Short stories are a good way to try different ideas and challenges. This one begun life as a writing exercise. I was given a random photograph and told to write for 15 minutes without stopping, using the photograph as inspiration. The picture was of a man – I thought he looked hot, and that’s where I began. I got 3 rough paragraphs out in the 15 minutes and they languished in my notebook for 2 years. Recently I gave them room to grow. This piece was the result. Not so much a story, more a vignette – a moment in time.
The lift hums through 24 floors before jolting to a halt, the words ‘Skyline Bar’ illuminating above her head. As the doors part she can see him alone, silhouetted against the panoramic evening skyline, a blue-orange urban canvas pinpricked with light. He’s perched astride a bar stool, one foot on the floor, one elbow resting on the bar, committed neither to sitting nor standing; a studied informality. She watches him watching the room. He scans from left to right, across clusters of low sofas where couples and small groups generate a babble of conversation against a backdrop of ambient electronica.
He wears an air of casual detachment like a jacket slung over one shoulder; there but not there, as if he’s somehow separate, above his surroundings. This habitual pose doesn’t even hint at his paranoia. She knows that despite his circumstances, or because of them, he’s desperate to be seen as cool – a sophisticated urbanite – desperate to be noticed, desperate for roomfuls of strangers to be in awe of him, to wonder who he might be.
They always wonder, as he manages his image perfectly and looks the part. He is after all a devastatingly handsome man, the wrong side of forty but looking ten years younger. His shaven head, intense, dark eyes and subtle superiority of posture – like a prince or a president – radiate a tantalising cocktail of purity and danger; one which suggests he could drive a woman to heights of ecstasy or slice a blade silently through her neck, whichever might be… expedient.
He’s immaculately attired too, his wardrobe acquired through the biddable generosity of a succession of liaisons. His is a muted designer style – Paul Smith, Gucci, Hugo Boss, nothing too obvious, never overdone – targeted to arouse the interest of those who would identify with his apparent restrained affluence. Today he wears black and graphite, natural fabrics; impeccably casual. As he scans the room his thumb strokes the side of a cut-glass tumbler, half-empty, ice melting. She’s on time but he’s started without her as he always does. This would be his third at least.
She steps into the room and moves towards him. He glances in her direction, not seeing her at first. He stares right through her for a moment and she is snared by his cold, dead eyes. It’s the look she notices more often than any other these days, now her significance to him is on the wane.
He’s a player, and he’s good. He’s accomplished at getting people to do what he wants and hand over what he needs. Over the months he’s spent her money and milked her for contacts and connections. Only now will she admit she knew from the start she was being manipulated, deceived. It makes her feel pathetic to own up to it, but she accepted his stories because she needed to see herself as the kind, helpful one; the woman prepared to step up to the plate, as he would always put it, to support a friend in need. And she needed him too. Like an addict, she craved those moments where he delivered his expressions of gratitude and appreciation. She yearned for what she imagined might follow – his respect and maybe even his love. It took too long for her to realise he had no comprehension of the word love and not the faintest interest in treating her with respect. He’d long ago worked out how to manufacture emotions like interest, infatuation and even desire. He’d accurately identified her needs and engineered a fantasy environment in which he seemed to fulfil them in return for her compliance. Why would anyone respect a woman foolish enough to be taken in by such fakery?
He repaid unspecified debts and transacted questionable deals with her money, and he drew her friends and associates into worthless ventures. They were all houses made of straw and soon wind tugged at their frames and billowed around their empty rooms. Claims of spectacular returns dissolved, replaced by hushed conversations with hostile callers, lips taut, fists balled with aggression. As the illusion of his life crumbled, out of sight of the world he sought to impress, alcohol and cocaine became his constant companions.
Only now is she prepared to acknowledge the toxic dynamic of their relationship, admitting – but still only to herself – that all is not as she paints it to the world. Before her funds are exhausted and her friends all turn away from her, she knows she must begin to rebuff his ceaseless manipulations. But with that, her usefulness will expire and he will be gone, which is the reason she’s postponed the moment, time and again.
Her early eagerness to oblige him has already evaporated into a parched ‘please let this be the last time’ reluctance. No doubt familiar with the signs of time running out, she imagines he is readying to move on. She’s already an embarrassment to him, a distasteful reminder of his failures, a used-up patsy, standing between him and his next mark; someone else with assets he wants, who can be more easily persuaded to give them up.
But at this moment he still needs her. There’s something he must obtain from her, she just doesn’t know what it is. It must be big, she thinks, because he’s been taking his time building up to it. She tells herself whatever it is, she will refuse. This will be the beginning of the end. She’ll let him down as gently as she can and when it happens he’ll cut her loose and she will have to bear the pain. She chides herself that she should have pushed him away long before. But she held on, savouring the heady rush of his presence for one more day, and another, weeks trading into months; her hope that he would change, that somehow her love could change him, proving wholly futile.
He spots her by the lift. As if a switch has been flicked, he lights up. His head tilts to one side and an unbearably sexual smile spreads across his face as he stands to welcome her. Too late, she tells herself. There were days when that look would have made her ache for him, be willing to do anything to please him, but no longer.
He summons the bartender and orders her favourite cocktail. For a moment, she lets herself feel delight that he remembers what she likes to drink, although she knows it’s all part of the play for him. He still occasionally makes the effort, it all works towards wringing one more big ask out of her. It goes on the tab though – the tab which she will later pay, because he will find himself called hastily away on some unavoidable premise. He pulls an empty bar stool towards him and motions her to sit.
‘Hi, sweetheart,’ he says. The smile his mouth forms is already disconnected from the rest of his features.
And then it begins.
‘This is hard for me, you know this. But you’ve always been so good to me. I’ve never known anyone like you before; you’re such a loyal friend and such a wonderful person.’
She’s supposed to feel compassion toward him for his being in this painful, difficult situation, whatever it is. She’s supposed to understand that under normal circumstances, he would never dream of calling on her for help, but that this one time it is unavoidable and he has nobody else to turn to. She can’t bring herself to ask, what about his family; has he no other friends? She knows it will make him angry and he’ll struggle to retain his composure. Then he’ll withdraw and sulk until she apologises for having been so insensitive. That’s how it always plays out when she asks a difficult question. She never has found out why neither his family nor any other friends – friends she has never met – are ever able or willing to help him.
He wants money. Again. She hardly listens to the reason. It’s something about an overdue payment and some people she wouldn’t want to know, who’ll be coming for him in some unspecified way. It’s only ten thousand, and he only needs it for two weeks and after that he’ll be able to return it; so she can’t possibly refuse him, can she? She’ll get it all back, after all, for he’ll be as good as his word. She knows, doesn’t she? That he wouldn’t be asking her unless he absolutely had to. But she’s proved herself to him so many times before; he knows she won’t let him down this time, especially as it is so vital to alleviating his current temporarily compromised scenario. Even his choice of words is disconnected from reality.
He’s right though; she has never let him down. It is he who has failed to keep his promises too many times to bear recall. On so many occasions he’s leaned on her for small and then ever larger sums of money, for deals and ventures, for store credit, for guarantees on loans, for rent he’s fallen behind on, for letters of recommendation intended to enhance his credentials. He’s working hard, he claims – for both of them, apparently – to break into a world where certain things about you count, where image is all and who you know and how much cash you can flash is more important than anything else. That he has no money of his own and doesn’t know anyone of consequence, and seeks to establish his credibility through her is something she’s only questioned in her own mind. She’s never asked why he doesn’t get a job like other people. She knows he has too much pride to ever be so ordinary. Yet he isn’t too proud to pry another slice of her modest investments from her fingers.
Right up until that moment she’s been convinced she will refuse him. She’s even prepared herself for the backlash – the show of uncomprehending hurt, the far more genuine anger she feels certain will follow. She’s ready for this to be the last time she’ll see him. Right up until that moment.
But he plays her back from the brink, as he’s done so many times before; with his words and with the intensity of his gaze, and with his exquisite, surreal beauty. She allows herself to be drawn in by his show of self-contained assurance and his pretence of honour and love. When he tells her there’s nobody else in the world who knows him like she does, and how bright, intelligent and fascinating she is, she believes and accepts it all. When he draws her close and whispers how he never wants to feel that he can’t enjoy being with her, she understands completely that he’s saying if she doesn’t capitulate, she will not see him again. She is prepared for it.
But when it comes to the moment, she can’t go through with it. She stares rejection and loneliness in the face and looks away. She fears this man and what he’s doing to her, yet what she fears more is the absence of him.
He knows all of this. He knows he can make her give him what he needs. It won’t be a surprise to him when she pulls a phone from her bag and goes online to her bank. She notices her head pounds and her fingers shake as she presses the required digits one by one until it is done. When he rests his hand on hers and delivers a look of such sincerity and gratitude through his triumphant, dead eyes, she almost believes him. And for the briefest moment she lets herself feel the soaring joy of being appreciated and valued; the glow that comes from having committed an act of kindness, even though it isn’t kindness but desperation that fuels her surrender.
As he downs his glass and heads for the lift and his own bank on the corner of the street, and from there to who knows where, he promises he will call and she knows he will not – at least, not until the next time. And as the lift doors glide together her heart shrivels and the pain of emptiness and foolishness returns, washing like a wave through her body.
(c) Julie Lawford 2013