a short story by Christine Wilks
At work the other women avoided her, even in the smokers’ room. But Megan didn’t care. She was too busy driving her career in top gear, trying to get into the fast lane, flashing and tailgating those slow coaches blocking her way. The only breaks she took were fag breaks – but she sucked fast and hard. She could work fifty, sixty hours a week no problem. That’s how tough she was.
Tough as old boots. Well actually, tough as very new shiny black patent boots with four inch stiletto heels and laces three feet long. Not that she wore these to work, no. She wore the boots only when she went out at night to that special place she knew where she had, not friends exactly, but collaborators, accomplices in the game of hide (don’t seek) the soft inside. All of them dressing up tough and mean and hard and cruel – just to play cruel.
That’s where she met him. Pallid, thin, with prominent eyes and long, delicate fingers. She couldn’t help but be enchanted by those fingers.
He wore a black rubber T-shirt and what looked like the bottom half of a wet suit. On his feet, rubbery shoes, and around his wrists, wide shiny rubber straps. She guessed he liked to have those tied together behind his back. Unusually, apart from the stud in his ear, no piercings. When she spotted him he was aglow, standing beneath a down-light that, in the inky darkness of the club, lent a halo to his fair hair. All the more alluring.
She stalked him in her high-heeled, thigh-high boots, for a full twenty minutes before she went in for the kill. He capitulated with a soft secret smile. She slammed her lips hard against his. Like gelatine, his gave way. His teeth parted and her tongue slid into the cold, wet cavern of his mouth. How cold he was inside. Repellent at first, but so wet and unresisting that, like swimming in a cold pool, she acclimatised.
They danced, squirming in the limpid blue light, undulating through the waves of sound. Twining and untwining. All night long, he stuck to her. His rubber on her leather, a symbiotic rhythm of smack, suck and swish-squeak. When later he whispered; Back to my place? she licked him and said, yes.
The black cab disgorged them in an unfamiliar part of town. Dark degenerate mansions lined the street. Gloomy Victorian shadows of their former selves, now turned over to multiple low rent tenants or seedy residential homes. Megan had often wondered what went on behind the great doors and rattling windows of houses like these.
His flat was sparse and cold. Lighting fell in pools on the bare floor. The high ceilings and lack of furnishings made an echo chamber of the place. He poured her a shot of vodka and offered her a tour. Vodka – good; tour – no. What was he, an estate agent? She felt her libido ebbing away. Then politely, almost meekly, he said; At least let me show you where the bathroom is. She shrugged (well, she’d need to piss before she left) slugged back the vodka, lit a cigarette and followed him down the corridor, smoke trailing behind.
He pushed open the bathroom door, pulled a cord and flooded it with light. So this was where he spent his surplus income. A large room, tiled entirely, floor to ceiling, in creamy-white subway tiles with a thin band of green circuiting the room halfway up. A sanitary space. But there was something erotic about the gleaming brass fittings against the cold curves of hard white enamel. Her boots made a delightful clicking sound against the ceramic floor tiles, like tiny explosions from a fire cracker. He said he was lucky to have a vintage bathroom like this. One by one, he drew her attention to its original features – the cast iron roll top bath, the chain pull lavatory with throne style seat, the enormous pedestal sink – all Thomas Crapper & Co originals. The only modern thing he’d installed was the needle power shower, he said, and pointed to a curved brass cage, like a rib cage. It looked Victorian, but it wasn’t, he promised, it had a powerful force. There was no shower curtain, but then every surface in the room appeared to be waterproof.
Impressive, she said and flicked her fag ash into the pristine sink. He slid past her. She watched his delicate fingers fondle and turn the bulbous brass tap. A rod of cold water sluiced away the offending ash. Grey water swirled around the polished plug hole then disappeared. All was shining white again. She looked at him and he smiled at her. Humbly? She couldn’t tell. She pulled on her cigarette, threw her head back (exposing her throat) and blew smoke into the air.
He slipped past her again and kicked the door shut. Turning, she noticed a white flat hose folded up, hanging in the corner of the room. A fireman’s hose? What did he need one of those for? There was nothing combustible in the room. Hardly anything combustible in the entire flat.
She sucked on her cigarette. The end glowed and crinkled black and orange. It was close to the filter. Smoke streamed out of her nostrils and curled around her neck, as she twisted, looking for somewhere to stub it out. There wasn’t anywhere. She click-clacked over to the toilet, lifted the heavy mahogany lid, like a trap door, and dropped the fag end into the pan. Phwfft! A nanosecond’s fizz and it was out. A foreign body floating in the pure, almost holy water of The Venerable WC. She smirked at Victorian piety and pulled the chain. An immediate and satisfying flush, fresh as a waterfall. The fag end plunged, but as the torrent calmed it bobbed up again, a miniature death-defying life-buoy. She shrugged.
Turning round, she found him standing with the hose unfurled. She laughed, surprised. He smiled and spun the tap. The flat hose cracker-jacked from flaccid to rigid in seconds. The water shot at her, its force made her wobble on her heels. It pushed open the neck of her flimsy shirt. Buttonholes strained and gave way. He sluiced it from her shoulders. She planted her legs wide apart and leaned forwards into the jet of water. It loosened her bra straps, forced the cups down. Water beat on her short leather skirt. He trained the jet on her waist and belly. The water pushed the skirt down but it jammed over her hips. She undid the zip and it gushed down to her ankles. He twisted the nozzle of the hose and intensified the jet. It toyed with the lacings of her thigh-high boots. Spurts probed, loosening the knots, stretching the laces, unhooking and unravelling them until the boots gaped open and the tongues lolled at her thighs. He hosed the tongues down to her ankles. The boots gave no support now, she toppled backwards onto the cold wet tiles. Standing astride her, he doused off the remnants of her clothing. Then he retreated and turned off the tap.
The hose drooped and slopped on the draining floor. Drips fell from its nozzle. Stripped, she turned her head and lay her cheek against the cold tiles. Her sodden pack of cigarettes were lodged beneath the waste pipe of the lavatory pan. Her last pack, almost full, drenched. Damn. She raised herself onto her elbows, saw her raw pink body like a peeled prawn, sluiced out, de-shelled.
He pulled her up and guided her into the curved cage of the shower. He turned the tap and a thousand tiny needles pricked her back to life. She looked at him. He looked at her. She clung onto the brass cage and he stepped inside.
Next morning before dawn, she awoke into a surreal bed of ice, a slippery eel lying next to her. What? She looked again. No, it was him. Even more unnerving. To quell the panic, she slid out of bed and shivered. Digits glowed green through the gloom: 5:17. Where were her clothes? His towelling robe hung on the door hook, she wrapped herself in that. If she could get a taxi, she’d be able to make it home, change, and still get to work on time but where the hell were her clothes?
She stepped out into the hallway. The bathroom, of course. She tiptoed down the corridor and prized open the door. Her clothes lay about the room in sodden heaps like the shed skin of an alien crustacean. She picked up a boot. It stunk of wet leather, hanging limp and dripping in her hand. There wasn’t a shred of dry clothing anywhere. Nothing. She dropped the boot. It slapped on the tiles like a prize dead fish. Money? She delved into the clammy pocket of her leather skirt and pulled out a mush of paper pulp and a few coins. Fuck. She lifted the trap door lid, sat on the throne of the old Venerable and let loose a gush of piss. How was she going to get home with no clothes, no cash? God, she could do with a fag. Gagging for one. She remembered, and fished out the packet from behind the waste pipe. That was mush too. Not one cigarette intact. She chucked the whole lot down the bog. Choke on that, she thought, and pulled the flush.
Desperate for a shield of clothing, she slid open the drawers in his bedroom looking for stopgaps. She pulled out jeans, sweat-shirt, underpants. Not a bad fit, but what about shoes? She padded her feet up in four pairs of socks and put on his trainers. They’d do, as long as she didn’t have to run. She searched inside his rubbery jacket and found his wallet. A tenner. Thank God! He murmured and stirred in bed, but didn’t wake. She looked at him. His soft fair hair, his bony white shoulder, his open mouth, the bottom lip pulsing as his breath pushed and pulled. She lifted his mobile (hers had drowned in the deluge) and snuck out of the waterlogged house.
Later, suited up in work, with her document-sized handbag, restrained high-heels, hair gelled and her face back on, she felt back to normal – almost. But beneath her career woman facade, she couldn’t shake the image of herself as peeled prawn on his tiled floor. All morning she felt eyes probing her for weakness. Ignoring colleagues had been habitual, but today she couldn’t stop leaking glances back at them; and every time, their gaze flit away, switching direction like shoals of fish. Surely they would sniff her out. The thought chilled her. A rivulet of moisture trickled down her spine. It wasn’t sweat, couldn’t be, she felt cold. But now, more trickles; between her legs, from her armpits to her waist, down her calves, beneath her breasts, in the crook of her elbow. It didn’t matter how many times she went to the toilets to dab herself dry, she felt soggy through and through.
A cigarette would sort her out. That’s what she needed. Yes.
She hurried to the smokers’ room. It was at the other end of the building, at the end of a long trail of corridors. The urge to sprint was almost overwhelming, but she forced herself to walk – and the corridors became elastic, stretching forever. Ahead was a fire exit. Fuck it. She pressed down the bar and burst outdoors. The cold air hit her. Whoosh! She loosened her grip on her crumpled pack of fags and prized open the lid. She pulled out a bent cigarette and hunted her pockets for matches. She struck one. Its pink head crumbled. She struck another. It disintegrated. She tried another, and another. All damp. None would light.
Ridiculously on the brink of tears, she screwed up her eyes. A rivulet ran down the nape of her neck and traced the curve of her shoulder blade. Another coursed the crease of her waist down to her belly. A pool swelled in the small of her back and flowed into the crevice between her buttocks. She shivered and turned, ready to run inside. But the click and flare of a cigarette lighter stopped her.
It was the new guy from Marketing offering her a light. She smiled at him with such relief, such gratitude, that he visibly swelled with heroism. She dipped the tip of her fag into the flame and sucked. Gazing at him, she exhaled a stream of smoke. He was reasonably attractive, this guy from Marketing, better than the average company male. He lit his own cigarette, exhaled, and said something inane about bad habits being hard to break. She immediately lost interest. Retreating behind her smokescreen, she waited for the nicotine trance to take hold. But it didn’t come.
Instead she felt her innards constricting, shrivelling up, as if she was desiccating from the inside out.
A fat drop of rain hit her on the nose. She looked up. Another drop hit her in the eye. She blinked. More raindrops fell. Marketing guy tugged her arm and urged her to take shelter. She shrugged him off and pulled on her cigarette. He retreated. She felt him watching her, but she stood there still, smoking, staring up at the darkening sky. The deluge came and her cigarette went out. She removed it from her lips and surveyed the drooping stick of fake fire. It felt good when she squelched it underfoot in the mud.
That night Megan went back to the club looking for her slippery eel. She spied him in a pool of light, the blonde hair, a beacon. Unseen, she sidled up behind him and breathed onto his neck. Scorched, he lurched forward and turned round. This time she was determined to burn him down.