Pulp.net - A Lovely Evening

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Sarah Salway
There is an air of celebration across the small suburban town. Three parties are being held that night.

Outside a small well-lit bungalow, fourteen year old Susan Bentall is being sick into a pink rosebush while Paul McCrae watches. He swears at Susan as he fails once again to inhale the smoke from his cigarette without coughing.

In a cul-de-sac round the corner, ten sixty-year-olds sit down at a table highly polished in the way only Mr Phillips knows how to get just right. Mrs Phillips, although all right in the kitchen, never manages to get things exactly as her husband prefers. Wine flows into crystal glasses brought in Ireland that summer to replace the set given as a wedding present, long since chipped and discarded. When Mrs Phillips brings the crème brulée to the table she pauses for her husband to make his joke — got the ice pick, dear — and only then does she expel the breath she hasn’t consciously held all evening.

Meanwhile over the other side of town, men and women half their age circle each other in the desperate knowledge that time is running out. Most are divorced; ‘living proof that optimism never dies’, someone says. Kate Armstrong and Geoff Carter connect over the dried out party food and the fact that they had both enjoyed the pathos of Au Revoir Les Enfants. Geoff forgives Kate her mispronunciation of the title as he watches her fingers echo the shape and figure of that small, vulnerable child.

At the same moment as Paul swears at the clasp of Susan’s bra and Mrs Phillips catches her husband’s eye and wonders again how much longer she will be forced to live, Geoff offers Kate a lift home. And maybe a quick cup of coffee. It is so noisy at the party and they have so much in common.

In the car, Kate tells Geoff her dreams.

She wants to because he is a writer and will understand them. She tells him that she has fallen in love with the way he says them back to her. Kate watches Geoff’s mouth move, his lips stretch over those perfect straight teeth and in the middle of a phrase, a word even, she says kiss me. And after they do, the pity Kate feels for everyone else that night, for everyone alone that night, for the Kate that is normally alone, is so strong she leans back in her seat and just watches Geoff drive.

And then, dry and safe inside his flat, they carry on talking about nothing, about everything, as she prowls the room, lifting the glass of red wine to her face and just smelling the rim, not ready to take anything just yet.

I want to drape fairy lights around your furniture, Kate tells Geoff, put white flowers in earthenware pots in every corner of your room, read you sonnets and explain their rhythm to you, tap out the sequence on your bare skin, tell you why that word and not that one. She stands in the doorway of Geoff’s kitchen and breathes in the good smells. A man who can cook. I want, she says.

Geoff wonders if he can force himself to make the effort. He thinks of Siobhan who told him dreams were boring. Who had never read a poem. Who ate her meals without comment. And all he really wants to do is to crawl into bed. On his own. He chops the peppers hard, squashes the tomatoes between his fingers into the saucepan. There’s no reason at least why he shouldn’t have a good meal. What are you doing, he asks as he hears shuffling footsteps in the next room, books rustling and — surely not — drawers opening.

I want to drape fairy lights around you, he hears her say, as she comes towards him, to where he is standing, fondling the handle of his kitchen knife.

Coffee everyone, asks Mrs Phillips, no don’t worry I’ll make it on my own quite happy just carry on enjoy yourself we’re lucky to have you yes really I’m fine. And as Mr Phillips nods at her to hurry up she thinks I want to kill you. Such a lovely evening, she says.

Paul lays Susan down on the edge of some wasteland and tells her that he’ll love her for ever and she asks really, really and he says yes really hold me there there touch me there. Love, says Susan, my love.

Kate tells Geoff that when he looks at her so gently, he stills her. Turns off every clock she has ticking inside. You are my Sunday’s rest, she tells him. You are not a stranger, you are not a lover. You are my father.

Siobhan, screams Geoff, not knowing from which corner of his body the name comes from but he is too far away. No one hears. No one ever does.

Mrs Phillips ignores her husband tapping his spoon against his cup for too long and is rewarded by the sight of his arm worming its way around Trixie Ward’s shoulder. She watches Mr Phillips’ hand caressing the fold of fat beneath Trixie’s armpit and the shelf of her tight, too young silk dress and knows that this is a route it has followed before, a map it knows by heart. More coffee, Mrs Phillips says brightly, no no one move please just a little accident silly me no use crying over spilt milk.

Paul wonders if it would be better if Susan was more responsive. It’s uncomfortable the way he has to bend and shape her body himself, and once by mistake he lets his face get too near her mouth where her open lips are crying out for more than he can ever give. Bitch, he whispers into her shoulder. Oh bitch, don’t make me come too quickly. You’re just like all the others, bitch.

Your father, Geoff asks and Kate laughs. You are the other half of my soul I’ve been searching for, she says. We should mark this moment, spill not seed but blood. Do something, make something that no one will expect of us. Spittle, sperm, blood. These are the fluids we should mix tonight. I want to get to know every bit of your body, inside and out.

Siobhan was a thief. When she left Geoff, she stole every moment like this from his future. Truly, madly, deeply. Red roses and blue violets. The heart wants what the heart wants. And what Geoff’s heart wants just then is to be left alone to grieve. To find its own way back into Geoff’s body. To slip into the warm shell that is so empty without it.

We’ve been waiting so long for each other, Kate tells Geoff. Welcome home.

There’s a big gap at the table where Mr Phillips and Trixie Ward have been sitting. Mrs Phillips’s stomach jumps across the blankness as she lets her gaze swing round and round the table. Her life is sitting in this room, discussing property values, golf handicaps and surely too young difficult to believe but yes grandchildren love them dearly you’ll never guess what little Emily is doing now.

Susan Bentall dreams that Paul is carrying her down the altar under a canopy of twinkling stars. I’ll never leave you, he says and as she curls her body up into itself, the empty legs of her jeans shadow her pose on the rough ground beside her, the damp seeping through the thin denim so when she will wake up in the morning and have to put them on they will rub even harder into the sore skin between her legs as she runs, stumbling, home.

At midnight Geoff lies back on his bed and shuts his eyes. Trust me, he hears, and for a moment he thinks it is Siobhan, his girl, come back to him so he offers no defence. Take me, he tells her, and the words sing through every town, in every land, rustling through trees, called by the birds and written in the clouds. Just take me away. Anywhere but here.

And back in that quiet cul-de-sac in the middle of the small suburban town, Mr and Mrs Phillips stand on their doorstep and wish their guests a pleasant journey home. It’s been such a lovely evening. A lovely evening, Mrs Phillips echoes as she follows her husband back into the house and waits patiently while he double locks the door.

© 2005 Sarah Salway