Things could go wrong with one letter, he knew that now. Just one.
"Actually, I moved here ten years ago."
He had found it so terribly, pleasantly effortless to say, "Actually, I moved here ten years ago."
There had only been a little thickness about the m, a tiny falter there that might have suggested a stammer, or a moment's pause to let him total up those years. Nobody listening, surely, would have guessed his intended sentence had been, "Actually, I'm married." In the course of one consonant everything had changed.
He'd been standing in the cheese queue. His bright idea: to visit the cheese shop, the specialist. Even though such places annoyed him and made him think there was too much money in the world being spent in far too many stupid ways, he had gone to the purveyors of nothing but cheese and things cheese-related to buy something nice for Christmas, a treat. Of course, thirty other people had been taken with the same idea and were lined right through and out of the shop and then along the pavement, all variously huddled and leaning away from the intermittent press of sleety rain. There was an awning, but it didn't help. And, at that point, he should simply have gone home, but for no particular reason, he did not.
Instead, he stood and turned up his collar and peered, like everyone else, into the cheese shop window where the cheesemongers, busy and vaguely smug, trotted about in white wellingtons, white jackets, white hats. The facts that he personally didn't much like cheese, that his gloves were back, safe and warm, in the car, and that any wait here now would be quite ludicrously dismal--none of these disturbed him. On the contrary, they seemed perversely satisfying: a rare chance to perform an unpleasant task that was wholly of his own choosing.
His satisfaction had, quite reasonably, produced a happy kind of pressure in his chest which had caused him to turn and say, really to no one, "They look like dentists, don't they?" and then to smile.
"Yes, dentists. Or maybe vets. Cheese vets."
And he'd been mildly aware of a girl in the shop window smoothly drawing down a wire and opening up the white heart of something or other with one slice, but mainly there'd been this woman standing behind him in the queue, this woman he had never met, and then there'd been this thought which had said very softly but unmistakably, My God, she has a wonderful voice
. This thought which had seemed just as confident and hungry as he'd always meant and never quite managed to be.
Although, truthfully, what it said wasn't really right--she had a perfect voice.
He could almost hear her now, if he concentrated: lying awake--as usual awake--and grinning like a night light, because he could imagine the flavour of her maybe
and her yes
His right arm, the one that was furthest from Karen in their bed, the one that was his least matrimonial arm, was crooked up to let his wrist settle in nicely under his head and make him, at least, a comfortable insomniac. He was trying to breathe as if he wasn't conscious, wasn't turning helplessly inside his kicking mind, wasn't opening and closing his eyes between one type of blank and another to see which was best as a background for the image of a woman who wasn't Karen, who wasn't in any way his wife.
Dark coat, mainly dark with water, but also sensible and warm--his mind now slipped away to thoughts of silky linings, but he pulled it back--a golden-coloured scarf that covered up her chin--he did like that--and then one of those horrible hill-walker's fleecy hats which, in this case, looked fantastic because it was hers, she was wearing it.
He had been immediately, impossibly, mortally charmed. The truth of this made a brief swell in his breathing, followed by a sigh.
." By which Karen didn't mean, "Greg, please
torment me with your luscious manhood now and for the rest of the night until I speak in tongues." She meant--half asleep, but still determined, she always was determined--"Greg, please
either fall asleep now or go to the spare room and give me peace, because I've got to get up for work tomorrow morning, just as early as you do."
So, like a dutiful and undisturbing partner, he slid out of bed on to one braced arm, one knee, and then staggered softly up into a standing position and took himself away. This had happened before the cheese queue, this type of midnight banishment: Greg hadn't really slept well in months. The muffling of the pillow at his ears could very easily make him picture coffins and drowsiness often produced a sensation of morbid, jerked descent, as if into a curiously sticky grave. He suffered from nocturnal sweats.
By the time he had joked to Karen over breakfast that fixing up a variation on a Victorian casket alarm might keep him calmer, she hadn't found his difficulties funny. He had tried, although he was extremely tired, to be more playful, to expand the idea, suggesting that he really should tie one finger with thread in the hope that his subconscious might believe itself safely connected to the brand of handy little bell designed, in a more cautious age, to prevent premature burial.
"You should try the pills again--break the cycle."
"The pills made me sleep in the daytime. I can't keep being discovered in the office with my head on the desk, people will end up thinking I have a life." This said in a self-deprecating and not vicious way, but all the same.
have a life. It just seems incompatible with mine." This
said in a way that was a little light-hearted, but with eyes that fixed him for a threatening moment before she went to turn over the toast. "We should get a toaster."
"I'll get one."
"You'll forget, you always forget."
"I'll get one. Tomorrow: I can't today."
Greg loathed the way she did that; closing everything off with her favourite passive/aggressive little noise, the agreement that didn't agree--Mm hm
In other times, though, in other places, it was a good sound to make. In that other time, that other place, it had been the best. "Mm hm. They could be vets, couldn't, they . . . Yes."
He settled his limbs out in the chill of the spare bed and recalled the horrifying pause when the conversation might have faltered, stopped, and left him to the queue, let his head go sliding under, back into the fetid sump that held his nights and days. He'd known, in a way that made his ears ache, that he hated his shoes, his not waterproof shoes, and that his latest haircut had been shoddy and would look especially dreadful when it was wet and that naked drips of rain were clinging just exactly where they shouldn't on his face: like unwanted ear-rings, tears, snot: but he'd kept himself steady, he'd raised his chin--broken his very personal, gloomy surface--and stolen a breath. And, blinking into her face, he'd understood that this whole situation might possibly, conceivably, turn out fine. He might come to be as he'd like to be, without breakages or loss, because she was smiling, smiling only at him.
Greg's hands scrambled for his pockets and a fraying tissue that rapidly transformed itself into a greyish wad, "Christ, what a day," and he mopped his face while praying sincerely that he wouldn't sound so cretinous the next time he opened his mouth.
"Yes, but it'll be worth it."
And he did realise she was talking about the cheese, saying simply that the bloody cheese would be worth the wait, but still he felt himself swallow, needed to hold one hand in the other and couldn't help stumbling back with, "Yes. It will. I hope. No, it will. Naturally. Yes" before coughing out a remarkably ugly and--in God's name--unmistakably equine, laugh.
"I don't suppose any of us come here normally--it's just Christmas, isn't it?"So is she celebrating Christmas for herself, or for somebody else who is with her, who is allowed to touch her face?
"It can't be absolutely just
Christmas . . ." Don't contradict her--what the fuck are you doing?
"I mean, I mean . . ." Do you want her to be pissed off?
"They must get some
customers, sometimes--they stay open . . ." Oh, that was scintillating, wasn't it? Well fucking done
"Maybe they're only a front for the CIA."God, thank you, God.
"Now that you mention it, I did see them shoot this shoplifter once . . ."
"Execution-style with a silenced gun?"
"Absolutely. Extremely professional."
"Oh, well then, that's that. Definitely CIA. Or MI5."I want to lick her. Now. The rain from her eyes. Just to lick.
"Do you think we should still let them have our money?"
"Yes. But only if they give us cheese."
They were properly established then, talking: about the absurdities of Christmas, about tropical holidays neither of them would take, about the concept of cheese which--if you thought of it--was a strange one.
"I mean--cheese--you couldn't have come up with that by accident." He felt warmer, he felt taller, he felt fate snuggling round him with a good, good plan. "Cheese." His tongue moved in his mouth especially deftly, as if each word were more than usually intended. "But who would have thought to try and make it--who would have known how
"I know, it's like bread dough with yeast, or meringues--especially meringues. Who on earth could have guessed that
would happen to an egg white if you pummelled it enough?"
"I think the correct term is beat
." While he thought, "But pummel would do, I'm sure," he could really do nothing but think, "There must have been a Lost Meringue Age"; that egg white looked so much like spunk, was
so much like spunk.
Spunk. There was nowhere his mind wasn't willing to go and he was so happy to follow it nearly scared him.I wonder what she sounds like when she comes.
"The Meringue Age." She patted his forearm quickly, approvingly. "Of course, the Lost Meringue Age. An era of peace and random food experiments."I will know what she sounds like when she comes. I will be there and I will hear her and I will see. I have to.
But no harm done, only thinking.
His eyelids had closed and he couldn't quite coax them back apart. Under her knee, in that curve, there would be sweat. And in between--
"Your accent, by the way . . . If you don't mind my asking, where are you from?"
Greg finally eased his eyes open: peeled up a muzzled guess at the shape of her thighs, of her arse, laid naked for his hand: and he saw her face. She met his gaze, seemed to take it from him whole, while he tried to organise a sentence, "Oh, I . . . My accent? Well, I used to live in England."
"Ah, English--as I suspected. And you haven't been here long?"
A brief knot of conscience and impatience lashed open at the base of his brain and, before he could stop himself, he'd told her, "Actually, I mo
ved here ten years ago," which wasn't exactly a lie.
After which, there had been no stopping, no space in his will for even a pause. By the time they'd made it inside the shop, he'd known it was safe to play, make a little rehearsal, and pretend that he was shopping with a girlfriend, a sexual partner, a woman who would never look revolted if he asked her to suck his cock, who would never clatter him with her molars in little bounces of mute revenge and then swallow what he surrendered as if it were only cruel and unusual and not a part of him.
Shopping with Karen was hardly exciting, either: it was like shopping with himself only slower and more expensive. It was one of the things they did together which had, at no time, ever been any fun. That day in the queue had been different, though, that day when he'd gone shopping with somebody new.
"This is silly."
"What is?" She'd been almost, almost leaning against him while the cheesemonger cut two pieces each of their choices--one to keep and one to swap, which was what they'd decided. "What's silly?"
Greg had dipped his head and spoken close, close as a kiss beside her ear, because this was appropriate under the circumstances and because he'd hoped that she might like it. "That we've talked for ages--about half an hour--and now we're buying cheese together . . ."
"Which is a very personal thing." She was joking and not joking--he liked that. He loved that.This is the way you seduce someone, isn't it. Who could have guessed I'd remember how. And this is the time to do it, maybe the last chance to try.
"Yes. Extremely personal." And now Greg wasn't joking at all. "But we don't know each other's names. That can't be right." He angled near again, made this soft, "Can it?"
"Really? That's great." Because he'd been rushed by the lunatic fear that she might be called Karen, or something like Karen. "Wonderful." Not that anything was
"Oh . . . I don't know--it suits you. That kind of idea. I'm Greg." Say my name.
"So now we know each other, that's good." Say my name.
"Greg. OK. Great."Say my name when I'm in you and I probably will weep.
Amanda was waiting for a quarter pound of olives--he didn't like olives, but she was free to--when he asked her, "Look, I don't know your phone number, either, do I?" Which was speeding the process more than he ought, but he'd have to go home soon: he was practically late now, Saturday's dinner already suppurating in the microwave, no doubt. "It's just that I would like to take you and have a coffee--"
"To take me and
have a coffee?"
"Well . . ." He watched her mouth, "Yes. I like coffee. Only I can't do it now, I have to . . . go out tonight with . . . no one." Good mouth. Wonderful mouth. "But I have to . . . go out and so . . . If I had your number, I could phone. It's the gentleman who phones, isn't? I have got that right?"
Greg hadn't intended this to make her laugh, but believed it to be a splendid thing when she did. "The gentleman
? So you're a gentleman?"
He checked her eyes. "At times."
She paused for precisely long enough to please him very much. "OK."
Amanda had offered a pen but no paper and all of the cheese wrappings, they'd discovered, were greased and wouldn't take ink, so he'd rolled up his sleeve, delighted, and let her write her number on the inside of his wrist.
Excerpted from Indelible Acts by A.L. Kennedy. Copyright © 2003 by A. L. Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.