Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Disclaimer: this is a work of original fiction. Please don’t use any of it without my permission. British setting, spelling, punctuation and word usuage.
Strong language and sex from pretty much the get go. If you’re under 18, live somewhere this sort of thing is illegal or are easily shocked, please don’t read it.
Any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.
Synopsis: Jenna meets Ella at a wedding, where Ella is best man, and each rocks the other’s world. However, there’s one small problem: Jenna already has a boyfriend.
I met her at a wedding. I hate weddings, all that pressure to have a good time, to wish the happy couple well when you know that the chances are this whole relationship won’t make it beyond five years. One in three marriages end up in divorce, so why do they insist on spending thousands of pounds, tens of thousands of pounds, going through this? Most of them will still be paying off the debts after the divorce has been decreed. But I had to go. A different sort of pressure was being applied, that of the workplace and this was a workplace wedding. Katrina at least had the sense to invite me to just the reception. I was spared sitting through the service, so that was something. Even so, there I was, stuck in a marquee in a field with lots of people I didn’t know, nor did I care to ever know them. I was stuck at a table with people from work everyone intent on having a good time but me.
I poured myself a glass of so-so champagne and raised it to Katrina sitting up at the top table. It would take someone even more mean spirited than me to deny that she looked beautiful. This was the day she’d dreamt and planned since she first knew there was such a thing as a wedding. And she was making the most of it in her little girl dream ivory silk beaded dress, tiny white rosebuds garlanded in hair that fell softly in strands and curls around her face. Artfully, I should say. Katrina’s hair is naturally dead straight. For nine months she’d been growing it from the perfect bob I envied, growing it so the hairdresser could tease and over heat it.
Next to her sat the unremarkable Stephan, the groom, a nice enough bloke and good looking in a non-threatening way. I’d met him at works dos, Christmas parties and barbeques at other people’s houses, and I think I’d exchanged three sentences, mostly about the weather being too hot, too cold or too wet. Having not been at the wedding, it wasn’t until we sat down to eat that I noticed Stephan’s party, groom, father, ushers and whoever was the best man, were all dressed in the same dark suits and white shirts; the only thing that marked them out as individual were their waistcoats. Stephan’s was a sky blue brocade, the man I took to be his father wore one of traditional Paisley silk. Another young man had one that was black and white stripes. He had the look of a very handsome magpie, and judging by his grin, he knew it. I looked over to see what he was grinning at and started when I saw, at the other end of the table from the magpie boy, a girl. A girl in the same dark suit as the men, and never has a piece of clothing been so well named. She wore it like a second skin. Her waistcoat was the best of all: scarlet and gold diamonds. A harlequin’s waistcoat.
Stephan brought the tent to order by tapping his coffee spoon against his glass. I wasn’t really listening; one groom’s speech is pretty much like any other: blah blah thank you Katrina for having me, blah blah thank you Katrina’s parents for having her. Laughter from the collective families. I yawned and emptied my glass even before he asked us to raise them. But was soon as he sat down to generous applause, the harlequin girl got to her feet and I felt an unexpected surge of respect for Stephan. His best man was a woman.
The girl stood with her hands in her pockets, so casual, so at home in her surroundings, in her suit, in her skin. She ran a hand through dark, slightly curly, unruly hair and treated the whole tent to a smile that was electric. When she spoke, her voice was a little husky. She started with the traditional best man bit: thanking the bridesmaids, complimenting them, telling them how lovely they looked. Two of them, Katrina’s 17 year old sister and her 18 year old cousin, giggled and blushed. Not bad going in a tent full of reasonably handsome men. But then the harlequin girl’s face became quite serious and when she spoke, her voice was even huskier and her tone sincere:
“I had a speech prepared, full of stories to embarrass Steph –”
“Tell ‘em anyway, especially that one about Amsterdam”
The magpie boy shouted from the end of the table. Indulgent laughter from the tent. Sheepish smile from the groom. The girl put her hand up and the crowd quietened. The performance was spellbinding. She continued.
“Thing is, Stephan is more than just my cousin. He’s more like the brother I never had. And since Mum and Dad died, I’ve come to realise the importance of family”
That elicited a collective sigh from the tent. The electrifying smile was back.
“So, although I know it’s your job to do it, Uncle Ivan, I hope you don’t mind if I say that it gives me genuine pleasure to welcome Katrina to the family. No offence to your own, but this is the best family in the world”
The tent erupted. The groom’s father jumped to his feet and enveloped the harlequin girl with bear like arms and kissed her face. I sat back in my chair and raised my glass to her even though she couldn’t see me through the huddle of Katrina’s new family. Well done girl, I said under my breath, that’s the way to work a crowd.
There they were again, the suits. They were standing outside a toilet tent looking for all the world like furtive teenagers, huddled together. On closer inspection, a thin skein of smoke was rising from the huddle, on even closer inspection, the rich, earthy smell of hash hung over them in an accusatory cloud. The group broke up when they noticed me and the girl quickly passed the joint to the boy with the magpie waistcoat. This close, they could pass for brother and sister so I guessed he was another cousin, their resemblance giving away some closeness of blood. On a different day, in a different place, I might’ve gone for him but today there was no contest. He was simply a watered down version of her. Both of them smiled at me but I walked straight up to her. Have you got a light? I asked her, cigarette hanging from my fingers. Sure, she said, and fumbled a blue disposable lighter from the pocket of her suit trousers. The four boys sniggered but I ignored them and so did she. I put the cigarette between my lips, she flicked the lighter alive and I bent my head down to spark the fag. I straightened up, took a drag, exhaled and looked directly at her. Thanks. That smile again. Think nothing of it. I turned and walked back into the marquee without a backward glance.
It was just a question of biding my time. I returned to the table and sat watching intergenerational dancing. The DJ was the usual competent but unremarkable mobile wedding DJ, the sort who played crowd pleasing floor fillers. Hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s, a little bit of current pop stuff to keep the little kids happy. I had the table to myself as everyone from work was up dancing to Hi ho silver lining like they did at every single Christmas party. I could see their mouths moving so knew they were singing along. I crushed the cigarette out with more vigour than was particularly necessary, and felt the grass squash under my shoe. Then I noticed the girl in the harlequin waistcoat slipping her way between people crowding round the bar, coming towards me with a bottle of champagne and two glasses in her hands, and an expression that appeared to be bordering on self confidence and expectation. Hm, we’d see. She sat down next to me and gave me that smile. I almost forgave her. Almost. Are you here with anyone? She asked. I pointed with my head over to where Paul was dancing with Tony from work. The expression evaporated instantly from her face, replaced by a frown and a quick flash of anger that made me like her again straight away. She shook her head and got up to leave, but I caught her arm and pulled her back into the seat. Fishing in my handbag, I found a pen, a black indelible marker; I pushed up the sleeve of her jacket and unbuttoned the sleeve of her white shirt, flipped her forearm over and on the soft inside of it wrote my mobile number. Stop sulking, I whispered in her ear, and then sat back in my chair to watch the dancing.
Paul was watching me. He was trying not to be obvious, but he was so predictable, I’d know he was doing it even if I couldn’t see him. I caught his eye and he glanced away only for his eyes to sneak back my way. I sat back and ignored him. As soon as the girl got up and walked away, he left the dance floor and squatted down next to me. Why don’t you come and dance? I shook my head and shrugged. Don’t mind me, you go on ahead. He wasn’t happy, it was written all over his face but I couldn’t find it in me to care. After a couple of seconds, he got back up and went back to join the others who greeted him with whoops and cheers. I got out my gold lighter and lit another cigarette.
You have one new message:
Hello? Erm, hi. This is – my name’s Ella. We met at Stephan’s wedding. I was wondering – I was wondering if you’d like to come out for a drink with me, maybe. Look, if you fancy it, my number will be on your missed call log. So, er, give me a ring.
End of message.
“Look at me, Ella. Open your eyes”
I could’ve fallen in love with her then. Her eyes were bottomless, hot and wet. I pushed my thigh up into her and her eyes changed colour. I put my hand to the back of her head and pulled it down so that I could kiss her hard, still pushing my thigh up again and again.
“Christ, Ella, how did you get to be so fucking beautiful?”
“I don’t know” her voice husky against my mouth.
Afterwards she stood by the window, smoking a cigarette, staring out into the dark of her back garden. I put my arms around her from behind, resting my forehead on her shoulder.
“Are you always sad?”
“Afterwards, are you always sad”
“No, sometimes I laugh hysterically”
“I think I’d like to see that”
“And sometimes I laugh hysterically and then I cry”
“What are you looking at out there?”
“Next door’s cat, can you see it?”
“Down at the bottom, under the bush. Can you see now?”
Down at the bottom of the short garden there was a prickly shrub of some description, planted to disguise the ugly concrete wall that divided this garden from its neighbour. If I squinted, I could just make out the white, black and tan splodges of a tortoise-shell cat hunkering down in a pool of shadow. Ella leant out of the window and made a noise that was half way between a kiss and a sucking in of breath. Startled, the cat stared blank eyed at her before scuttling away. I took the cigarette from Ella and took a deep draw on it until I felt my head spin.
“And you think Paul knows nothing?”
Cass placed our two drinks down on the table before sitting on the stool opposite me and leaning over to look at me directly. I deflected her gaze by taking a sip of my G & T, wincing at the quinine tang of the tonic. No matter how hard I tried, I could never like gin and tonic but kept on drinking it because I felt I should. I couldn’t bring myself to drink white wine spritzers and a secret passion for Barcadi Breezers should stay just that: a secret. But Cass knew me better and wasn’t easily put off. She wanted an answer.
“To be honest, I haven’t a clue what Paul knows anymore”
Cass sat back, still searching my face.
“Darling, you should put the poor bloke out of his misery and dump him”
“It’s not as easy as that”
“Yes it is, you know it is, you’re just too chicken-shit to grasp the nettle”
Across the bar near the door, two young men were playing a very loud, very bright fruit machine. Both had their backs to us but one of them suddenly turned, laughing, towards us and he looked like Ella’s cousin, the boy with the magpie waistcoat. The resemblance was enough to make my heart jerk and I thought I was going to throw up. Instead, I turned my attention to the bottom half of the cellophane wrapper that was still on my packet of Marlboro Lights. When I glanced up at last, the boy’s back was to me again, and the wave of nausea had passed.
That first night I’d arranged to meet Ella in a bar not far from this pub. It was one of those places that is all stripped wood and zinc, alternately shiny and matt. Leather sofas and frosted glass. Imported lagers and obscure spirits. Pushing the door open, the first thing I saw was Ella sitting at the bar and I felt a tug of desire before I’d even set foot over the threshold. Ella could wear anything and wear it well, even a pair of faded black jeans and a shirt worn soft and under a leather jacket. She caught sight of me and treated me to that smile. I was surprised to see a cocktail glass next to her on the counter. A cosmopolitan. She shrugged. I’m being indulgent. Why not? I replied, indicating to the barman that we should have another two here, thank you.
The bar was popular enough to have filled very quickly, Ella and I an island at a crowded counter. The crush of people forced us to pull our stools close to each other, close enough for my knee to ride along the inside of hers; forced us to lean in close to speak to each other, Ella’s voice crackling the connections between ear, brain and between my legs, her breath warm, hot, against the sensitised skin of my neck. My breath, my lips, ruffling the hair around her ear, the tip of which had started to redden. As had her cheeks, I noticed, and her eyes to darken. This was more than three cosmopolitans, I knew. I offered her a cigarette, taking one myself, and when she leant in to light it for me, I cupped my hands around hers even though there wasn’t the slightest hint of a draught in the whole place. I let my finger tips drift across the back of her hand before drawing back to smoke the cigarette, looking her directly in the face. The flush had deepened.
Cass’s voice pulled me back to the pub. The fruit machine boys had hit the jackpot, lights flashing red and yellow, the machine yelping even more than the boys were. The one who looked like Ella’s cousin but didn’t really was doing a little dance. Cass turned to look at where I was staring.
“Lucky sods, I wonder how much they’ve won?”
“Who knows? Enough to make them happy it would seem”
“Ah the fleeting happiness of youth. But really, Jenna, you are evading the issue here”
“What issue would that be?”
“The same one you’ve had ever since I’ve known you, and as we both know, darling, that’s a long time”
It certainly was. I’d known Cass since I was at university, if anyone knew me, it was her. If anyone stood for a little constant stability in my life, it was her. Usually, I was comfortable and happy in her company; a night in the pub setting the world to rights with Cass was pretty close to perfect. But not that night. I was scratchy and itchy, unsettled in myself, and Cass, dear old Cass, was ever so slightly doing my head in. I sighed and poked at the cellophane before taking another drink. Gin and tonic: I really did hate it.
“I’ll get us some more drinks”
“Do all cocktails make you flush like that, or is it just cosmos?”
“Yes, it’s that combination of lime juice and vodka, it always makes me hot. I had a very uncomfortable teenage”
“Tell me, what else makes you hot?”
“Sitting in a crowded bar with my jacket on”
“Take it off then”
Without her jacket on, her forearms were bare and as she twisted her arm to pick up her drink, I saw my pen-marked telephone number, bold as when I wrote it. I put my fingers to it.
“It won’t come off, no matter how hard I try”
The tug towards her and sex intensified, singing through my head.
“Don’t try too hard” My voice hardly louder than a whisper that only she could hear.
“Vodka and lime”
“Vodka and lime? Since when do you drink vodka and lime?”
“I felt like a change”
Sweet. Sweet with a kick, the ice clicking against the glass, it slid down my throat sweet and easy, sweeter than the drink I remembered but that was okay, I grinned down into it. Even if it wasn’t quite right, it sure as hell beat gin and tonic.
“Sometimes you make it hard to love you. I should know”
“Cass – ”
“O don’t worry, darling. Been there. Done that. I’m just saying, it must be hard for Paul”
“I’ve not heard him complaining”
“Possibly because he’s got more sense than complain to you. Nothing makes you shut down quicker than the whiff of emotional dependency”
“Come on, you can’t deny that if anyone gets close to you, you are off like a shot. Darling, I probably love you more than I do anyone else in the world, certainly more than my own mother and, much to their disgust, most of the girlfriends I’ve ever had, but I do know what you’re like. First as well as second hand”
That was true. Second hand, she’d picked through the fall out of my relationships for all the time I’d known her, smoothing over the chasm like cracks, she’d had both boys and girls sobbing on her shoulder. There, there, she’d say, I know. First hand, Cass was the first woman I ever had sex with, foolishly, one night when I was very drunk in our second year at university. I woke up with a dry mouth and a headache that made my eyes pound in their sockets; Cass woke up in love. When I think about it, I’m impressed that she’s stayed friends with me all this time as I acted with a not uncommon lack of sensitivity to any feelings she had. Frankly, I was a bitch who thought nothing of copping off with other people in front of her, bored by the stoicism of her silence, irritated at her occasional tearfulness. To her eternal credit, she stuck by me, even if sometimes I wished she wouldn’t.
“All I’m saying is let him in or let him go”
Let him in or let him go. Cass made it sound so easy.
You have one new message:
Babe, it’s me. I guess you’re out with Cass. Give me a ring when you get in, I don’t mind what time it is. Love you.
End of message.
Paul was not a tall man, but he had a solidity, a physical presence, about him that I found reassuring. I would reach up and grip shoulders and arms that were supporting struts of muscle and sinew, the tectonic plates of his back sliding over each other. I was happy for him to fill me; I could lose myself in his rhythm. If I rarely came with him, it didn’t matter to me, though I knew it bothered him. I could judge by his breathing, by the movement of his hips, when he was nearing orgasm, and I’d reach up to kiss him, pull harder on his back until his breathing was fast and ragged.
“You didn’t come, did you?”
“No, but it doesn’t matter. It was lovely anyway. It always is”
But he wasn’t convinced. He’d lie on his back staring at the ceiling, disappointed. I’d cuddle up to him, my head on his chest, listening as his heart rate eventually slowed to normal.
I couldn’t tell him that if I wanted an orgasm, I was more likely to get it with a girl. Sometimes I would come spectacularly with a man but that was a trick of physiology more often than not.
Paul. You should never mix business with pleasure, isn’t that what they say? My first day in a new job, so much to take in and Paul was the incumbent showing me round, and he made an effort and a lasting impression. I walked through corridors three paces behind him, getting the shape of him, the cut of him. Tight arse in his suit trousers, good upper body, a swimmer’s physique, maybe a rock climber. A Jamaican father and a half Iranian, half Irish mother gave him the best of their genes, he was good looking with eyes so dark and liquid you could fall into them and never get out. Naturally, he was very popular with the girls at work but he was either unaware of it or never let it go to his head. He was genuinely nice to everyone. In fact, he was too good to be true. When something seems perfect, you have to look for the flaw, the thing that will let someone down. We all have them; some of us have more than we know what to do with. I wanted to fuck the arse off Paul Moss, but when it came down to it, he was a little dull.
Don’t get me wrong, I might not have loved him but I did like him. He was kind and gentle at a time in my life when that was what I needed. There were times when I would be lying with the full weight of him on me and I could forget who I was, what I’d done and was going to do. There were times with him when I liked me, liked me with him. But that sort of contentment never lasts, it can’t. Before long you take it for granted and once you’ve taken it for granted, you start to despise it, despise the cause of this inconvenient happiness. Contentment starts to equal complacency, and I have always hated complacency, in myself as much as others. How long before the reassuring weight of someone feels like smothering?
“Did I just wake you up?”
“No, I was dozing in front of the telly. Did you have a nice time with Cass?”
“Yeah, it was alright”
“What did you do?”
“Went for a drink in the Grapes. Look, what was so important that it couldn’t wait till tomorrow?”
“My folks have asked us over at the weekend”
Great, that was all I needed. I didn’t have anything against Paul’s parents as such, there was nothing much to dislike about them, but I knew exactly what would happen. Paul and his dad would be off doing something manly in his dad’s shed, and Paul’s mother would corner me in the kitchen and look at me significantly whilst talking about families and what joy they bring. And then, right on cue, Paul’s sister would arrive with her husband and kids. Granny would cluck around them and then the kids would hurl themselves around the house and out into the garden where granddad would fuss them and Uncle Paul would look at me with those big brown eyes of his as if to say Look, Jenna, see what beautiful children we’d have together. I would be rigid with an irritation bordering on psychotic rage, a feeling that never failed to rise in me no matter how many times we visited. On the way home in the car, I would sit and fume and not talk to him, and Paul could never work out what he’d done wrong.
“I don’t think I can”
“But you should go”
“They’d like to see both of us”
“I can’t help it Paul, I’ve got too much on”
If there was anyone I wanted to see at the weekend, it wasn’t Paul or his family. It was Ella.
I’d woken early and watched as the pale morning sun fell across her face. She was so fast asleep that my hands skimming the smooth, golden skin of her shoulders, arms, back and face didn’t wake her; she simply shifted in her dream, frowning slightly. I kissed her forehead, smoothing the hair away from her eyes so that I could see the black of her eyelashes curl against the ridge of her cheekbone. I slipped out of the bed and walked over to the window. In the daylight I could see the garden, the house that backed onto Ella’s. A woman was moving around in the kitchen, unaware of me watching. She was moving between the sink and the cooker with an old fashioned whistling kettle in her hand. I watched her as she listened to the kettle whistle and as she poured the hot water into a brown teapot, I turned back to the bed.
“Ella, baby” I stroked her hair and she frowned again, “honey wake up”
She refused to open her eyes but curled herself around me.
“Honey, I’ve got to go”
She opened her eyes a crack.
“I’m afraid so”
She uncurled and leant up on her elbows.
“I’ll make you breakfast”
“It’s okay, baby, you go back to sleep”
I bent down and kissed her, and she put her arms around me, pulling me down on top of her. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Really, honey, I have to go”
Awake now, the frown had returned and deepened.
“Is he waiting for you?”
I looked away, over to where my clothes were in various different parts of the room. My dress on the back of the chair, my bra and knickers dropped and kicked off at the bottom of the bed. God only knew where my shoes were.
“No, I don’t live with him. To be honest with you, he doesn’t know where I am”
Ella sat up and pulled the covers up to chest height, putting a fabric barrier between us. Her face had closed down, and I felt a hot prickle at the back of my eyes that threatened to be tears if I let them. Fuck, did things have to unravel quite so quickly?
Outside, the sun was good and strong, and I felt it on skin that still held the finger print of her touch, the brush of her tongue and the sting of her kiss. If it was a one off, so be it. It wasn’t as if I made a habit of forming long term relationships with any of the women I had sex with. Half the time, I didn’t even bother to learn their second names; sometimes I didn’t even know their first. It was like some craving that had to be satisfied, like I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless some girl had had her fingers inside me. I didn’t need her life history. And if this with Ella turned out to be a one off, then I should be pleased I’d got a fantastic fuck out of it. If she never rang me again I’d not care, I told myself as I walked down her street in a dress that shouted late night in the early morning sun. If she never rang me again, I’d not care.
Who the hell was I trying to fool?
Cass once said to me:
“I’ve never known anyone who can compartmentalise life quite like you can. It’s like when you’re with someone, they’re the best friend you’ve ever had but once they’ve left the room, you forget they even exist. It’s as if you can put different parts of your life into boxes and you manage to keep them in there. Thing is, I can’t work out if that’s a brilliant or dreadful thing”
There is an element of truth in that, I guess. Life, as far as I’m concerned, should be lived in the moment and I give every moment my all, but to hanker after things that aren’t there is a waste of time and emotion. What’s the point of moping around missing someone when you could be out enjoying yourself? And then when you’re with that person again, you’re free of recrimination. Nothing sours a relationship quicker than guilt and reproach. I told Cass this. She was sceptical.
“Darling, not everyone can switch it off like you. Most of us are messy creatures and parts of our lives bleed into each other. You can never understand why some boy or girl falls hopelessly in love with you and pines when you’re not around. Giving yourself up to the moment is all well and good but usually it doesn’t end the second you walk out of the door. Jenna, my love, you are the Queen of the mixed message.”
Before, I’d thought that was their look-out. If there’s one thing in life I try to be it is honest, although honesty isn’t always easy to achieve or maintain, but I try to lay my cards on the table. This is the situation, I tell them; don’t expect more out of me than I can give. I’d never pretended to Ella that Paul didn’t exist, he came as part of the deal, and ordinarily I could keep those two parts of my life happily apart, in fact I’d been doing that all my life. But something had changed. The walls of the Ella box were permeable: she was starting to flow into the Paul box, my everyday. Although I tried to keep her separate, little things would catch me out. One lunch time, I saw her coming out of Boots. She was a little ahead of me and I had to push through the people gathered round a rockabilly group that had set up in the middle of the pedestrianised street. I called to her, but my voice couldn’t be heard over an amplified middle aged man with a quiff singing Rock around the clock to an appreciative crowd. My heart and head were pounding but also dizzy with an unexpected joy. I caught up with her outside British Home Stores and reached out to touch her shoulder. The joy turned to stone in the face of the surprised incomprehension of a complete stranger I’m sorry, I said, I thought you were someone else. When I got back to the office, I went straight to Paul, and without a word took him into a cubicle in the ladies’ toilets. His eyes were wide as I took his cock out of his pants and took it in my mouth. Afterwards I wouldn’t let him look at me.
She made me wait two weeks.
i’m sorry. i can’t stop thinking
about you. pls call me – e.
I didn’t want to admit defeat and call her, but of course I did.
Ella was in my bed. On her back looking up at me, her eyes half open and her face flushed. The candles I’d lit around the room were nearly all burned down, the sky was starting to lighten and the CD long since played out. Neither of us had wanted to get out of bed to change it. A lone bird had started to sing in the tree outside my window, its high, clear voice floating over the tops of our heads.
“We ought to get some sleep”
Ella’s voice was hoarse. I found the bottle of wine at the side of the bed and passed it to her. She took a swig.
“We really should get some sleep, it’s nearly light”
“Sleep is overrated. We’ll sleep when we’re dead”
“Which won’t be long if we carry on like this”
I lay down next to her.
“Bored with me already?”
“No, but I think you’d be insulted if I fell asleep on you, and there is a real danger of that”
I wouldn’t fall asleep, I told myself. It felt too good lying in the predawn with my back pushed into Ella’s belly, my arse against her thighs. She fell asleep instantly, her breathing deep and regular close to my ear. I’d sleep when I was dead.
I woke up alone. Alone and momentarily confused. The bedside clock read 12:15 and the sun was moving away from the window. Ella?, I said but not really loud enough to be heard outside the room and so got no reply. I sat up. Her clothes were gone, I noticed with a sinking gut. I couldn’t blame her, after all, wasn’t it me who’d left last time? Yes, but at least I’d woken her up to say goodbye. Ella?, I said from the landing, leaning over the banister.
She was in the kitchen, her feet bare on the tiles, mug in hand. She was looking at the photos on my notice board. Relief that she was still there flooded me.
“There you are. I was starting to think you’d done a runner”
Ella didn’t turn round but carried on looking at the pictures.
“Is that him?”
She pointed to a Polaroid of Paul and me at a New Year’s Eve party, both drunk and grinning madly, our faces half bleached out by the camera’s flash.
“Yes. It’s not a very good one of him though”
“You look very happy”
“We look very pissed”
Did we look happy? I remembered that party: by midnight I’d drunk the best part of a bottle of tequila, had flirted outrageously with anyone who came into my view before puking up in the garden. I had to be carried home, and abused Paul the entire journey. He didn’t talk to me for the whole of the next day. That was how I saw that new year in. Appearances can be deceptive.
“He’s good looking”
I stepped between Ella and the notice board, my face directly in front of hers, my hand on her cheek.
“He is. But you, Ella, are beautiful”
She gave me a half hearted smile. I reached in and kissed her on the forehead, eyelids and then on the mouth.
“Why are we talking about him? He doesn’t matter”
Paul was standing in my kitchen, in the same place Ella had three days earlier, slowly drinking from a glass of the same wine Ella and I had drunk. The coincidence wasn’t wasted on me. Every sip I took was a flashback to tasting it on her lips, her tongue, the skin of her belly; it was intoxicating. My body held the muscle memory and relived it, fitting together perfectly; every part alive to sensation. My arms and breasts sensitive to the silk of my shirt, the linen of my trousers infuriating the backs of my calves and the inside of my thighs. Paul was in my kitchen and a fuck was guaranteed, and the way my body was feeling, he could do anything he wanted to me and I’d come like Guy Fawkes night. More wine, yes, that was good. The background music was seeping into my body, at first unconsciously, I was moving in time to it as I was chopping vegetables, stirring pans, tapping work surfaces, then breaking out in the need to dance. I danced around the room and then up to where Paul was standing, as if rooted to the spot.
“We should go dancing, honey. When was the last time? I can’t even remember. We should go to that salsa club again. Remember that? That was a brilliant night”
I was right in front of him at this point, and body rippled, my eyes fixed on his. Then I ran my hands down his chest, down his stomach, to grab the waistband of his jeans. He was hot that night, wearing a shirt that was such a pale blue it was almost white and made the rich olive of his skin glow. I slid my hands back up his body, under the shirt, palms to his bare chest, but Paul caught my wrists. Startled, I looked at him and his expression shocked me. Ever since that afternoon I’d given him a blow job in the ladies he’d been weird with me, as if I was a stranger.
“I think we need to talk”
Desire dissipated. I dropped my hands and turned my back to him. The sauce was starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, I poked at it.
“What’s going on with you, Jenna?”
“What makes you think something’s going on?”
“You’re – well – you’re different. You’re acting different. I mean just now, and the other day at work – ”
“Christ almighty, can’t there be a bit of spontaneity in this?”
“I’m not saying that – ”
I speared and lacerated a piece of courgette.
“Does it always have to be in bed, in the missionary position? Because, to be quite honest, Paul, that bores the fuck out of me. You always want to know why I don’t come. Ever thought to wonder why?”
“Jen, this isn’t like you – ”
“How do you know, eh? How do you know what I’m like?”
His sigh was heavy with resignation. I hated him. I hated him for all the assumptions he made about me, that I only ever had a life that was proscribed by his limited imagination. It wouldn’t even occur to him that some of those nights he assumed I was out at the pictures with Cass or sitting in the pub drinking with Cass or having dinner with Cass I might actually be out pulling a girl in a night club, going back to her place and having my brains fucked out. He didn’t even have the wit to fantasise about it. He was an intellectual midget, a sexual moron.
“Jenna, I think we should get married”
The knife fell out my hand and clattered onto the floor, taking the piece of courgette with it.
“I think we should get married. I’ve thought it for some time”
“Don’t be so ridiculous”
“I’m not. I think it would be the best thing. I think – I think we both need to settle down”
“What you mean is I need to settle down, that’s right, isn’t it? Let’s face it, if you settled down anymore, you’d be fossilised”
“Jenna – ”
“It’s not even a month since we went to Katrina’s wedding, remember that? And I was overjoyed to be there, wasn’t I? As I recall, you sulked the entire way home”
“Ours would be different”
“Yes, it would be so much worse”
“But I’m not talking about a wedding, Jen, I’m talking about a marriage”
He was using the tone he sometimes used with his nephews: calm, explanatory, and patronising beyond belief. I was furious.
“Don’t you fucking patronise me, you sanctimonious little prick. Give me one good reason why I should want to shackle myself to you for the rest of my life?”
Big brown eyes, big brown guilt trip, big brown bear trap.
“Because I love you”
That was it.
“It’s not enough”
To be continued in part 2