“Nathaniel Shaw, Trident Security.” he told her, producing a tanned and manicured hand at which she stared, still struggling with his improbability. "You’re...?”
“Susan.” she replied.
“Susan...?” Her expression altered again at his use of her name, its kindred vowels afforded fulsome treatment.
“Susan the housekeeper.”
His smile broadened, full of handsome geniality.
“Oh okay... good to finally meet you." He set his hands on his hips and looked around them, nodding to himself. "Interesting place... don’t get too many like this. Been out here long?”
“I don't really know... you lose track of time.” she admitted. He smiled so easily that the expression had been relieved of some of its effect despite its pulchritude. “Why do we need a guard all of a sudden?”
His gaze shifted back toward the pool.
“I’m just walking the perimeter right now." He watched her frown develop as she looked down at the grass. "Keeping you all safe, I guess." She shook her head at the gum he offered her. "Can’t be easy, trying to keep a place like this square. What part of England are you from?”
“You wouldn’t know it.”
“Always wanted to get over there one day... guess I never get the time. So these guys... they’re okay? I just found a new place out this way, so I don’t want to hear that they put you out for nothing...” Susan bent slightly at the knees, looking through the orchard.
“I couldn't really tell you... it’s a job and a place to doss.” He held onto her gaze in the hope that he could stay her, but she had already entered into a move to pass him.
“What do you do for fun around here?”
“I’ll let you know when I find out.” she sighed. Shaw stepped out of her way and turned with her, meeting the glance she aimed over her shoulder as she walked on toward the trees.
Having gained the orchard she turned south along an avenue of hornbeams that had once formed a pleached walk between the fruit trees and specimen plantings. It had long since thrown off all constraint and sent its muscular boughs across the lane, casting a shade that cowed the grass and sheltered stands of ferny, speckled hemlock. That someone had preceded her was apparent in the herbage crushed by careless feet and Susan followed them until the avenue opened into a clearing ringed by lemon-green magnolias, their quilted crimson fruit poised upon the fingers of their mannered branches. Amid them crouched a large and rotund silver structure, its thick skin creased at the seams with the pressure of the air that held its turrets and spandrels aloft in bulbous association. William lay on his back on the mattress-like floor, hair hanging over the edge while he read from a handwritten page. She stood with her mouth open.
“Where did you get a bouncy castle?" she demanded, dropping the bucket.
“Stoner party hire guy... four weeks for a short pound.” he confessed. Beside him lay a chunk of drooling caramel-brown honeycomb on a platter of leaves. “Don’t tell Ed... he hates plastic. I had them push it over the wall.”
She approached, wide-eyed, and smoothed both hands over the plump edifice, bending to inhale the evocative smell of its rubberized compounds. William tucked the letter into his trousers.
"Is it your birthday or something?" she laughed.
“This is my fortress of solitude.”
“Oh...” Susan straightened up as though to leave.
“My fortresses of solitude visiting hours are from one a.m to twelve fifty-nine a.m daily.” he laughed. “Anything’s better than sharing a floor with the beast with two backs.”
"I just want to hide in a corner with a blanket over my head.”
Smiling at the description, he made a gesture of invitation with both hands.
“Girls ride free.”
She clambered up, careful not to disturb his honeycomb.
“I just ran into a security guard.”
"Mr Shaw...” he smirked. “Nice piece. Observant, conscientious... keeps it tight for the ladies.”
“Nosey.” she added, wrinkling her nose. “Did you think he was fit?” He lifted his brow and nodded as he sucked the honey sticking to his fingers. “I suppose he is... I just hate security guards... wherever I’ve worked, they're the ones you need security from. I’m so used to them being completely dodgy.”
“His vanilla doesn’t make you crazy for him?” She shook her head. “His lack of dodginess is... dodgy? ¡Mierda, Christabel! You're a hard woman to please.”
“I know. Anyway...” Susan clenched both fists and sucked in her lower lip, looking down at him and making a small humming noise of coiled anticipation.
William sighed, rolling over, and they chuckled as they retired to either side of the castle, then launched themselves into the air, alternating landfalls pushing them higher until they began to surpass the walls and gain rolling views of the trees outside, arms out to expedite their ascents. For a while they were content with moderate altitude and its various permutations, seeking them conscientiously with each other's aid, her flights floating the flesh loose from her bones at their weightless apex. Susan flung herself against a wall then down onto her back, innards looping as he bounced her onto her feet; she shoved him face-first into the southern turret and lost control of her own trajectory, catching his shirt and exchanging it for his hands as he used his weight to draw them higher. Her dress flew up around them in a china-blue flare. On looking down she saw the floor drop so far away that she cried out, grasping his arms tightly.
"Tourner!" he laughed, letting her go and turning in a circle; she did the same, shrieking again through her hair as the garden reclined in a swooping curve, the sun's especial brilliance allowing her heart to stay behind amid the empty air as she descended. Three times more she flew skyward, arms spread wide, her eyes streaming, the air a sugared pink inside her chest until she could endure it no more and threw herself down in a state of collapse, lying gasping on the pillowed silver. William smiled and stalled himself, flipping down from the edge of the castle to reclaim the detritus scattered from his pockets. His letter flapped beneath her arm and she shaded her eyes to glance at the diminutive, handwritten French in pale blue ink before handing it back to him. He stepped over her and lay down.
“Bad news?” she asked, still breathless. He nodded. “I don’t even know what my friends are doing... I haven’t called anyone since I came over here... don’t know why.”
“Separation tranquility.” he suggested. The phrase pleased her and she nodded to herself. The sun lifted the loamy walnut scent of the shaded earth beneath them, the living leaves glowing a hundred greens and diaphanous cellophane golds, Susan losing herself entirely in contemplation of them. William wished that he could share in her pellucid mood, his own thoughts poisoned by the missive that had come to him so full of the despair consuming its author, her bleak sentiments recorded in the strokes of her anachronistic hand.
His ruminations were disturbed by a bee that began to bumble around the castle, circling close to Susan and seemingly intent upon alighting in her hair.
“Get away! It’s going to nip me!” she cried, rolling sideways. He held out his hand and began to speak in a purring tone; the insect buzzed aimlessly for a moment before settling on his wrist and sitting still, wings shivering. She wrinkled up her nose, regarding the furry miscreant’s apparent master with as much suspicion as the insect itself. “What are you, king of bees? Where did you learn that?”
“In Kham, when I was young." Her naked disbelief solicited him further. "If you want honey in the mountains, you have to climb up great big ladders made of vines and hair and hang off the sides of the cliffs, where the wild bees have their hives. They’re the biggest, baddest bees on the planet... big as a baby’s arm... attention deficit bees, and they know you’re coming... you hang upside down with an axe and hack away while all these giant angry bees come out and sting the everliving shit out of you, so you either come down looking like a sausage with smallpox, or you learn to speak nicely to them.” He pushed the comb toward her, watching her eye the broken, oozing mess doubtfully. “You do like it... you just don’t know it yet.”
Susan turned over onto her side and leant on her elbow, breaking off a piece for herself and attempting to blow off the grass adhering to it, before putting the whole thing in her mouth. The strongly floral flavour of the honey melted into sweetness on her tongue and a perfume in her nose, redolent of lilac blooms and chapel candles, its waxy structures collapsing between her teeth. She leant forward, letting a wad of wax drop over the side of the castle and helping herself to more. William ate his own from the tips of his fingers, watching it fall from her chin and darken the front of her dress as she lost control of the piece in her hand.
“Did your family leave when the Chinese came?” she asked. He seemed puzzled. "Tibet or wherever..." William shook his head. “So... they’re still there?”
“I don't know.”
"I can not for the life of me imagine your parents.” she smiled. He shrugged and looked out into the trees.
“I only remember my mother.”
“You don’t speak to her?”
“So... it really is just you and Edward...” Susan was surprised to see him struggling so visibly with her questions, his softly-spoken monosyllables fending if not extinguishing her curiosity, and she became concerned that she had traded felicity for contention. Reaching down into his jeans he took out the letter and handed it to her in a strange, autonomic concession. “God no, William... it’s your business, not mine.” she assured him. “It’s not that I don’t ever snoop or anything, but... I'm not that sort of nutter yet." He returned it to his pocket. "But since we’re on the subject of nutters, have you heard from Rache...” The vehemence of his expression almost deterred her from continuing. “I was just saying that you seem to have done a good job of putting her off.”
He suppressed a smile.
“He might never get work at a daycare facility, but Ed's death ray is a special fucking thing of beauty." In her enthusiasm she had left a large blob of honey on the side of her face; he reached out and caught it with his finger, smoothing it in a salve over the bridge of her nose. Her skin was hot with developing sunburn as he put the hand to her cheek. “You’re burnt.” he smiled, adding another daub to the pink skin of her forehead. “It stops blisters coming.” She touched her face, still staring at his own, and confirmed his diagnosis absently, inclining her cheek against the coolness of his hand.
“Freckles.” she sighed.
"I love freckles."
"Because you haven't got any."
He leant toward her and licked a bead of honey from her chin, his lips meeting the corner of her mouth.
"Come out with me Christabel or I don't know what I'll do.” he told her, the words breeze-blown in her ear. "I'll probably die and go straight to one-star hell, and you don't want that on your conscience... while we live, let us live."
A shadow fell across them. Lilian held out a telephone.
“For you. Some foreign guy with a dirty voice.” she advised. He accepted it and climbed to his feet, walking to the back of the castle to conduct the conversation in French. The intruder studied the inflatable structure and then his companion with a frown. “You got honey on your face.” she added.
Brushing herself off, Susan slid down and excused herself, stooping to collect her bucket. Lilian turned to watch her go, waiting for William to conclude the discussion that had degenerated quickly into conflict.
"That looked pretty fucking chaste. What gives, frankenslut?" she inquired.
"What's it to you, interruptingcow? Are you all done in there now? Need a medivac or should I just move out and leave you to it?"
Lilian took the phone from him and started back along the shaded lane.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce