Excerpt: I REALLY DID LOVE HER & THE VISITOR – SUZANNE EGERTON
I REALLY DID LOVE HER
(This story has previously appeared in the 2014 UK Lesfic RUComingOut charity Anthology “L Is For”)
“Fuck, fuck, and buckets of bollocks!”
“What’s up, Lozza?” I called from my supine position in the centre of the sunbeam, ‘Easy Like Sunday Morning’ playing in my head. It was an effort. The Comic Cuts section of the paper slid from my relaxed fingers, and whispered to the floor. Motes of airborne dust hung in the sunbeam. What if each were a tiny world, inhabited by a billion nano-beings, each with a tiny life to lead, each with its tiny concerns? Would that make me God, I wondered? I guessed not; their God would care for each and every one of them, allowing them their choices, and keeping an eye on things as they floated in their squillions across the sunbeam. The role of the devil might suit me better. Drunk with power, I waved a languid hand through the air, causing the infinitesimal specks to churn. A villainous cackle left my throat.
“N’ya-ha-haaar,” I gloated, “That’ll teach you lot who really controls things around here, you puny poltroons!”
“Shall I call Psychiatric Services now, or leave it till after lunch?” demanded my lover, her glorious cloud of red-gold hair lightly brushing my brow as she leant over me. Astonishing how that cobweb touch could awaken my lazy body all of a sudden – or part thereof, anyway, making it throb. I reached up towards the hidden fissure in the crinkly cheesecloth between the buttons of her shirt, and got half-smothered with a cushion for my trouble.
“Randy bastard,” accused my attacker, without pity. My sunbeam universe experienced its own chaos theory moment as I sat up and attempted to pull her down on to my lap. She writhed as if to escape, giggling and letting her hair tumble over her face; and then consented, leaning her head against mine.
“It’s all right for you, Mel,” she said, “I’ve reached a really sticky point in the essay, and it’s doing my bloody head in.”
“Poor baby, you need a break from it,” I soothed, stroking her gently and trying to establish by touch whether her Sunday throw-ons concealed underwear or not.
“Chancer!” she laughed, slapping my hands away. She rose, and lifted my empty coffee cup. It was a great floral bucket of a cup, the gritty dregs still smelling like boulevard cafés. I followed her into the kitchen and nuzzled under her hair to kiss the back of her neck, my arms around her waist as she washed the cups.
“Perhaps I can help;” I said, “I could do some of your research on the laptop. Two brains have got to be better than one, hmm?”
This was actually code for, “If we get this shit sorted in the next hour or so, you might feel entitled to some afternoon delight…” But she knew me too well.
“That’s your Sunday brain you’re so generously offering, I take it?” she enquired. “So I end up with an essay littered with double entendres and sexual references? Yes, that’ll go down well with old Po-face Professor Peyton. Thanks, but no thanks.” I groaned. “If you really want to be a help,” she added, “go and pick us up a pizza for lunch.”
“Yeah, OK,” I sighed.
“Anything with mushrooms on it!” she called, as she disappeared back into the spare room to resume the task.
The work must have gone well. Either that, or maybe a block set in for the day, because a couple of hours later we lay on the big patchwork quilt, laughing and tussling as the sun tried to penetrate the drawn blinds. We rolled like puppies, until passion overtook play, and we tangled and slithered against each other, until just the holding, and the quiet breathing of satiety became enough.
My God, she was beautiful. Like most women, she had ridiculous concerns about her body, which no amount of reassurance could totally dispel. About the towering intellect there was no false modesty; but the wonderful body I worshipped, and longed to immortalise, to fix in time on a life-sized canvas, fell inexplicably short of some unknowable standard she set it. As for me, I never tired of gazing at her, studying her, after we had had our fill of each other’s body. Her face always looked that way, dewy and fresh, even in the mornings. I loved the pale blue eyes with their thick sandy lashes, the flawless bone structure, the creamy skin with its dusting of freckles. She seldom wore make-up; she didn’t need to.
I suppose I remember that particular day because it was the last of our golden Sundays. Up until then, the wonderful weekends tended to follow each other like a vivid slide show. On Friday night we would celebrate with a couple of bottles of wine, and there would be sex for breakfast on a Saturday if I was lucky. Funny, how her mouth always tasted of warm croissants and marmalade. Then food shopping for the week, coffee at Flavio’s, and perhaps lunch at one of the cafe bistros that characterised our city village. In the afternoon she would write or research, a stack of books tottering beside the computer, whilst I watched sport on the telly or listened to music. Sometimes we went out later to eat with friends or to a rock concert; sometimes we experimented with home cuisine, usually with acceptably edible results.
Sundays, though, were the highlight of my week, the one day when I had her all to myself. Even reading the papers in silence together was deeply pleasurable, and the leisurely pace of our frequent sexual activity reflected the ease and comfort of the day.
I really did love her.
However, as her academic nemesis approached, I owned less and less of her time. The piles of A4, heavy with my lover’s thought and reasoning, grew fat in their folders; her self-discipline was staggering. My longing for her body as for her attention was forcibly suppressed, after many gently offhand rebuffs. It was all very well for me, she told me; I had prostituted my gifts, and was doing very well out of it. Ruefully, I had to accept that this was true. My nine-to-five was devoted to the sculpting and casting of supposedly collectable wildlife figures. These fancies kept the mortgage paid very adequately, as they left their clean shapes in the dust on retailers’ glass shelves everywhere. A new woodland birds series was being advertised currently in weekend magazines as “The Melanie Briscoe Collection”, and already thousands from this range were flying into chintzy homes to fill the empty nests there. Though far from rich, I made far more than the average artist – I still thought of myself as an artist – and simply had to keep the flow of furry and feathery love objects coming. When the collectables first took off I had planned to rent a proper studio, to paint and sculpt as I knew I could, to explore the far reaches of my talent, and try to sell the results through established galleries. Somehow I never got around to it. The creeping effect of adequate success numbed both ambition and creativity, and I found myself too busy with my conveyor belt editions to think about Art.
So now, contained by Saturday’s new shape, I sauntered the aisles of the supermarket alone with a list provided for me, and decayed quietly in front of the television all day and evening. I cooked the odd meal, and spent Sunday mornings in bed, followed by pointless pints in various local pubs.
Never mind, I told myself, the finals would soon be over, and things could go back to their old, satisfying way.
Nobody was surprised at Lol’s dazzling degree, and I remember marvelling at the way the spotlights gave her a shimmering halo as she crossed the stage to receive her scroll. Ridiculous tears blurred my vision as she glanced towards the seat block where she knew I was sitting, and smiled her sweet and confident smile.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a holiday in the sun. There are some photos I still have somewhere, brilliance and brightness leaping from the shiny surfaces: the impossibly blue sky, the white buildings; her brown limbs, the hippy-style muslin dress she wore. Her hair. Her smile. Life’s turning wheel on hold for the virtual evermore. It was perfect. Love, and sun, and velvet nights.
That autumn, she left me.
I guess I must have been a real pain in the arse when she told me she was going for a second, more difficult degree. She had set her sights on an academic career, with possibly a professorship some years down the line. She settled into a new rhythm of study and lectures, and I found myself becoming moody and distant, falling into a pattern of passive aggression. I was mourning the loss of her, even while her physical presence taunted me with its continuing allure. We talked, of course. That is, whenever I failed to come up with an avoidance tactic. And when we talked, my inner anger made me monosyllabic and unhelpful. She took to going out with college friends, and not being at home at weekends for one reason or another. I accused her of infidelity, and was uncharacteristically vindictive. Only someone who knows the deepest sensitivities of another can be as spiteful as I became at that time. Of course the real, transparent object of my corrosive jealousy was her relationship with her work, but I couldn’t admit it to myself, let alone to her.
So of course, she left.
For a while I drank too much, and had rather too many one-night stands; the usual thing. Just getting her out of my system. But it’s now a couple of years on and I’m well over it. I’ve had a number of relationships, though nothing long-term. The women I tend to go for are articulate, intelligent and of course physically attractive, but any suggestion of moving in together gets short shrift from me; the words “You won’t commit,” have hung in the air as more than one door has closed behind me. But that’s OK. Once bitten, and all that.
There’s even an upside to the story. I’ve sold up and invested in a small two-storey premises to replace my old workshop, with room for a studio and a modest gallery on the ground floor, and a flat above. Money will be tight, but it doesn’t matter. It’s months since I produced a new cutesy figurine, and I’ve been working instead on some substantial abstract canvases. I’ve even completed a medium-sized sculpture, of a beggar – it’s reasonably good, I think. A couple of talented art school graduates have asked for wall space, and a craft jeweller has shown some interest. The gallery should be ready to open by Christmas, and I’ve got to admit, I’m quite excited about it, even though sleep is on the back burner for a bit, what with working on pieces for the launch. A mate of mine is doing the lighting, and I’ve been helping with that too, along with basic stuff like sanding the floor, erecting partitions, etcetera.
I’ve also started to paint a life-sized nude of Lol, the portrait she’d never let me do. I think I’ve got the beautiful skin-tone, and the wonderful hair is coming along quite well, but her smile is elusive as yet. There’s no rush; I might decide to keep it anyway. Might. I’ll finish it off once the gallery gets going, and then make up my mind.
Funnily enough, one of our old friends stopped me in the street the other day. She – Lol that is – has moved to Brighton, seemingly. She will eventually get her doctorate or whatever, there’s no doubt of that. I wonder what she’d think about my dynamic change of direction. I’d like to think she’d be impressed, and even a bit pleased for me, perhaps.
There now, you see, Professor Lorraine Anderson, I did it, I finally got off my arse and did it, and without you, too.
But anyway, best of luck. I won’t forget you.
Violet checked that the blackout cloth was tight against the edges of the window, and lit the lamp. She wondered whether he would come tonight. The year was closing in, and she put on the cherry-red cardigan with flower-shaped buttons. There was a jug of milk on the table, a small appreciation diverted from Mr. Bilton’s dairy. If her visitor didn’t turn up, she would need to remember to put it in the meat safe outside before bedtime, so it wouldn’t sour.
There – a tiny sound, not the usual patter of mice about their business behind the walls, and too early for owls to be stirring in the tree outside the windows. Betty wasn’t due back from her mechanic’s job for another hour. It had to be him, feeling for the door handle in the dark.
“Come on in, Wilfred,” she called, “and hurry up and shut the door.”
“Yes miss. Hello, miss.”
“Good evening, Wilfred. You’re a bit late; I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Mum’s friend didn’t turn up till just now, miss, and I had to take me sister to Mrs. Jenks.”
“Very well, we’ll get started. The dressing gown is on the hook by the back door. Run and get your things off.”
Wilf returned, cutting an odd figure in the over-large dressing gown.
She opened out the reader on the table, placing it next to a slate and a piece of chalk, and poured some milk into a cup.
“Don’t like milk, miss,” he said, as usual.
“It’ll do you good, Wilfred,” she said, also as usual. “It will make you stronger. Make you better at reading.”
Preliminaries over, she turned the textbook to Page One.
“What is that picture on the right?”
“And what letters say cat? Point to them and say, please.”
“That’s very good. A good start, Wilfred.”
It wasn’t. He had memorised the spelling. But it was important to give him encouragement. She directed him to the alphabet page, and told him to copy out the first line on his slate while she was busy; “And drink up that milk,” she said.
In the kitchen she emptied his pockets: a matchbox, a broken conker, a short length of string, two pebbles and a piece of rag. She lifted the clothing, holding her breath until the bundle was in the bucket. There was very little soap left, just some odd bits for boiling up later, and she would have to be careful not to rub holes in the material. There was a new rip in the short trousers where he had taken on some bigger boys – all the boys in the class were bigger – who had cornered him, and started chanting. She’d heard them, a singsong taunt, Wilf’s the village idiot, Wilf’s the village idiot. She had scattered them, threatening punishment if it happened again, knowing full well that it would; that was the nature of things. It didn’t do to seem too protective of one child, though. For their own good.
Down and up in the bucket, the sliver of soap barely scumming the surface. She wished she’d never started this. He wasn’t the only child with younger siblings who came to school with the smell of urine on him. Some slept four or more to a bed. But she had done it the first week as much for her own comfort as his, and couldn’t very well curtail the service now. Betty
told her she was a fool, but the twinkle in her eye as she said it told her that she, as another outsider who remembered being tormented, approved. Violet wrung the clothing, took it into the yard to put through the mangle in the dark, folded the items and put them in the bottom oven of the range. It wasn’t very hot. She had begun to worry about fuel; the ration was sure to be cut, and she’d soon have to compete with the rest of the village for wood. According to the children, fallen branches in local woodlands had quickly been exhausted, and limbs of healthy trees were being torn off. She tipped a small amount of dusty coke into the chamber.
“Let’s have a look at what you’ve done so far, Wilfred,” she said. On the slate was a row of tortured symbols. Its resemblance to the alphabet was tenuous.
“Is that any better, miss?” he asked.
At the beginning she had thought that a little extra help would enable him to get by, get him to read and write at a basic level, even if catching up with his classmates might be too much to hope for. But try as he apparently did, nothing seemed to stick. Perhaps he was stupid after all. God knows, she had been patient.
“No, I’m afraid not, Wilfred. Your letter C is… almost right. Are you sure you can see them properly?”
“I ain’t going to wear glasses, Miss,” said Wilf, with emphasis.
That was the other theory. Perhaps his sight wasn’t too good. The fact he had once fixed her bike, refitting the chain and screwing the guard back without apparent difficulty, made it seem unlikely. Betty had been impressed, when she came home and saw. But Violet felt she had to ask.
The lesson dragged on. She guided his hand to form letters, but in his unaided efforts he kept confusing one letter with another. She switched to numerals. He could write a one, and a nought resembling a wonky potato, but his attempts at two to nine were not well formed. Over
the six or so sessions he had made little progress. Maybe it would just happen suddenly, one evening. Light would dawn, and he would begin to make the connections between the characters and the sounds, and at last see how they joined up to make words with meanings. And begin to read. But clearly not tonight.
“I think you’ve had enough for today,” she said, “I’ll just see if your clothes are dry.”
But they weren’t, and she poured him a little more milk and gave him half a biscuit.
“Has your mother had any news from your father lately?” she asked.
“Yes, miss,” he said between munches. “He was mentioned in despatches and threw a grenade into the hatch of a Jerry tank, miss. He killed fifty Germans.” Violet was glad that Betty wasn’t in, as she might have been of a mind to challenge the child.
“My word, that was brave.”
“Yes, he’s a hero, miss, my dad. And after the war he’s going to open a garage and him and me are going to fix lorries and tractors. I don’t need to be clever for that.”
“Oh, I think fixing things is clever, Wilfred. But you’ll need to know your numbers if you want to be a mechanic,” she said, “my friend Betty’s a mechanic, and she can do all sorts of sums.” She smiled. “She might come to you and your dad for a job, when she stops fixing things for the army.”
He shook his head. “My dad don’t want any women for men’s jobs, miss,” he said, “especially ones wot think they’re men and wear men’s clothes. And mum says Miss Betty ain’t natural.”
Violet took a deep breath, and said, “There are lots of women fixing vehicles nowadays, Wilfred, because the men are away at the front. And all the women wear trousers, because when you’re underneath an engine and getting all oily, it would be very silly to wear a skirt, not practical at all.”
His face clouded for a moment, and there was a long silence. “My dad can add up and take
away,” he said at last, “he’s a generous.”
“Genius, Wilfred. That means a very clever person indeed. Be that as it may, your things will take another half hour. Would you like to hear some Treasure Island?”
There was a guarded look on Wilf’s face. “What’s Treasure Island?”
“It’s a story. Does your mum read you stories? You and your sister?”
“Yes, lots of em.”
“Can’t remember, miss.”
She opened Treasure Island, and began to read aloud. Wilf became absorbed, his head tilted on one side to catch every word. Occasionally he interrupted with, “What’s that mean, miss?”
She reached the end of a chapter and closed the book, leaving a bookmark in it, and the clock clanked nine.
“Wilfred! Those are a very bad swear words.” Her pupil put a hand over his own mouth, and squeezed his eyes shut.
“I should punish you. I won’t, since I think it just slipped out, but you must never use such bad language again.”
“Sorry miss. It was that story… it was… what happens next, miss?”
“We’ll just have to see, won’t we, Wilfred?” Another precedent, with which she had now burdened herself. If only the boy could get the hang of his letters. “Right, let’s get those clothes on you. It’s almost nine.” And Betty should be home soon.
He made a face. “Uncle Chet will give me a larruping,” he said, “but I don’t mind. That story… I didn’t half like it, miss. Him, he can do what he likes, it don’t really hurt.”
She had seen marks on his bony back before, which had been delivered by another uncle, Uncle Hank, he’d said. But adding that as soon as his dad came home it would all be all right. His dad was a hero.
“You just tell Uncle Chet that I kept you back, Wilfred.”
“You will, won’t you? So he won’t punish you?” Wilf shrugged.
She went to put the book back in the bookcase, but Wilf was touching it, stroking it. He flipped the pages a couple of times, and the breeze they made stirred the front of his hair.
“Any pictures in it?” he asked, peering sideways between the sheets as they cascaded.
“No, Wilfred, it’s a book for reading. You can read it for yourself once you learn your letters.” He stroked the front cover board, dark red with the title and the image of a pirate ship stamped in black on it, and his fingers traced the dents made by the heavy imprint. In a very quiet voice, he said, “Can I have it, miss?”
She hesitated. It had been her father’s.
“I’ll tell you what, when you can read me a whole page, I’ll give it to you.”
He looked up, and pulled his hands away from the book. She took his clothes out of the oven, still slightly damp, but warm, and left him in the kitchen to dress.
“Next week, same time then, Wilfred.”
He scuffed one boot against its twin, and did not meet her eye. “Can’t, miss. My dad’s coming home on leave next week. Mum’s having a party. Jelly, and cream buns, and balloons and lemonade and everything.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Yes. Good night, miss.”
“Good night, Wilfred. Don’t be late for school tomorrow.”
He didn’t reply as he unlatched the door and left.
Betty had in come in by the back door, and was in the scullery.
“Help me get these boots off, darling!”
Eyes anxious, Violet went through. She whispered, “Please don’t call me that out loud, Bet. You never know who’s listening.”
Betty stroked her hair as Violet knelt to ease the boots off, grinned, and whispered back.
“I know, walls have ears. Be like dad; keep mum!”
Violet looked up, and Betty had that expression on her face, the one that stayed in her mind and kept her going through all the difficulties of life these days. Betty held both her hands in hers, and Violet rested her head in Betty’s lap, uncaring of the oil stains on her serge trousers which had penetrated the mechanics’ overalls she wore on shift.
“How’s the young scallywag doing with his lessons?” said Betty.
“I just don’t know what it is,” said Violet, “I keep thinking he must be stupid, but I just can’t believe it, somehow – he isn’t simple-minded like the Timms child. I do so wish I could get him to learn.”
“Don’t take on the troubles of the whole world, Vi. And don’t forget your little waif was one of the boys throwing stones at me last Saturday. Not to mention the language they were using.”
“I don’t know how you put up with it, my love. You’re so brave.”
Betty grinned. “There’s worse things. If I really were a man, I could be in a foxhole under fire, or rushing a machine-gun nest.” Her face clouded. “Which is what I’d be doing, if they let women fight. Providing mechanical support is something, I suppose, but it’s not like being in the front line.”
“You’re my hero, Bet. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you. It’s so selfish of me, but I thank God you aren’t at the front. And here’s me, trying to get a stupid child to absorb the basics of reading and writing, and failing every bally time.”
Betty touched Violet under the chin, and lifted it as if to kiss her, but didn’t. Then she raised her to her feet, and said, “Come on, then, wife of mine, what’s for supper?” Violet blushed and giggled.
“I’m afraid it’s Last-of Day today,” she said, “last of the rabbit stew, last of the potatoes, and last of the tea ration, unfortunately.” If only it could have been more, for her handsome, hard-working woman. As it was, Betty would have to have the lion’s share, to sustain her for the long hours of physical labour she did. But the war had its compensations. In the main, people left them alone. In the main, it was just gossip and stares. In the main, people gave them a grudging respect, because they were both doing their bit.
And later, behind the blackout blinds, they would be free to know the extraordinary joy of being who they were always meant to be, and the war would surrender to their own version of peace.