time in her life and didn’t feel right about it. They tried hard not to talk about the children, but it was difficult, and they ended up talking about the mice. Between intermittent silences they sipped from their different wines, his red, hers white. At the next table sat an old couple who also had nothing to talk about and had given up trying to make it look as if they did, both of them with tight looks on their faces and deadened eyes.
“You look beautiful,” Michael tried at some point between the mains and the desserts. At exactly the same instant, the candle in the middle of their table went out.
“Thanks,” Melissa said. A deep melancholy was rising within her. She wanted to be miles away from him. But they were here. And here was her chocolate cake. It had a bitter orange-peel edge, a dark chocolate cream running out of it. She ate it with a grave and absolute absorption. When the desserts were finished, Michael checked his watch.
“You ready?” he said.
He got up and pulled out her chair for her. He held open her coat as she slipped in, and it was something, these small attentions, it might still turn out well. Around the corner, off Westow Hill, there was a black car parked at the kerb. A man got out as Michael approached it, they conferred for a while, then Michael opened the door for Melissa to get in. “Where are we going?” she asked him, but she was beginning to enjoy the mystery, to remember, the evening was changing. Michael just smiled. He got in next to her and they took off at some speed down the hill.
The driver was playing loud R&B. He was a bald, plump Ghanaian in a black polo shirt, the Ghanaian flag dancing from his rearview mirror. He drove like a maniac, down and up over crystal hills, through the southern quarters, ripped through them as if he were evil, as if he were Knievel, as if there were no paying customers in his car. Melissa leaned into the enclave of Michael’s arm. Grey tinge of night leaves in the curves of Honor Oak, flares of lime flowers and holly leaves in the secret crescents, they flew by, the driver knew all these back streets, silver birches were here then gone, mere suggestions in the night and the speed, other trees, fast lights, sweeps of green. He beeped at slower cars, driving right up to their bumpers. He jerked at turns. Every brake was an emergency. When he almost jumped a red light, Melissa was thrown forward in her seat.
“Will you slow down!” she shouted over the music.
“Sorry, sorry.” The driver slowed, momentarily, bopping to Jodeci, but soon charged off again. The next time he slowed down was to swing into a petrol station, where he pulled up next to one of the tanks and got out. ‘Wait now, back in a minute,’ he said.
“Hey, you can’t stop for petrol when you’ve got customers!” Melissa baulked.
He filled the tank anyway and went off to the kiosk. Michael refused to pay him the whole fare, which Melissa said was only right. “We’re your customers, not your homies.”
Looking at her in his rearview mirror, the driver said, “You are from Nigeria, I know.”
“I’m half Nigerian.”
“Your mother or your father is Nigerian?”
“Eh, I know.” He chuckled. “You are just like my wife. She is always making trouble.”
He chuckled some more, and drove on with continuing recklessness towards the river, along the vast urban tarmac of the A2, turned off at the exit to the O2, and there ahead of them was that once-failed Millennium Dome with its twelve yellow cranes sticking out of it like monstrous and very painful acupuncture, pointing to specific points in the solar system, a suggestion of alien transmission. So much grand expectation had been placed on this building at the turn of the century, to be mighty, to be showy, to be somehow sci-fi, and they had gone too far futuristic with it and forgotten all about beauty. People were disappointed with the thing after all that hype, and once the new century had begun no one knew what to do with it for a while. What do you do with an empty, 80,000-square-metre, disc-shaped spaceship grounded in an ugly concrete desert off the A2? What else? You give it to music, let music make it sing. Here in this enormous space, in these stretching auditoriums, popstars and crooners, the angels of the modern age, delivered their voices. Prince had sung Kiss here, wearing a pair of high-heeled white boots. The Spice Girls had made a comeback over seventeen consecutive nights. Beyoncé would come and swing on a flowery trapeze with her weave flowing. The O2 was the Wembley of the south side, and it had better acoustics, most of all in the IndigO2, the smaller auditorium where the lesser divinities sang, the ones not quite arena-famous, the niche, the lovers rock line-ups and R&B revivals, a jazz hip hop soulstress from Philadelphia known as Jill Scott, who stood there, swaying in green smoke and a misty light, as Melissa and Michael entered.
“It’s Jill,” Melissa said.
“Yeah, it’s Jill.”
She was their early music. The music of the palace, the seventh sky. She had seeped through the rooms with her honey molasses and her love moans, her hip hop beats which sometimes pumped and churned and then slowed again, or disappeared entirely. Jill Scott shimmering before them in pale green smoke. It lifted from the stage, whispering to her afro puffs, wafting around the band. The backing singers wore black and did the finger-clicking gospel two-step. The pianist was lost in jazz, and Jill was gently dancing, her wealthy waist, her wide American smile, her voice deep and saccharine at the same time. From a distance away her eyes glittered. The lights went pink, went yellow. She was singing Do You Remember. In between songs she made chains of words. Whether she was speaking or singing, her voice was constant melody.
In the audience were soulheads and -hip hop fans, observers of the culture, headwrapped Afrocentrics and followers of the new jazz. Couples swayed against each other intoxicated by her sound. There were single people sipping at her wisdom, men in good shirts looking for women, knowing that this was a place to find them, that Jill would make them open and heat them up inside. Jill had the power to make a world, with her sweetness, her girlishness, which was soft and malleable and wholly woman. Sometimes she sang hard, wanna be loved, sometimes the guitars stilled and she brought her voice down to a whisper, and everyone in the room if they closed their eyes felt almost that she was whispering only to them. They listened, spinning on her axis. The trombone went submarine. Trumpets cascaded in flashes of gold.
In the middle of a song, Melissa felt Michael’s hand on her waist. He wanted to dance with her. In a gentle closing around her with his arms he sent them moving, he behind her, she with her back to him. But here, even here, in this musical mirage, there was something else that was not right. They didn’t dance right. They never had danced quite right together, because of how they were different inside when it came to rhythm. Melissa was obedient to it, directed by it, she danced on top of the beat. But Michael instead went inside it and did his own thing, slower than the beat, loose and nonchalant, as though he believed that his inner rhythm was superior to that provided by the music. The effect was that as they swayed they did not sway as one. There was friction, a slight forcing. Halfway through the song, the music slowed down again. The trumpets hushed, the drums subsided, the piano watered down until it was gone. A single blue spotlight centred on Jill. She was going to talk to them again.
“Ladies,” she said, “Fellas, I wanna tell you something. Can I tell you something? Come here . . . come closer . . .”
The audience stilled. They were held in her palm, in this big disc by the river, huddled in her light.
“Tonight,” Jill said, “I stand before you a divorced woman.”
The music returned for a brief twirl and subsided again.
“Yeah . . . I was married, and I gave him all of my heart . . . I gave him everything, we were happy in our love, in the morning, in the evening in those cold – night – hours . . . I loved him all the way through. I was married for life, for always . . . But you know what he did? Ladies, do you know what that man did?”
“What?” the women called.
“Well, he went to somebody else’s house. Hmph, yeah. You’d think he woulda known there was nobody else like me, nobody’s love so fine like mine . . .” now she was fully singing again “one is the magic number . . .”
It was a message for the world but it seemed to come directly for them. It was the loudest moment of all, louder than the trumpets, the brass, even than the finale when Jill came back on for an encore. The music that had married them was now telling them to divorce. There was no more dancing after that. Michael went to the bar, and while he was gone Melissa looked around her at all the other people, other couples, other men, and wondered. Those words were sitting on a swing in a back garden in her mind, going back and forth, I stand before you . . . a divorced woman . . .
*Diana Evans is a novelist and critic who has written for* Marie Claire*, the* Guardian*, and* Harper’s Bazaar*, among other publications. Her first novel,* 26a*, won the Orange Award for New Writers. She lives in London.*
*Excerpted from* (1) *by Diana Evans. Copyright © 2018 by Diana Evans. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.*