I am on the Tube but not in a carriage I recognize. It’s too big, too spacious, as if the tunnel’s been widened and they’ve stretched the train to fit it. There aren’t enough bodies to cram into all the spaces the way there were before the expansion. I feel too small, I’m a child again, playing truant and bound to get caught.
I should be at work, behind the desk I normally sit at on a Monday morning, in the office I have been going to regularly and without fail, as near as damn it, for the past sixteen years. I used to be reliable, dependable, predictable. Able. Miss Able. Miserable. Being miserable made me a prime candidate for Temptation, which dangled happiness in front of me only to snatch it away again once I’d reached for it leaving me with something else. Consequences. It’s too soon to say what they will lead to.
The extra room in this larger carriage means it’s actually possible for me to sit down for once. Such luxury leaves me free from the usual business of keeping myself upright and fending off encroaching office clerks and middle managers who announce the male flesh hidden beneath their thick wool coats with too much Brut. Those men were here, I can still smell traces of the aftershave, the stale scent of damp skin mingled in. But the Machinery of the Underground, such as it is, has already swept them beneath the clogged streets of London and spewed them back above ground straight to their desks. The Machinery doesn’t care about spewing me out today. Workers don’t travel at ten o’clock in the morning, so I can spin around down here as long as I like before five p.m. when everything will happen again in reverse.
With all this space, the seat, and the free movement of my hands, I am able to read a newspaper for a change. On a normal day I wouldn’t have even seen the story.
Wife Serves Husband for Dinner
Rose Deacon, 48, was arrested in Huntsville, Alabama, on Saturday for murdering her husband and cooking portions of his body. The wife of 53-year-old Stephen Deacon, manager of a used-car business, confessed to killing her husband after discovering that he was having an affair with his secretary, Emily Bradley, 32. Having lured Ms. Bradley to a ‘surprise dinner’ for Stephen, she presented her unsuspecting only guest with the gruesome meal, allegedly announcing, “If you want my husband, you’d better eat him before he gets cold.” Emily managed to flee and alert police who found Stephen Deacon’s dismembered body in the freezer.
I feel like a peeping Tom staring through the dining room window, trying to peer into the dish as Rose triumphantly lifts the lid. Which parts of her husband’s body did she serve up to his lover? I can’t help wondering and picture toad-in-the-hole.
I had hoped that reading the paper would distract me from thinking about Daniel, but the story has yanked him out from the wings and plonked him dramatically back onto centre stage. Would I be tempted to taste a few morsels of his cooked flesh if his wife offered him to me on a plate? If I were his wife and he wanted to leave me for his lover would I boil him with the spuds and serve him to her?
No, of course I couldn’t take a knife to Daniel; nothing could make me carve him into oven-ready joints. I’ve always been suspicious of butchers with their easy use of the meat cleaver and the shameless way they wear those blood-stained aprons in broad daylight; white aprons, to highlight the gore. It doesn’t seem natural to be that intimate with raw flesh, to hack through bone and slice through sinew day in, day out. A butcher could dismember a body, choose the best cuts for the pot, but not me, not an ordinary person. Rose Deacon must have been pushed over a very high, very sheer edge.
Daniel arrived at my company on a short-term contract, a consultant, an expert swooping in to sort out the mess; a kind of SAS soldier of the business world, not as macho or as deadly, but just as shadowy, just as transient. I wasn’t attracted to him at first sight, there were no bolts of lightning or hot sparks crackling up and down my spinal column. Those things have happened to me in the past so I know they’re possible, but it’s a mystery to me if all that electrical activity can really last for more than a few weeks. I’ve read that eighteen months is the sexual event horizon; beyond that the temperature plummets, fevers subside and lovers become two ordinary people again, floating calmly in space like everyone else.
Daniel wasn’t so much pushing me into a black hole as pulling me out. How could I not fall in love with someone who rescued me from all that emptiness? Because it was love. It can’t have been lust if I hadn’t been struck by lightning.
The last man I’d loved left three years ago. His things disappeared into five cardboard boxes, which I can still see piled on top of each other beside the front door. He said we had drifted apart and I agreed, but at least when he was there we could have drifted back together again. I missed his things, the masculine bits and pieces that he scattered about the place like a dog marking his territory. The house became too empty, an echo chamber in which every sound I made reverberated through the rooms as I rattled around, alone. I went to bed with a hot water bottle, there was too much empty space under the quilt for me to warm up without help. I awoke cold and tired as if I’d been walking across the wastes of Siberia throughout the night. As each day passed solitude gnawed deeper into me like a hungry rat caged on the stomach of a mediæval torture victim. By the time I met Daniel my loneliness was a gaping wound within me that needed to be healed.
I didn’t really see him all in one go, but pieced him together over several weeks like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps it was his voice that first drew me in, smooth and warm like melted chocolate, or more likely the words it delivered, all seductively coated in confidence and maturity. I began to study his lips when he spoke, noticed how small creases formed at the corners of his blue-grey eyes when he smiled. His hands were strong and masculine with no trace of those disconcertingly simian, black hairs that trail over some men’s knuckles, making the skin look unhealthy and too white. They were hands I liked to imagine touching me, it had been so long since I had been held.
Daniel’s enthusiasm was infectious, he didn’t need to drag people with him, they followed him freely. Occasionally the team went for a drink together and so I got to see other more beguiling sides of him; warmer, softer, deeper. Costlier.
He had to work closely with everyone in the department and by the time my turn came I had finished the jigsaw. It had been like having the puzzle but not the lid with the picture on it; the pieces looked promising, but the whole was more than expected.
“I’m starving,” he said, the first day we had to work late. He got Chinese takeaway from the restaurant around the corner and we ate it in the eerily deserted offices like the only survivors of biological warfare.
“Why aren’t you married?” he asked suddenly, looking up at me after scooping the remainder of the sweet and sour chicken onto his rice. It was this directness that made him so good at guiding more verbose people out of the dead ends they talked themselves into. Responding in the same fashion was harder for others to do.
What should I have told him? That I’d never been brave enough, that I’d never been desperate enough? That I thought dressing up and promising to stay together forever was a game children played? I didn’t want to accuse him of being childish, so I just said “I suppose I haven’t met the right man yet,” and it occurred to me for the first time that perhaps this awful cliché was the real reason after all.
He talked about his wife and two young sons, not hiding them or pretending they didn’t exist; he wasn’t planning a crime. To me they were as remote as Martians, as insubstantial as ghosts. It was only later, when the blood was being squeezed from my heart, that I saw them everywhere; in supermarkets, parks, walking down the High Street holding hands. They were multiplying like cancer cells, this Happy Family, and no amount of positive thinking could make them disappear.
Two old ladies are sitting opposite me chatting away to each other, their hair blue-rinsed and freshly fluffed up, still warm from the salon dryer. They must have long been immune to the male pheromones and testosterone that waft through the air; they’ll have forgotten what it’s like to be targeted. They’re well and truly in the sexual out-tray, where we all get filed in the end. They have probably already buried their husbands, as men tend to drop dead shortly after retiring. The weaker sex. The male immune system obviously can’t cope with the sudden and prolonged exposure to household dust and cleaning chemicals; someone should develop a vaccine to stop the death toll. The statistics are there for all to see – men die when their wives have to clean around them.
Last month I turned thirty-eight. Not yet in the sexual out-tray, but I feel it there waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. I keep fit and healthy, I make the effort to stop the decay – swimming, running towards heart failure on the treadmill; I even joined a Pilates class recently to stretch my muscles and improve my posture.
Despite all this hard work gravity is reaching up to my flesh and coaxing it slowly but surely down to the grave. I can see its effects in the strangest places, like the cracked skin on my elbows, as loose and dry as a tortoise’s neck, and the sausage rolls of fat above my knees. Moisturizing lotion softens the reptilian texture of my elbows, but I draw the line at liposuction of the knee-fat. Long skirts and trousers are cheaper and less drastic and will work just as well.
Life begins at forty my mother promised me when I complained about the distressing onset of middle age. It seems like I might be lucky and blossom sooner – a new life at thirty-eight.
With only two stops to go before mine a young woman gets into my carriage towing a small boy behind her, his wild, curly hair springing in all directions as he struggles to keep up. He is crying and transparent snot hangs from his nostrils, suspended. She doesn’t have any patience for his tears, scolding him for them, which does nothing to stem the flow. I glance at her wedding ring finger and find it bare. A single mother? No social stigma attached to that title any more, but that doesn’t make the job any easier. Surely no one intentionally applies for that one? Applicants wanted: hours – 24, days – 7, salary – nil, holidays – nil, duration – life. She is probably in her early twenties but she looks worn out, like someone with more past than future. Her hair is lank and trails limply to her shoulders, framing a face that is pale and blotchy. Her clothes have seen better days, probably on somebody else. I pull the flap of my coat across my knees and hug myself against a sudden chill. I want to get out, get moving to warm myself up.
It wasn’t easy seeing Daniel alone, outside the office, after we’d crossed that bridge between uncertainty and fact; the fact that the attraction was mutual. He had a home to go to and the project was keeping him away from it too much already. It was clear from the start that I was trying to take a shortcut to somewhere I didn’t have a map for and trespassers always get shot in the end.
We met for dinner a few times, but once we had something to hide we were nervous of being caught and that stopped us enjoying it. We were carefree when we were falling, out in the open, innocent, clean. Once we’d hit the ground, our hearts bruised and exposed to the elements, we hid like wounded animals, afraid of being finished off.
We were sitting on a bench by the Thames in the dark, after the last of these dinners. He was holding my hand, we both knew it was hopeless.
“I can’t offer you anything,” he said quietly, looking down, sounding ashamed. “I should never have let it go so far; I feel guilty of leading you on.”
I knew he intended to take the blame, but I didn’t appreciate being the object in the relationship, the one being led, the one taken too far.
“We got into this together, whatever it is,” I told him. “We’re not guilty of much really, we haven’t even slept together.”
“If we do that I’ll never be able to let you go.”
“Then don’t.” He was still in the driving seat, in charge of taking me further, or letting me go. I suppose he was trying to be noble, trying to regain control. But really he was as lost as I was.
It’s my stop and I stand up as the train slows down, turning my back on the mother who is now swearing as she wipes the slime from her son’s face with a scrunched-up paper tissue. I have a feeling that she would sympathise with the gourmet cannibal in the newspaper, now tucked securely under my arm. The doors open and I hurry towards the exit. I feel suffocated, buried underground, buried alive. I need fresh air.
There was a farewell party organised for him. He’d done a good job, the managers were happy and he’d won the troops over to boot. I got through it by not believing it, by not facing up to the fact that this was the end. There were drinks followed by dinner, followed by more drinks, and a hotel room booked so he didn’t need to go home drunk. We all scattered, the evening a success, but Daniel and I met up again in his non-smoking king-size bedded double with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the door.
We had never lain down together before; like teenagers we’d stopped at kissing and touching with all our clothes still on. His leaving made it inevitable, the alcohol kept us in a world where anything was possible and no one got hurt.
I hadn’t slept with a man for three years and I’d imagined this moment again and again for weeks. My hands discovered him slowly, touching all those familiar jigsaw pieces with care, so I wouldn’t miss anything, wouldn’t forget a single detail.
I emerge from the mouth of the Underground and suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds. I squint against the brightness, standing still while I adjust to the light, enjoying the warmth on my face. I breathe in deeply, filling my lungs. The world around me is familiar and I belong right in it. It’s like waking up from a nightmare and sinking back into the comfort of the bed, relieved that what I feared doesn’t really exist.
I walk along the streets of London to my doctor’s surgery. The sun is still shining.
“Good morning. I have an appointment with Dr. Nicholls at eleven o’clock; Denise Woods.”
The receptionist invites me to sit down and I open my newspaper, but all I see are letters which don’t link up to form words and sentences that mean anything to me.
When my boyfriend left it didn’t occur to me that he was carrying away my chance of having children in those cardboard boxes of his; my womb and ovaries packed in amongst his Rolling Stones CDs and Robert Ludlum thrillers, shrivelled and mummified like exhibits from a lost civilisation in a South American museum. It was only later, when the months mutated into years, that I believed he’d taken them as souvenirs. I resigned myself to this truth, decided I could live happily with it. Daniel changed that.
“I thought you wouldn’t be able to let me go,” I said, the morning afterwards. I was crying, feeling wretched; somehow I’d stumbled into a TV movie, corny and melodramatic; nobody would believe this was real life.
“I know,” he said, putting his arms around me. “But I just can’t do this – to anyone. I have to do the right thing.”
The right thing was obvious then, but who knows what it is now? Perhaps I should tell him, but I’ve never detonated a bomb before and I’m not prepared to deal with the mess; the lives of innocent victims blown apart. It was an accident after all, poor risk assessment by both of us, protection that obviously came too late.
So here I am, the Consequences of Temptation growing inside me. I had my womb and my ovaries all along, they weren’t stolen, they hadn’t dried up. If I hadn’t been tempted I would never have found out and I would still be that professional woman sitting safely at her desk. Miss Able. Miserable. Alone.
I won’t hide it from Daniel if he gets in touch, but I won’t contact him. His wife might be good with a meat cleaver; she might know the best cuts for the pot.
This is a reprint of work originally published in First Edition.
Corinna Weyreter was born in England and spent fifteen years working in the oil industry before she resigned to sail around the world with her boyfriend. Her book about the trip, Far Out: Sailing into a Disappearing World, is due to be published this spring (http://sunpenny.com/books.html). She won the 1998 Bridport Short Story Prize and has had several short stories published.