Posted: 03 November 2008
Word Count: 11713
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
Sally Geyer took a bite of the wholemeal cheese sandwich she had prepared that morning and walked to the window of the classroom. The sight of the busy playground was a testament that too few of the children went home to lunch – those that did were envied, but branded spoilt.
People had funny ideas about the country, Sally mused. Her friends from college who had stayed in London and taught inner-city kids often talked as though she spent idyllic days in a West Country blur, ringed around with rosy-cheeked mini-yokels who walked to school across the red and green fields, humming songs about Grey Mares and Uncle Tom Cobley.
What they needed was a couple of weeks with the hard-bitten tykes from Mutley Plain who bussed in from the suburbs of Plymouth. Half of them with granddads laid off from the shipyard and fathers who hardly expected to find work at all. Needed them though, or the school which served a small village and the farms around, would be under threat from its falling rolls.
The playground had been understaffed at break and the sudden increase in the noise level that came faintly through the window shutting out a raw November day grabbed Sally’s attention.
As her eyes scoured the playground, she could see that a group of around seven children had formed a circle. Instincts honed from years as a primary school teacher informed her that something extra troublesome was going on. Where were the precious midday supervisors when you needed them? Furthermore, who cared if Zoe Coombes had sodding time-of-the-month problems (twice a month, seemingly)? If she couldn’t do playground duty she should say so while there was time to change the rota.
On opening the window, Sally immediately caught the loud taunting voices of the children who were singing “Brown girl in the ring”. Sally took a chestful of air, but before she had time to shout out, a slim white woman in her late twenties marched purposefully through the ring of intimidating children.
Even from this distance, the horrified teacher felt the woman’s rage. Her shoulders lifted and quivering, her stride was close to a rush as she shouted out words that could not be heard; yet Sally knew were aggressive. Sally’s concern shifted; it was the tormentors who were at risk now, and whether it served them right or not, she couldn’t have mothers laying into them. Sally’s shout turned heads.
Now that the little girl had been pulled clear and clamped close under her mother’s arm, Sally recognised Andrea easily. She was the only mixed race child at Styne Oak Junior School. There were the Chinese restaurant children and Ahmed the newsagent’s youngest son but somehow Andrea was always on her own.
For the first time Sally saw how alike the two were. Good-looking both of them, tall, long legs and necks, fine-boned, a challenging set to their heads, though where the woman’s dark blonde hair was clipped up in a swirl that waved down her back, the child had a cloud of close natural curls. Even fear could not make Andrea appear anything less dignified than bewildered.
There had never been anything like this before. What were they going to do about it thought Sally who was now bracing herself for the walk to the Head’s door? And anyway, she was too late. Andrea’s small pointed face turned for a moment as her mother swept her away, in response to Sally’s call. That was all the comfort she had.
Marcus Carpenter raised his shaven head from under the duvet, stretched out his arms lethargically before swinging his legs out of the double bed. He brought his six-foot, well-built frame upright and dressed only in boxer shorts, walked to the television set, switched it on before making himself a cup of black coffee. The caffeine was necessary to face the day, any day, that all seemed the same now.
Even though the bed-sit was modest and somewhat sparsely furnished, with only a few nondescript posters adorning the wall, Marcus had managed to keep it fairly clean.
He had acquired a decent music system, which might have been the main focus of the room, not the bed or the sofa that nestled beside the warm friendly radiator. Instead, it was the large domineering colour television with video, which was the real focus of the bed-sit that had been equipped almost entirely on a single trip to Ikea in Croydon.
He had been ‘ill’ back then and Ayesha, his social worker, had taken him there in her roomy old estate.
With Ayesha’s help, he could have achieved a bright, homely look; perhaps fitted his little abode with cheerful colours and smart little space-saving fitments. A cheery, spotted breakfast and dinner set for one … co-ordinating quilt and pillows; sunflower-splashed voile curtains called ‘Primpta’ had been all within his means. The final effect could have been similar to a room in a modestly priced bed and breakfast, or a cheap hotel. However, Marcus hadn’t been up to it.
As things stood, the curtains were pale mushroom, the crockery white. The ready-framed prints were abstract in shades of olive and brown. The bed-sit was not particularly warm or inviting (in fact Marcus still didn’t consider it home - accommodation was the right word), which was underlined by the lack of any ornaments, photographs or trace of connections. It definitely had the look and feel of a reclusive single man.
He went back to the bed from where he lay propped like an invalid remote in hand watching the morning chat show. For a full hour, he watched vigilantly, as if his life depended upon it.
Throughout the proceedings – the distresses and the tears, the comforting and the confrontations of the walking wounded who had come to share their most intimate wounds - secrets now made public to the millions of faceless unknown viewers, Marcus’ face remained calm and unmoved. From time to time, he nodded and made an “mmmh-hmmm” deep in his mouth, like the swallowed shadow of an acknowledgment.
When the programme ended, Marcus checked the clock beside the bed, rose up lazily and walked to the bathroom. This room was the one redeeming feature, the piece-de-resistance. Equipped with a modern walk-in power shower, tasteful cream fittings, it was as if all the real imaginative efforts and thought had been put into this room.
He rubbed his eyes, flushed the loo then walked back to the main living area and looked out of the window that gave a splendid view onto a mixed street of offices, convenience retail stores and flats. It was quite a good street with apartments moving up the scale, subject to endless refurbishments from property developers who had homed in on affordable blocks whose postcode inner-city-centre location gave promises of stratospheric rents.
He noticed the familiar shape of a young white woman burdened with luggage walking towards him, her straight brown hair catching the sunlight, sending out rainbow sparks of bronze and gold. She was dressed in denim jeans and jacket, humping a holdall that bounced awkwardly against her fragile leg (which might even have been bruising it). Her body bent ungainly under the weight of the rucksack she had stuffed with books. His eyes followed her as she made her way trickily down the street and turned at last into his block.
When she disappeared from his view, Marcus snapped back to the now, went to the ‘kitchen’ area of the bed-sit and opened the fridge. After a cursory glance which confirmed that no fresh fruit, no green stuff was within; he removed the two remaining eggs and half a tin of baked beans then delved a second time for a plastic carton and proceeded to make himself a micro-waved omelette of sorts.
He beat the eggs in a bowl, added a splash of boiling water and a sliver of the horrible pearlized spread from the carton. It was a joyless meal for a man who had been used to taking care of himself, who had previously used freshly chopped herbs in an herb-chopping gadget from Habitat and sang the praises of a pestle and mortar for pounding spices.
Neither was it a meal for a man who had regularly dined in restaurants. They might not have been expensive eateries, but Maxine had always known how to find the good ones.
Both he and Maxine had disliked mass-produced, processed food, preferring to patronize small, local shops; ones with tempting trays and boxes out on the pavement. Shops that had baskets brimming with fruit and vegetables imported from all the warm corners of the earth, smelling of earth and rind when it was sunny in London.
Towards the end of their marriage – when he was earning really well – Maxine would take the car and make trips to Waitrose in Chingford. It wasn’t purely for the ‘Fairtrade’ policies of the supermarket’s buyers that Maxine favoured this brand.
Marcus always had doubted deep down, how much she really cared about saving the whale, and protecting dolphins, or paying Third World farmers a proper price for their coffee beans. She wasn’t a bleeding heart type, but she liked the taste of its classy products, and knew from her women friends that they had snob value, as well as the moral high ground. Even at their son’s playgroup, all the top mothers shopped at Waitrose. Maxine had been an aspirational wife with a healthy appetite.
Now when he shopped for himself, he had to be selective. Neglecting the years of practice, which had taught him that cheap did not always represent value - ‘needs must’ - now meant that compromise was the sad fact.
Meanwhile, Natasha pushed open the door to Lambton House by turning her back and leaning against it. After this manoeuvre, she dropped her holdall for respite and slipped her fingers under the rucksack straps to ease the pressure. The reddening of that too thin skin where the nylon webbing had chafed would last for days. After a necessary rest, she took up her gear again and prepared to trudge up the two flights of stairs that lead to her father’s flat. There was no happy lift of her chin or to the corners of her full, sweet mouth as she climbed.
She fished for her key, took a deep breath before she inserted it into the lock and tentatively eased the door slightly ajar. Thankfully, the flat was quiet. Natasha hurriedly carried her luggage through to a small bedroom and closed the door behind her.
Marcus placed the plate, mug and bowl in the small sink, before ambling back to the window. His eyes widened fractionally as he steadily became more alert. Another young woman; polished and presented this time, wearing a smart white trouser suit that sang a duet with her cafè-au-lait skin tones, opened the door of a gold BMW that was parked opposite his block. He drank in her long shapely legs and ample bosom as she slid stylishly behind the wheel before gunning the engine and driving away.
Marcus’ mouth hardened at the woman’s competent performance of being drop-dead gorgeous. As his life had shrunk, so had the play of his facial expressions; his feelings now displayed in small contractions of the muscles as if he were economizing and could not afford anything more expansive. It had been a long time since he had experienced such emotions.
When the night drew in and tiredness took over, Marcus switched off the TV and cried himself to sleep.
Another new day at Lambton House. No weather to notice, not fair or foul. Nothing weather. But, having got through the ‘non-day’ before, Marcus was up and about a lot earlier. He checked the clock again. It was 9.30. In fact, the wry thought came to Marcus, yesterday had not been quite the ‘nothing-day’ of his routine of late. There had been the two women to mull over. Natasha the student girl who couldn’t manage her baggage – probably still sleeping, and the fancy mixed-race bitch across the road. Jellicoe Street was becoming almost eventful for those who took small part in the business of living.
Agitatedly, the man who had once been a long-limbed athlete shifted around on the edge of his bed, flicking the TV from channel to channel until he heard the sound he had been waiting for. At last. At last.
Marcus reached blindly for his puffa jacket, darted to the front door, and swooped like a gannet to pick up his mail; a solitary, familiar brown envelope that he knew contained a girocheque.
As he closed the front door and checked it was firmly locked, Natasha emerged from her father’s flat at the top of the stairs. The lack of the heavy rucksack had improved her posture and she now looked all of her five foot, six inches.
“Hi Marcus,” Natasha said with her first, fleeting smile in hours.
“Oh hello,” answered Marcus who had become unaccustomed to having a conversation. He scratched his flaky skinned face, “Back for your holidays?” he added tamely.
As Marcus put the keys into his pocket, he felt the giro. The need to cash it became paramount. “Good,” he smiled. “I’m sorry but I’ve got to rush. I’ll see you around though. Bye,” and was off without thinking whether Natasha was going his way.
“I guess so. Bye,” Natasha said quietly as she in turn made her way out of Lambton House.
Marcus hurried to join the queue for the Post Office, trying not to look at the numerous young mothers pushing buggies with children of varying ages, the pensioners, the so called ‘no-hopers’ and idlers as he waited anxiously to change the giro into real money.
Once the cashier had given him his cash, Marcus bought a weekly bus pass and caught a bus to Lewisham.
Throughout the ten-minute journey, he stared absently out of the window watching the background change from grandiose Victorian properties with their well maintained gardens, to the congested modern mass produced houses of the varying estates that had grown ever larger. Abandoned cars and litter strewn pavements clearly signposted the demarcation lines.
Marcus stopped off at the library, spending an hour surfing the internet on the free access computers the Council had provided. As usual, he had no e-mails. When his hour was up, he made his way to the fiction section and selected three books that might provide relief and distraction from his endless diet of daytime TV.
He emerged into the spring sunshine and made his way to the market, a fortnightly highlight he could still enjoy. In addition, if he left it until late morning, the stall owners were beginning to give bargain weight. Local byelaws insisted the market be gone by two pm, so by noon the vendors would be shouting the odds.
The cries of “Pound a bowl, pound a bowl,” rang out from all directions as Marcus navigated his way through the crowded streets, tolerating the hustle bustle and increasingly unfamiliar contact with strangers. Market stalls that once been manned by local traders who could tell stories of the Blitz and beyond had passed onto Asian, Kosovan and Eastern Europeans who had migrated to London in search of a better future.
Fuck political correctness, Marcus thought and made a conscious decision to give his custom (regardless how measly) to one of the increasingly rare local traders. His ears pricked up like antennae when he heard the familiar “loverly termaters” shout of the white greengrocer.
Now that he was a man living alone in a bed-sit, he had lost the luxury of buying big quantities, even at knockdown prices. Nevertheless, Marcus haggled quite happily for salad stuff, a fine avocado, along with a hand of bananas and two apples. It was enough to make him feel almost a member of the human race again.
As he strode back towards the bus stop, he noticed the increasing number of shops that were now advertising the fact that they sold Polish goods. Yet another sign of the transformation that was taking place in London.
Prior to boarding a bus back to Blackheath, he stopped in the conveniently handy Lidl, diligently selected the depressing cheap staples that his budget allowed, joined the queue of mainly Eastern Europeans, paid for his goods before making his way to his local pub.
The Market Tavern was fairly busy with its usual diverse mix of clientele that ranged from the local regulars - drinkers who hadn’t the time or the inflated salaries for wine bars further afield - to the suited workers of the many offices that lay within walking distance of the popular pub.
Marcus sat alone in a quiet corner drinking a pint of lager, the three supermarket carrier bags that contained his carefully selected supplies sitting safely at his feet under the table, when a smartly dressed white man of around twenty-eight entered the pub. He looked around the other tables before he noticed Marcus and waved.
He walked to the bar, removing his tie as he ordered two pints, then joined Marcus and handed him one of the glasses.
Marcus nodded his head in appreciation. “Cheers Declan.”
“No problem mate. How are things?” Declan said in a mild Irish brogue as he took off his coat and threw it on the empty chair.
“Still alive,” Marcus answered sullenly.
Declan took his pint, clinked his glass with Marcus’ before taking a long swig. “That was needed,” he smiled. “Might have some good news for you mate.”
“I was speaking to a client today, he mentioned he was looking for new staff.”
“Yeah?” Marcus said with little interest.
“Come on Marcus. I’m trying to help you out here.”
“Sorry mate. It’s just that I’ve sent out so many letters, application forms and answered so many adverts. What’s the fucking point?”
“I know its hard mate, but you’ve got to keep on trying. Look I put in a good word for you and the guy was interested in meeting you.”
“What’s the job?”
Declan took another mouthful of the lager. “Does it matter? It’s a wage Marcus. It’s better than signing on. At least you’ll be earning enough to get out more than once every giro day.”
“It’s got to be crap if you’re not keen on telling me what it is.”
“Ok, it’s in telesales,” Declan admitted.
Marcus shook his head. “Shit man, you’re not serious? Not that con!”
“No honestly it’s not what you think,” Declan said trying to placate his friend. “The basic salary is decent. Really! Okay so you are on commission, but if you do alright then you’re on a good whack.”
“Yeah targets that mean you have to work like a slave,” Marcus added sarcastically.
“Marcus this guy isn’t like that.”
“Ok. Selling what?” Marcus asked.
“Holidays and insurance,” Declan replied. “It’s a doddle, you’ll do alright, believe me.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well at least get in touch with him and see what he’s got to say. What’s to lose?”
“Yeah I suppose so,” Marcus admitted reluctantly.
“Good man,” Declan smiled as he handed Marcus a business card. “Don’t forget to tell him that you know me and we’ve worked together.”
Marcus shook his head. “You getting a fee or something?”
Declan smiled, finished the rest of his beer and got up. “I’ll get another round in.”
As he rose, three attractive young women, all in their early twenties, two white and one mixed-race, burst noisily into the pub. Their laughing and brazen manner immediately attracted both Declan and Marcus’ attention.
Looking towards the women, Declan nodded his head. “They look fit.”
“Okay I suppose,” Marcus replied indifferently. He had already realised that the mixed-race woman was the same one he had seen get in the gold BMW.
“Listen to yourself. You’re starting to sound like a sad loser mate. Get a life!” Declan ribbed.
High in Lambton House, Natasha closed the book and rubbed her tired eyes. That was enough studying for one night. What was called for was a hot bath and coffee. Some wind down music would be nice too. She could start with the music.
Natasha, now softer and more feminine in a white towelling gown was languorous with true physical tiredness. She wriggled off the narrow guest bed and fiddled with the knobs on the old radio set that had gathered dust on the little cabinet adjacent to her pillow.
“That’s broken,” Wendy, her father’s partner, had told her ungraciously when she had first shown Natasha her allotted quarters. “Used to be Lisa’s….” Wendy caught herself, “your mother’s or you had it when you were little I gather. I was going to chuck it out, but your dad said you’d kick up a fuss.”
Having scored a hit and made her point, Wendy remembered herself and adopted a more gracious manner. Kevin had a big thing about catfights. She mustn’t be the obvious aggressor. “I don’t suppose you’d like to take it with you to college?” she suggested, all helpful sweetness.
Natasha was neither a fool nor a complete pushover. “It’s heavy,” she said refusing to rise to the bait, “the retro look’s back in fashion now and it’s got a lovely tone. That’s why mum was so fond of it. She had a really good musical ear. But I guess you never knew that.” She felt better when Wendy turned and stormed off.
The crackling subsided as she managed to find Jazz FM and turned the volume down to a bare minimum.
Next, she braved the kitchen where her father would be getting himself a late night snack. Supper had been a gluey pasta affair and Kevin did not trust foreign food to see him through the small hours, so he was arduously fixing himself a sort of sandwich while his partner’s back was turned. Wendy, from faint splashing and hissings, was in the shower and likely to be long. How much hot water would there be left for a bath Natasha mused. More to the point, could Wendy ever be really clean?
“Mind if I get some cereals and a coffee?”
She was already reaching for the bowl and packet, nevertheless he tracked her movements with deep suspicion. Natasha was gaining a confidence that was beginning to slip from his grasp. The put-downs weren’t keeping her in check the way they had used to do. They weren’t ……effective. She was in a world of her own, shrugging them off, coming back here bold as brass whenever it suited her, slipping ten pound notes behind Wendy’s fridge magnets to “pay for her keep”.
“Hhhrr. Make sure you clear up after yourself then. I don’t want Wendy slaving around with washing up round the clock just because you’ve decided to land on us for your holidays.”
Father and daughter locked eyes that were alike. Kevin also had the same fine pale skin and thin bones. He too, for all his aggression, had been prey; Wendy’s unrightful prey. They assessed each other. When he found that this strange, unregarded girl, who had once been his loving daughter, was looking at him with something like compassion, Kevin plunged his knife into the open jar of tuna sweet corn spread. Fuck compassion, she had better get off her high horse and learn to respect him again.
Marcus cursed at the clock, which read 12:30 pm; he hadn’t intended to sleep so late. He got out of bed, counted the mixture of notes and coins on the bedside table. The remains of his giro after he paid all his bills was a measly twenty-two pounds and fifty pence, which he would have to try to make last until his next cheque. Thankfully he rarely went out and it cost nothing (especially as he hadn’t yet paid his licence) to watch the television.
As he walked to the kitchen to put on the kettle, Marcus caught sight of the mixed-race woman from the pub. She was lighter than Maxine. Smoother, groomed solely to allure, but nevertheless cut from the same cloth.
The mere thought of Maxine caused him to wince. Would he ever get over her? Even though he had long since stopped thinking of her as his wife, (the divorce rather helped that) she still had the annoying habit of controlling his life. He wished he could stop thinking of her – period!
Marcus remained at the window watching the woman carrying items from the BMW into the expensive, upmarket building opposite. When, after she had not re-appeared for ten minutes, Marcus decided to settle down to watch TV.
He had just found the remote and was about to turn on the TV, when the muffled sound of arguing seeped through from the thin plasterboard walls of the flat next door. Marcus pressed the remote, and turned the volume up to listen to the host of the chat show introduce today’s topic.
The programme was only a few minutes old when the doorbell rang. With remote in hand, Marcus walked to the front door, checked through the spy hole where he saw the diminutive figure of Natasha biting her nails.
Marcus opened the door to his neighbour who was wearing a pair of red jeans and a loose cheesecloth top that had unintentionally been left unbuttoned to reveal a pair of firm breasts. She was not wearing any make-up and looked younger than her twenty-three years. She was obviously distressed.
“Look, I’m sorry to be a nuisance,” she said apologetically.
She bit on her lip sheepishly. “Can I come in please?”
“Sure,” Marcus said as he opened the door to allow her in.
“Are you alright? Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” he offered sensing her need for company.
“Do you mind?”
“Don’t be silly of course I don’t. Have a seat,” he said, showing her to the sofa before walking to the ‘kitchen’ area and switching on the kettle. “What would you prefer, tea or coffee?”
Natasha sat down and nervously nibbled away at her fingernails. What was she doing here? Did she seriously expect this man, who she had previously only had brief chats with, to take the time to listen to her woes. Why should he care?
Marcus opened a cupboard and took out two mugs.
“I haven’t seen you around much lately,” he said, trying to break the nervous silence.
“I’m on mid-term break,” Natasha explained.
There was a short pause before she continued. “I’m really sorry. I just had to get out of there.”
The whistling of the kettle as it finished boiling interrupted the conversation.
“Milk and sugar?” he asked.
“Milk and one sugar thanks.”
Marcus made a cup of tea for Natasha and a coffee for himself. He handed her the mug and perched on the bed.
Natasha took a sip of the tea. It didn’t take long before the flood banks burst and she let it all out.
“I just had to get out of there, but I didn’t want to be on my own.”
Marcus waited for her to explain.
“I can’t stand her. She just loves rubbing my face in it.”
“Who?” Marcus asked.
“Her! Wendy!” It was almost a wail. “My dad’s girlfriend. The bitch.” She drank more of the tea. “My mum and dad got divorced because of her. You know something? People said my mother actually…..” Natasha took a heaving breath, leaving the sentence incomplete. “I can’t stand her.”
There was a nervous pause while tension accrued and Natasha took herself in hand. Whatever Natasha’s mother actually had or hadn’t done, it definitely wasn’t good.
“What are you studying?” Marcus asked patiently, trying to diffuse the situation.
“Biochemistry and Genetics.”
“Right,” Marcus answered, which led to another pause. “I’m impressed,” he added, with the smallest possible muscle movement that could count as a smile.
“What do you do?” Natasha asked.
She finished her tea. Marcus picked up the empty mugs and placed them carefully in the sink. He checked his watch again.
“Look, I was going for a drink,” Marcus lied.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get going,” said Natasha standing to leave.
“You don’t have to go. I mean why don’t you let me buy you a drink?”
“No I shouldn’t have disturbed you.”
“Please. You need to talk,” Marcus said in a gentle persuasive voice. “Come on, let me buy you a drink.”
“Are you sure?”
“Honest. Come on let’s go.”
“Okay then,” Natasha smiled. Her turn to try. She wasn’t sure how to talk about it.
She hadn’t had any real friends when her mother died. She had shied away from counsellors later on at college. She was even reluctant to shame her father in public. Theirs had been such a family for not washing its dirty linen in public. Keeping up appearances.
For months after Natasha’s dad had really gone to live with Wendy, her mother had kept up appearances to the extent of the washing she hung on the line: men’s shirts. Clean linen only. Trying to fool the neighbours into thinking that her husband still lived there.
God knows why she had been so afraid of what people thought, Natasha reflected, drifting away from Marcus into her own private hell. All around their little terraced council house up the Angel, there had been fornication, partner swapping and adultery.
It was no different with the posh neighbours up the road and around the corner in the Canonbury Parks. They were luckier, because they could afford to hide behind proper blinds, not frilly nets and thin print curtains.
People from all the other maisonettes had been able to see Lisa’s silhouette curled up on the couch, with drooping head and arms tight around a cushion; as if letting go of it might be the death of her. Lisa had shrunk from human contact, being too sensitive to bear the comment. She’d stopped going out, stopped opening the curtains, started taking anti-depressants, then a whole packet of anti-depressants, until the curtains closed permanently.
Marcus took a swig from his pint of lager and placed the Bacardi Breezer in front of Natasha as they finally found an empty table in The Market Tavern.
“Thanks. My dad says I’m being - unreasonable. He loves that word. He says it wasn’t her fault, that they didn’t mean for it to happen. I think that’s crap. That’s just an excuse for being selfish.”
She took a nip of her drink whilst unconsciously twisting a strand of hair around her finger. Marcus allowed her to continue. It was obvious she needed to talk to someone and she had chosen him.
“How can a woman do that to another woman? She didn’t care about anybody else, not my mother, not me. He’s just as bad. They just thought about themselves.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
She didn’t seem to hear him, and carried on. “Anyway, Mum became depressed and killed herself not long after, so I had to move in with them. They got away with it alright. The GP gave evidence at the inquest – they decided that it was Accidental Death or Misadventure because they said she was meant to be too ill and dopey to know what she was doing. I just played along, but I knew she deliberately killed herself.”
“I should let you know I’m divorced,” Marcus said quietly.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t….. “ Natasha apologised, still busy with the strand of hair.
“Don’t be. I agree with you. My wife left me,” he said, surprised that he was opening this still festering wound to someone he hardly knew.
It was now Marcus who was lost in thought, reliving past memories.
He stared at Maxine, wondering whether she had decided to do something a bit wicked but frivolous and expensive, like buying a house in Tangier. Something that would cause a big stir, but not a horror that would blow his soul apart he had hoped.
But that was not Maxine’s style. No, she had taken a lover. Someone else! Had given him a month to vacate the house. Give her an address for her lawyers to contact she had ordered, triumphant, hateful, businesslike.
“Des and I need space to build our relationship with each other and our family.” - the only explanation offered.
“Why?” he had asked, his mouth making a pitiful smiling shape (he knew now that was pure shock). It had put him off smiling. “Why? What have I done?” he had wanted to ask.
Then angry and self-righteous.
“Look, I’m not wasting my time explaining anything to you; if you don’t get it then that’s your problem. I’ve given you as much as I can and after all these years we’re getting nowhere. You’re a man in an insignificant job, with small goals and little ambition – I won’t settle for that. I’ve told you before, my son and I deserve better and Des can offer us that. It’s over, we’re over – you get over it!”
“You know, I sometimes wonder if your parents didn’t realise how inadequate you were and just wanted to get rid of their useless son.”
And all he could think to say back was: “What did I do wrong?”
Natasha waited in silence, waiting until he could find the right words.
Marcus stirred again. “Yep, she left me.”
Natasha’s voice was normal, soft and direct.
“She found someone else,” Marcus answered coldly. He finished his pint and gestured to her glass. “Do you want another?”
“I’ll get them,” Natasha offered.
“No I asked you. I’ll get them,” Marcus insisted.
Marcus picked up the glasses, made his way to the bar and bought another round of drinks then returned to the table and handed Natasha another bottle.
“Thanks,” her fingers finally free from her hair.
“No problem,” Marcus answered all normal again now that the subject had moved on. “How long have you been at university?”
“I’m in my second year.”
“Right. What exactly are you studying?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Well last year we studied the fundaments of cell biology, genetics and molecular structure. In layman’s terms – how the body is put together and works.”
“Seems too deep for me.”
Natasha laughed; a soft quiet laugh. “Not exactly a winner at parties either. A bit like telling someone you play a musical instrument and then having to declare it’s actually a bassoon.”
Marcus let out a semblance of a laugh himself.
“Didn’t you ever think of going to uni?”
Marcus shook his head. “I’m not really academic. I suppose I was never encouraged by my parents. They didn’t see the point in me studying for a piece of paper when I could be out making money. That and being too busy running their errands and looking after them. To be honest school was just an escape from the chores for me.
“Are you involved with anyone?” Natasha asked casually as she fingered her hair nervously.
“No. How about you?” Marcus replied, wondering where that question had come from.
“No,” she paused to sip her drink. “God we’re a right pair of saddoes.”
Marcus smiled. “You started it.”
“Sorry,” Natasha said, coiling the lock of her hair around her finger.
“You like that word don’t you?”
“Sorry. I won’t say it again,” she said, looking down at her drink.
“Am I bugging you?”
“No. Why, do I give you that impression?”
“I don’t know I just wondered. I’m not always this boring you know.”
“I never said you were boring.”
As the mid-afternoon set in, the pub emptied. Natasha watched as the barman switched channels on the big, silent television slanted in the corner high above the bar. Her eyes widened at the sight of sweating men in bright vests leaping and straddling impossibly high bars, to fall sprawling backwards on great blocks of foam. Skinny girls, elbows working like pistons, paced and spurted around a track.
“Do you like sports?”
Natasha blushed, but her eyes glowed, “I love running. I used to run at school.”
“Don’t sound so shocked. I was quite good.”
“I wouldn’t have taken you for…. I mean you don’t look like a runner.”
“Well you’re wrong. I used to run for the county.”
“Why did you stop? If you were good enough to run for the county, you were obviously pretty good.”
“Don’t know really,” she replied, lowering her head and reaching for a strand of hair to twist. For a moment she remembered those days. Her achievements that had failed to impress either parent. It had been “That’s good love,” from her mother, and an indifferent “Don’t know what you want all that exercise for. Do better stopping still and getting some meat on those bones,” from her father. He never dreamed that his comments could hurt, but when she had become self-conscious about her boobs, that had made him laugh. “Guess Mum’s death put thing in perspective. I had more important things to do,” she said sadly.
Marcus took a sip of his beer, feeling guilty for pressing the young girl who had retreated into herself again. The truth was he himself had truly excelled at the hurdles. Could have been an Olympic prospect his teacher had said, selection for the Junior National team and all the signs for the full squad had been a less-than-remote possibility if only he had been able to attend the after school training.
But of course there had been his parents disapproval and the Church. Ironically his fate had been decided when he’d injured his knee, had too many cortisone injections, lost interest and that had been that; career over before it started. Perhaps that was why he was beginning to warm to Natasha. In many ways despite the difference in years, they both had shared experiences. First time out with a girl for ages and he had managed to upset her. She didn’t deserve that.
They fell to commenting on the performances on screen, following the competition, shared a plateful of ‘homemade chunky chips’ covered with ketchup; backed this or the other contestant. A Swede won the High Jump Gold, whilst a sandy-haired girl from the American Mid-West triumphed in her middle-distance heat, but looked thoroughly miserable about it.
“Imagine how you would feel if that was you winning a title? That still could be you, you’re young enough. You should toughen yourself up, go for it,” he said, hoping to cheer her up, yet wondering if he had phrased it right.
Natasha picked up her drink and for a moment saw the possibilities as she savoured the taste of the alcohol. Perhaps those few words were capable of opening a world of new possibilities.
The sports programme was followed by the News, with the sound off.
“What do you think they are talking about?” Marcus asked pointing to a couple of men who seemed to be arguing, in the background the logo of the lottery was plain.
Natasha scrunched up her face, twirled her hair furiously round her finger as she thought. “Mmm, I think the smaller one is upset because when they bought the lottery ticket they agreed to share and now that they’ve won the other bloke has denied any agreement and is claiming the money is his.”
Marcus chuckled. “Very creative, but I bet that he is mad, because their numbers came up and he forgot to buy a ticket.”
“Not bad. But I am sure that the other guy, (who just happens to be his ex-lover) is suing him for taking the money for the ticket and spending it on hair removal treatment. ”
They laughed, real laughs, until with the time after seven o’clock, they sadly ran out of money for drinks.
“Thanks for listening,” Natasha said as they walked home.
“Anytime. You know you’re welcome.”
“Thanks. I really enjoyed today. Can I return the compliment?”
“Can I buy you a drink tomorrow?”
“That’s alright. You don’t have to.”
“I’d like to.”
Marcus shrugged his shoulders. “Well it’s up to you.”
“Right, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Natahsa waited for a few seconds before opening the door and going inside. Was it worth it – did she have time – to try out for the Uni Athletics Club? She could get subsidised kit, probably, if she made it into the squad. Still, even if she didn’t join she could start using the track. Go running again.
Toughen herself up, as Marcus had told her. He hadn’t used those words, hadn’t really meant running, but it was all part of the same process.
Natasha visualised Wendy wobbling around a track, and grinned as she slipped the key in the front door lock.
Andrea Bailey rolled over in her empty bed. The silk sheets that covered it made a soft, protesting whisper in the process. She yawned lazily, rubbed her eyes before emerging naked from the king-sized bed and walked to the chair where she had neatly placed her silk bathrobe the night before.
She moved through to the bathroom and turned on both taps, added some bath salts, then picked up the two letters that stuck out of the letterbox on her way to the kitchen and making herself a cup of Earl Grey tea. She sat herself down and opened the envelopes - both addressed to ‘the occupier’. Andrea, deciding she was not interested in further credit cards or sponsoring a third world child, ripped them up and placed them in the bin. She would have been surprised had any personal mail found its way to this address.
When she had emptied her cup, Andrea returned to the bathroom, turned off the taps and let the bathrobe drop to the floor as she stretched one of her long, pale- chocolate legs into the bath. Satisfied with the temperature, Andrea lowered her body into the foamy liquid and felt the instant bliss as water rose to cover her hard brown breasts.
She picked up the soap (Appassionata by Laura Bugotti) and turned it slowly between her wet palms until the lather was creamy and pungent. Then she stroked it down her arms, across her breasts down, down, to the tips of her crimson-tipped toes. As she worked she conducted her routine inventory. Toe nails: still flawless. No action needed. The skin of her calves: moisturiser. Finger nails: wrong shade for today’s outfit. A duskier, subtler, tint to complement a plum-coloured, raw silk trouser suit; think orchid she murmured to herself, and smiled at her own absurdity. She was a professional, not an airhead.
Although she usually enjoyed lazing in her bath, Andrea was aware that today she had to be on the road early. She quickly washed, stepped out of the bath, and dried herself in an ivory towelling kimono, which she wrapped around herself before padding barefoot back to her bedroom.
She sat in front of the dressing table, and turned this way and that into the mirror as she carefully and surely perfected her daytime make-up. Andrea never compromised.
Once she had finished her make-up, Andrea dressed, grabbed her bag and made her way out of Napier Court. She used the remote to open the door of the BMW and started the engine. Knowing she had lots to do today, Andrea decided her first stop was the flat in Chiswick. For a moment, she even contemplated making a detour to Hackney.
Natasha took a last look in the mirror before closing the door to her bedroom and leaving the flat. She had put on a little make-up and had done her hair. First she had tried pinning it up, as her Indian friend did – one slide, or even a biro, holding up a whole great twist. But Natasha’s hair slipped free of the single mooring. So she had brushed it down and pinned the slide in just to look pretty.
The make up came in a little jade-green case and was a cute set of miniature cream-colour blocks complete with applicators, brush and mirror. It was airport duty-free booty; a ‘gift’ that came when you bought a fair sized bottle of big-brand, full-strength perfume. A holiday souvenir from the chief barmaid at The Old Spotted Mare in Nottingham, where Natasha pulled pints on a Friday night. “Get a bit of lippy on, love,” Yvette had said. “Here’s a starter kit from sunny Florida. You couldn’t call it showy. No one’ll call you a slapper. Its classy stuff, this. Clinique.”
She was pleased that the pair of candy striped trousers and tight tee shirt showed off her figure – not that she expected to be complimented for her body, in fact, she could not recall anyone ever telling her she had a nice body.
Well not exactly true, perhaps the words may have been uttered during the few sexual encounters she had endured. The one ‘steady ‘relationship, (which had lasted all of four weeks and ended when Alex had drunkenly told her that the reason he wanted her was for convenient sex, not love) had taught her that words were too often used by some men solely to flatter until they got you between the sheets.
Natasha was more than confident that her slender figure would never attract such comments as “God her bum looks big in that!” In fact Natasha was more than conscious of her unimpressive backside and any means of enhancing that region was welcome.”
She took a deep breath before knocking on Marcus’ door, hoping that he was in.
It seemed like an age before he opened the door dressed in jeans and a slightly creased blue polo shirt.
“Hi. Ready for that drink?” she asked, thankful that he was indeed home.
“Right. I’ll just grab a coat.”
Marcus disappeared inside, turned off the TV and picked up a wine-coloured blouson from behind the door before joining Natasha. They completed the three-minute walk to the Market Tavern in a nervous silence.
“What are you having?” Natasha asked Marcus as a middle-aged barmaid approached.
“A pint of lager please.”
“A pint of lager and a vodka and orange please,” she repeated to the barmaid who was already fetching glasses.
The barmaid served Natasha, politely accepted her twenty-pound note for the drinks, deposited the note in the till then gave her the change.
Although the pub was busy as usual, they managed to find an empty table and sat down.
Natasha started to clear the tabletop. She dumped the empty crisp packet into the ashtray, stacked the two half-empty glasses and blew some spilt ash carefully onto a discarded paper serviette. Finally, she picked up all the clutter calmly, with practised ease, and left them at the end of the bar before threading her way back.
Lust had started to stir in Marcus when Natasha had bent over the table, pursing her lips to blow away the miniature mound of ash, but he wasn’t ready to relax and enjoy it.
I’m turning into a dirty old man. How old is she? How old am I? Marcus thought.
“Feeling a bit better today?” Marcus asked.
“Yes. Sorry about yesterday.”
Marcus tutted, “I thought you weren’t going to keep on apologising.”
“What’s it like at university?”
“Bloody hard work.”
“Too right. It’s not the coursework, I can cope with that. It’s the fact that I’ve got to work in order to get by.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I work in a restaurant and do some cleaning in a small hotel. Boring really, but it means I can finish my course.” She paused to take a drink. “What about you? What do you usually do?”
“Me, I used to work in an insurance office.”
“I was made redundant. The company got taken over and the new firm decided it needed to ‘downsize’.”
Natasha finished her drink and signalled to Marcus. “Drink up.”
Marcus waved his hand, “I’ll get these.”
“No. I told you it was my turn tonight.” She waited for him to finish before taking the glasses.
“I’ll give you a hand.”
Natasha struck a self-assured pose. “Keep the seats. I think I can manage to carry two drinks.”
Marcus watched as she made her way to the bar. What was it about her that had caused him to open up to her? He had grown used to being alone, safe in the solitude of his own company where no one could harm him. Now he was having conversations; expressing feelings he had kept to himself for so long.
He heard her voice before he realised that she had returned.
“Do you mind if I ask you something personal?” Natasha asked nervously as she placed the pint glass in front of Marcus.
“Thanks,” he said accepting the drink, “I won’t know until you ask.”
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“Go for it.”
Natasha sipped her drink. “How long ago did you split up from your wife?”
“Nearly two years now.”
“What happened to her?”
“She’s living with the bloke.”
“Does she live close by?”
“No. She lives in our old house in Essex.”
Natasha bit pensively on her lips before asking, “Do you still see her?”
“No I don’t,” Marcus answered quickly, with no attempt to disguise the malice in his voice.
“Why did you move to Blackheath? It’s such a long way from Essex. Have you got family around here?”
Marcus was relieved when the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of three well-dressed women wearing expensive designer clothes, who raucously entered the pub and approached the bar.
The loud pop of the champagne cork caught Marcus and Natasha’s attention.
“Looks like they’re having a good time,” Natasha commented.
“The mixed-race one lives in Napier Court,” Marcus stated.
Natasha raised her eyebrows, “Alright for some.”
“What do you think she does for a living?” he asked.
Natasha shrugged her shoulders, “How should I know?”
“Have a guess,” he urged.
Natasha picked up her glass and traced the rim with her finger as she studied the group. “Something well paid. Advertising or marketing?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Well, they don’t look like professionals such as lawyers or doctors, but they can afford authentic designer clothes. I used to work Saturdays in a posh boutique and I can tell that what they are wearing doesn’t come cheap. So am I right?”
“I don’t know. It was bugging me.”
“Then why don’t you just ask her?” said Natasha, a little jealous that he obviously found the woman attractive.
“It doesn’t matter. I just wondered that’s all. I thought she might be a model or an actress, someone famous.”
“I suppose she could be. I don’t recognise her though.”
“She doesn’t work regular office hours.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen her coming out of her building in the afternoons when I go to sign on.”
Another cork popped as the women opened another bottle of champagne.
Natasha leant forward and said in a low voice, “Perhaps she’s a prostitute, or a drug dealer.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well think about it. Irregular hours, flash clothes and expensive apartment; obvious isn’t it.”
“A bit too stereotypical though isn’t it?”
Natasha took a sip of her drink. “Some of the girls at my college strip or - well, you know. Do it for money. “
She shook her head in disbelief. “Why do you think? It’s quick money that gets them out of debt.”
“A bit drastic. You’d think that someone clever enough to go to university would be able to manage their finances,” Marcus said unsympathetically.
Natasha leaned forward, forearms on the table, risking pools of spilt drink. Her eyes shone bright with animation; remembering how she used to run. How her heart had pounded as she picked up speed, then settled again as she maintained the acceleration and her body adjusted to the new demands: effort remembered, effort sustained. The athlete was back.
“Yes, but it’s easy to see why. When mum died, I had to work full time for a year and save all my wages to make sure I could get through my first year at Uni. My dad didn’t help me one bit.”
“I watched this talk show on TV about people who did things others didn’t approve of for money. They called them guests, but they had to disguise the faces and put their voices through synthesisers. They had burglars, prostitutes and drug dealers. There was even a murderer, you know a hit man,” said Marcus.
“Sounds like a nice bunch.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but when I heard them explaining why they did what they did, I almost found myself understanding them.”
“What?” exclaimed Natasha in horror, “How could they justify killing someone?”
“I don’t know. The girls at college who strip or whatever, what do you think about them?”
“I don’t know them personally. I’m too busy getting by the legal ways, well apart from taking a bit of cash in hand. I understand the pressure they are under and how it might seem to be an easy way out, but it isn’t is it?”
“No, but you understand and you don’t judge them, that’s what I meant.”
“Yes, but just because you understand doesn’t make it right. I couldn’t do what they do.” She finished her drink and stood up. “Last one - and I’m buying.”
Marcus held his hands up in resignation. Natasha smiled and left for the bar.
As Natasha reached the counter, one of the three smartly dressed young women, shimmied up to Marcus’ table. She - like her friends - definitely rated as a “Babe”, a girl who would always, always find time and money for leg waxes and hair highlights.
“Do you know where the ladies are?” she asked, without faint pretence.
“Yes, they’re just around the corner in the other bar,” Marcus answered.
“No they’re not – we’re over there,” she said pointing to her two friends who were waving and laughing.
“We’re real ladies,” she winked and gestured to the chair beside him. “My name’s Hannah. Is that seat taken?
“Afraid so,” Marcus said and nodded at Natasha who was returning with the drinks.
Hannah bent over and made sure Marcus got an eyeful of her ample bosoms that were bursting out of the low cut top. “Well if you get bored, you know where we are.” She smiled, touched-fingers suggestively with the tips of her short blonde hair, swivelled back to her friends, smiling at Natasha as she sashayed past her.
Marcus smiled as he watched her exaggerated strut, buttocks swaying invitingly. Under his breath he spat out, “Fucking slut!”
Natasha put down the drinks. “I wasn’t interrupting anything was I?” she ribbed.
“No you bloody well weren’t,” Marcus snarled.
Sensing the change in Marcus’ mood, Natasha sat quietly and played with her hair as she waited for him to start a conversation. There was no charge of attraction now in his looks or manner. The three women had spoilt it.
Like those vampire sisters in Dracula, Natasha thought, remembering how, aged twelve, she’d read Dracula – the proper novel – sitting demurely, schoolgirl knees together, in a shiny armchair at her local library, almost until closing time. When the dowdy-but-nice lady on the desk came up behind her to announce discreetly that it was ten to seven, she had actually shrieked.
Natasha looked apprehensively at him over the rim of her glass and wondered what she had done to upset him. Any further attempts to instigate dialogue were met with muted response by Marcus who for some unknown reason was now clearly brooding.
It was with some relief mixed with trepidation that the evening ended and Marcus walked Natasha to her flat.
“Thanks for the drinks,” Marcus said as he fished into his pockets for his keys.
“We’re even now”.
“I wasn’t keeping tally,” Marcus snapped.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Natasha said defensively.
Marcus detected the hurt in her voice. “I’m sorry. It’s okay. Look feel free to knock again if you want anything.”
“Are you sure?” she asked tentatively.
She smiled, “You might regret saying that.”
“I don’t think I will.”
“Thanks. Goodnight then.”
Marcus walked across his bed-sit to the fridge, took out a cold can of lager and tugged on the ring pull. He selected a cassette, inserted it into the video. Placing his lager on the bedside table, he lay on the bed and pressed the remote.
He remained riveted to the screen watching the talk show that he had described to Natasha. Marcus fast-forwarded to a guest who was describing her early life in a run down project in America. She recounted her story of her introduction to wealthy men, and how she had no qualms about dating married men.
Marcus’ face contorted with hatred when the host asked how she felt about her actions and the guest flicked back her hair, smiled before saying “Sometimes you’ve just got to do what you have to in order to get what you want.”
Fit women, beautiful women; what they did to you with their cheers, their sobs, and their long-festered grievances brewing in those heaving bosoms. They could always justify why they do what they did. Take you for all you had, everything you had given, your own roof from over your head and even your children. That was what they did, just as his mother had; just as Maxine had. Get a life? More like take a life?
Marcus pressed the rewind button on the remote and played the clip once; then again and again.
Claudia St Clair sat on a chair in the dining room of her home. The West Indian and African art that they had painstakingly sought out over many years were thoughtfully sited about the well-decorated deep carpeted and long draped room that was Claudia’s pride and joy.
Now thirty-five years old, Claudia was a woman with presence; matriarch material ahead of the surplus bodyweight required of the role. At this time of her life, she was shapely, toned from the gym and with slight threatenings of over-muscularity around the shoulders and thighs. Not especially tall, there was already a hint of stockiness. She would never lack grace, because her head was so elegantly set, back and up, with a proud flared nose and lifted chin. Her smooth skin was darker than caramel, almost charcoal in the hollows of her face. Large expressive eyes with brows permanently arched, as if tautened by her hair which was drawn straight back and up from her face.
Beside her at the table sat an impeccably dressed, well-groomed, light-skinned black man of thirty-eight. The expensive made-to-measure suit showed that Ken St Clair was exactly what he appeared; a highly successful businessman.
Seated around the table with them were three couples. The gathering consisted of a black male in his forties with a flourish in his manner suggestive of an up-and-coming barrister and his thirty-something partner. Theirs was the glamour of successful professionals: good shoes, good haircuts. The woman was also black. Her jewellery was platinum, and little enough of it. Her shirt was grey silk; a black woollen mid-length skirt completed the ensemble of work clothes, slightly creased from the efforts of a stressful day in the Public Relations Department of a government office.
The other black male, Dr Franklyn Beaupierre, a Senior ENT Registrar at Guys and St Thomas’, was accompanied by a blonde (dark roots just starting to show through Claudia noted) white female in her mid to late twenties from Physiotherapy, who whilst being suitable eye candy, did not realise the extent of unease she had brought to the gathering.
The third couple was white, both around thirty-six years old, university friends of Ken who ran their own successful E-Business from home in Battersea. They took turns texting the nanny to check on their three-year-old daughter Kitty. The woman looked weary, but she had found time to change into a sleeveless, fairly pricey, little black dress from Zara. The man, on the other hand, was dressed smart-casual, soft, floppy fair hair, rather defiantly househusband, non-corporate, and suede shod. Claudia wondered if they had consulted before dressing to go out.
Ken St Clair stood and tinkled his crystal glass with a spoon.
“My dear friends you all know you have been summoned here in this fashion for a reason.”
Laughter from the others caused a brief interruption before he continued. Claudia smiled politely.
“So, I am charged with announcing to you, you select band of few; that my darling wife Claudia has been selected for promotion to the auspicious rank of Detective Chief Inspector.”
“Well done Claudia.”
Ken lifted his hand and quietened the volley of compliments before he continued. “So dear friends let us drink a toast in celebration and in appreciation of her wonderful news,” he said and raised his glass, “To the soon to be Detective Chief Inspector Claudia St Clair.”
The guests stood and repeated the toast before breaking out into a chorus of “For she’s a jolly good fellow.”
Claudia took their congratulations and good wishes gracefully; even if she was slightly miffed that not only had Ken neglected to invite even one of her colleagues to this surprise, but also had not managed to prevent Dr Beaupierre from bringing his preposterously young bit of stuff to their home. She would let him know her feelings on that later.
Ever the diplomat, Claudia smiled sweetly as the blonde-haired woman kissed the doctor. Too pretty, too young.
Marcus woke, found the remote that he had left on the bedside table, turned on the TV and zapped through the channels until he found a chat show. The female host announced that the theme of today’s programme was women and their changing role in today’s society.
Marcus sat up a little more in the bed, his eyes entranced by the procession of female guests. He listened as the first guest stated that she does not want a man in her life. She explained that if she wants sex, then she goes out and has a one-night stand. She added that it was her right to decide what she did with her body and if men did not like it – tough!
“Fucking slag!!!!” Marcus swore.
The next guest announced that she is a single mother who had returned to work eight weeks after giving birth; that her child was well looked after in a crèche and had not suffered. She explained that apart from conception, the father had been of no use to her. She hadn’t told him she was pregnant and was better off without him.
“Bitch,” Marcus shouted loudly over the applause from the TV audience. Is that what men had become now? Mere toys for females, to be disposed of as and when pleased, he reflected.
The final guest was a woman who stated she had been a battered wife who finally flipped and killed her husband in a moment of rage. When she revealed that she had received a sentence of probation, the audience applauded approvingly.
“Fucking cow,” Marcus shouted. “Fucking bitches! She kills a man and they cheer. What if that was a man? They would lock him up for life!” he ranted to himself.
Natasha eyed the numerous varieties of trainers with unease. She had consciously chosen to go to a specialist running shop to get proper advice in order to make an informed decision. If she was going to spend her hard-earned cash on something, then she was not going to be frivolous and squander it.
Then she remembered the old shop, where she had found her bargains in her school days, in return for helping to tidy up at closing time. In fact Bernie, the proprietor, had offered her a Saturday job, but her Mum had been so fragile by then. Not well enough to leave.
The owner liked her because even though she had a quiet voice, she had been a good listener and a quick learner. If the shop had gone, so be it. But … but …what if he was still there, and she had to explain about her mother dying? Natasha frowned in her dilemma, before pulling herself together. So she would just tell him, wouldn’t she?
A twenty-minute bus ride brought her to the old familiar shop, looking much the same as it had done seven years ago. On the display rack in the store’s porch she fingered the price tag on a pair with massively built up soles and a pretty pink and silver flash. Was she looking at high fashion or high function? They would hardly take them back once she had tried them out for ten or so miles, and found them wanting, would they?
The customers inside were mainly young, black and male; assessing racks of vests that did or did not hold the body heat, or expel moisture, or control airflow or support muscles. When they thought she wasn’t looking, they assessed Natasha too.
At the counter, she asked after Bernie – who had not retired, but was now running a second branch two miles away the pleasant female assistant explained. Thirty-five minutes later, Natasha exited the shop smiling proudly as she carried her aptly chosen purchases. Not just shoes, a complete running kit for under £50! She had also left a message for Bernie, and felt that a friendship was halfway to being renewed.
Marcus stood by the window watching as the mixed-race woman from the block opposite pulled up in her BMW. He breathed heavily, still furious at the guests who had so proudly boasted of what he perceived as loathing of men.
A middle-aged man dressed in a stylish suit emerged from the passenger seat, walked round and opened the door to allow the mixed-race woman out of the car. He took her arm and together they entered Napier Court. Marcus remained transfixed. To his surprise after a short while, she reappeared at a window almost directly opposite his and drew the curtains closed.
As if spellbound, Marcus continued watching for a further hour until the couple finally materialized at the entrance to Napier Court then got in the car and drove off.
Marcus went to the kitchen, made himself some noodles then returned to the window. He proceeded to eat the paltry meal whilst keeping his watch on the block.
Andrea sang along with the tape, turned the BMW into the underground garage and eased into her parking space. Her black high heels made a noisy clicking sound as she walked towards the entrance to the flat. Yes, this was her real flat – a place unknown to others – where she could keep her secrets. Not that keeping your secrets was difficult in London; it was the perfect place for those who wanted anonymity, a city where people kept themselves to themselves; where no one bothered to ask questions. She grinned at the thought that none of her neighbours even knew that Thérèse Williams was her adopted name.
Andrea was just about to open the door to the flat when her mobile rang. She delved into her bag, found the phone and answered the call. She turned around and walked back to her BMW.
Marcus chewed restlessly on his nails. It was another three hours before the woman returned. This time she was with another man; again a suited middle-aged man. They followed her previous routine of withdrawing into her apartment, staying there for about an hour before coming out, getting into the BMW and driving off.
Marcus finally gave up his vigil and returned to watching yet another chat show on TV. This was a more raucous American programme where all the guests were women about to tell their partners that they are having affairs.
He thought back to that day when his world had been destroyed. He remembered the feeling of shock, anger and hatred as he had opened the door.
Tears started to trickle from his eyes at the recollection of Maxine throwing his clothes unceremoniously out of the window onto prickly cotoneaster shrubs in the bed beneath; (“the best crime deterrent and anti-burglar device known to the police”) said the leaflet from their Neighbourhood Watch Liaison Officer. Shouting obscenities at him as his young son looked on from the bedroom they had recently decorated together in the colour of his favourite football team.
Marcus became aware of the audience on the TV chat show cheering wildly as an attractive blonde woman announced to her husband that she had been cheating on him with his best friend.
The audience became even more animated as the ‘best friend’ was brought on stage and a fight between the two men commenced. Once they had been separated and calmed down, the woman added that she has also been seeing a woman.
Marcus could no longer contain his anger and disgust. His face twisted into a look of near insanity. He rose angrily, switched off the TV and went back to the window.
It was getting dark when the BMW pulled up and the mixed-race woman, accompanied by a pretty blonde, carried their expensive looking bags from the car. Marcus watched silently, his heart pounding as the lights came on in her flat before she again closed the curtain to him.
Marcus wasn’t quite sure when the idea had come to him, but once the notion had formed he found that it would not leave his head, and the more he thought about it, the more vindicated he felt. She had such a fucking easy life. If she could afford to live in Napier Court, maintain a BMW and dress in designer clothes; then she must have serious money. Money that she would not miss but which he needed – no deserved. Why shouldn’t he have his life back?
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