New Writing In Various Forms, edited by Michael Blackburn

The Review is now on permanent sabbatical.

Many thanks to those who contributed.

The rest, as the man said, is silence.

Friday 5 December 2008

The Mirror - Short Story by Roz Goddard

Let me tell you, I have never in five years witnessed a noble act - unless you count reading.

Today, the forecast was for snow, that can mean any number of things – a stranded salesmen en route to Dundee booking in, perhaps lovers desperate to meet for their stolen afternoon despite the weather - I hoped for the latter. Salesmen are invariably dull - tossing cheap cufflinks onto the bedside table, using the remote control to search for Porn. These men have no taste. Hotel Porn is abysmal; I don’t know how they rise to it.

Anyway, no T.V. this afternoon for our pair. In they came light-footed - she’d had a gin or two - maybe a beer for him. No setting down of suitcases, no checking the hospitality tray (only married couples and conference delegates do this); they were almost dancing.

They didn’t know each other well, there was no finesse in their touching, certainly no familiarity, their movements were actorly as if they had seen this sort of thing on T.V. - yes, as if off-stage they were being directed to look passionate. I’ve seen it all - the haste, the muttered endearments, the application of effort, as if there was a glass trophy at the end of the month for toil. The wall lights glowed honey over them, they could be forgiven for thinking they were safe.

He had history, looked as if he had, defensive around the small eyes but handsome with it, looking as though he was, at the core of himself, rather ignoble. She was beautifully turned out, an indigo velvet dress with sheer stockings, high on the excitement of it – conker-glossy hair and radiant skin, as if she had seen the future and it was full of light.

They were right at the beginning of things, he had alcohol (that groaning cliché), it speaks of the Vauxhall Vectra, two wheels up on the pavement, while he grabbed a bottle of corner shop champagne. It’s regarded as a drink without negative connotations, unless it is used to disparage someone in an argument about class, though in this situation it suggests celebration, side-stepping the mundane. It is impossible to think about the colourlessness of aged parents, the smell of hospitals, the weekly shop - when you are drinking champagne. They had the whole afternoon stretching in front of them, glasses in hand, buttons undone. Though I am puzzled as to why they chose January to begin their affair, did any affair begun in January ever flourish? The month of midnight mornings and garden rot. Whether they like it or not they are carrying these faces of winter into the muted hotel warmth and the malaise is difficult to shake.

But it’s not the beginnings that interest me, they are often warm, full of hope, (despite the climate) it’s in the endings where the real story lies.

The problem this afternoon for our pair was one of geography. It would have been impossible in that over-heated office of theirs, with all the talk of work and deadlines and projections for them to get to know each other. They would have supposed things and the truth is, physical attraction makes you stupid, I’m not immune myself. One can overlook things.

The sex, and you must be wondering or you wouldn’t be human, was to an unbiased on-looker, rather unsatisfactory. I had detected in him a desire for sensuous pleasures, without any hint of sensitivity, he was like a great grass roller powering over the turf with not a thought for the daisies. She was gamely giving it her all, but I think, slightly bemused by his rather selfish focus. He was away unselfconsciously exploring the far-reaches of pleasure. She couldn’t catch him.

What do I mean by geography? They were to each other, somewhere unreachable, this was clear in the post-sex chat when they were bathing - he had taken the trouble to bring a sliver of Imperial Leather for his sensitive skin, a small intimacy she was moved by, this pulling back of the curtain on his hidden life, she was delighted it as if it were a precursor to deeper revelations, as if it signalled a shift onto the hinterland of a proper relationship. I could have told her it didn’t. He just had sensitive skin.

Champagne, despite all its bubbles and reputation, was no help to them. The post-sex chasm soon opened up, I detected as they lay in the cooling water a re-assessment, a cursory romp through books, film, music, all the normal distractions they enjoyed, revealed some interesting differences - instead of knowing each other more, they were to each other a bigger puzzle. There was a realisation in her greater silences that she was listening, appalled, to someone she didn’t have much in common with.

Although I didn’t have her down as the bragging type, she rattled off half a dozen literary titles she’d read in recent months. There was some anger in her revelation, I thought hold on love, it’s not a competition. He splashed about a bit and lost his soap.

It turned out he wasn’t a big reader; he’d read ‘Fever Pitch’ by Nick Hornby. Jesus, I thought, if only she’d given him a questionnaire to fill out before sleeping with him. His favourite book apparently, and I could tell by his tone, he’d gone misty eyed, was a children’s book called, The Velveteen Rabbit, he said his mother used to read it to him. I wondered though if this wasn’t a rather clever ploy on his part, what was it revealing? That he had a sensitive side, that he loved his mother and that he was deeply sentimental – some women like that.

There were silences, slightly awkward. He said, ‘You’re beautiful’, I imagine she smiled, but didn’t respond. Then the bombshell from her, ‘Do you love your wife?’

I realised immediately that despite her greater sensitivity and knowingness, she was with the champagne drunk, in the now cold water, hopelessly out of her depth. It was hard for her to accept that here, in this out-of-town hotel; on a dual carriageway she had been involved in nothing more than a bout of unsatisfactory sex. He refused to answer her question and rose from the water. He came out into the main room with a towel wrapped around his waist and conjured a wall with a barrage of sound from the T.V.

She stayed in the bathroom for a while; I heard the dull sweep of the towel over the mirror, water draining away. She feigned indifference when she emerged and started to get dressed too. I was reminded of two people in a family changing area at the local swimming pool, self-consciously pulling on underwear, careful not to catch anyone’s eye, backs hunched, curling in on themselves. I found it poignant that they both had a couple of inches of wet hair, where they had lain together in the bath, that intimacy now utterly evaporated.

He moved to the window, over three hours of snow had fallen and obliterated the parked cars. The dual carriageway was at a standstill, I saw in that micro expression both disappointment and regret - and a rising panic.

He began to dress quickly and after the briefest kiss to her cheek, and a mumbled something about seeing her at work, was gone, into the hushed corridor. I imagined him emerging onto the car park, mobile at his ear, looking up at the sky, his face catching the large, slippery flakes, pleading with the gods for the snow to stop falling, so he could get home.

She remained in the room sitting dumbly on the edge of the bed, the weather report forecast more snow coming from the West. For the first time she looked directly at me, and I, without sentiment, reflected the grey swimming of her eyes, her silent mirthless mouth, the rise and fall of her chest, hands cradling air. Here was a different woman, the woman who entered the room all those hours ago was not disappeared exactly, rather she had arrived in the future, and it was snowing.

Roz Goddard has published three collections of poetry; her most recent, How to Dismantle a Hotel Room, was published in 2006 in association with the Birmingham Book Festival. She is a former poet laureate of Birmingham and is currently working on a collection of short stories. Roz's website.

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