DAVID MATHEW AND D.F. LEWIS
‘Look at this way,’ said Carol. ‘How many among our circle can honestly say that a world-famous actor has seen our tits? You should feel proud.’
‘It was embarrassing,’ said Helene.
‘You’ve told me that. But what you haven’t said is… what does he look like in the flesh. Face lift?’
‘He’s only thirty-seven!’
‘But a world-famous actor,’ Carol reminded her.
Helene smiled. There was absolutely no point in declining to humour Carol. ‘I saw no evidence of a face lift,’ she said. ‘He smelt of tanning lotion. Can I have one of those?’
Helene reached for the smokes on the coffee table. She lit it up.
Carol was still pontificating on the coincidence. ‘Of all the tits on that beach… which was how many, do you think?’
‘Pairs or individuals?’ asked Helene.
‘A thousand? Two? He came to you, Helene. You had a draw.’
‘I had a watch,’ Helene corrected. ‘He wanted to know the time, remember? He didn’t want to be late to Communion.’
‘So that funny little quirk of yours paid off.’
‘It’s not a quirk. It was Mike’s watch. I never take it off.’
‘And that’s got nothing to do with wanting to show off your tan and your story when you get back from somewhere.’
Mildly annoyed by the suggestion, Helene took her time exhaling a bridge of smoke up towards the expensive light fixtures. She noticed a tiny spider in the corner of the room. ‘If it was just a tan I was after I could have gone to the HeartLines Club. You know why I went.’
Tit-tock, tick-tot… Helene remembered his voice. It didn’t sound at all like the one he used on the screen, when he was that gigantic figure, looming. It was brittler, squeakier. On cinema walls he was a guttural guru that could brown-nut any female into bed.
And as for being late to Communion… Communion with whom, she was bound to wonder. Or with what? Mike had always said that famous people didn’t exist at all except in the dreamed-of optima that their fans (as a force) brought into being with the strength of their admiration. Their fans created every bottom morsel of these beach-strutting beasts. Then again, Mike had always had too many words in his head. Often the wrong ones, too.
A watch being a ‘quirk’, however, was not a settled issue.
‘Everyone wears watches,’ said Helene, as she watched the spider turn into a speck of shadow above the pelmet. ‘Why would he claim to use a watch as an excuse to get a closer look at my tits?’
‘It wasn’t just any watch, was it?’ said Carol. ‘It was Mike’s. The one he wore when he was killed. The one he was wearing when every damn bone in his body was broken. The one that’s still in one piece…’
Helene couldn’t stand the memory. ‘You have the sensitivity of a baboon sometimes,’ she said.
Carol shrugged. ‘So when are you seeing him again?’ she asked.
Helene laughed. ‘You tell me. You’re the one thinks I’ve got a draw.’
The holiday in Greece had been over for four days; Helene’s apartment had welcomed her back with the mildly satisfied air of a pet left too long. When she’d punched in the security code and the computer had said, ‘Welcome back, Helene,’ she had thought that Charlie’s voice sounded surly. Well, so be it; she was entitled to carry on living her life. Wasn’t that what her friends had been telling her since the accident? You’ve got a life to lead…
The pampering had done Helene some good but in truth, not as much as she’d hoped; however, she’d known that staying in England on the anniversary of her husband’s car crash wasn’t an option. She had dreaded the phone calls. With the best will in the world her friends would have rung to make sure that she was okay. ‘How are you feeling?’ So she’d taken up the invitation of a cut-price deal, based on points earned on her credit card.
Meeting the actor Stuart Fox had been a bonus.
The day after the encounter on the beach, Helene had returned to a spot as close as possible, with her towel, her small coolbox of sodas and cigarettes, her lotion, her paperbacks, her shades. The sea was noisier and more playful. She used a phone to send a ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard to Carol, to Tina, to Beverley and Dot. She’d finished her paperback by mid-afternoon, and still there had been no sign of Stuart Fox.
Even now she was unsure of what her motives had been. Why had she wanted him to come back to her to ask the time? She had sought no male company in the year since her bereavement, although the offers had been hers to take up; so why now, on the anniversary? It wasn’t for physical reasons, she was certain of that; it wasn’t a pair of hands or a mouth she longed for. Nor was she aware, particularly, of an emptiness to be filled. She was happy; or what passed for happy when you’d become an amputee.
With her favourite part of the day approaching (the late Greek afternoon, a cooling relaxation of the sun’s rays, the prospect of cocktails before her hotel meal) she had tied on her pink bikini top. She had packed up her belongings, leaving the book in the sand for another reader or the tide to claim. She stood up.
‘Hello again,’ said the voice she had been waiting for.
The voice had grown deeper overnight. The timbre carried echoes, in keeping with a small art cinema’s sound system, if not yet that of a gigantic amphitheatre … or of a vast auditorium where some films were projected on to curved screens, particularly in the old days of cinema-going which Helen’s mother once told her about – where couples went for the stolen kisses, rather than a religious following of the plot on the wall.
Fox’s multiplex muscles – within the skin sculpture that his swimsuit revealed – enticed her into a physical longing she hadn’t encountered since Mike’s death. She had endured months of nightmares … seeing Mike’s body painstakingly amputated piecemeal by black-masked surgeons who apparently tried to save his life when it was obvious he was dead: carefully removing the still ticking watch for the victim’s nearest and dearest. Every bone was shattered into thousands of comb-teeth. And such dreams had prevented Helene’s recuperation towards a normal life.
‘Been to Communion?’ Helene blurted out, regretting it almost immediately. She recalled Charlie’s voice on the computer. At least, with that, everything was pre-programmed and any gaffes could be blamed on bad servicing. Human interaction was accident-prone. She wished she still had her breasts on show; she wanted to believe that the actor had returned to find them again. What else was he here for?
She shrugged as she recalled all this – later told in an expurgated version for Carol, amid the spidery smoke of a coffee morning … and even recited it for Charlie, who was a useful sounding-board even though Helene knew computers couldn’t really follow stories told to it. Charlie even made a mess of answering doors and often mistook her arms (and other parts of her body) for things they weren’t. It was all in the tickertape the printer spewed forth even when Charlie wasn’t switched on. Words she’d rather do without.
‘No, the priest has had an accident, and they couldn’t get a late replacement,’ answered Fox. He smiled the most gorgeous smile, as if he had waylaid the priest himself, simply to lengthen the time available that day for titwatch. ‘Would you care to dine with me?’ he asked.
Surprising herself, Helene said, ‘I would.’
Late into the night, she was awoken by a dream in which a squirrel berated her for displaying her assets too gladly; as he did so, he chewed patiently on a telephone cord. The squirrel strolled to the minibar with a disapproving frown on his face: they were in her hotel room. The lights were emitting the soft scents of cologne and orange peel.
Naked, Fox was standing at the window. He had left her side to answer his mobile phone. Moonlight did even better things to his physique than the sun did. He was like a statue, impeccably worked upon.
‘Sure, baby,’ she heard him say. A black elevator toppled, cable-cut, down the ladder of her spine. ‘In the morning. Sure.’
Helene listened. She strove to be rational. What else had she expected? Undying love? A proposal of marriage? It was dinner, Helene, she told herself, and then a lonely time of skin and breaths. It was exercise.
‘And by the way, Leon’s full of rain,’ said Fox.
Pulling the bedclothes up to the birthmark on her clavicle, Helene tried to understand this; to replace the key words with homophones. It was like a card-trick, played over and over, with the conjuror unable to retrieve the expected card. Helene felt thwarted and sleepy. Perhaps she could close…
‘Cheers. Ciao. Sayonara.’
Fox snapped his mobile shut. The statue made it over to the bed.
‘You awake?’ it asked.
‘Yes. Who was that?’ A small voice; a begging voice.
‘My girlfriend. Are you angry?’
‘Why isn’t she here with you?’ asked Helene.
‘You are angry.’
Fox sighed. ‘She’s filming in Finland: a comedy. “The Kung Fu Kings of Helsinki.” She’s working with Adam West. He used to play Batman.’
‘I don’t give a fuck what he used to play,’ said Helene, rolling over.
‘Don’t be like that.’ Fox wriggled back into bed. Schmoozed closer to her backbone and backside. ‘We’ve got a lovely thing going here…’
‘Oh, please…’ said Helene.
She heard him smile. ‘Where were we?’ he wanted to know.
‘I was asleep and you were just leaving.’
‘I’ve just arrived,’ said Stuart Fox.
It was Thursday – the day on which the women got together. They called it the weekly hen party, and this time it was Dot who had booked the restaurant. It was called ‘The Angel Spike’ and it was busy to the point of discomfort. It was noisy and it smelt of fairy-tales. A great sea view, though.
Helene wanted to talk about Fox. She wanted to confess, even though – rarely and unusually – only she and Carol and Dot had been able to make the appointment. Not that discussing a man was ever far from the agenda.
In Helene’s experience, the hen parties were always about cock. The women laughed and shouted till the barstaff started flicking the lights on and off – a subtle way of informing them that it was time to leave. Then they’d repair to either Dot’s or Helene’s place. Dot’s two men, her husband, Frank, and her toddler son, Jimbo, were very understanding. Helene’s Charlie always kept a stern ear on the proceedings, and informed them softly if their decibelage was becoming a problem that the neighbours would notify her about in the morning. Only Carol’s other half, a lugubrious Swissman named Jack, was a party pooper. So they didn’t go there. They would talk into the early hours: this was the beauty of all being self-employed. A lie-in on Friday was acceptable. So they chatted until the broad dawn forsook its debt to night and waggled its central star – the sun – upon the unsteady horizon. They eventually tottered home, hoping they’d reach their beds to mask the sun’s promise of regret. Regret about the gallons of drink. Regret about the tawdry jokes. Regret, most of all, about the way their tongues had treated men. ‘Stuart Fox,’ Helene was saying, buoyed up by booze. ‘His best communion was not a pellet of bread amid the red wine… More a white tube.’
The others screamed with laughter. Helene’s imagery was frightful, but quite acceptable amid the squawks and the phlegmish fizz they’d imbibed.
‘He was better than the best movie wall…’
She’d meant moving wall. The ground had shifted beneath her. Sex had been a sonic boom, one that would have been no disgrace to the outset of a new war, a modern war, with weapons of sex and greed at its disposal.
Then her words dried up. She was thinking of Mike. Not only had his watch survived the crash, but so, amazingly, had his car. His bone-shattered and bleeding body had been removed from the still perfect vehicle, all silver and chrome, with its unbent side mirrors, unbuckled wings, and unruptured tyres. Embedded in the central reservation, but more or less the same vehicle that had come off the production line.
‘Jackal find you,’ said Dot to Carol.
A split second passed. Then Helene fielded the question. ‘What did you say, Dot?’
‘Jack’ll find her. If we don’t get our skates on, he’ll come looking.’
‘Oh, let him. I thought you said something about a jackal. And you’ve just reminded me of something else Fox said. Something about Leon being full of rain; I don’t think I imagined it.’
‘So?’ asked Carol.
‘Well, what’s it supposed to mean?’
‘Lyon is a town in France,’ said Dot.
‘I know. But why would he be saying that in the middle of the night to his girlfriend? And isn’t the phraseology a bit wonky? Why not “It’s raining in Leon”? How can a town be full of rain?’
Carol shrugged. ‘You probably did a ‘jackal’ there. He said something else. You heard him wrong.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Dot’s right. It’s time for us to leave.’ They were at Helene’s apartment. When they’d gone, Helene looked out of the window. The sun was smeared all over the river and the refinery in the distance. Helene collapsed into a heap on the bed, recalling the things she’d said … and the things she’d thought to have said, and may well have said. The bedsprings creaked.
The telephone rang.
‘Would you like me to get that for you?’ asked Charlie.
‘No, it’s okay. Hello?’
‘Hi. I hope it’s not too early for you,’ said the male voice.
‘No it’s fine. Stuart?’
‘How did you…?’
‘Detective work, Helene. There aren’t too many people with the surname Incunabula.’
‘I suppose not. What do you want?’
‘To see you.’
Helene snorted. ‘What would Missy say?’
‘We have an understanding.’
‘Well I don’t. I’m just about to go to bed, Stuart.’
‘Can I join you?’ he asked. ‘Just for cuddles.’
When it came to cuddles, for Helene the word ‘just’ was inappropriate; they were easily as erotic as oral sex or dirty mumbles in her ear. But this wasn’t what struck Helene about Fox’s sentence. ‘Where are you?’ she asked.
‘Downstairs. Tail between my legs.’
‘They wouldn’t give you that information over the phone. How did you find me?’ She didn’t know if she felt frightened or cheap.
‘I took a look at your business card while you were sleeping. Sorry.’
‘You went through my bag?’ Helene sounded incredulous.
‘Guilty. Again,’ said Fox. ‘Can I?’
She’d never been the other woman before, or at least not to her knowledge, but Helene quickly learned that it wasn’t a bad state of affairs. Charlie admitted Stuart Fox and informed him that Helene could be found in the bedroom. She was: asleep. After a few hours, when she’d woken up and showered, she apologised for her bad manners.
‘It’s the greatest compliment you could have paid me,’ said Fox.
‘What was? Falling asleep?’
‘Shows you’re relaxed in my company.’
Helene shrugged. ‘Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. You got undressed to join me in bed, I noticed.’
‘I was wearing Armani. They don’t make pyjamas.’
‘And you undressed me.’
‘Of course. You’d have been too hot. It’s like a sauna in here.’
‘I don’t like being cold.’
‘Were you cold?’ asked Fox.
‘No. It’s the presumption I don’t care for, Stuart.’ She was holding onto a sensation of having been wronged, but for the life of her she couldn’t locate the source of her discomfort. If anything, she felt flattered; not that she enjoyed admitting this to herself, however.
‘No. You didn’t feel cold to me either.’
‘Stuart, please…’ Helene couldn’t help but reflect her new boyfriend’s smile; it was contagious. ‘What do you want for breakfast?’ she asked.
‘Soft boiled eggs,’ Stuart replied.
That day Stuart made Helene feel like an adolescent, and gloriously so: clumsy in love, nervous. He took her somewhere she hadn’t been to in thirteen years: the zoo. They fell in love with the wolves. They chattered to the cockatiels; they petted the baa-lambs. They had coffee outside, in the rain.
Towards the end of the afternoon, they shared a pizza in front of the fire. Watched the news. Had cigarettes. Made love in the Weather Room, Helene having chosen a Greek climate and scene from Charlie’s vast repertoire. She held him in her palm as he detumesced. She toyed with the crop circle of semen on her left hip with the forefinger of her free hand.
‘I have to make a phone call,’ Stuart announced suddenly.
‘To who?’ Helene couldn’t fight back the intonation of jealousy.
‘I see. I thought you had an understanding.’
‘With good reason! How many other women are you climbing into bed with, Stuart. She worries? I worry!’
‘I love you, Helene; you don’t need to worry.’ With which Stuart stood up and returned to the bedroom. Helene felt cold.
‘More heat, please. And listen in on the call, would you?’
Stuart had to fly back to Greece: he was filming tomorrow. As soon as he’d walked out of the door, Helene said, ‘The phone call, Charlie.’
Static bloomed and bristled. Missy’s voice was all but indistinguishable, regardless of how high Helene turned up the volume. But Stuart’s voice was clearer, even if his meanings were lost.
‘It’s snowing in Elise,’ he had said. ‘Conditions are favourable in Patricia and Simone. Transmission ends.’
‘Charlie, did you see where he went?’ asked Helene.
‘He got into a taxi.’
‘It would seem so, Helene.’
She paused. She already knew what she was going to say; she was thinking about a subtle way of putting it. She said, ‘Charlie? Charlie, if it ever came out that I asked you to do this I’d have to deny it. You understand that.’
‘Yes, Helene. You want to know where he went.’
‘Yes. Can you trace the route?’
‘Of course. It will take a few minutes.’ At which Charlie fell silent. The room yawned open to receive Helene’s breaths. Of a sudden, the apartment that she’d specifically chosen for its spaciousness and variety seemed cavernous; Helene wondered if she’d developed agoraphobia. Sure enough, her mind was in a muddle. With Stuart gone, Helene wondered who had actually come. With the ease of Charlie’s catch-all retention of the small matters in life, even ones he hadn’t witnessed for his electronic self, she thought she heard the computer say:
<<Carol shrugged. ‘So when are you seeing him again?’ she asked.>>
Not just the words Carol had spoken but the surrounding omniscience of someone who was still in charge of her life.
She shook her head. She needed some more sleep.
‘Helene?’ This was Charlie, but Charlie in realtime.
‘What have you got? Which terminal?’
‘He didn’t go to the airport, Helene…’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure,’ said Charlie. ‘I tapped into the HandyCabs banks. A driver called HD987 picked up a Mr Smith outside this building. The rearview cam logged his profile, Helene; it was Stuart Fox.’
‘And where did he go?’ Helene asked, not sure that she wanted to know. She was hugging her knees to her chest; she was sweating.
To chapel? thought Helene again and again on the journey. At this hour?
Her thoughts turned unexpectedly to Mike. She recalled the mechanic who had inspected the crashed car with the wisdom of those who had knowledge in their hands and could mend anything, except here there had been nothing to mend. ‘It’s a miracle,’ he’d concluded.
Helene had glanced into the vehicle. At the sight of her husband’s body, lacerated and torn – with pieces of bone now sprouting through the skin, and with one eye displaced and hanging by a spermy thread – she had begged to differ. I want his watch, she could remember thinking.
And now? Was Stuart Fox playing Mike’s role… or vice versa? Tears came to Helene’s eyes as she watched a giant man-shape move on the inside wall of her head, like a distantly projected silhouette that wavered between a spider and smoke. Helene pulled her cigarettes from her bag.
‘No smoking, please,’ said the robot. Helene ignored the command. She wanted to go further still, she realised: she wanted to remove her top.
Sighing gently, she lit her cigarette and relished the taste.
At the Church of St Nathaniel the Decisive, she disembarked. For his trouble and his ongoing silence, the driver was paid and handsomely overtipped. Clutching her bag into her armpit, Helene entered the church.
Stuart’s first lie was immediately obvious. He was no more a punter, a parishioner, a worshipper, than she herself was. White-smocked, like a portrait artist of tourists, he was standing on the stage with a microphone in his hand. His face was fiery with passion and raised blood.
‘And ask yourselves, people, how much can your Jesus do for you!’
The congregation was about twenty-strong. Most of them had their heads bowed, and Helene – at the back – was reminded of sheep in line for a branding, or a slaughter. She could smell the fear. Unless it was adulation…
‘So open yourselves up!’ Stuart shouted. ‘Receive the visitors into your hearts! Come on, people! Show me your souls! Show me!’
What the hell is going on? thought Helene, stepping forward.
Making a show of it, Stuart now pinched his temples with both hands. He was shaking his head. ‘I can still see bad weather inside some of you,’ he said. ‘And they won’t come down if they don’t see blue skies! Incorporate our friends. Let them in! Let ‘em in, people! The sooner, the better…’
Helene felt sick.
Stuart noticed her in the aisle. With a leer that had been born as a grin, he pointed. That long, slender finger had touched her skin; parted her lips and tasted her tongue. That long slender finger had unfolded her leaves and played inside her body. Helene felt worse.
‘And you, Helene!’ Fox roared. ‘There is hail inside you! Calm your skies. Join the welcoming committee! Rejoice!’
The scene was cast like a sunset inside Mike.
Had he welcomed someone into his broken china pieces? Had they spooned him from the undented car, full of hope for a new beginning?
Several of the congregation had looked up. Some were nodding their heads, as if fearful of speaking out of turn but keen to impart the wisdom of full compliance. Join who? Helene wondered.
‘I’m only the first,’ Stuart said. ‘The missionary, the pioneer!’
‘I’m going home,’ said Helene.
‘No you’re not!’ Stuart Fox promised. ‘Your temperature’s rising.’
The air inside the chapel was confused. Eddies of electricity were now crackling, visible only as heat haze, as distortion. A multi-coloured Jesus in a sari, window-bound, was writhing in the haze like a limbo dancer, warming up. Prayer books were flapping in the gale that was picking up from the direction of the stage. Stuart was still grinning.
‘Your hail is melting! You are learning to accept!’
‘It’s not true,’ said Helene, childlike, birdlike… Murmurs and rumbles, not of the congregation’s making, could now be heard; all around the building, the walls were alive with images of flames. Rabbits looking peaceful bounded joyfully, although their ears were ablaze. Squirrels chatted to acorns that resembled cartoon bombs: the black ball, the fizzling string.
‘Admire me, love me,’ said Stuart, leaning backwards.
The breaking of eye contact was all that Helene needed. Turning on her back foot, she made a break for the door. She hoped that she’d asked the taxi driver to remain where he was. She couldn’t remember. Her internal organs felt feverish; at first she assumed that she badly needed the bathroom.
‘You’ll be back!’ Stuart shouted. ‘People, they always come back…’
Helene flung open the door.
‘Let us pray,’ said Stuart. Helene imagined him bowing his head. Outside, the driver had gone and the sun was now packing a wallop. She didn’t know what felt worse: having escaped and now being ignored, or the thought that being loved was a true and fresh mystery each time.
She consulted her watch. As if that had anything to say.