Authors: Elizabeth Haynes
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Contemporary Women
Sometimes I can actually manage to change it around so that when the figure leans into my open window she’s breathtakingly beautiful, an angel, soft blonde hair falling in waves over her ample breasts; she gets in and takes me to a hotel, straight to the penthouse suite, where she undresses me against plate-glass windows looking out over some city skyline. Her body is voluptuous and soft, her skin glowing as she lies back against the dazzling white bed sheets. And yet when I go to fuck her I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to look at her and I can’t even maintain my pathetic erection.
What is it in me that can’t even imagine happiness?
So I go back to fucking the old pro in her grimy council flat, who by now is dead or maybe just asleep, and while she lies motionless beneath me, all sharp bones and loose skin, I permit myself an unhappy release, then I go and have a long wash in the shower and think about what sort of a man I am.
Last night after I got back into bed, towelled dry and smelling of shower gel, I thought about Janice. I’ve thought about her a lot recently, reliving the day they told us at work about her body being found.
I wonder if she would ever have let me fuck her.
I’m still thinking about Janice when I get to the gym at seven. Thirty minutes on the bike, thirty minutes rowing, thirty minutes on the treadmill. Feels like hard work this evening, but for most of the ninety minutes the thought of her keeps me occupied.
I remember when Janice first spoke to me. She must have been working at the council for years upon years, a figure who was as much a part of the scenery as the photocopier or the pile of ten-year-old telephone directories, and I’d never heard her speak.
That day she brought the mail up from the post room, and instead of just leaving it in a pile in the tray by the door she brought an envelope over to my desk, cleared her throat and said, ‘This one’s for you.’
I looked up in astonishment.
She would have been in her late thirties by then, the same age I am now, but she looked nearer fifty, hair scraped back into a lanky ponytail, dull brown and greying at the temples, pale eyes hooded in a lined face. She had the sort of face that would have benefited from make-up, and that’s not the sort of thing I would say often. In fact I could have imagined her on one of those ghastly makeover shows, going in as a frumpy old maid and coming out as a beautiful, poised mature woman.
As if she could read my mind she smiled, and her whole face changed. She was almost beautiful – the old hag to the angel.
After that I spoke to her quite a few times. We often seemed to be in the kitchen at the same time making tea. She was never chatty, but polite and formal, and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – I enjoyed her company. When she went off sick I almost missed her. But then she was gone so long we forgot she existed, until the day when that incompetent numpty from personnel took us into the meeting room and told us that Janice’s body had been found at her house. I imagined she’d had a heart attack, and was waiting to be told when we could recruit someone else, but then he went on to tell us that she’d been lying in her house rotting for some four months.
And it was just before lunch.
Janice’s sad demise was the chief topic of conversation for the next few days, to the extent that I got sick of hearing about it and was on the verge of standing up and shouting some obscenity if I so much as heard her name. What was more alarming, though, was that moment when my name was suddenly brought into the conversation.
‘I beg your pardon?’
It was Martha, of course.
‘I just said, Colin, if you’d been listening, that you were friends with her, weren’t you?’
‘With whom? Janice? I was not.’
‘You talked to her more than any of us did.’
‘I spoke to her – that doesn’t mean we were friends.’
‘Nevertheless, don’t you think it’s just awful that she was dead for all that time and none of us checked up on her?’
‘Yes, awful,’ I said, through my teeth. I carried on working in the hope that they would all get the hint, and fortunately they moved on to talk about something else.
I did find myself thinking about her, though. Why had she spoken to me on that day, after so long without a word? Could it be that she’d found me attractive? I thought more about it: the way she’d smiled, the way her face had changed. I tried to imagine her in my bedroom at home, tried to imagine taking off her cardigan and that dreadful shapeless blouse she always seemed to be wearing, finding a brassiere underneath that could be generously described as sturdy. But underneath the clothes, when what I needed was something real, something solid, with hair and creases and moles, curves and the scent of sweat, all I found was the body of my angel, firm and lithe and golden and glowing, flawless and serene and untouchable, and with it my ardour faded, as it always does when faced with perfection.
The gym is emptying and I head to the changing rooms, a quick shower to rinse the sweat away and then thirty laps of the pool, a nice easy rhythm to cool down. Even so I’ve got one eye on the clock. Last week I did this in nineteen minutes. It’s possible I can get it down to fifteen, which seems much more appropriate, but I will need to work up to it. Push myself.
When I moved to this gym from the one in town I was
about my workout. At the old place there had been a group of young women who always seemed to be there when I was, giggling and whispering behind their hands. And it was always packed – another reason to leave. There’s nothing worse than watching someone’s sweaty arse swivelling on a bike seat, waiting for them to finish.
This gym is more expensive, but to my mind it’s worth the difference. It’s much bigger, which means more equipment, and the cost of it means one can expect a certain standard of clientele. The women with nothing better to do with their time come during the day; the mothers come with their children after school. But later in the evening the gym is populated by other single professionals who are here to do their business and then get off home, or to the pub, or whatever else it is people do who are both like me and utterly unlike me at the same time.
It’s a year ago this week that we were told that Janice had died. Perhaps that’s why she has been on my mind so much recently. Something about the weather, the turning of the leaves, reminds me of decay and of her rotting corpse, slipping into liquid with nobody there to notice. I wish I’d paid more attention to her. There was so much beauty there that I could have observed, and I missed out on it.
But then again it would have just been more bother, more distraction, like that infernal woman from the nursing home. She called again this evening before I set off for the gym, and, expecting it to be Vaughn, I answered it without looking at the caller display.
I knew it was her. She has a way of pronouncing my name with the emphasis on the second syllable that is quite different from the way everyone else says it. Freed Land. The only reason I don’t correct her is that she possibly uses the same pronunciation in addressing my mother. The thought of this, and of course my mother’s inability to express her indignation, gives me some amusement.
‘Yes, speaking,’ I said, feigning ignorance.
‘Mr Freed Land, it is Matron here. From the Larches.’
‘Yes,’ I said again.
‘Your mother is quite well, there’s no need to worry.’
‘Oh, good,’ I said.
‘However she does miss you terribly.’
I doubt that very much
, I thought. ‘Really? Are you sure she even realises where she is?’
‘On occasion she does. She has lucid moments. And in those moments she seems to feel the loss of you most acutely. You haven’t been to see her in such a very long time, Mr Freed Land.’
‘I’ve been very busy,’ I said. ‘Work has been hectic.’
‘And at the weekends?’
‘Look, I’ll try to get up there on Sunday, alright? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have things to attend to.’
‘Of course, of course. We will see you then.’
Damn the woman, ruining a perfectly interesting evening with her twaddle. What is the point of going to see my mother, anyway? The chances of her having a ‘lucid’ moment in the half-hour I happen to be there are so remote as to be negligible. And if she were lucid, the idea of it is almost too horrible to contemplate; after all this time, what would we even say to each other? Nevertheless, I will think about going on Sunday, if only to stop that dreadful woman phoning me for a while.
She calls less frequently now than she did. Last year, when my mother had the stroke that took away her ability to function as an adult human being, the nursing home was only too happy to accept her. It didn’t take me long to find a loophole in the government’s policy for critical illness care that meant her fees were fully funded. They didn’t seem quite so happy about it then, though I’ve no idea why – after all, they get their payment just the same, and more reliably too, I would have thought, since that particular income flow will never run dry. I have the feeling that they want me to stay in touch so they can squeeze more money out of me, money for things that the funding doesn’t quite stretch to. But what good would it do, to have a flat-screen television in her room, when there’s a perfectly good set in the day room she can watch if she’s so inclined? Why does she need shoes, when she’s never going to set foot outside the door?
I tried to explain all this once, but the Matron’s tone became decidedly brisk. After that particular conversation – which concluded with her saying something about me visiting my mother once in a while in a sarcastic tone which I could quite have done without – I started to leave the phone to ring when I saw the number for the home on the caller display. Before too long she didn’t even bother to leave a message.
I’m perfectly willing to visit my mother. In fact, it’s something I look forward to on occasion – a nice trip out on a sunny weekend, buying her some chocolate on the way and then eating it in her room because, after all, she can’t eat it herself, can she? – but I absolutely refuse to be told by some dried-up matron when I should do so.
As I refuse to be told by anybody what I should do.
In any case, I have plans for this weekend and I expect to be particularly busy. So many of my research projects are about to come to fruition – glorious transformations, not to be missed.
The body of former concert pianist Noel Gardiner was discovered at the Catswood home he shared with his partner, vocalist Larry Scott, last Sunday. It is believed the body of Mr Gardiner had lain undiscovered for ‘some time’, according to police sources.
Mr Scott’s death from a heart attack at the age of 59 was reported by the
in May. Friends said yesterday that Mr Gardiner had become very withdrawn following the bereavement.
‘We tried to get him out and about,’ said a friend, who did not wish to be named. ‘But he missed Larry dreadfully. They were always together.’
Noel Gardiner was a talented musician who had performed with orchestras around the world. Tributes poured in following the announcement of his death and several bouquets have been laid outside the house in Lenton Lane.
The first time I saw him, I knew he was the one. Knew it the way they always said I would, even though I’d never believed in true love. I laughed at the people who did.
He was singing tenor in the choir and I was the last-minute replacement brought in when some old dear cried off. I played my little heart out that night, I can tell you. Looking at him when I dared to, which wasn’t often, and drinking him in like wine, letting him spread through my veins like the first taste of alcohol. I wasn’t brave enough to speak to him after the concert but luckily for me he’d noticed me looking at him and came strolling over to ask me to show him where the best place for a nightcap was.
I took him to the Black Bull, because I knew none of the others would be in there – I didn’t want to share him. I wanted him just for myself. If he was surprised by the pub – it was a bit grim, if I’m honest – he didn’t let on. He bought us a bottle of plonk to share and when we’d finished it they let us have another even though it was almost last orders. We had our heads together, gossiping and putting the world to rights as though we’d known each other our whole lives and not just for that one evening. By the time he walked me home, I was starting to panic that I’d misread the situation, that it was just another fling, another encounter that was going to be about the physical side of it and nothing else. Or maybe not even that. He was older than me, handsome, clever, and I didn’t think I could possibly be that lucky.
But I was wrong. I was the luckiest boy in the world.
After that we were together all the time. Every day. Every job we got, we either did together or else the other one would turn down any other performances to be in the audience. We simply couldn’t bear to be apart, not for more than a few hours. His voice electrified me; hearing him sing was sustenance enough for me to live on. And he would sit listening to me play, hour after hour; even when I’d practised enough he would make me carry on, sitting in the armchair behind me, his eyes half-closed, losing himself in the music.
I don’t think anyone really understood how deep it went. We both had friends, of course, family – his more loving, more supportive than mine – but what we had together was like solid rock compared to the shifting sands of all the other relationships, people who came and went in and out of our lives, passing us by.
I found him on the floor. He’d been there for some time, even though I’d only slipped out of the house to the shops to get something nice for dinner.