I N F E R I I N V I D I A
Two miles from the end of Commoriom Drive, along a paper road intended for the monstrous vehicles that would one day denude it, a fir plantation had displaced the forest clothing the surrounding hinterland. Rain from the fat, dirty clouds of a stalled low dropped onto the black roof of the muscle car parked beneath the trees, the candy-red flames on its flanks defying the gloom. Its windows ran with the condensed breath of the pair writhing in the front seat, their panting audible even over the babbling radio and squealing complaints of the suspension. The woman stripped off her tiger-print dress, hands striking the ceiling light; her partner flipped back the sweaty fringe of his coif and frowned up at her when she had ceased to move astride him.
"Christina, one day I'm gonna make you fuckin walk home." he promised, slapping her rump.
The woman lowered her dress without shifting her gaze from the back seat. A stranger watched them from the rear, female, bereft of clothing, her pallid torso glistening with rain. Her filthy black hair was matted with leaves and needles and clung to her cheeks and shoulders, following her arms and pooling with the water on the vinyl. She dropped her chin and looked from the woman’s face toward the man with eyes of slanting nephrite green, like some satanic merrow awaiting the souls of the drowned. Beside her the door hung ajar.
“Do you wanna get the fuck outta my car?” the man sputtered, offloading his companion into the driver's seat. He kicked open his door. “Junkie bag-brides all the way out here now? What the fuck’s wrong with this shithole of a town?” The woman in the print dress shuddered under her orange backcomb at the intruder. A glossy substance flowed from the latter's stare and coursed over her cheeks, down her throat and between her high, pale breasts, meeting the dark line of tattoo that began at the base of her neck and ran almost to her navel.
“Don’t be an asshole, Jonah.” the woman called softly.
"You wanna come do this?” he snapped, leaning down to glare at the intruder. “Bitch, get out.”
A moment of perfect inertia passed them by as he stood at the door. In her own time and without warning the nameless female began to slide toward him, white chin drawing level with his forehead as she emerged. Her mouth held the faint, spoiled colours of dying spring blossom.
“Jonah, get in the car...” his partner hissed; he stumbled backwards, teeth bared as she advanced on him; the stranger brushed away the blow he swung at her and snatched at his neck, the fingers of both hands working deeply into the stubbled flesh and closing until they met, while the woman's screams blasted white mist onto the car window. The stranger crushed his cartilage and vertebrae together, the tissues collapsing as they might have done in the jaws of a carnivore; oblivious to his icthyoid struggles and the nails that gouged the cold skin of her arms, she watched the spittle splutter from his swollen lips while in his throat the great vessels ruptured in unison, their blood escaping his nose in pulsing concert with the shuddering of his dying limbs. Claws as clear as the scales over a snake's eyes slid from the ends of her fingers into the throttled flesh.
The corpse fell heavily when she let it go, rolling twice over the needles. The woman had screamed herself silent by the time the stranger bent at the window and opened her mouth into something between a lizard's gape and a lunatic's rictus. Remembering the keys, she worked them desperately, sobbing as the mechanism refused her and the creature found an unlocked door.
Buried stones and arching tree roots tore at her muddied legs as she was dragged over them, though having hauled her so far from the vehicle the looming creature released her hair and let her lie against the ground. The woman gasped beside a blue-grey trunk, thunder rolling slowly down the hill like something that could crush her, slowly regaining her wits; hearing nothing, she lifted her head from the ground and reached for a hooped root. Only when she had climbed onto all fours and begun to crawl away was she flattened again by a foot stamped on her back, cold hands lifting and tossing her stiffly against the tree. Her head cracked hard on the fissured trunk, harder still a second and then third time, and at first she lolled amid the circling sparks and bubbling black fade of failing consciousness while the tang of cushioning fluids leaked into her throat. She hacked a mouthful into the stranger's face and was flung back again in retribution, her assailant succumbing to the shrill delights of battery, the woman's head leaving a soft confusion of torn hair and slick, dim colours on the snagging bark.
Sachiin tried to dismiss the memory of his brother's banishment as he sat amongst the insects that danced in a shade scented by ice and broken stone. Two thirds of the day had already passed while behind him the Tien Shan lay in awesome, shimmering repose, veiled in dusty white heat that lofted under their scant banner of cloud. Waiting alone at the edge of their attending plain, he burnt out his gaze in the fata morganas of its restive horizon. Though the altitude was too great for human comfort, it was to him of such sunken weight and density that it oppressed with the insistence of a grave; bored, he weighed the rumour that had solicited him, finding little to assure him that his brother was not as far away as the world allowed.
A lammergier circled in the haze, its shadow flashing over him. Sachiin knew the cool taste of the air that it enjoyed, his eyes following its pale shape until they were drawn landward by a visual disturbance of the horizon. An animal came at speed toward the mountains, into the burnished rays laid down by the sun's descent, trailing a long tail of dust. Closer still, and it was more substantially revealed, a four-legged beast devouring the distance remaining between them like windblown flame, a long, self-coloured plume tracing the arch of its neck, the blasting of its breath sounding even as it threw its weight onto its haunches and slid to a halt, circling tightly before the boulders.
A figure sat astride its back amongst trappings of red, sweat-darkened wool and swarthy felt. Sachiin climbed down from the stones toward the surmounting stranger in visible anticipation of his identity, though only his breeches and the muffling cloth about his head were of bai'issātva homespun, a shocking display of perfunction beside the deep blue silk of his tunic. He spoke no word of greeting but looked first to the comfort of his red horse, taking a goat skin trimmed with sunbleached tassels of human hair from its neck and allowing the animal to slake its thirst from the bulging reservoir.
Passing his eyes over the alien array stowed in its harness, Sachiin wondered at the shape of a great knife in its tanned sheath, one half of a pair, at a dark coil of plaited rope, a black, furled blanket of piled wool and a felt bag enlivened with shamanic abstracts, secured to the rear of the saddle. He feasted on their strangeness until he became conscious of the survey to which he was himself subjected; satisfied or wearied by it, Kala'amātya spoke to his horse and left it to rest, sitting down on a length of slate cast by the hill above.
The face and hands revealed as he unwound the black cloth from his head were heavily scarred, new damage supplanting that earned previous to his expatriation. Sachiin set himself down on the other half of the broken stone, immediately regretting the confronting nature of their respective positions. If he had been distant before exile his brother had returned as something incalculably remote, vastly extending his knowledge of the concept; when he spoke, the sound of his voice had changed to conform to the shape of the plain itself, flat, arid and comfortless.
"What did you tell them?" asked Kala'amātya.
"That there were snow lotus on the hills, and I would return with them..." Sachiin's reply sounded too loud and eager but the visitor scanned the slopes as if his assurance counted for nothing.
"I rejoice that you can now lie on your own behalf." he murmured, sitting in his dispassion like a spectre humouring the living with a mortal shape. His companion’s dismay slid into shame.
"Kala'amātya... I am sorry, every day, and every day I have no brother." he vowed, the words leaving them in silence while the day went gladly to its death around them. The visitor leant back to rest his head against the slab, closing his eyes in a private moment of weary, melancholic concession, a gesture so unprecedented that Sachiin almost started at it. "Are you well?" he demanded impulsively.
His brother did not reply for a long time, speaking only slowly when he finally did.
"I would ask something of you, if you can swear on your own eyes that you will answer plainly, and not to please me, nor any other. You must speak only for yourself."
The respondent sat poised in grave anticipation.
"I swear it."
"Are you content, Sachiin? With life, as it is?"
The latter's confusion, so gradually realised, was as much an answer as anything he could have consciously supplied. In his heart he ran as though on tilting ice, gaining nothing, while his brother took something from the amulet bag strung around his neck and placed it in his upturned palm. Intensely cold and perfectly smooth, the object proved a polished disc on which the brightness of their skin reflected. Some noble species of stone, Sachiin guessed, like that which he had seen upon the priestesses, its extraordinary hues recalling ice calved from a glacier, its glassy whiteness clouded around fingers of dense pine green. Its beauty and alien artifice pressed him back into silence, leaving no words to question or give thanks for the inscrutable endowment. Together they became aware of an approach from the far side of the ridge, executed with more care than stealth.
"Sis'thle bai'in." said Kala'amātya briefly, and wound the cloth around his head, catching his horse and returning to the saddle while the beast spun, tail lashing. At his bidding it sprang away across the dusty ground, working hard to gain speed, and they were lost to the thickening dusk, the sound ushered away by the evening wind that began to sweep out over the plain.
High on the ridge, the arrival followed his retreat with her own eyes, knowing that her eldest child had likely blessed the fleetness of the animal bearing him away from her. The little she had seen of him gave her a moment of rueful gratitude; he had seemed as impervious as she could have privately desired, an able denizen of hell, if nothing more. With his brother lost to him again Sachiin concealed both the jade and his disappointment. She slipped her hands into her sleeves and spoke to him.
"When we were created, the Mother in her great wisdom gave to us this high place, so that all that lies beneath the clouds might trouble us not. This was the greatest of her gifts to us." she told him, as he began the climb toward her.
Languid dub rebounded on the plaster walls and fell in through the windows from a silver ghettoblaster rattling in the shade of an antique canvas lounge. The bumperball echo drew Susan from the hall into the only room that she had left uncharted, a plate and cup of tea in both hands. The double doors rode inward to reveal a mighty gallery or ballroom, its south wall overlooking the defunct parterre through a cortége of picture windows reaching almost to the ceiling, the latter's vast white acreage reflected in the floor where it retained a polish. Toward its eastern end a virgin canvas large enough to face a covered truck had been fixed to the ruby-papered wall with a nailgun, as though crucified; a red enamel toolbox stood padlocked on the floor before it and she sipped her tea while pondering them both, wandering on toward the windows where the view recalled the abortive encounter she had fled the night before, chagrin souring her cup.
Down in the pool William floated, sun-warmed, on a blue and white striped air bed, winged sunglasses obscuring his gaze, his hair tied in two ear-like sheaves atop his head. Intermittent smoke drifted from his nose over the water as though he were some font of minor, lackadaisical volcanism. Susan sat down with her back to it in the windowsill and gazed at the griddle print on her toasted sandwich, cheated of its enjoyment, the tactics she had devised to beguile the morning failing to efface the prospect she so dreaded. She shook her head, set down her lunch and walked with some resolve toward the doors, wiping her hands on her pinafore.
A capacious garage had annexed a portion of the original servants' quarters, the remainder fashioned into a primitive laundry and warren of utility rooms linked by a sequence of doors painted shiny absinthe green. An impressive consignment of furnishings and objet trouvé had half-filled the garage since her arrival, like ballast drafted in against the vacancy of the house itself; she threaded through them, arms raised where they narrowed the way uncomfortably. Only by keeping the building's exterior in mind did Susan rediscover the portal to the windowed passage traversing the rear of the ground floor. At its end she paused before another door and listened carefully before tapping at its recessed panelling. The slice of room beyond was lit by one dim source; knocking again, she stepped into the midst of a private library, a carefully-assorted cache of thick, reptilian volumes, bound folios and journals and the green tobacco smell of hand-worked hide, of rag and linen paper. The collection stood in shadow, much of it enjoying the security of the locks set into the glass-faced shelves, and she frowned at such a measure.
Susan could not stay the hand that leapt to her breast as she finally perceived the figure seated in the rear third of the room, behind a black Directoire desk. Her intrusion had stilled him in the midst of excising shagreen from the handle of an old square-bladed knife, the procedure performed upon a piece of leather faced with the intimate grain of an animal's skin. He did not smile at her intrusion. In his imposing shape and unaccountable ethnicity he was as surely William’s brother as she was not. She cleared her throat and forced words from her mouth.
“Mr Lamb, good morning... I'm Susan Christabel, your housekeeper. We... um, met last night." she reminded him when he evinced no sign of recognition. Edward's attention proved coldly metallic, like chain mail draped across her throat and shoulders, flushing her face with swathes of high colour. She coughed into her hand, using it to look away from him. “I’ve already talked to... to your brother... he said you won’t be needing me to cook. There are chefs, though, at the agency... they’ll do macrobiotic... I can have them send you a li...”
"I didn't engage you." he told her. She nodded slowly, then frowned and shook her head.
"Well... I didn't just wander in... somebody hired me..." she reminded him. He rose unexpectedly, and she stepped back through the doorway, letting go of the frame. "There's a trial period, a month... we get paid for that..."
Edward slid back one of the glass partitions and extracted a slim wooden box. The ensuing silence threatened impasse until he turned to study her directly, forcing her to brave the weight of his unqualified attention. In watching her, the colour of his gaze was necessarily revealed and she saw that some conspiracy between shade and aversion had cast it in an aureate, fimbriated bale. She stepped back again into the passage, her hands finding and clasping each another.
"Mr Lamb, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding last night... you did surprise me, and I didn't mean to be rude. But once we're signed on to a place, we get the..."
“Submit your account details." he muttered, returning to the table in a gesture of dismissal that did little to relieve her, even as she walked back along the windowed corridor.
Her sandwich had cooled by the time she reclaimed it, its layer of oozing cheese turned to greasy rubber. Cursing, she bore it back into the passage, intending a return to her rooms, but caught sight of a figure hunched before the doors to William’s suite, a woman rattling the lock with something she had worked into the keyhole.
“Can I help you or something?” Susan called, blowing a tea leaf from her tongue.
The stranger straightened quickly and began to stalk toward her down the hall, blond hair streaming back over her shoulders.
“You are?” she quipped.
“The housekeeper. Is Mr Lamb expecting you?”
Rachel hitched up the golden chain strap of her handbag and cast a withering eye over the new arrival; Susan lifted the sandwich to her mouth, crunching noisily through its brittle crust. The large gold letters emblazoned on the glasses propped atop the woman's head were repeated on her bag and in the printed leather of her heels; her breasts challenged the fabric of her tawny tank-top with their distracting amplitude, their proportions answering the tanned hips so tenuously contained by the brevity of her custom-distressed jeans.
“Where is he? I have to talk to him privately.” she insisted, sighing loudly and staring at the ceiling as Susan began to reply. “You have food in your mouth... I cannot understand what you are saying.”
Taking a moment, the latter wiped a crumb from the corner of her chin and took a quick sip of her cold tea.
“Mr Lamb's downstairs.”
“It’s sort of... like a cave."
Rachel glared pointedly.
“Are you going to show me, or are you just going to keep on eating whatever that is?” she exclaimed, throwing an open hand at her repast. Susan swallowed unhurriedly and shook her head.
“I’m on a tea break. It's down there, through that door at the back... just follow the hall.”
Disgusted, Rachel stalked down the stairs alone, the jarring clatter of her heels dying away to nothing.
William swapped his phone from one ear to the other as the breeze blew him toward the end of the pool, chuckling at his caller’s reportage. He barely heard the aerodynamic disturbance accompanying the object stabbed down into the pillow by his ear, but held his phone clear of the water as his craft deflated beneath him. His brother’s expression was far less scenic than the clouds it had replaced. Edward shucked the tines of the gardening fork from the airbed and thrust it into the grass.
"Macrobiotic.” The single word sunk under the condensed weight of his antipathy.
“I know it was dumb... you sprung this on me. She was asking about food and I couldn’t think of anything. What the fuck.” William sighed. Igniting his cigarette with a table lighter at the water's edge in the shape of a jewel-eyed carp, he smiled and stretched out again on his back, floating unassisted. Taking the folded newspaper from under his arm, Edward dropped it onto his face; the gossip section rewarded the recipient's curiosity with a lurid description of his own conduct at the avant-garde event the night before. “Promiscuous flotsam floats quite conspicuously." he explained. "And three weeks running is something... it’s not nothing...”
"C'est naze. Why not just lock me in a fucking room full of burning tyres? And Susan's staying. I've already told her that legally, she comes with the house as a chattel and that I was going to keep her here, secluded from the gaze of others while I alone knew her flesh in marathons of sweaty, freaky shit til one of us, and it wouldn't be me, called time. She wanted to go right there, but I said child, I will give you a night of prayer and contemplation so that you can come to me in a state of readiness. But Kala'amātya, if you don’t like the way I handle things, fucking deal with it yourself.” He let the paper darken and submerge and lay his hands on his stomach, thinking better of the suggestion. "Okay, so maybe... don't do that. But fucking Opal sent her, so that's on you..." His brother's irritation prompted him to lift his arms in an expansive gesture. “We’re the upper ten thousand now, mahatma... it’s totally appropriate and necessary to have a household full of buxom maids of easy virtue. She's been undressing me with her eyes ever since she got here." William laughed, intensifying Edward's displeasure.
"Was anything ever more redundant?" he muttered bitterly.
"At least buy her contract from Opal. You've seen her... she's friandise. She won't last a hot minute with that fucking old crocodile handbag." He received no reply. "Whatever. We're keeping Susan. I like her.”
“You liked Rachel.” Edward spoke with such distaste that, for once, his words influenced his expression, his teeth appearing in the midst of an involuntary grimace. "Gas gangrene..." he added, the association as powerfully impulsive as it was obscure.
“I never said I liked Rachel... I just asked her to stop pitching rufies into my piña colada but apparently that came out as stalk me til I lose the will to live." Gazing up into the sky, William smiled in beatific gratitude. "She was here and you scared her away, didn't you? Je t'aimie tellement..." he sighed. "I didn't tip her off about this place, so it must've been Opal, and don’t come crying to me about your evil overlord... you're her little punk bitch now. Better lube up and grab a chesterfield... get some wood between your teeth.” Edward looked toward the fork standing in the grass. “I can live with your art thing... you're a creative, they couldn’t beat that out of you, and christ only knows you need the outlet... but you're letting neckfuckers up in your business, et putain de merde... Opal’s the worst. What do the dogboys say? If three rounds won't put it down, don't unzip...”
“Say what now?”
“Open an account. Discover modern insolvency. Become an OFAC superstar. Report back to me with your single designated phone call while black helicopters land on the roof.”
"You're just mad because I'm in your swimming pool and you don't know how that happened. Kala'amātya... allez. You are the only creature with my bloodtype on this entire fucking landmass... well you were until a week ago... B and Ny are here now... and you're always looking at me like the history's all bad, when it’s not... it’s chequered. That’s not the same thing." He sighed again at the protraction of their exchange. "Fucking say something or I'll book you an open casket."
"I live alone."
“I know that.”
“Then why persist?”
“Because you’re so unhappy. And I just want to sit in a room with someone I don’t have to explain myself to.” He did not read too much into his brother's silence. “You're totally harshing my buzz right now, but did you notice how many words you just said? You're opening up like a beautiful flower. How fucking theraputic am I?"
“No reggae, no inflatable plastic. If I find evidence of conjugation I will hire a bitumen truck."
"Sachiin..." Edward warned, his stare falling toward him. "Don't ever make her think she feels the ground tilting toward you.”
William scowled after him as he walked back toward the house.
Rabbit slippers, the plastic eyes of their animal faces scuffed to the appearance of blindness, hushed Susan's progress through an alluring window of license. Wandering outside her uniform and working hours was a sapid novelty expanded by solitude; she peered out at the night from the gallery before attending to the objects standing at its far end. A punching bag of oxblood leather hung on a chain in the eastern corner like some alien drupe, a dozen others stacked against the wall. To its left three easels stood draped in drop-cloths. Reaching into her pocket, she dragged out a blue jelly snake and put its head between her teeth, lifting the corner of the longest cowl.
The hidden work proved to be a line drawing of a blackbird's stiffly-plicated corpse. She frowned, twisting the snake around a finger while it occurred to her that the image, so clean of ghosting corrections, was a print; bending at the knee, she touched a finger to the paper, gathering a smear of graphite that sent her sharply backward, looking downward for the feathered body she half-expected at her feet. Such ex nihilo virtuosity cauterized her interest and drove her quickly from the studio.
The floorboards provided a record of the building’s fortunes, scarred with circles of raised grain where windows had admitted rain, holed through and crumbling along the skirting in episodes of rot. The half-moon was bright enough to stand in for the artificial lighting wholly absent from large sections of the upper story. On the wall before the stairs the goat head remained silkily hirsute and haughtily dissociative. The blond intruder’s attempt to access William’s suite gave Susan cause to question the dignity of the enterprise, armed even as she was with an invitation. It was more difficult than she imagined to try the handles; they proved unlocked, and sliding past, she stood a foot inside without progressing any further, whelmed by the shadow-stroked array before her.
The rooms were served by the second of the balconies to the rear of the house, and the moon gazed through its glassed doors onto a gigantic tester bed standing at the centre of the flamboyant chaos, its frame sending its spiraling elephantine pillars toward the ceiling. The undulant mattress wore hand-sewn ticking striped with bright mint green and leaked white feathers onto the floor. Two copper lanterns, their sturdy candles half-expended, stood on a coffer of crimson-stained timber at the end of the bed, its grain ticked as though with flecks of gold. Serpent-headed orobouros had been carved into the face of each compartment.
Along one side of the bed sat a battalion of smaller boxes and miniature chests of brass-bound fruitwood, mottled quill and mink-black lacquer with lids ajar, ravished by a careless inventory. Some held little bales of yellowed linen while their neighbours plainly displayed the fierce, primary gleam of artisan jewels, Turkoman carnelian, thick Swat and Berber silver and limpid Indian enamels. Other chests had been pushed back against the persimmon walls to leave a generous aisle on either side of the frame, though these ways were compromised by spidery crates of wine and a mound of clothing dumped on the ground beside the french doors. Her slippers were slowed by the delicious thickness of the lambswool tulu lying underfoot, their tousled motifs starkly blocked in walnut brown and scarlet. Two small anterooms lay to either side, one revealing a glimpse of a pedestal basin and aged white tiles, the other lying in darkness. The bizarre and diffuse luxury seemed to follow, in handmade abstracts, the principles of an organic wilderness, the bed posts forest stalwarts, the chests like outcrops between plains of shaggy carpet, their crazed geometry and drunken flowers wearing the kilterless flourishes of some vast nomadic domain. A narrow space at the head of the bed offered her a place to marshal her thoughts and Susan sank down, lifting a paper scroll she had briefly flattened with her leg.
It unraveled in her lap, exposing its contents to the light over her shoulder. A progression of Japanese images painted in masterful outline and delicate colour began with a courtesan greeting a prospect on a blossom-veiled bridge. It progressed swiftly into the unflinching depiction of her entire repertoire, as requested by the client who seemed as inexhaustible as his purse. The end of the scroll lapsed down her legs while she followed the heroine’s explicit adventures, through the bohemian sector of Edo, a forest infested with amorous trolls, a colony of long-deprived scholars and a rustic fishing port, before she was returned with perfect sang-froid to her quarters in the Floating World. Susan exclaimed softly to herself and lifted her gaze toward the door glass where a face reflected dimly behind her own sent the scroll coiling down her shins, William’s unnerving smile greeting her beneath the hood of his sweatshirt. He knelt on the far side of the bed and reached for something underneath it.
“Wow, I was looking for that shunga everywhere.” he grinned, crossing the mattress on all fours and sitting beside her to peruse the abandoned erotica. “I love the en levrette... his face is priceless. Utamaro knew posh girls like the back of his hairy hand but no one rocks a horny troll party like Hokusai. Have you seen a bag in here? Black record bag, sort of falling to pieces?”
As he pushed back his hood Susan vacated the bed and stumbled backward over a crate of wine.
“I er... I was just over this way, and I... didn’t think you were... um, home...”
He smiled again.
“It's not like I'm clutching any pearls, Christabel... it's my porn." he laughed. "Bede... you haven’t seen Bede here, have you? My height, looks like me, pony hair?” He patted his pockets in a cloud of distraction.
“Sorry, no. I’ll um, go...” she offered, hoping to duck past him.
“No no no... you need a drink after that lot.”
“I can’t. The agency has a fit if they find out you drink at work.”
“If Opal La Rue told me I couldn't drink, I'd chug a magnum in her lap and piss my damn pants. What does your agency say about rifling through porn or...” He leant forward with one brow raised, peering downward. “Pocket snakes?"
She scowled, holding to the sentiment, then laughing, tugging the packet of jellies from her cardigan and offering him one. He pulled it free and sucked its length into his mouth, chewing briefly before ejecting it into his hand.
"You didn't even know what that was, did you?" she chuckled, to which he shook his head, wide-eyed. "Did your mother never tell you about putting strange things in your mouth?"
"I know what you're saying. It might not be a lolly next time."
Susan looked back down at the scroll.
“I thought it was artistic.” she insisted, watching him drag an oak tray from under the bed and blow the dust from its row of crystal tumblers. Another manual foray produced a box of lizard-skinned fruit and a bottle half full of grass-green liquid that roiled with an active content barely contained by solution. Accepting a glass from him, she looked around for a place to sit, not daring to resume her seat on the bed and eventually composing herself upon a rug beside it; William followed her lead, setting the bottle in the midst of his folded legs. She watched him sip his drink and peel the skin from one of the nameless fruits, lapsing from discursive verve into that other of his native states, a perfected and halcyon placidity that settled like leaves and stilled his face and hands, the striping on his sweatshirt at once feline and felonious. “What is this?” she exclaimed, holding her glass to the candle light.
"Bollchu. Friends make it at home, and they’re usually pretty f..." He consulted her expression and she nodded earnest encouragement.
"Please say fuck... if I don't hear someone swear in the next twenty four hours I'll probably throw myself off the roof."
"Well, as I meant to say, they're usually pretty fucked up when they cook, so sometimes it’s baby water, sometimes it’s devil piss. Cul sec."
She demurred, still eyeing the liquor doubtfully.
"It's just that bollchu sounds like a sneeze, and it's... green."
"Everything good is bad, in some way." Whilst his smile did not convince her, she she took a mouthful and almost choked on it, the virulent potion scorching her throat and leaping into her sinuses like plumes of flame. Her watering eyes returned to the scroll once more.
"Can you read Japanese?"
He reached back for it and smoothed it out over his legs, contemplating the shunga's commentary and glancing at her expectant smile, though after some ponderous reckoning William suppressed one of his own.
"No." he confessed, gaze falling to the newsprint hanging from a crate of wine. "But ah, attends en peu...recherche de la météo d'une ville en France ou dans le monde... pluie, brouillard... frais..." As he read she drifted back against an uncertain assortment of cushions, watching the understated vowels fall from his lips as though they were shapes in a parade of purring and vaporous curlicues that encircled her slowly, given soft wings by his voice. Though she did not notice William reached out and pushed the cardboard box toward her without taking his eyes from the page or breaking his analgesic narrative. She sat in a diaphanous contentment that dropped to a slight frown at its conclusion, her blush returning.
"What was that?"
"Weather for the Paris metropolitan area, nineteen forty nine." He leant forward and picked her right hand from her knee, turning it over. “Hmmm... firstborn... alone... sweet tooth... something about twins.” he added, frowning at the lines crossing her palm.
“I’m a Gemini... how did you know that?”
“I read resumés.” He took more fruit from the box and set it in her hand. "Longan. They look like eyeballs but please don't let that stop you." Knocking back the liquid in her glass, Susan took a deep breath while it went down, attempting to peel the leathery drupe and grimacing at the sight of the gelatinous flesh beneath. "Better than rubber snakes." he promised. He was correct, the webbed grey pulp melting in a fragrant jellybean savour. She spat out the staring black seed and accepted another.
"I might have the wrong end of the stick, but... there was a blonde woman, with a lot of Dolce and Gabbana... I caught her trying to break into your room.”
"Kali ni'ah... the Rachel. What did she say?”
“I don’t remember much, but she wasn’t very happy.” Susan glanced at his reaction. While not obviously immodest or ill-fitting, there was something in the way he wore clothing that was persistently suggestive, his body so resistant to containment that it reminded her of colonial portraiture, of indigénes standing in the stiff, alien garments foisted on them by studio photographers. The curious quality was so pronounced that she was almost relieved when he dragged the pullover from his head and discarded it, though the aging T-shirt beneath, skewed sideways across his shoulders, revealed a white stripe of skin over the low waist of his jeans. Her gaze wandered toward to it as he spoke.
“No one believes this, but Rachel is really, really not my fault. My brother says I should hit it with the big gauge, but that’s his answer to everything... if a bus full of crippled kids was parked across the drive, he’d yoink the fucking handbrake so he wouldn’t lose his reservation." His phone began to flash again.
"Is she really that bad?"
"She's hell on donk rims."
"But you're still... together?"
He sagged visibly, pouring himself another deep shot of the green liquor.
"No... I've tried escaping, but I just... I fail. Behind all this er, masculinité formidable, I'm a big dumb chickenshit." William confessed. "It's just... I don't know... too easy to be cruel.” She watched him fumble with the telephone. “Now you’re wishing I only drank alone. Don’t worry, I’m totally notorious for my overfamiliarity, it’s not anything you’ve done in a previous life. Putain! I hate this fucking thing!”
Susan shrugged at his struggle with the appliance in question.
"Turn it off."
He looked to her again, uncertain.
"I don't know how. I just leave it where I can't hear it."
"Yes, I know." Leaning over her lap, she took it from him and flicked through its menu until its lights died. "There you go. She did seem a bit mental... that Rachel." She frowned and plucked a piece of longan skin from her teeth. “When someone’s nutty, you're not helping them by letting them go on, though. All you can do is say no to them and mean it... if you're serious about wanting them to go away.” She looked back at him pointedly, and he rolled his eyes at his own acedia. “Nutters are like everyone else, really. They might be crazy, but they’re not stupid. If there’s nothing in it for them, then they’ll give up eventually.”
The warm smell of her skin was somewhat diluted by the liquor and incense that hung about the chamber, though it had begun to disturb his ease and made him want to stare at her in spite of her perspicacity. Her hair was contained in a small tail and she wore an rust-coloured dress beneath a emerald cardigan, the elemental hues intensifying one another, recalling to him the fluttering finery of Ayubid mujahidîn and the courtyard gardens of Bactrian merchants, their sunbaked walls pinning back the scouring wastes. Her gifts did not amount to the passive, expectant beauty that had so long defeated his esteem; the bright pneuma of something greater moved within her, humbling the liberties he was so accustomed to taking.
“I actually spoke to him the other day... your brother.” Susan confessed. William laughed as he rolled a longan between his teeth. “It’s not funny!" she scolded. "I didn't know if he was going to fire me or eat my liver.”
“Don't worry, it’s not you. He pink slips me every day of the year, in his mind... he’d fire the entire fucking population for breathing too loudly if he thought he was just head of human resources and not the fucking boss of everything.”
“He's not always like that, is he?”
He leant forward, urging her to do the same so that their heads almost met in an attitude of conspiracy.
"Yeah, pretty much. We just let him clank his chains and chase us off the lawn.” he whispered. “It’s not that he’s all bad... it’s just that people tend to er, qu'est-ce que c'est... die of exposure looking for the good bits. It's like the top of Chomolungma... you know it exists, you can even see it sometimes, but you prefer oxygen to glory.” Her eyes brightened at Edward’s memory, dread diffusing back into circulation. “It was worse, believe me. A lot worse. At least I’ve got him telling me to fuck off. That’s a step up from just the look.” William attempted the expression himself and was able to frame the livid shape of it, if not the caustic colour required by an entirely successful projection. "I'll only say this once... don't put your tongue on him... we're not insured for it."
"Now I'm going to think that every time I see him. Should I know why he's like that?"
"There are reasons." He struggled with the available terms. "Er... some parts are missing. Product may differ from photo after assembly..."
"It's private, in other words." she offered. He nodded, relieved. "Why live with him, then?"
"Let's just say he needs supervision and I'm independently broke."
"So that's not your BMW in the garage?"
He lay back against the frame, rolling his tongue behind his teeth.
"You've gone right off me now, haven't you?"
Susan chuckled and caught sight of her watch as she leant back with her glass.
“This’s late for me.” she told him, looking once more around the room. The skirt of her dress clung to her tights as she stood up, and she dipped quickly to smooth it down. “See you at work I suppose. Thanks for the pint.”
William stretched out slowly on the floor with the bottle, his arm cushioning his head and framing his wide smile.
“What are their names?” he called, watching her frown in the doorway.
Smiling down at her slippers, she shook her head and walked on into the hall.
“None of your business.”