Number seven is on the second floor. He takes the stairs. Yes, he can do it. What’s a bit of wheezing? Nerves, that’s all.
He pauses outside the door. Steadies his breathing. But only briefly. Most people of his age would do the same.
The room is neither small nor large but the air is stale and he opens the window. The noise from the traffic invades his mind. He needs silence to collect his thoughts.
The bathroom is surprisingly spacious and gleams in its whiteness. He checks his watch, despite being perfectly aware of the time. A nervous coward. He has more than an hour.
Past lunchtime in New York. Jane would have given her paper by now and answered the questions. Flushed, her skin glowing, basking in the knowledge that it was all over and that it had gone so well. For it would have gone well. It always does. A darling of international conferences, his wife.
He empties his bladder and pauses to look at his cock before zipping up. Lifeless and shrivelled. Too pink, like raw meat. Not a pretty sight. The last time was more than two years ago. At sixty-four, most men are not interested in quickies. Not that he ever was. Is he a rarity in another sense too? Remaining faithful to his wife of thirty-five years.
This is different. This does not count.
In the shower, he washes his hair and lets the hot water run down his back. He stands still, surrounded by steam, feeling light-headed. Is this really him? Or a film of him? A sharp pain cuts through his stomach and forces him to double up. Wind. That’s worrying. He should have thought of it earlier. Wouldn’t have been the first time that cabbage had that effect on him but then it might have been the chestnut cake. It was too rich but he had to agree, it was good, exceptionally good. Perhaps too continental, too much of an acquired taste for the sweet English palate. Will it sell? Only time will tell. Time beyond his own. Cafés take years to establish themselves.
Did he excuse himself too quickly? A great atmosphere, no doubt about that. They got on, his staff, but Marcel is definitely the star of the team. It wasn’t only his Parisian pâtisserie training but also the dedication, the inventiveness. He was unusually lucky to have secured him.
How funny that word sounds.
Hot water runs down his body. He scrubs his buttocks, poking inside the folds of the skin around the anus. Bending forward, he sticks his bum out and runs his hand over the stretched area, pulling on little hairs, making sure there is no residue. He gives his cock a shampoo and a good rinse. There, a good boy. You had better behave, he says aloud, allowing himself to giggle. I hope you won’t smell of lavender. I hope you won’t smell of anything.
He steps out of the shower and slowly and meticulously dries his limbs and torso. He has read somewhere that vigorous rubbing improves the circulation and helps shed dead skin. Gives you a glow. But perhaps it is too late now to expect a glow.
The mirror is steamed up; the extractor fan seems inert and he pushes up the window. A blast of cold air makes him shiver. There is no point dressing now. He could wrap himself in a dry bath towel from the second pile but he isn’t sure whether he should use it.
Hang on. What is he thinking? He couldn’t open the door stark naked.
He walks out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him but returns straight away. His wash bag is still there. What with the tension, he is bound to need a deodorant. He holds the small jar in his hand and rolls the tip several times up and down before sniffing his armpits. Not bad. But is it to everyone’s taste? He will soon find out.
The telephone rings and he panics, standing still in the middle of the room. A cancellation. His hand hovers over the receiver. No, can’t be a cancellation. Not on the hotel phone.
– Sorry sir, I forgot to ask whether you would want breakfast?
– Yes, we start serving from six. Cooked or continental, or any special orders.
– I see. Let me think.
– No hurry, if you could let me know sometime before ten this evening.
– Will do. Well, actually, no. No, thank you. I won’t have breakfast.
– That’s fine, sir. Let me know if you change your mind. Have a good evening, sir.
He sighs with relief, lifts the covers and slips under. His heart is pounding. Better that she rang now than later.
The room is too dark. The ceiling light is out of the question and even the bedside lamps give out too much light. He tries placing one of them on the floor. Still too strong. He arranges a newspaper on top. That’s better but what if the paper gets hot and…Perhaps it couldn’t happen but he doesn’t want to experiment. Jane would know, his wife the physicist. Jane who knows everything. He twists the neck of the lamp, pushing it down as far as it would go to minimize the light. It reared up. What if he ties the lead around it to keep it in position? The neck snaps. There is a green flash and he is left with pieces of plastic in his hand. Shit. Cheap tat obviously. He unplugs the lamp and stuffs it next to the Bible in the drawer of the bedside table.
Faint, discreet illumination, that’s what he needs. What if he switches on the small light above the sink mirror in the bathroom? He leaves the door slightly ajar; not ideal but it should do.
Back on the bed, he surveys the room. His bag is on a chair by the small table in the corner. He hangs his clothes in the wardrobe. With his eyes closed, he tries to relax, thinking of those exercises where you are meant to visualise energy coursing through your limbs then shaking it out, leaving your body light. He can do that but it is the mind that is the problem. His thoughts race in circles and he cannot get rid of them. When he opens his eyes and looks around again, he sees his white underpants, lying on the carpet, crumpled, like a dead seagull. He picks them up and throws them in the wardrobe, on top of his shirt and socks, out of view, behaving like the well-trained husband that he is. Jane insists on order.
He pulls on a fresh pair of jeans from his bag and a short sleeve T-shirt. He carried them to avoid the embarrassment of checking in without luggage. Might just as well use them. Silly really. As if the receptionist cared.
They must be having coffee, taking it slowly, Marcel entertaining them with stories from Paris. If you have one Frenchman at a table, the meal is bound to last. And why not? He didn’t dare stay on. A sentimental old fool with his morose thoughts. He couldn’t let them see him crying. Besides, this afternoon was a celebration. Ten years of a successful restaurant and the opening of a café. Now he is due for his own little celebration. A gift. The first and…A gift to himself.
Forty minutes to go. He picks up the book he brought. Halfway through the novel, nothing has happened: the old man is still living alone, spending his days lying in bed and thinking over his life. He struggles to follow it at the best of times; the sentences are complex, with numerous subclauses, and the paragraphs interminable. He drops it on the floor and takes a deep breath. And another. A good supply of oxygen could only help his body.
He tries to listen for steps in the corridor but a passing emergency vehicle drowns everything else. He closes the window. Since he is up, he might just as well use the toilet again. A full bladder is no good. He produces only a trickle and gives himself a wash in the sink. Best to be as fresh as possible.
His mobile vibrates.
He reads a text: very sorry been delayed in traffic expect to arrive at 8.
He lies on the made-up bed, closes his eyes. His entwined fingers rest below his chest, corpse-like. The ultimate position.
An hour late. He had taken the pill before he left the cafe. Will it last? They must be used to all sorts but he doesn’t want her to panic if he starts spitting blood. His coughing fits last for ten minutes.
He doesn’t mind waiting. What is an hour compared to half a century? Forty-nine years, to be exact. Jack’s present to himself for his sixteenth birthday. Coming off age. Loud Jack who boasted. Half the class dismissed it as ‘no big deal’. He didn’t dare say anything. He was a virgin until nineteen and envious of his friend. In bed, when he touched himself, he thought of what it had felt like for Jack.
He forgot the names of others. How funny to remember Jack when he was the only one from the entire class not to make it to adulthood. Just as well he got himself that present. He remembered thinking that when he heard that Jack had crashed his motorcycle. No one will think that about him. No one will know.
Today is his turn. His treat to himself to address that long-held envy.
The phone vibrates again. The same message. Probably sent twice. An hour late. That’s fine. He doesn’t get uptight about people being late. Such things happen. Jane complains that it is his naivety that makes him think the best of everyone. Always believing there must be an explanation when people misbehave. She couldn’t tolerate anyone being late. He smiles at the thought of how she would rail if she received a message like that. He can see her punching a reply, telling the person not to bother coming. But he isn’t like that. Typical of her not to accept him as he is even after all these years.
There was a time when he didn’t think they would last that long. Perhaps his mother-in-law saved them. The woman he was indifferent to until she fell ill. Her suffering affected them both. Jane complained but mellowed. He liked her better then. Better than what? He has always liked her. He loves her still.
He planned to pick her up tomorrow. He pictures a déjà vu; him driving from Heathrow just before midnight, tired but glad to see her, and Jane talking interminably. And when they get home, she will expect him to stay up, oblivious of the time difference.
He will keep her company. Not like in the past. Not because this time he has something special to tell her. Anyway, one wouldn’t do it as she arrived. But he won’t do it in the morning either. Or ever. Whatever that ‘ever’ means.
She will know soon enough. In a week or two at the latest. ‘You don’t have more than that,’ Dr Timms told him a fortnight ago. It will be his little surprise. Not a motorcycle. Not instant like Jack’s.
He chuckles as he pictures her annoyance. Her first reaction. Complaining to all and sundry. Why didn’t he tell me? We were so close. But with time she might want to thank him. And tell everyone how kind, how sensitive he was.
It amuses him to think of them standing round, drinks in hand, canapés served, smart, dark clothes all around, a fascinator here and there, and her praising him to one group after another. That would be a first. And the last.
‘Marc knew. I know that now. Typical of him to be so considerate.’ Her voice soft, affectionate. Grateful. Grateful for sparing her – for she would know she couldn’t have coped – and grateful for giving her the opportunity to show others how good they had been together.
All arguments forgotten. His idiosyncrasies elevated to virtues. The canonisation of Marc. St Marc.
‘My husband was a saint,’ she would say.
There was always a silver lining. Two in his case. The second one was about to knock on the door.
Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia. She is a graduate of comparative literature and holds a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham. A lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK, she also worked at the BBC and as a college teacher.
She has written for numerous journals and has had two novels published: A Woman with No Clothes On (Delancey Press, 2008) and The Reader the Writer (Mirador, 2015). Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines; a collection will be published next year by Salt.