It had struck him as an irony that despite all the time he had avoided her, cut her out and tried to move along, she had stayed in the same place the whole time. True, as she had told him on the phone that very first conversation after ten years, she had moved out several times. Once when she had moved to New York, once when she had lived in Barcelona. And then the marriage. Yet she had always kept the flat in the city she had met him. He had asked her why this was the case, her response was typical of her,
‘I like the ceilings.’
She occupied two floors of a converted 19th century building, once the workplace of an array of factory girls, the basements served as their accommodation. It had closed as a business after the Great War, had been extensively remodelled as a large townhouse in a style that was not quite Art Nouveau, not quite Art Deco, but somewhere strangely in between. It was certainly distinctive. The ceilings were incredible works of design; he had spent long enough studying them while laid on his back on the ornate bed she had inherited from her Great-Grandmother, or by the fireplace on the rug, or tied to the kitchen table or in the large enamelled bath lit by a myriad of candles and wreathed in burning incense. The place suited her; it was decadent, opulent, with a dark side. Why would she leave?
They had walked hand in hand back from the park, stopping off for some ice-cream in the rain. She had talked constantly, reminding of things he had tried to forget, tried to block. Her memory surprised him continually, the tiny details she recalled was disconcerting. Then, as they reached the large bright red door she turned and said,
‘Here we are.’ As if he had never been there before. As if he hadn’t spent hundreds of nights there, listening to her soft breathing as she slept, watching the silhouette of her naked form on top of the silk sheets.
‘I know.’ Again he very nearly called her by her real name.
‘Coffee?’ The ritual was as old as their non-relationship.
‘Please.’ He followed her up through the door and into the entrance lobby. Sometime in the past the place had been separated into three separate flats, she had the top two floors of the four. As they made their way up the curving stairs he idly wondered if she still grew her herbs on the kitchen balcony.
The door at the top of the stairs had been changed since the last time he had visited. It was no surprise; she must have lost her keys a dozen times when he had known her before. In a different life, a different time.
Now, instead of a lock, there was a keypad to gain entry, he smiled to himself as she took off her gloves and spoke.
‘I was always losing my keys, remember? I thought this would be a better option.’ She paused, ‘The boy who did it was so sweet, really innocent. Like you used to be.’ She giggled at his stony expression; she knew full well what she did to him. Cruel.
‘The code is 25091995.’ She stopped and looked at him. He couldn’t hide his shocked expression.
‘The date we first met?’
‘And first fucked. Yes.’ He would never understand her. ‘There was a full moon, remember?’
Yes, he remembered. She had been wearing black then, with silver jewellery, a diamond necklace she had also inherited. She had taken his breath away, glittering in the moonlight, her eyes alive, wide and excited. They had danced, then found a dark corner to talk, talk had turned to touching, kissing. By the time they had been asked to leave her dress had been ripped, one earring lost amidst heated passion. It had been another ten months before she had moved into this place, her Father, who he had never met, paying the rent for his little girl.
‘Does your Dad still pay your rent?’ It was a cheap shot.
‘No, don’t be silly.’ She paused for full effect; ‘He bought it for me five years ago.’ That didn’t surprise him at all.
She closed the door behind him, the hall with the stairs to the bedrooms had been repainted, a deep red, the colour of fresh blood. The walls were hung with paintings, scores of them. She had always loved her art, she collected poets, painters, sculptors and kept their works when they moved on, realised what she was. There was no overall theme to the paintings on display; twee landscapes were placed above cubist nudes, a portrait of her posing with peacock feathers sat uncomfortably next to something that looked suspiciously like a Lowry. The steps all had a statue, plant pot or stack of books narrowing each. He recognised some of the books and two of the sculptures, but the rest had filled the once empty steps in the intervening ten years. The huge gilt mirror propped up at the far end of the hall reflected the lights, creating the illusion of depth, space. She always had known exactly what she wanted, and had been good at somehow pulling off her strange tastes.
The chandelier, an original feature from the 1920’s, was covered in whispers of web, dust coated. Even the dust oddly fitted.
‘Right, coffee it is.’ She opened the door to the kitchen and he followed. Sure enough he could see the plant pots beyond the window. She had always been an amazing cook and he remembered the times they had cooked together fondly, they had created some true magic.
‘Black please, I have a feeling I will need to be alert.’ Again, another cheap shot. She either didn’t notice or didn’t care,
‘Yes, you will, if I have my way.’ She reached for the knife block. “Do you want to try?”
No, he really didn’t, but he knew there would be no way out. It had been something they had taught each other, throwing knives into the thick wood of the door over and over. She had been the first to volunteer to stand in front of it and did so again.
‘Come on, I’m sure you haven’t lost the ability, have you?’ He hadn’t thrown a knife in years.
‘No, it’s probably like riding a bike.’
‘Yes,’ she giggled, chimes that sent a shiver through him, ‘or having sex’.
‘Yes.’ It occurred to him that he could miss and hit her. What would he do? There would be enough DNA in this place to keep the police busy for years. He stopped himself thinking and threw underarm, quickly. The knife landed with a satisfying deep thud, two inches from her head.
She giggled again,
‘Go for it.’ They exchanged places, she bit her lip exactly as he remembered; she always did when she was concentrating. Strangely his breathing and heart rate remained normal. The flash of the blade spinning towards him was as familiar as the herbs on the balcony. It hit the door and quivered, too close. She had missed him by a hairs breadth. The look on her face as she walked towards him was peculiar.
‘I never hit you before.’ He raised his hand and felt the wetness on his ear. She reached him and pulled his head towards her. ‘It’s only a nick, sorry.’ She put her mouth around the tiny wound and sucked, she had always liked the taste of blood more than him. They stayed like that until the kettle had finished boiling, he had always found it comforting in a perverse way, her lapping, licking and sucking of wounds she had inflicted. He had never done that with anyone else since, it worried him when he realised that he had missed it.
‘Coffee.’ She said again, before she pulled away he could feel her heart beating faster against his arm, had she meant to hurt him? So very dangerous.
He wandered around the room while she filled the cafetière; she had added to her collection of pans, utensils and kitchen paraphernalia over the years, he wondered if they’d cook together again.
As he sat at the table to drink his coffee he realised he hadn’t had a smoke since he met her more than five hours ago and said the same. She reached behind her and passed him an ashtray. She watched him intently as he rolled his cigarette, then reached for his papers and tobacco. She had always tried to roll for him, nearly always failed. She surprised him by going to the spice and herb rack and bringing back a container labelled oregano. He raised his eyebrow.
‘It’s not oregano, silly, I quite like a smoke from time to time, remember?’ He did, she had always enjoyed a joint, especially after sex. She had obviously been practising, her slim fingers making quick work of the paper, tobacco and cannabis. She lit it, a proud gleam in her eye challenging comment. He said nothing.
Instead he remembered the crockery they had broken over the years, sweeping it from the table to imitate the Jeff Koons print (from his ‘Made in Heaven’ collection) that hung above the kitchen door, writhing on the wood. He could still see the scratches she had left in the pine. He finished his cigarette and she passed him the weed. It had been a long time since he had smoked the stuff, another dangerous spiral she had set him on. He took a few drags and passed it back.
‘So,’ he cleared his throat, ‘what do you want of me?’ It hadn’t been what he had been intending to say.
‘You.’ She fired right back, ‘I’ve always wanted you, and you’ve always been mine. You know that.’
‘I can’t do it any more, I can’t go back to that, I can’t share you.’
‘What makes you think you will have to share me?’
‘I know you.’
‘Can’t we just give it a try, have you not missed me?’ She asked it again for the second time that day.
‘Yes, I told you, of course I have. I just can’t go back to that.’
‘Let’s just see how it goes, shall we?’
‘And when you go off with someone else? I can’t do it.’
‘I’ll try my best, I haven’t been with anyone else since I sent you that message, you know?’
That meant she had fucked someone the day before, he was sure.
‘Fine, we’ll see how it goes then.’ Then he added, ‘I suppose your real name is still out of bounds.’ How he had missed that fiery flash.
‘Yes. Of course it is, I hate it, you know that. You will call me what we agreed upon.’ She subconsciously rubbed the tattoo that had been the origin of the name. “It’s much nicer and only you call me that, remember. It’s your name too.” He idly wondered what other people called her when they slept with her; she probably had a thousand names by now. Again she read his mind, ‘Everyone else calls me by my middle name.’
‘Why did you get married?’ Again she changed the topic away from the subject of herself. He paused before replying.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Did you not think of me?’
‘Yes. I think,’ again he drew a breath before continuing, ‘I think I subconsciously wanted you to destroy it for me so I wouldn’t have to do it myself. Like you did before.’ He raised his eyes from the table to hers. She stared back.
‘You are mine, that red headed child had no claim to you. If you’d asked me, I would have destroyed it for you.’ She took a deep drag, ‘You know I would have done, don’t you? But you hid away from me for so long.’
How did you get my number?’
‘I met a girl you knew,’ again the challenging look, ‘Pretty thing but not my type. That was a lie; he had seen her with women of all colours, ages, shapes, sizes, shared her and himself with them. ‘We were at a bar ordering drinks, she was talking to her friend about someone, I heard your name and the rest fell into place.’
‘So you got my number from her.’ He knew exactly who she was talking of, the second girl he had fallen in love with, he wished he could ask her what she had heard.
‘Yes, in a fashion.’
‘You stole her phone?’ She laughed again,
‘Perhaps, does it matter?’
‘No. Pass me that.’ The weed was strong and was affecting him more than he would have liked, but it seemed the right thing to do.
‘So, do you want to see the rest of the flat then?’ It wasn’t really a question, as she got up, passing him the ashtray to carry.
It was strange walking around her place after so long. Memories were hidden everywhere, for every new thing (no doubt presents from other lovers) there was something old, something he remembered that triggered a reminiscence. The lampshade in the front room was one he had bought for her; for some reason the practice of buying lampshades for women was one he had continued over the years; he had now bought four, all totally different styles.
The books lining the shelves drew him towards them and he thumbed over several of them while finishing the smoke. There were many new titles; she was a collector, a hoarder, as much as he. Despite himself he picked up some of the volumes he had given her as presents, rereading the inscription at the front of each, even though he remembered every word.
He left the ashtray on the mantelpiece and followed her to the study. He had always loved that room, the walls entirely sheathed in books, piles of papers everywhere, boxes full of notes and letters, their contents spilling out. She had a similar habit of collecting things from nature and he picked up the badger skull they had found on a walk through the woods one day, she had been so excited to find it, bleached and toothless but clearly a badger. He had found a roe deer skull a little while later on the same walk; his journal for the day was entitled ‘Two skulls, a picnic and a new place for fun.’ The last part of the title was due to her insistence that they climbed a tree to have sex off the ground. It had been very tricky and the fear of falling had made things interesting. Most of the titles from that time involved some sort of mention of sex; it was the addiction that held them together.
‘Come on then, let me show you the bedroom.’ As if they had not spent hundreds of nights there. They went back into the hall and started the spiral stairs. He paused, there was so much he wanted to say, so much he dare not mention. Yet again he wondered if he was doing the right thing. Then took another step upwards. And another.
There was always tomorrow to worry, for now he would put it out of his mind, his old mantra coming back to him.
The good outweighs the bad, the good outweighs the bad, the good outweighs the bad.