He dreamt about her, years ago – spent nights in torment with her image on his mental page, trying not to imagine himself with her, trying to expunge desperate, lonely desires from his mind. She was his Venus de Milo, his Aphrodite, his Virgin of the Rocks.
And there she was.
He had just completed a visit to a client in West Fallerton on one of those days when England’s northern climate sets out to prove its reputation – skies as grey as a church roof, rain driving in with moderate ferocity on a north-easterly gale – and was making his way through dripping trees across Hawes Street Square when he saw her.
She was seated on a newspaper on the low brick wall which bordered the square, close to a bus stop but away from the huddled queue beneath the bus shelter, apparently preferring the weather to their closer company.
At first he thought he was mistaken. This could not be Sarah. This was a spare, melancholic figure whose cheeks were canvas-pale, a faded watercolour of the friend he had known in more exuberant university years. A drab brown jacket draped her shoulders, little enough protection from the chill arrows of rain. Beneath it her burgundy blouse drooped open one button too low; its neck gaping carelessly as if the breast it so nearly exposed was impervious to cold.
He surprised her. Her hands twitched, gripping her knees through the fabric of a damp, tan-coloured skirt which clung about her legs. After all, why should she expect to be discovered by him, now, in this small northern town? The last time they met was on the night after their graduation, and he was bound for the bright lights, then: so, he thought, was she. What had happened – what had happened to them both? She gave him a furtive glance from big eyes that had danced, once upon a time. Not now.
Sarah was not pleased to see him, or if she was, she gave nothing away. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here – well, about six miles away. More to the point, what are you doing here?”
“I should have thought that was obvious. I’m waiting for a bus.” Her stare was fixed on her knees. “It’ll be here soon.”
“By which time you’ll be soaked. You should be waiting in the shelter!”
She might have snapped her reply, but the effort was not there. “I don’t like crowds. Look, Brendan…”
This was a dismissal in the making, one he was not about to accept. They had, after all, been close friends, once. “My car’s just around the corner. I’ll give you a lift.”
The alarm in her eyes was unmistakeable, her reply a reflex. “No!”
“For heaven’s sake why not? Where do you live now – bloody London, or something?” Sarah’s reaction mystified him. “Look, I won’t take no for an answer, Sarah. You’ll catch your death waiting here.”
“I can’t!” She muttered beneath her breath.
“Why ever not?” He asked. “I’m not going to hit on you, or anything.”
“You wouldn’t want me in your car.” She said quickly. “I’ve been sitting on this wall. It’s a damp wall.”
“I’m sure the newspaper has done its job, or I can drum up a towel, or something.” He reassured her. “Sarah I haven’t seen you in what – five years? You don’t imagine I’m going to leave you in the rain?”
Sarah bit her lip, then with a brief glance heavenwards rose to her feet.
“If we must, then.” She said.
She walked with him. He insisted upon putting his coat around her shoulders. He was parked less than a block away: Sarah said she lived on the south side of town, though if he had hoped that the warmth of the car would thaw that icy exterior he was mistaken. She sat erect upon the towel which she insisted he use to protect his seat with her clasped hands about her knees - tense and anxious. Despite his assiduous prompting she rebuffed all attempt at conversation, staring through the glass with moody eyes.
“Why won’t you talk to me? Did I do something unforgiveable?”
“I’m - I mean, I wasn’t....look, I’m just not in the mood for company.” She muttered. “I said you wouldn’t want me in your car, didn’t I?”
“What do you mean, ‘happened’?”
“You – I mean you…..Oh god!” He groped for words: “You look so different.” He finished lamely.
“I’ve lost weight, you mean? Yes, everybody says so. I don’t think about it, personally.” Sarah bit her lip. “Look, Brendan...”
“No. Don’t say it.” He cut her off before she could utter the killer phrase. “But I don’t understand..”
“Understand what?” She snapped. “I haven’t seen you in eight years. I’ve changed. So have you, by the way. Where did you get the straight-from-the-fifties suit and that god-awful tie?”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Brendan found himself back-pedalling desperately. “Forget I said anything, alright?”
“No, it’s not alright! How the fuck do you manage it? How do you always catch me at my worst?”
It was true. In their pre-graduation years, on the occasion of her only lesbian experiment Brendan had discovered her naked in bed with Julie from halls; on a drunken night in town that same term he was there when she flashed a policeman and spent a long night at Her Majesty’s pleasure trying to explain it away; and yes, once upon a similar evening crouched behind a bush by St. Margaret’Steps with her pants about her knees - somehow he contrived to be there. At least, he comforted himself, there was an element of rescue about it this time. He had plucked Sarah from the grasp of the elements and saved her a damp ride in the crowded confines of a bus.
Her address was in a dingy street of town houses clinging to Butchers Hill above the old ferry port. Rain spattered a percussive rhythm on the roof of the car and poured down the gutters, flushing styrene food boxes and cans, discarded packets and wrappers in a gathering host towards the river.
“I would invite you in, but…”
“Of course; you want to change, take a bath, I expect.” He agreed, immediately cursing himself for being so tactless. She didn’t seem to take any further offence.
“Yes.” Sarah said.
Then, without really knowing why, I said: “I don’t suppose….I mean, are you with anybody at the moment?”
For the first time, her pale lips showed a faint twist of amusement. “No Brendan, I’m not.”
“Then would you like…?” He was about to say something really stupid in his oblivious, bumbling way; but she shifted uncomfortably in her wet clothes, stopping him. “Never mind. It’s just so nice to see you again.”
Sarah stared at him incredulously. She seemed to draw on all her resources of courtesy: “You too.” She opened the car door. “And thank you, Bren. I suppose you rescued me, didn’t you?”
She left his coat in the car as if she were challenging him to watch her back as she fitted the latch key into her lock. Even in so dejected a condition with her clothes clinging insubstantially about her, revealing a hint here and there of the pale flesh beneath, her natural elegance was unsuppressed. She moved with all the old, remembered grace. In the open doorway Sarah turned and gave Brendan a brief, apologetic smile. Then she was gone.
He drove away, struggling to reconcile the image of this woman with those memories of Sarah that he harboured and recalled so often. Yes, he had been secretly in love with her once, even fumbled desperately to some sort of conclusion with her in a dark corner after their graduation party; but his capacity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time had stifled any hope of romance. And now: how could she be so greatly changed? What had happened in so short a span to mould this unkempt, enervated creature from the sweet clay of his recollection? One unnerving memory of this afternoon remained. He parked his car in the space reserved for him at the rear of his office, pausing for a minute to reflect as he refolded the towel she had placed on his seat for protection. And, though he would never admit this to a soul, he pressed that towel to his cheek, gripping it tightly in his hands as though he could not let it go.
‘I wonder if you would have dinner with me sometime? I would love to meet you again, and maybe we could catch up on the missing years? Yours, Brendan.’
He lasted three days before he pushed his card and that note through her door – the note he had written as soon as he got home the evening after their first encounter. Perhaps he hesitated because he had some premonition of the shape of things – in just his short time with Sarah he sensed the drama that surrounded her. People did change: there was no denying the differences between the woman and the girl, he told himself, and he owed his fellow student of almost a decade ago no debt; certainly there was no dishonour in refusing the bait of intrigue she put out – not at this early stage.
“Brendan? OK, if you want….”
So what decided him? What made him answer her call on that Thursday afternoon? Maybe it was the faint sensation that Sarah needed him in some way, that her dishevelled melancholy was a quiet cry for help; then again, though, there was a burning flame of sexuality unaltered by years – one he would be able to serve better, given grace: and lastly, the pennyweight to turn the scales….
After years of hope and drudgery he was still no more than an articled accountant in a small northern town with a divorce in his past and nothing spectacular to look forward to: he had lost his ambition many dreams since. He was not especially successful with either love or life. Sarah was his challenge, his chance to make something more of what he had. Was that enough? From a woman who was clearly uneasy with the memories they had to share, was that enough?
She answered his knock.
“You look nice.” He said.
“Are you patronising me?”
She had, at least, made an effort: a diaphanous green smock dress which veiled her figure rather than clinging to it, nipped at her waist by a thin gold belt. Her red hair now dry fell in pleasing soft waves about the hard angles of her face to rest and to bounce upon her shoulders as she walked, adding swing and vitality to the world-weariness of those legs – so long, so slender. With a certain dry amusement he recalled the ‘varsity days when she had attempted to model herself on Rosetti’s Fanny Cornforth – a nightmare of hair-curlers and makeup which had never quite achieved its purpose , but now – now there was that translucent beauty, that pre-Raphaelite sensuousness about her that made it happen. She was the reflection the languorous Fanny saw when she gazed into that small mirror. Her world hung about her in folds of white voile as Rosetti’s did and the same quality of hopeless solitude slipped through in the stroke of a brush or a capricious touch of light….
For his part, he had deliberately attempted to shift his ‘fifties’ image. For once he had discarded the customary tie in favour of check shirt and sweater, and even invested in a pair of ‘cargos’. They hung so stiffly about him he began to wonder if they were, in fact, made out of canvas. Their hems scraped the tops of his soft leather shoes: his mobile phone, which he had put into his thigh pocket, banged persistently against his leg.
Dinner was pasta: an Italian restaurant on the High Street they both knew; not good, but adequate. They swapped memories, laughed hollowly over mutual ones, but although Brendan probed, Sarah would say nothing of how her fortunes had turned. Yes, she had a job, she liked it, she supposed: she would not fill in any spaces, add details of where, or what. He admitted freely to his divorce, his childlessness, and again she did not respond. So, when their eating was done and the check arrived Brendan knew little more than before, although Sarah knew much more about him.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me…” She made the usual departure for the restroom. He paid for their meal and waited in the foyer. She was not gone long.
Immediately he saw her face he knew something was amiss. The moment she returned through that anonymous wooden door he could see the guilt in her expression, the defeat in her walk.
Unspeaking, he drove her home. At her door she almost let him kiss her - almost.
“Sarah….” He said.
“No, Brendan. Give me time.”
“So you’ll come out with me again, then?”
Sarah appeared to give her answer some thought.
“Yes.” She said.
Another seven days. Dinner again, this time at a Thai restaurant in The Ramparts, a Mall close to the castle – the same routine of superficial conversation, the same hesitancy whenever he began to probe at all deeply into her life since Uni.
“It’s just a job. Something I do for the money. It doesn’t really interest me.”
“Where do you work?”
“Oh, uptown. Let’s talk about something else. Work’s so depressing.”
The same routine repeated itself upon leaving, too, though she took longer to ‘freshen up’. The same dejection was there in her step when she returned. Just as before, she avoided his questioning eye.
They kissed this time – in the car, outside her house. Her lips were cool, she tasted of mint – hence, he decided, her longer delay in the restrooms; a quick sampling from a tube of sweets inside her clutch-bag.
“I’d invite you in, but…”
“It’s alright - fine. I understand.” He said. But he didn’t – not yet.
That weekend they arranged to spend an afternoon together. The morning brought rain, so he was planning for some indoor thing; then as midday came the sun split the clouds, turning the wet grey roofs of the town to shining mirrors, and by the time he arrived at Sarah’s door the paving was dry.
She greeted him coolly in anorak and woollen skirt. Brendan drove to the river and parked on Windy Quay near to a Fast Food stall he knew where Toppo, a burly Turkish vendor sold some of the best kebabs he had ever tasted.
“Try one.” He urged Sarah. “They’re quite special, believe me.”
“You haven’t eaten, have you? Come on, I won’t take no for an answer. Try the shish, it’s famous.”
He ordered two of Toppo’s best. They sat on a park bench to gorge upon them, watching the river wash by and listening to the babble of children around a petting zoo in the menagerie further up the bank.
“You’re right,” She said. “They really are good.” But still she only picked at hers.
“Well, I like them.” He said. “They’re sinful I suppose, but we neither of us have a weight problem.”
He curled into a little ball inside because he knew at once he had said the wrong thing; he felt her eyes stab at him. “Was that meant to be funny?”
“I’m sorry.” Reaching out for her hand he sensed her stiffening as if she would resist, but he was firm. He held her cold palm. “I was insensitive.”
“I know I’m thin.” She said. “If you went through what I…” She checked herself. “There, I’ve eaten enough. Wait here while I pop to the loo, OK?”
Standing up, Sarah crumpled the remains of her food into its paper wrap. “Already?” he ventured. “We’ve only been here half an hour!”
She gave him her wryest smile, doing a tiny curtsey. “Sorry. I should have gone before we came out. I suppose the sight of all that water…”
Watching her long back as she hurried towards facilities that personally he would have been reluctant to use, Brendan wondered precisely what Sarah had been through to make her so tired of life. The subject had preoccupied him ever since that first awkward meeting and it worried him more than ever now, as he imagined a growing closeness between them. But he was acutely aware that she would not be rushed into sharing it with him: he had to be patient. He had to gain her trust.
They walked for hours, talking very little, absorbed in the cries of the seabirds and accepting the warm healing of spring as they grew further from the weekend crowds and closer to one another. In those long silent moments when he listened to her feet drift over the short, moistened grass, to the soft rhythm of her breath he felt more at peace than he could remember, as if in their renewed acquaintance he had found a home. Did she feel the same? He could not know – he did know that when he reached for her hand she accepted it; that when he turned to kiss her he found her lips waiting. When he moved away, dismayed at his own boldness, she smiled. He liked to think it was a smile of happiness.
All at once it came upon them both that they had walked several miles. The river was estuary now, the broad sweep of the river bend a distant headland, swathed in evening mist.
“We ought to turn back.” Sarah said a little anxiously. “It’ll be too late to get the car out of the park.”
The park gates were closed at eight pm. Brendan hadn’t thought of this, and he admitted it. She gave him an arch look of half-belief.
They had reached a place where the path led among sand dunes to the head of St. Aidan’s Bay beach, a long swathe of sand and seaweed with its own rather dejected looking seafront shops.
“There’s a hotel. “ He tried to keep his voice casual.
“We could stay here tonight. Walk back in the morning, or get a bus, or something?”
“Or we could phone a taxi?”
“Yes.” He agreed. “We could ‘phone a taxi. But let’s have a meal anyway. I’m starving.”
Sarah surveyed him critically: “Don’t you own a caravan?” she asked.
“No. Whatever makes you think I would?”
“You look like someone who would own a caravan. I’m surprised you didn’t arrange to have it parked here!”
Brendan shook his head. “No, I don’t have a caravan. And why would I park it here?”
Sarah shook her head in mock sadness. “Why?”
The only hotel was a characterless 1950s building that lay across a corner like a sad spaniel. But for the sign proclaiming it to be the Hotel Esplanade it could as well have been a school or even a doctor’s surgery. A few holiday-makers hung listlessly about outside as if they were whitebait on a line, waiting for someone from within doors to reel them in. They edged past a large man whose dress sense would have made Armani weep as he slurped at a dangerous-looking ice cream.
“Hiya!” He said between licks. “Awreet?”
“Yes, thank you – you?”
The restaurant’s ambience matched the rest of the hotel. The tired décor, once a brave, inspired makeover by two young, inspired hopefuls out to make a name for themselves in the world of hospitality, drooped from the walls. Chairs crippled by age, tables scratched and faded. In the company of a few other disappointed gourmets Brendan and Sarah laboured through a potage which defied all description except in terms of its probable vintage.
“Is that really steak?” Sarah asked in a reverential whisper as his main course arrived.
“Is that really lasagne?”
“I’m not sure. Are those real stitches, do you think?”
Never in their brief re-acquaintance had he seen Sarah laugh. A smile or two, maybe, but not the barely suppressed gale of giggling this meal induced. By the time the sweet trolley arrived she was helpless.
“Oh god! Bathroom! Now!”
He paid, and in Sarah’s continued absence, wandered out to the foyer. “Have you any rooms available?” He asked. The middle-aged woman who had served them at table eyed him speculatively. Yes, she had a double with a sea view.
“En suite too. That makes it a little more expensive, I’m afraid.”
Sarah appeared at that moment, looking as though all the humour had fallen away, all the gaps in her personal cloud closed again. She read his enquiring look and shrugged: “Oh yeah, why not?”
“Any luggage?” The woman asked. “Payment in advance then, I’m afraid.”
When Brendan asked for wine to be sent up to their room the woman looked at him as though he had spoken in a foreign language. He imagined it was a facility required only rarely. With his card well and truly swiped he was given a key attached to something leaden and heavy enough to warrant confiscation if ever he tried to board an aircraft with it.
“Fourteen. On the second floor.”
Perhaps it was only in the wake of all the disappointments, but the room was a pleasant surprise. Comparatively clean, so airy and light that Brendan felt his spirits lift, though alas it had no such effect upon Sarah: she stood in the centre of the floor like a clockwork automaton waiting to be rewound. When he moved to kiss her she offered only closed lips, and at his second challenge turned away.
“Sarah?” He began.
“Don’t.” She said. “Not now.”
“Then why are we here?” He asked. She did not reply.
The wine arrived. In the meantime he had discovered a balcony, and with some warmth still left in the evening he coaxed Sarah outside so they could sit in wicker chairs and watch the sea as they drank together.
A long time elapsed before Brendan could gain as much as a word from his companion. Certainly there was no scope for conversation, so he occupied the space by examining his motives. Re-kindling old relationships was a mistake, he had so often told himself, so why was he so determined to pursue this one? True, he had once, literally, fancied the pants off Sarah: yearned for her on solitary nights and yes, practised his arts with her image in his mind sometimes, too; but those were vanished days. The romantic image of her, left behind when they parted after graduation, the picture he had kept, the sound of her voice in his head, all were so different, so altered by the reality of this still, morose woman. Why was he here? How did she stir these feelings in him? Without any valid excuse he had been unreasonably happy in the small pocket of time since he discovered her sitting in wet misery on that wall. He had no justification for it, but it was undeniable.
They were on their third glass of wine and Brendan had already sent for replenishment from below stairs. The sun was making one last effort, dressing the western sky in watercolour tints of salmon and rose.
“It’s a lovely sunset.” He said. He had tried sporadically to open a dialogue with Sarah, without success, and this attempt was, he might have conceded, pretty lame. It was just something to say.
“You’re not good at being quiet, are you?” Sarah murmured. Such questions do not usually require answers, so Brendan said nothing. She stretched herself in her chair as though trying to relax – almost as though the wine was making her want to sleep. “Sometimes I like to wrap myself in silence: oh, it’s not silent really – the cry of birds, people walking by. They’re good sounds you know. The world is learned by listening.” She sipped at her wine. “Are you going to fuck me?” She asked.
He was taken aback. The bluntness, the suddenness of the question, dropped into that pool of reticence and isolation, confounded him so that for a moment he did not know how to answer. He found words at last.
“Do you want me to?” Though if ever a reply needed an affectionate touch, a softness of the voice, a familiarity it was this one, yet he could not find it. He answered acutely aware that he sounded like the accountant he was, asking for a year ending date.
“I don’t know.” Sarah said. “Why will men never give straight answers?”
“Perhaps I just want to know your choice.”
At this point the second bottle of wine arrived and Brendan had to attend to a reluctant waitress clearly more than ready to go home. By the time he returned Sarah had reverted once more to moody introspection. They drank their way into the darkness in a dark silence.
A cold breeze stirred. After lurking beyond the railings for some time, it had ventured at last across the balcony.
“It’s getting cold.” He said. “We should maybe go inside.”
“Okay.” Sarah replied from the gloom. “You’ll have to help me. I’m outrageously pissed.”
This had not occurred to him. Again it was so much at variance with the Sarah he recalled from those parties – a Sarah with a good head for alcohol. But when he struggled from his chair he felt the haze come over his own brain more than a little, so he offered a sympathetic hand and suddenly they were both laughing aloud as he wrestled Sarah to feet which refused to carry her.
“Oh, god! I’m a mess! Carry me to the bed, then.”
So he did. He took Sarah’s feather-light body in his arms, bearing her across the threshold as if this were their first day as one, and laid her on the double bed while he closed the blinds on a gathering night. Had a just or a merciful God been watching then He would have made it so that when he turned to her again Sarah would have been asleep, but she was not: she was waiting.
“Are you going to undress me? I don’t want to sleep in my clothes.”
Her anorak was long gone, hanging in the wardrobe. The t-shirt she wore beneath came easily over her head. What had he expected: skin and bone; bare ribs? He saw the gamine body of a girl which, though still the fair flesh of memory was slender in a way it had never been in those dreams, her small, sweetly rounded breasts there in the real, there in the now. What he saw was as beautiful to him as his recollection, as promising as he could wish.
Now he wished it. Now he wanted her – he wanted her so badly his manhood rose unashamed within the trammels of his jeans and she laughed as she tried to release it with feeble hands, getting her fingers caught in his waistband: he had to disentangle her, unzipping himself before he could turn his attention to her zipped skirt. It came away easily: she loosed her hold on his cock for long enough for him to pull the garment from her, to draw her tights away from panties of red lace that called to him so he could only slip his hand over them, inside them. She was not wet for him, not yet. He would have to work for his prize.
They fell together then, rolled together on the bed. He kissed her mouth, her mouth consumed him: he kissed her breasts – her nipples grew, her flesh hardened. Astride him at last, her hand worked his iron erection so the throbbing climbed right through his body; yet he could draw so little back from her – no willing moisture came in answer to his probing hand, his questing tongue. Eyes closed, Sarah slithered herself to a position where her lips could find him, gently moving, gently mobile, back and forth.
Then, all at once, a tiny flicker. A small discovery, a vital touch, the finding of a place, an awakening.
“Stop-stop-stop! Stop, please?”
No, he didn’t want to stop – not now. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry.” She apologised.
He might have acceded to her demand then, had she not continued moving herself along the length of an erection so desperate for her; had she at least slipped back from his grasp; but she didn’t.
“You really want to stop?” Sarah gave no answer.
“Oh god!” She gasped. Her eyes rolled, then closed as she pressed – just so: just finding that place - something which, once revealed, could never be buried again.
And then it was as though uttering the words relaxed her, for her juices began flowing, sweet and slick, and though she reached down to clutch at her mound she did not reach so far he could not enter her, or even find it possible not to enter her.
Here the sweet path, the warm centre of all being, the way to travel not once, but again, and again, and still again.
Rubbing still: no, not rubbing now but thrusting, jamming down in time with his own trip-hammer thrusts.
Sarah – laughing Sarah, falling onto his chest. Sarah, coming with a scream as his semen ripped itself from him in what was at once the most painful and the most fulfilling moment he had ever known.
“Oh, Brendan! “ Sarah sighed. And he laughed. He laughed for a long time.
He did not remember going to sleep. He remembered waking, and knowing Sarah’s was the head he wanted to find next to him in that nest of auburn hair, with the cares that so beset her smoothed from her face by the balm of sleep. Hers was a face that should always be there – something he had known since their first meeting all those years ago: a knowledge latent in him then but absolutely certain now.
Brendan rolled over, never doubting he would find her slumbering beside him. She was not there.
The man behind the desk looked up. “Your friend? She left an hour ago - ordered a taxi. Do you want breakfast?”
Brendan had persuaded himself that Sarah had gone for a walk. He would find her out on the beach somewhere, breathing in the morning with flames of hair stirred to furnace fervour by the wind or exploring some of the little town’s few other offerings; although it was Sunday, although it was early, he was certain.
So convinced was he that he had hurried to shower and dress. Perhaps she would be waiting for him downstairs, or standing by the rail gazing reflectively across the estuary towards the misted headland on the further side.
Sarah’s ‘phone didn’t answer.
By the time Brendan had walked back to collect his car then returned to his flat it was nearly midday, so he showered again and changed into fresh clothes before he tried Sarah’s phone once more. It was switched off.
Paul Frobisher was already in the bar. Paul and Brendan became friends in a period of mutual need: they shared something in common. Both had been through an acrimonious divorce. They met occasionally through the working week, but almost without fail here, on Sunday lunchtime, at a town centre drinking establishment on Frith Street known as ‘The Teller’s’.
“What are you drinkin’ boy?” Paul was a bluff, florid character with hands like hams and hair that had nearly surrendered. His face had a used look, his voice could be too loud, but his heart was indisputably twenty-four carat. “Been good this week?”
“I’ll go a pint.”
They discussed football: they always did. Then cricket if there was any, then divorce (that subject never died) then life in general.
Paul studied his pint furiously: “Who’s the red-headed bird, Bren?”
Brendan stared at him.
“Saw you out with her yesterday down the park; Podger and me. You didn’t see us, though. What’s her name?”
“Sarah. Her name’s Sarah.”
“Nice looking woman. Bit of a crow, maybe – not your usual type, is she Bren? You liked a bit of meat on them, I thought.”
He smiled. “Oh she’s got enough…”he stopped short of repeating Paul’s description.
“Going anywhere is it?” He felt Paul’s restraint quivering in the air between us. There was something unsaid.
“I can’t answer that.” He responded as truthfully as he could: “I suppose it might. Why, do you know her?”
“No, I don’t.” Paul said. “Podger does, though.”
Brendan left this to hang while he ordered a second round. He needed a space to think. ‘Podger’ (given name Harrison was too much of a mouthful) remained more Paul’s friend than his, but they did meet from time to time. Podger was a policeman.
“What did he say about her?” He asked when the pots had been replenished.
“Oh, he wouldn’t tell me anything. Just that he knows her.”
There could have been no more damning answer for Podger was one of life’s most incorrigible gossips; only forbidden, of course, from discussing police business. Sarah was obviously known to the police.
What an afternoon he spent! Unable to settle to any relaxing activity he walked, following the river through the town for all of its four miles to the canal basin where sheer exhaustion bade him sit on a bench by the water, watching the hired-out narrow boats as they quarrelled among themselves.
She answered his call. “What is it, Brendan?”
He knew – knew by her voice. The sound of dejection was so familiar now he could picture her, downcast eyes, sullen mouth, dismissive of anything that might intrude on her little circle of despair.
“Why did you go?” He asked.
“I couldn’t stay. I had to get back.”
“Sarah, can we…?”
“No. No, Brendan we can’t. How can you even want to?”
“What are you saying?”
“What am I saying? What am I saying?” Was it a pretence at anger? If it was, there was no sound of anger in Sarah’s voice: her words came over the line in a monotone laden with depression and self-loathing. All he could hear was hopelessness. “It was disgusting! I felt so despicably unclean. How could you do that to someone? How could you?”
“Wait a minute!” I protested. “What exactly did I do, Sarah?”
“You know what you did. You know. You knew I was drunk and you took advantage of me.”
“I did no such thing! You wanted it, Sarah, as much as I did. You could have stopped at any time.”
“How can you say that? I was out of my head. You used me.” Still, though the condemnation was in her words, they were expressed without any hint of emotion.
He felt – what – angry, betrayed, or merely bewildered? “Sarah, you wanted to stay. You did what you did because you wanted it.”
“No. No, no, no.”
“Brendan I don’t want to see you anymore. Is that understood? Don’t call me.” Her ‘phone went dead.
The next morning on his way to work he sent Sarah flowers. He sent them the next day, and the next day, and the next, until the florist told him she was refusing to accept their delivery.
“Can’t you leave them on her doorstep?”
“She’s told us not to leave them on her doorstep.”
So he relented, began trying to forget his days with Sarah. And so it might have ended. A week passed, then two. He found himself going over that night time after time, repeating the events in his head as he attempted to piece together an understanding of what had happened between them. Finally, though, he could only conclude that she had been so drunk she had forgotten herself: in the cold light of morning, Sarah must have been genuinely revolted by the recollection of the previous night. As for him? Well, he persuaded myself he was neutral about it: sex came into his life only rarely, and after all, he was just the accountant , greyest of the grey. It was entirely understandable she should reject him. Anyway, it was immaterial now.
Life settled back into dreary routine: Brendan’s work at the accountancy firm from Monday to Friday, long weekends of drinking and football. He avoided Butcher’s Hill, even stripped Sarah’s number from his ‘phone, so it didn’t recognise the caller when the ring came.
“Brendan? I wouldn’t have called you. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry. I’m sorry….”
“Where are you?”
“At home: I’m at home.”
The doctor on call regarded Brendan with the tired expression of someone who has seen just a little too much life for their years. He could have been scarcely twenty-five years old.
“She didn’t tell you what she took?”
“She didn’t tell me anything.” Brendan replied. “She was unconscious when I found her. There were the two bottles on the bathroom basin – I gave them to the nurse.”
“Then you weren’t with her when she lost consciousness?”
“I told you. She ‘phoned me – she sounded panicky, like she realised she’d done something to herself and she was afraid. I broke into her flat, and discovered her on the kitchen floor. I called an ambulance. That’s it.”
“You said you were her partner…”
“I said no such thing. I said we were friends, that’s all.”
Admittedly Brendan was out of temper by this time. Three hours on a hard waiting area chair with tasteless coffee and magazines unlikely to appeal to his taste had sharpened the edge of his impatience to whetstone keenness. It was now past midnight and therefore officially Thursday. Sarah’s call had come at about half-past-eight, but by the time he had dragged the tenant of the downstairs flat to her door (“Is sommat wrong? I heard a bump.”) then bruised his shoulder forcing his way into Sarah’s apartment it was almost nine.
“Will she be all right?” He asked the doctor.
“As far as we can tell – we’re keeping her in. A specialist can have a look at her in the morning.”
“Can I see her?”
“She’s sleeping. You might just as well go home. Who’s her next of kin, do you know?”
Brendan didn’t know. Oh, he knew she had parents who had lived in Wiltshire, back in university days, but he had never met them or learned their address. Could well have moved by now, or split up – these were uncertain times.
He trudged wearily into the cold embrace of night rain, telling himself he should have walked straight past that lonely figure who sat at the bus stop; that he should have let the past be the past. And yet, infuriating as it might be, he had let Sarah into a corner of his life now. She was sitting there, a small hunched being who was his friend once and would be again. He could not walk away, no matter how strongly his good sense advised it: no, he could not do that.
In fact, he went back to Sarah’s flat. He had broken in, after all, he told himself, and he should at least be sure it was secure. The keys he had found hanging on the hooks in the hall – Sarah’s door keys, were in his pocket. Truthfully, though, his reasons were all to do with finding out more about Sarah, for in the panic of her discovery, lying there so still, he had learned very little. The flat was a disorganised extension of Sarah herself: the furniture covered in mood colours, dark reds, blues and browns. The television screen was covered in dust, there were cobwebs in every corner, a pool of her vomit on the floor, but for all that it was not an unclean place.
There were no pictures, anywhere.
Her bedroom was untidy, clothes strewn around, panties and tights, blouses, t-shirts, a pair of jeans. The bed lay unmade, her form in slumber a gentle impression in the sheets. A dressing table with a single mirror in polished pine, an armchair, a rail for hanging clothes – pitifully few clothes, but well chosen. There was the green dress she wore for their first outing, the skirt and t-shirt he had taken from her body on their one night together: the one night on which he was placing so much meaning it would have to hurt him. He could not expose so much of himself upon so little encouragement and remain unscathed.
There was a chest in the corner by the bed. Something lurked in Brendan that had never been good at taking the responsible course: of course he should have left the drawers of that chest alone – should never have probed. But he did. The underwear drawer held some racy alternatives, but nothing unexpected; the draw beneath a selection of T-shirts and bras, even a pair of shorts. Then he opened the smaller top drawer……
“Now then, mate, what are you up to, eh?”
The policeman had come through the door behind him almost soundlessly: a remarkable feat for so big a man. A woman police constable stood at his right shoulder, looking grim. Neither of them seemed to think Brendan represented any threat to them, which, to be honest, he didn’t, although he might have embarrassed them with a major heart attack. He jumped out of his skin.
“Look, I – I know what this must look like…”
“You’re right, mate. It looks exactly like it.”
“I just came in to secure the front door – the owner’s in hospital, you see, and…”
“The front door,” The WPC said heavily; “Is through there. What you’ve got your fingers in is not a front door, is it?”
“I know her, the tenant. She called me and I found her here, on the floor. She was…ill.” Brendan babbled. “I called the ambulance for her.” There was something he did not say. Maybe it was the shock – the shock of his discovery in that top drawer. ‘See?’ He could have said: ‘She knows me. Here, in this drawer, see? She has this large photograph of me.’
Brendan did not say it; the consequence of which was a visit to the local constabulary and a few more hours spent waiting on a hard seat; this time for Podger to come in specially on his off-duty night to identify him and get him out. He made a statement which, when he thought back upon it, must have sounded utterly unbelievable, but the constable who had arrested him was clearly so anxious to get him off his workload the doors opened with scarcely any difficulty. More or less wordlessly, Podger drove Brendan back to his car.
He thanked Podger, and was getting out of his car door.
“Are you getting involved with this lass?” Podger asked.
Brendan glanced back at him. “I dunno. I don’t think so.”
“That means yes.”
“She’s an old college friend. I never thought I’d see her again after graduation. She seems to need help. But you know that, don’t you? Is she known to the police?”
“That’s something you shouldn’t expect me to answer, Bren. Look mate, be careful, OK?”
Though Brendan pressed him to go further, Podger wouldn’t elaborate on his words. They said goodnight and he returned to his car. He drove home deep in thought. His recollections of Sarah the undergraduate were of a quite uncomplicated girl, someone with the usual aspirations for her future – she wanted to become a solicitor one day – someone with the healthy appetites of youth. Very intelligent, yes, and liberated so her horizons were far and undefined, but not someone who would wind up in a dingy flat in a dingy northern town: not someone who should be ‘known to the police’. There was little or nothing then to suggest the enigmatic, complex character he made love to on that hotel bed; the wheels within wheels that turned inside her, or the agonies he was sure she was going through.
He consoled (if that is the word) himself with the memory that she had declared them ‘over’ after that strange night, and it was therefore unlikely he would hear more; but he didn’t believe himself even then. When Sarah had needed help she had called him. Sarah, who kept a large, framed photograph of him in the top drawer of her chest – not a recent picture, but the cap and gown portrait taken at their graduation, five years ago.
Later the same morning after a short fitful sleep he would go to work. He would go through the motions of a day, ploughing into the pile of paperwork which earned his daily bread, and he would think of Sarah, of the less tangible pile of secrecy that seemed to wrap itself about her. And when five o’clock came he promised himself he would drop by the hospital to pay her a visit, and somehow he found reasons why he should not. Thursday became Friday – still he found reasons: she had said she did not want to see him again; he would be putting his head into a noose – he would be responsible, liable. As an accountant Brendan was well versed in liability.
On Saturday morning his ‘phone belled him from sleep.
“I’m out.” Sarah said. “Out of hospital, that is. I thought I should call you.”
“Are you OK?” He asked, trying to hedge any concern from his voice. “You were quite unwell.”
“You took my keys.”
“Yes, I wanted to make sure your door would lock after I damaged it. The police have got them.”
“Oh, that’s all right; they gave them back to me…”
“The police came to see you?”
“Interview me, Brendan. At least, I believe that’s the expression.”
“Suspicious circumstances? Like, some of the pills I took aren’t exactly on the approved drugs list, you know? Never mind about that. Brendan, did you go through my things?”
“Have they charged you?” He asked, stalling.
“Perhaps: it doesn’t matter. Did you go through my things?”
“No.” He lied. He had to lie.
“Are you sure you want to stand by that answer?”
“Yes. I mean, no, I didn’t go through anything of yours. Why would I?”
Silence - a speechless moment. Then the ‘phone went dead.
There should have been more time to digest that strange conversation – to try and sort out for himself the odd cadences and dulled tones of Sarah’s voice and yes, of course he understood how important it was to her to find out what he had discovered – if he had opened that drawer. Had his team not been playing away that Saturday, and had he not been designated driver for the journey, he would surely have thought about it much more: as it was, he had just time to dress and get a round of toast before collecting the car and driving to Paul Frobisher’s house. From then until they arrived home late in the evening football ruled. They spoke of nothing else.
“It was a bloody sad affair.” Paul said into his pint in ‘The Tellers’ the next day. “More like a wake than a match.”
Brendan suppressed his amusement, remembering Paul’s extremely animated ninety minutes at the match. “They don’t play their best at that ground: they never have.” He agreed.
“You’re still going out with the red-headed bird, then?” Paul asked, in what sounded like a rhetorical question. He and Podger had obviously been communicating.
“Well, no, actually.” Brendan recounted the events of the last few days with the careful omission of certain details: “I think we’re history.”
“Probably for the best.” Paul said. “Women like that…. They should have played bloody Retter! How much did they pay for him? Your round, Bren.”
‘Women like that….’
Women like what, Brendan wondered? What was it that always remained unsaid whenever Sarah was discussed? ‘Probably for the best’ – probably; but for himself I could feel nothing but regret.
Brendan was not religious: the mysteries of the universe had always been better explained for him as miracles of nature rather than the act of some sublime power that also somehow knew him personally and listened whenever he complained. Having said which, Sunday afternoons were a sacred time as far as he was concerned, his living room was a sanctified place as holy as any church, and his pews were a great deal more comfortable: he worshipped there statically for several hours, rarely moving before the Pizza takeaway opened at six o’clock. Imagine his chagrin therefore when, at half-past-two, his doorbell rang.
A lithe, almost exquisitely-proportioned female form stood in the doorway, long blonde hair riffling gently in the breeze, full lips spread in a sweet smile across even teeth, eyes squinting slightly into the darker recesses of his home as she tried to discern every detail of the paraphernalia that surrounded him.
“Angela. What a pleasure.”
“Oh, come on! At least look a little bit happy to see me?” Angela had this trick. Her expression could change almost within the second without any obvious alteration of her features. The narrowed eyes could widen to green ovals that might weep, her mouth might pout dejectedly, her small chin tuck under by just a fraction: from happy to sad, from grateful to resentful. In their few years of marriage Brendan had never been sure if her feelings went any deeper than could be expressed by her face. When he thought about it, he never really knew her at all.
“Of course I’m happy to see you.” He said, managing to sound as joyless as possible. “You’d better come in.”
She wafted past, allowing just enough time for her scent to reach him. The same effortlessly elegant figure, not quite so tall as to appear haughty or disdainful, dressed in a sweater and jeans that fitted her form to perfection yet contrived to appear as if she had thrown them on in a minute. This was untrue. A great deal of money was invested in that look, and a great deal of time. These were memories that he had preferred to put into cold storage – now here she was, waking them up again.
Angela glanced around his living room. “Oh, my god!” She said.
“Do you want some tea, or something?” He suggested. “I was just getting my head down for the afternoon.” This rather pointedly; but he could see he was in for a visit.
“Yes, I’d love some if you’re making?” She tried to avoid looking as if she was in danger of accepting poison.
Brendan retired to the kitchen to launch the kettle. Behind him he could almost feel Angela snooping about the room. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. “What brings you all the way up here?” He called through the open door. “Alright its only thirty miles, but I can’t recall you on my frequent visitor list.”
“Is this yours?” She called back from her inventory.
“What, the house? I rent it. Why?”
“Oh, I just wondered.”
“How’s my house getting along?”
“Very well. We rent it out.” Her voice was closer – she was behind him, inspecting the kitchen. “Are those cups really clean?”
“They certainly are. What do you want, Ange?”
“Want? Nothing.” Beside him now, staring at the kettle as steam began to hang over its spout in a swirl of mist. “It’s just – well, I thought we agreed – when we parted, you know – I thought we agreed we could still be friends? “
“Yes, I remember. That was just before you took me for everything I owned; house, car….”
“Oh, Brendan! That was all so long ago! Can’t we put it behind us?”
“Rather easier, I imagine, for you to do than for me. If you no longer want the house, for instance, can I have it back?” The steam was rising in billows. He poured the water.
“No. You aren’t still angry with me?” He was getting the petulant expression. He knew this, even though he was not looking in Angela’s direction. “Can’t we be friends? I used to so enjoy our moments together!”
Outright laughter would have been rude, so Brendan contented himself with a private smile. All the same, he couldn’t help wondering what this was leading to. Then Angela changed the subject.
“Actually,” she said in her breathiest voice’ “actually I know this is rather coarse of me Bren but could I just dash to your loo? I’m afraid I’m the teensiest bit desperate?”
“Sure.” He said, without elaborating.
“Erm?” He heard her hesitate, the slight tread of her feet as she shifted from one to the other. When he offered nothing more, she simply said: “Thanks. You’re a darling!” and hurried away. He heard her feet scampering on his stairs, trotting briskly along the landing: doors opening, doors closing. A distant: “Oh God!” Then returning feet that were even more anxious than before. Angela came back into the kitchen, glaring at him.
“Alright. Where is it?”
“Where’s what?” He was so enjoying his little torture.
He could not resist a final jab. “Oh, you mean the nettie! It’s out in the yard; I share it with next door: you know, these northern houses…” He tried to imagine the picture he was conjuring in her mind, make it as real for him as it was for her: the darkness, the spiders, the smell….. “You can use a cup if you like. I often do.” He glanced at the tea he had made for her. “Oh, but you’re already using it....”
For a second or two he had her going. Angela stood staring whitely at him. But then he never could keep a straight face for long, and just the sight of her in so much distress was too comical to bear. The moment his lips twitched into a smile….
“Ok, ok! You’ve had your joke. You’d better be joking Bren because if not I’m going to have an accident on your kitchen floor. Now where is it?”
He had been in part telling her the truth. The old nettie was still out in the back yard, reincarnated as a shed. The landlord had converted the house to indoor plumbing though – now some years ago – and as was often the case with small houses, had chosen to add the bathroom to the end of the kitchen, rather than lose limited space upstairs.
Angela made a dash.
He called after her: “Do you want the hairdryer?”
“Don’t be vulgar!” There was an interval before Angela, chastened, reappeared in the toilet doorway.
“I’m a bastard.” Brendan said. “Remember? You told me, several times – before you left with Stamford, that is. Then you told me how generous you were sure I’d be because it wasn’t in my nature to make you suffer.”
Angela allowed herself a twisted smile. “I’m not entirely without humour, Bren. You weren’t so bad.”
A tiny spark of suspicion formed in Brendan’s mind. “How is dear old Stamford?” He asked.
Stamford: wealthy, debonair in a way, with distinguished grey hair that receded just enough – a partner in the firm he was working with then who plucked his wife from his arm and proved to him, if he ever needed proof, that money can open certain women’s legs with ruthless efficiency. Angela and he were struggling in those days. Stamford offered a smoother path and Angela took it.
“Oh, he’s fine.” She murmured. He proffered the tea he had made her: she glanced up at him before accepting it. “It’s alright.” He said. “I was messing with you.”
“Look, Bren, this has started off all wrong. I wanted to build bridges, you see? I was…” She left the sentence hanging. “Can’t we be friends?”
“Perhaps,” he suggested slowly: “our relationship shouldn’t have gone any further than friendship in the first place?
“See here, Ange; we lasted two years – just two years. I don’t remember too many halcyon days even then. And you took me to the cleaners just a bit too effectively for me to forget. So I don’t know if we can be friends – I don’t know if we shouldn’t both just call it quits and move on?”
She said quietly: “Have you? Moved on, I mean?”
“In many ways, yes. Maybe not in the sense you mean.”
Angela moved closer to him, her crestfallen expression at its most refined. “And you’re telling me you never felt anything for me?”
“Of course I’m not saying that.”
“I never excited you, just a little?” Her hand passed fleetingly across the front of his pants. “Hmmm. I believe I may have detected a bit of a semi, there…”
“Now who’s being vulgar?”
She altered instantly: her face filled with delighted laughter. “I’m only teasing you, darling. You always were a rampant pig.”
“I don’t remember you complaining.” He said. “Can we change the subject?”
And they did. They took their tea together and engaged in refined conversation about their mutual past, touching occasionally upon wider issues.
“Are you still obsessed with football?”
And so it was for about an hour, as the afternoon wasted away, measuring itself in creeping shadow – yellow sun on red carpet; warm words on a cold platter of history best forgotten, claims best left unmade. At last Angela rose to go, brushing her hands over the tight lines of her denim-clad bottom and posing for a moment in the way she knew the light treated her best. She was permitting Brendan to see, through the loose knit of her sweater, a hint of unfettered breast against the sunlight. She bent down for a fleeting instant, pretending to adjust the ‘sit’ of her jeans. Her breast hung there, no more than a shade, but he caught a glimpse of her through the weave.
“Can I come and see you again, Bren?” Their hug was a touch longer than it should have been. Cool cheek, remembrances of when it was hot and red with fire.
“If you want to.” Brendan replied.
A brief smile, a little wistful, maybe: “It would be nice.”
He watched her as she walked out to her car, ever graceful, calling after her: “Stamford. He’s left you, hasn’t he?”
Angela didn’t answer or look back.
That night Brendan struggled for sleep that wouldn’t come. Angela’s visit kept re-running in his mind, reviving a string of episodes from a time in his life he had, until that day, convinced himself were better forgotten: after all, there was no lack of anger at the way his ex-wife had treated him, discarded him when fortune suited her like some shelled crustacean whose essence had been consumed. He had stopped hating her long ago: no-one should waste their lives in bitterness that way, but there was a distaste left behind which he thought would defend him against ever making those fundamental mistakes again – he thought. Then she walked back into his world and every part of her was temptation and yes, she was so right: he did have a semi – it lasted from the moment she arrived to the moment she left. Memories of Angela’s body: every detail engraved upon his mind - he could have faulted it once - not now, any more than he could remove her image from his consciousness, or sleep because of it. The hours were long until dawn.
Monday was being Monday in ways only Monday can: rain running in the gutters, splashing the paving stones, forming in puddles and lakes among the unkempt slabs. Greyer than grey sky celebrating its victory over the sun with a wind just sturdy enough to bend tree-branches, dropping their collected waterfall over neglectful wage-servants who, like himself, would walk rather than take their car for the short trip to work. Truthfully, Brendan supposed, he gained a perverse enjoyment from such conditions, a lust for the wake-up call of rain on his face, the patter and noise of the pavements, the clack of brisk, hurrying heels, the battle of the umbrella. Had he been less self-absorbed, he might have noticed the man earlier: as it was, he had turned the corner onto Merton Hall Road before he became aware of the old-fashioned beige raincoat beneath a big black brolly plodding furtively behind him. When he turned again, up the narrow alley he always used as a shortcut to Sweetly Lane, the raincoat and brolly turned after him.
There were few other people in the Alley. Brendan could pick out the sound of the man’s wet tread in soft-soled, informal shoes. Or was it just his imagination? For some reason, he could not turn around and look – the hairs on his neck bristled, his breath came faster. He increased his pace.
Sweetly Lane - just beyond the corner of the alley there was a sweet shop and off-licence. He ducked inside, hoping to find cover among a gathering of shoppers, only to find the place empty – cavernously empty.
“Yes, can I help you?” The young man behind the counter was solicitous.
“Just a second….” Brendan said lamely, attempting to hide behind an island unit and fiddling meaninglessly with a row of birthday cards: ‘For my Darling Mother’ – he dared not contemplate how ridiculous he looked.
The man passed by the window, and though he was no more than a dozen paces away Brendan could not see his face because the umbrella shielded it as he went by. A man of maybe forty years, as he might judge from his gait – certainly not old, or if he was, very fit with not a trace of extra weight. Those incongruous clothes which had first given him away, far too ‘City’ for Brendan’s relaxed northern home town, fitted him perfectly: they were good clothes, possibly even tailored specially for him. But then, on his feet, a pair of black deck shoes which matched with precisely nothing else about him. They were soggy with rain, and they squelched.
“Can I help you?” The young assistant repeated, this time with a trace of suspicion in his voice. Brendan must have seemed very odd indeed to him.
“Erm, yes.” He stumbled. “Twenty Regal please.”
He completed the transaction, rummaging for change. He had just bought twenty cigarettes and he did not smoke.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” Brendan hesitated. The young man smiled, crossing to the shop window to glance up and down the Lane. “I think the other gentleman has gone, sir?”
“Thank you.” Brendan said, gratefully. “I don’t suppose you have a back way out of here, do you?”
More firmly: “No, sir.”
The stalker, if that is what he was, did not reappear. Brendan walked the rest of his way to work, turning his head every twenty yards to look behind him, always with the sensation that the man was somewhere close by; and for the rest of that morning he worked in spasms between excuses for going to the window, sure somehow that he was out there, certain he was watching him.
“Lunch?” Penny asked. “You have issues to impart.”
The two of them shared an office. Penny had been with the firm longer than he – a woman in her early thirties, skilled in corporate accounts, but underused. They were colleagues rather than friends, although much of their discourse was of a nature too personal for most work-based relationships. Brendan respected Penny’s opinion in most things, and he believed she had a certain regard for his.
“It’s that obvious?” He asked.
“Plain as a pikestaff, Bren dear - and I choose my simile with care. Who is she?”
“Angela? Oh lord!”
The bistro was on Frith Street, no more than a hundred yards from the office. They took lunch there, maybe two or three times in the working week. It was a pleasant, airy place owned by a Greek couple who were sensitive to their business market; they championed the ‘interesting sandwich’ and took care with their healthier options. Even in this backwoods town there were scores of vegetarians and vegans willing to travel for good food.
“Are you worried about being seen with me?” Penny asked as they worked their way into club sandwiches.
“God no. Why should I be?”
“You keep looking out of the window. You’re skulking.”
Brendan recounted the events of the morning, trying to make them sound as plausible as he could. When he had finished, Penny stared at him, then laughed.
“That’s unkind.” He said.
“Something beginning with ‘P’ Bren.”
“Perception?” He offered.
“No. This ‘P’ is more of a psychological condition, I think. I take it there is no-one out there, now, is there?”
Brendan shook his head.
“There you are, then. But if you want a home for that packet of ‘Regal’…”
Nonetheless lunch was a nervous affair. Brendan tried to concentrate as he related the broad details of Angela’s visit, his attention all the while straying to people beyond the glass. More than once he thought he detected a loitering figure across the street, or up the street, or down. Once or twice he even believed that they were watching him, but each time his suspicions were removed: a sturdy-looking guy in a blue anorak who hung shiftily around a lamp-post just a little further up on the far side was given a lift by a woman in a black Volkswagen; a smaller, wand-like man in Chinos and beard met with a similar friend and they walked off together. His explanations had moved on to Sarah. He had not noticed what he was saying.
Eventually his train of thought drifted to one of those lame stops that happen when mental tiredness sets in. He gave Penny an apologetic shrug. “I’m being a pain.”
“Not at all.” She was smart, was Penny; clinically concise in her approach to life. She could strip away artifice from an argument like the peel from a ripe orange, only interested in the essential flesh within. “The downside is sex.” She said.
“It always is.”
She pursed her lips. “No, not always. Think back to the days when you first met: what attracted you to Angela? Was it her appearance? Did you befriend her first or go to bed with her first? You needn’t answer, just think about it. Then place Sarah in the same boxes – were you friends or lovers?”
She was right. He didn’t have to answer. “OK, but Sarah – there are so many complications, so many questions. What if the answers lead me somewhere I don’t want to go?”
“Show me an uncomplicated woman and I’ll show you a nun. I’m not suggesting you pursue this girl, although you seem to be implying that you want to and if she’s worth that then she’s at least worth the wait to find out what your answers are. That would be the time to decide. Angela, though: Angela seems to me to be a lover rather than a friend. Your loins are leading you, Bren dear. If you fought like cats the first time you tried to live together, what on earth makes you think now would be any different?”
“Of course Angela might not want to get back with me. Her reasons might be exactly what she said they were.”
“That I rather doubt. From what you‘ve told me, Angela would appear to be quite a focussed young woman. She’d be unlikely to waste time with a social contact, especially with an ex.”
Penny was right, of course. His loins were leading him – they always had. From his first fumbling attempts at sex to that fateful day when Angela and he crossed paths relationships had been relentlessly physical: only Sarah could be said to have excepted that rule. His marriage to Angela should have taught him a lesson: the trouble was, it hadn’t. He still wanted her, wanted her so much that it hurt – wanted her so acutely that walking down a street he dared not think of her for fear his desire would become obvious – that was how crudely blatant it could be. Her reappearance had conjured up all those old images, all those ‘first times’, like the first time he cupped one of those perfect breasts in his hand, the first time he kissed those lips, the first….. Walking home that night he had to dispel each remembered ‘first’ from his mind, only to have them come snapping back at his heels like some beautiful blonde hound. Gentle eyes that wanted, silken thighs that taunted……. He had learned something important about himself from Penny that day. He could forget all the fights, all the sarcasm, the constant indebtedness, even the infidelity if he could only have the body that brought them to him in his bed again. They would all be forgiven. Such is the way of man.
The week passed slowly; the usual round of work, sleep and television dragged by. He went to the gym as he always did on Tuesday night, again on Thursday. On Friday morning Penny reminded him of a conference they were supposed to attend in Sheffield the following week. There was no sign of his stalker and he persuaded himself the whole thing had been a figment of a tired or over-active imagination. Life settled back into stultifying routine.
By Friday evening Brendan could stand the silence of his personal lambs no longer: having tried Sarah’s number and found it out of service, he dragged his car out of its garage and drove across town to the street on Butchers Hill. There was a light in Sarah’s flat. Taking a deep breath, he rang her doorbell. After an interval steps sounded from beyond the door, a clumsy hand scuffled with the latch, the doorway filled with light as a squat female figure in a floral apron stared out.
“’Oo are you?” She demanded, squinting into the half-light.
“I’m looking for Sarah.” Brendan replied, taken aback by the woman’s aggressive stance: “Sarah Mullins – is she in, do you know?”
“Nah.” The woman said. “She don’t live ‘ere no more.”
He was lost for words.
“She’ve gone; and good riddance. You’re lucky to catch me ‘ere, cleanin’ up after the bitch.” Said the woman, without altering her expression. “Don’t want her sort ‘ere. Two months, she owes me. Place is a mess, too. You tell ‘er!”
“Did she leave a forwarding address?”
The woman snorted: “Forwarding address? A girl like ‘er? You’re having a laugh, aren’t yer? That sort leaves in the middle of the night, that sort do. You tell ‘er, when you sees ‘er. I want my rent. I’ll find ‘er eventual, mind. I always does!”
The door slammed.
Why, he would ask himself afterwards, was he so surprised? The clues had been there. Sarah’s vagueness about her employment, her untidy, minimal lifestyle, the drugs, the police interest, even the very direct question that led them into bed together; these things all pointed towards this landlady’s obvious suggestion as to Sarah’s morality – was she a user? Could she even be a prostitute? God, how could he have been so stupid? Why did he not see it?
Yet when he stepped back a little further he found it difficult to accept a working girl image of Sarah. Many changes might have been wrought in the frank, very suggestible girl he once spent time with, but this surely was one step too far. The idea of Sarah selling herself just would not fit. There had to be some other explanation – but what? It was a question that took him deep into the recesses of that night, and would have troubled him a lot longer, had he not been diverted by a knock on his own door first thing the following morning.
Although Brendan had never seen his face, even though the clothes he wore today were different, he had no doubt: the man standing on his front step was the same man who followed him on a morning five days since. There was a certain gift in his posture, a certain way of standing. It could only be him. Yet the face before Brendan was not unkind, the smile quite open and genuine - a wide, almost impish grin: full, tanned cheeks that creased beneath the lower lids of eyes narrowed by a lifetime of salt winds or arctic blasts. His chin was sturdy and firm, his neck, disappearing today into the collar of a red polo shirt, short and strong. If Brendan had paused to guess he would have hazarded he was a seaman, perhaps ex-navy, but the surprise and alarm his visitor engendered set him upon a different course.
“What do you want?” Brendan’s nervousness must have come out in his voice, because the man held up a large hand in a placatory gesture.
“It’s alright, Mr. Martin. It is Mr. Martin, isn’t it? Can I come inside? I won’t keep you long.”
“Who are you?”
“Oh, yes, of course.” The man reached into his khaki cargos and produced a metal badge which he flashed quickly before returning it to its pocket. “The name’s Smythe-Carpenter. Stanley Smythe-Carpenter.”
By some device Stanley Smythe-Carpenter had already inveigled his way into the hall. “I know it’s a mouthful. My mother wouldn’t give up her maiden name, you see? She was a lady, my mother. You haven’t got it, have you? If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady? Never mind, Mr. Martin. It doesn’t matter.”
Mr. Martin found his tongue. “Can I see that identity again, please?”
“Well I already showed it to you, didn’t I?”
“I’d like to see it again.”
Stanley Smythe-Carpenter did not comply immediately. He stood regarding Brendan with a smile somewhere between the sardonic and the guilty, emitting his breath in a whistle from between closed teeth. “All right, you got me. It usually works, that, you know.”
“Not this time. Will you please leave?”
“It’s a bus-driver’s badge.”
“I thought it was. Are you a bus driver?”
“Then I return to my initial request. Will you please leave?”
“Give me a chance?” Stanley Smythe-Carpenter pleaded. The dynamic of this interview was much changed. Brendan felt equal to this strong bull of a man, even in control. “I only want to ask you a couple of questions.” He added hopefully.
“Look, Mr. Smythe….”
“Call me Stan. It saves time.”
“Look, Stan, its half past seven on a Saturday morning. I’m not usually awake this early. Hardly a civilised hour for cold calling - what are you, some sort of salesman?”
“We both know that isn’t true.” Stan dropped the words in heavily and with sudden authority. The dynamic was threatening to alter again.
“Alright.” Brendan sighed resignedly. “Let’s get back to those first questions – who are you and what do you want?”
Stan had somehow reached Brendan’s lounge, where he was perching himself comfortably on the arm of his leather chair. “Is anyone else listening, Mr. Martin?”
“In other words, am I alone in the house? Yes, I am. Can we get on with it?”
The visitor did not seem in the least fazed by Brendan’s hostility but worked comfortably within it. Adverse reactions were clearly something he was used to. He ferreted in another pocket, producing a photograph. “Do you recognise this person?”
With a hand determined to shake despite his determination to steady it, Brendan reached for the small print Stan offered, dreading to discover whose likeness might be there. He must have stared at the picture for ten seconds or more before handing it back.
“That’s a ridiculous question.” He said, though his voice had adopted a timbre of its own. “Of course I do.”
The tone of Stan’s reply was sympathetic: he asked quietly: “Can you give me any information concerning this person’s whereabouts, Mr. Martin?”
Angela’s smiling face hung between them for a few seconds, held by Stan’s fingers and Brendan’s.
“I assume,” Brendan said carefully, “That at this time of the morning she’s at home with her husband.”
“Well, that’s the thing, Mr. Martin. You see, she isn’t.”
“That’s absurd!” Brendan said stupidly. “I mean, where is she?”
“Now there’s where I hoped you might be able to help, sir. When she left you last weekend, have you any idea where she went?”
“Home? I have no idea.” This was true, at least. He had no ideas at all. Though his mind was charging waist-deep through a cornfield of ideas, nothing made sense. “Who wants to know?”
“Her husband, among others. She’s not here, I take it?”
“No.” He answered rather too quickly: “No, she’s not here.”
Stan raised himself to his feet. “Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Martin. I have to explore all possible avenues, you understand. If you hear anything, or if she returns here, I wonder if you’d mind giving us a call?” A card came from yet another pocket. “This is my number – any hour, day or night, sir.”
Brendan followed Stanley Smythe-Carpenter to the door. “What sort of trouble is she in?” He asked.
“Trouble, Mr. Martin? Did I say she was in any trouble? Just call us if you see her, or better yet, ask her to call us. Good day to you, now. I’m sorry you had to be disturbed.”
With the thoughts in his brain racing around in circles and eyes hurting from so much unaccustomed early light, Brendan did the only thing that still made sense. He went back to bed.
‘Carter’s Investigations.’ The card said. He showed it to Paul when they met in ‘The Tellers’.
“They didn’t waste money producing that, did they?” Paul commented. “I should let Podger have a look at it. He’ll be in later.”
His morning had been spent poring over the Internet, trawling sites he knew Angela liked to visit. Her familiar passwords had been eliminated; her membership removed from every interest group. In the end he had to admit that she appeared to have wanted to drop from view. One of the early casualties of their separation had been his relationship with Angela’s parents who not unnaturally sided with their daughter so he could expect no information from them, even if Mr. Smythe-Carpenter had somehow omitted that line of investigation. With no number for his ex-wife, Brendan came to the end of a blind alley. Angela Ballard had vanished.
“What is it about the women in your relationships that they all have to disappear?” Paul enquired when he filled him in on the story of Sarah. Paul leaned closer to him. “Christ! It must be that breath!”
Podger never arrived. They might find out later that he had an extended duty, or some sort of emergency cropped up, something that often happened. It was a Sunday kick-off that week so when two o’clock struck they abandoned ‘The Teller’s’, Paul and he, and went their separate ways. Brendan spent his afternoon walking by the river, retracing his steps on that sensual afternoon with Sarah. Somehow he could not go home, because home just meant inactivity and worry. For a few years now he had no women in his life, and no worry. Now he had two, and he was worried to death.