Authors: Caro Fraser
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
‘Good art has to be dangerous,’ observed Melissa, pleased with the warmth of Leo’s response.
‘Rubbish,’ replied Leo. ‘What you’re talking about is an addiction to extremity. It’s a natural corollary to the obsession with novelty. This desperate search to say or do something new. It’s the worst kind of cultural huckstering and it’s bad for artists. You of all people must see that. What kind of message does a young, unestablished artist get from an exhibition like Serrano’s? That the more promiscuous and offensive your art can be, the better its chance of succeeding. They’re all scrambling for recognition in an atmosphere in which the last thing that matters is artistic excellence.’ Leo drained his glass. He gestured to Melissa’s. ‘Another?’
She shook her head. ‘You go ahead.’
Leo bought himself another drink and the argument continued. Melissa was careful to keep her end of it easy and good-humoured, and after a while it became jokey and
idle, Leo’s earlier vehemence dwindling away.
‘I’m finding it very smoky in here,’ remarked Melissa. ‘I don’t think I can take much more of it.’
‘You’re right,’ replied Leo. ‘It’s getting too noisy as well. I think I’ll have to be getting back.’
Outside, the cold October air struck Leo, filling his lungs and making him realise that he was rather drunk. He felt pleasantly high, in a way which he needed to feel more and more these days. The argument with Melissa had left him with a spurious feeling of camaraderie. He suddenly had no wish to be alone. The pub, the warmth of Melissa’s company, all at once seemed like a haven of safety.
‘Shall we share a cab?’ Leo asked. ‘We live in the same direction, as I recall.’ He pulled up the collar of his coat, realising he was very slightly unsteady on his feet.
In the half-darkness of the street Melissa smiled. ‘Why not?’
They spoke little on the way back, but as the cab drew up to Melissa’s door, she said, ‘Why don’t you come in for coffee? It’s not particularly late.’
Leo thought momentarily of the darkness of his own flat, the sense of emptiness that awaited him, the uncertainty of the hours until Joshua came home. He couldn’t face it. Sometimes, without Joshua there, he hated the place. Besides, he was drunk, and it was better to be drunk in company than alone. He could have some coffee, chat for a while, then get a cab back. That way the hours until Joshua’s return would be shortened. ‘I’d like to. Thank you.’ The words did not come out as coherently as he had intended.
On the pavement he stood fumbling for some moments in his pockets until he found money to pay the cab.
Leo didn’t take much stock of his surroundings as he came into Melissa’s flat, except to notice that the front door opened straight into a large, low-ceilinged living room. Gratefully he shrugged off his overcoat and sat down heavily on a sofa, loosening his tie.
‘Coffee, or another drink?’ asked Melissa, moving around the room, switching on a series of lamps, so that the light was muted and intimate.
Leo stifled a yawn. What the hell … ‘Scotch, if you have it. Just a small one, please.’
Melissa was careful to keep it small. She didn’t want Leo passing out on her. That wouldn’t exactly serve her purposes.
‘Here.’ She handed him his drink. Leo raised it to her in a sloppy toast and sipped. He was aware that she had put on some music, unfamiliar, but pleasantly gentle. He leant back and closed his eyes.
‘I’ll be back in a moment,’ said Melissa and left the room.
Leo lay back on the sofa, his thoughts ebbing and flowing tipsily, his mind now numb to any depressing thoughts. Roused out of something approaching a light sleep, he became aware that Melissa had sat down next to him on the sofa. He opened his eyes, shaking his head a little to clear it.
He stared at the glass in his hand. ‘Perhaps coffee would have been a better idea,’ he murmured, then turned to glance at Melissa. She was sitting quite close to him and
he noticed that she had untied her blonde hair, so that it fell over her shoulders, and that she had changed into something loose and flowing, a robe of some kind. His mind was too slow to make much of these details, beyond observing them. He had begun to wonder, in a fumbling way, what time it was, when he felt a soft hand laid against his cheek. Melissa gently turned his face towards hers and he drunkenly registered her faint smile as she leant over to kiss him. He closed his eyes and let her kiss him, because he felt too inert to do anything else, and because it was rather pleasant. Her touch felt kind and healing, and he did not think beyond this, but began to kiss her back in instinctive response. Melissa guided his hand inside her robe and he felt the touch of her naked breast with only vague surprise. Slowly he took his mouth away from hers, feeling as though he were standing outside himself, watching himself take up a role like an actor, and with both hands slid the robe from her shoulders. For a few seconds he gazed at her nakedness, at the low light burnishing her breasts, and ran thoughtful fingers over her skin, the hardness of her nipples, making her shiver with pleasure. Then he lifted his eyes to her face. Drunk as he was, he scrutinised her soft, hungry features with detachment. For Leo, sex had always been in a realm of its own, an art beyond emotion, the pleasures of the body removed to a level that was almost clinical. There was a practised sensuality about this situation, a calculation in the manner in which she offered herself to him, which he found irresistibly erotic. He lowered his mouth to one of her breasts, pushing her gently back against the cushions, aware that he was, in spite of the amount he had drunk, hard
and aroused. It would be as dispassionate and enjoyable a sexual consummation as any other, performed with neither love nor meaning, but for the pure pleasure of the moment. He had known many such encounters in the past, with men and women, and at least this one might give him brief respite from his feelings of isolation and weakness.
Just as his hand traced its way down across her body, parting her legs, the delicacy of the moment suddenly erupted into a fever, on Melissa’s part, of urgent, hungry action. She pushed herself up from the cushions and threw herself against Leo, moaning, pressing her mouth to his, her hands tearing at his shirt, then at the waistband of his trousers. The sudden disturbance of the equilibrium took Leo completely by surprise. As she thrust him back on to the sofa, her breath hot and panting, her limbs threshing against his, the absurdity of the whole thing suddenly welled up in his mind through the fog of whisky and he began to laugh. He couldn’t help himself. He pulled his mouth away from her hectic, insistent kisses to let the laughter escape, feeling his body grow weak. Jesus Christ, thought Leo, I’m being raped. She was unfastening his shirt buttons with shaking fingers and, still laughing, he pushed her away, having to do it quite roughly in order to move her. Melissa, still gasping, sat back, strands of hair sticking to her damp face and lips, staring at Leo uncomprehendingly. Awareness of his helpless laughter dawned upon her. It had come to all this, she had been so close to having him, and he just lay there, holding his shirt together, giggling. She dragged her robe across her naked body, pushing her hair back from her face.
Leo put up a shaky, apologetic hand as if to ward her
off. ‘I’m sorry.’ He managed to get the words out through bursts of unstoppable laughter, his chest heaving with the effort. He hadn’t had a fit of hysterical laughter like this for ages. It must be the alcohol. He tried again to speak. ‘Please. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.’ This made him snigger again. If only she hadn’t thrown herself on him like that. He glanced down and became aware that the glass of Scotch she had given him had got spilt in the melee, soaking one leg of his trousers and part of the sofa. This at least enabled him to stop laughing. ‘Oh, God, I’m sorry. Your sofa. Here, I’ll get a cloth.’ Leo tried to rise, but failed. Melissa, mortified, was about to get up, but Leo managed clumsily to detain her, one hand on her wrist. ‘I’m drunk, I’m afraid. This has been unforgivable. I’m truly, truly sorry.’ The words slurred and he felt that he might start laughing again at any moment. All he wanted to do was get out of this place, before she raked her nails across his face and spat at him. It looked as though that was exactly what she felt like doing. He looked round hazily for his jacket and stood up.
‘I’m sorry. I’d better be going.’
Melissa said nothing. She watched as Leo made his way to the door, listened as his unsteady footsteps died away on the stairs. Then she got up and closed the door and stood there for a long while, wondering what had gone wrong, until at last her humiliation found vent in a weeping, uncomprehending rage.
The flat was in darkness when Joshua let himself in around two o’clock. He saw a glow of light from Leo’s room and
put his head round the door, expecting to find Leo sitting up in bed and reading, waiting for him. But Leo’s figure lay sprawled across the bed covers, still dressed. Even from the doorway Joshua could smell the reek of whisky. He wondered for a moment whether he should try to rouse Leo, help him out of his clothes and into bed. Then he decided he couldn’t be bothered. Yawning, he closed the door and went off to his own room.
On Saturday Leo drove to Bath to pick up Oliver. He felt ill and dispirited. Since the morning two days ago when he had woken up fully dressed and hung-over, Leo’s
seemed to have hit an all-time low. Joshua had said nothing, but no words were required to make Leo feel any more abject than he already did. He told himself he would have to cut down on his drinking. Incidents like the one with Melissa were too awful to risk repeating. He could hardly believe that it had happened. Loving Joshua as he did, how could he have gone near that woman?
As he drove, Leo contemplated the destructive changes which had occurred in his life. If only things could become more settled between himself and Joshua, if only he could be sure that his love was completely returned, that there was certainty and permanence in their relationship, then the insecurity might vanish, and he could run his life as smoothly and confidently as before. But Joshua was
unreadable. He was there, he took Leo’s gifts and favours, and he returned his affection in a remote fashion, but he said nothing of love. Neither in word nor gesture did he make Leo feel wanted and safe. The reverse was true of Leo. He tried hard - too hard, probably - to bind Joshua to him.
Charles’s house came into view among the trees, and Leo turned into the driveway and parked his car.
‘How are you?’ asked Rachel, when she opened the door. ‘You look rather tired.’ Her concern was genuine. She had never seen Leo look so tired and careworn. ‘Work is a little stressful,’ he replied abruptly.
Rachel went to fetch Oliver’s belongings and watched as Leo strapped Oliver into his car seat. They drove off and Rachel stood on the driveway gazing after them. She wondered if the boy whose voice she had heard on the phone had anything to do with Leo’s altered appearance. She felt no guilt at what she had told the welfare officers who had called on Thursday - Oliver was too important - but she didn’t like the idea of Leo suffering emotionally. Even if he had done much to deserve something of his own medicine.
Leo took Oliver back to Stanton, where Oliver played happily with his toys. Leo noticed that Oliver was picking up new words very quickly and that it was possible now to conduct a certain kind of baby dialogue. His heart expanded with love as he listened to the staccato questions Oliver asked about his toys, holding up items and seeking confirmation of their colour or purpose. He marvelled at the
frankness of the child, his unquestioning warmth and trust. He began to wonder whether he wasn’t mad to jeopardise his chances of custody by having Joshua live with him.
After lunch Leo chopped up some potatoes and apples, and he and Oliver took them down the road to a field where some horses grazed. As he stood by the fence, handing Oliver chunks of apple to feed to the horses, Leo felt a distinct lightening and strengthening of his spirits. Being with Oliver calmed him, gave him a new and clear perspective. He gazed out across the field. Perhaps it would be better if Joshua moved out altogether. Maybe then some balance could be achieved and some dignity restored to his life. Leaving aside the question of Oliver, possibly sharing his home and life so openly was doing the relationship no good. As things stood, Joshua in residence was Joshua in complete control. He had everything he wanted. He took Leo, his money, his flat, his possessions, his pictures, his food and his drink, entirely for granted. If those things became occasional rewards and treats, instead of a way of life, Joshua might become more grateful, more willing to earn Leo’s time and affection.
Leo glanced down and smiled at Oliver, who was laughing in delight at the feeling of the horse’s whiskery soft lips against his hand as he fed it. Did he have the strength of will to alter the status quo? The thought of the flat empty of Joshua, devoid of his presence and belongings, struck Leo with a desolate pang. And then there would be the uncertainty of arranging to meet him. Maybe everything which existed between them would change and ultimately die … He was afraid. He was so afraid. Yet something had
to be done. He had to find a way to end the destructive pattern which had taken hold of his life.
In the flat in Belgravia Joshua was growing bored and restless. He’d been fairly offhand with Leo before Leo had left to go to Bath - he hated it when Leo drank too much - but now he wished Leo were still here. He quite liked weekends with Leo, who always found amusing new things to show him or places to take him. Okay, the pace was generally a bit slow, but there was something relaxing about that. It felt to Joshua like he was being looked after.
Now he idled around the flat, pausing to gaze down from the drawing room window at the silent garden in the square, wondering how to fill the hours until Leo got back the next day. He thought of driving around a bit in his new car, but the idea of Saturday traffic in Chelsea was a turn-off. Besides, he had nowhere to go. He flung himself on the sofa and folded his hands behind his head, wondering what Leo was doing. He was with his kid, Oliver. Leo had said he was just a toddler. Kids were quite good at that age. They could talk a bit, kick a ball, you could do stuff with them. Leo was probably having fun. Joshua’s thoughts wandered to the room which Leo had set aside for Oliver’s visits. There hadn’t been any so far. Would the kid be coming to stay at weekends? Joshua pondered this. That might be quite a laugh, really. He and Leo would have to do things with him. Joshua thought he might like that. When he was younger, he’d always wanted a little brother. God, thought Joshua, that way of thinking turned Leo into his father and that was definitely perverted. Would he be around long enough, anyway, to meet Leo’s kid? There were days when everything
seemed okay, when this place, all the things Leo bought him and did for him, seemed like all he wanted.
But there were other days - and quite a lot of them recently - when it felt like he was burning up inside, like he wanted to break free of the middle aged, domestic serenity and kindness, and just go out somewhere and breathe in rawer, dirtier air. It was practically a physical thing, like his brain and limbs were twitching against the order and harmony of Leo’s world. Those were the times when he got out and saw his mates. That did some good. But then it was back to Belgravia and Leo, with all his love and need. Sometimes Joshua felt like it would stifle him, all that affection. And the fear that underlay it. Joshua was always aware of Leo’s fear. No, this definitely wasn’t a long-term thing, whatever Leo might want. Even the money, all the material things which had seemed really great at first, couldn’t compensate for the kind of freedom he wanted. They made life better, but in a way they set him apart from his friends. Sure, they all liked the fact that he had a car and a bit of money now, but they could use those things against you, too, when they wanted to. He’d noticed the occasional snide remarks.
He was still lying on the sofa, thinking, when the phone rang. Joshua immediately assumed it would be Leo, missing him, wanting to talk to him, to hear his voice. He often rang up in the day just for that. Joshua, didn’t mind, even though he’d imagined at first that it was Leo’s way of checking up on him, but he actually thought it was a bit soft.
But it wasn’t Leo. It was Damien.
‘Hi, mate. How’s things?’ asked Joshua.
‘Slow. Not much happening. Wondered if you fancied a few beers tonight, see if we can find a party somewhere. Or does the old queen want you to stay in and watch telly with him?’
‘Fuck off,’ said Joshua amiably. ‘He’s not here. He’s gone off to see his kid and he won’t be back till tomorrow.’
‘Yeah? Well, that’s useful, now. Why don’t I get some of the lads together, find some girls and come round to yours for a bit of a party?’
‘No way,’ said Joshua. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh, come on, Josh. I’m not talking anything major; just a few people. We’ll look after everything. I mean, come on, it’s Saturday night, your old bloke’s out of town, what harm can it do?’
Joshua hesitated. He’d promised Leo that he would ask him before he had friends over, but he wasn’t here to ask. Joshua didn’t have his number in the country. Anyway, he lived here as much as Leo. That was one of the things that got him down about this set-up - everything was meant to be a partnership, but Leo made the rules. Sod the rules. If this was meant to be his home as much as Leo’s, then surely he could have a few mates in. Like Damien said, they’d make sure it didn’t get out of hand. ‘Oh, all right, then. But not a lot, okay? And no slags.’
‘Yeah, yeah, don’t worry.’
‘And bring your own booze. I don’t want all Leo’s stuff getting drunk.’
‘Don’t worry, man. We’ll see you about nine.’
After Damien’s’ phone call, Joshua didn’t allow any regret or fear to touch his mind. He kept telling himself that he
was entitled to have people round to the flat. It would be all right. Joshua would make sure they did no damage, didn’t make too much noise or stay too late, and he would get up first thing and tidy the place up. When he got back tomorrow, Leo would be none the wiser.
The buzzer sounded a little after nine, and when he opened the door and saw his friends, plus assorted girls, crowding the landing outside Leo’s flat, Joshua felt his first misgivings. He didn’t want that old trout from downstairs complaining to Leo. ‘Get in quick and shut up!’ he hissed, then stood back to let everyone in. There couldn’t be more than twenty people, but as they swarmed through Leo’s flat, into the drawing room and kitchen, they seemed like a lot more. Still, they were here now and he’d just have to hope for the best.
After he’d had a couple of drinks, Joshua’s nervousness disappeared. Everyone seemed to be behaving themselves, more or less, and the music wasn’t too loud. A girl came over from the other side of the room, a spliff in her hand. Joshua had noticed her earlier when they’d all come in. He’d seen her occasionally when he’d been out clubbing, but he’d never had the chance to speak to her. She was really, really nice, he thought, with black hair that was cut quite short, a funny, small face with eyes that made you look back at her a lot. She was using them now, smiling at him in a way that really turned him on. She handed him the spliff and he took it, inhaling the warm smoke and letting it pool deep inside him. He loved the taste of that first drag, the way it sort of warmed and softened your limbs, leaving a faint giddiness.
‘I’m Katie,’ she said.
‘You’re Joshua. Of course I know who you are. Anyway, I’ve seen you around.’
He nodded. ‘I’ve noticed you, too.’ They gazed at one another for a moment.
‘Well,’ said Katie, ‘since that’s the formal introduction over …’ Gently she put one hand to the back of his neck and drew him towards her. Joshua realised he hadn’t kissed a girl in weeks. The sensuality of it was instantly and fiercely arousing. After a moment she drew away and he looked directly into her eyes. The pupils were black, huge. He could read the desire in them and knew that she could sense his own.
‘If this is your place, you must have a bedroom somewhere,’ said the girl softly. ‘Why don’t you show me it?’
The directness of this mildly astonished Joshua, just as her kiss had, but it wasn’t an offer he was about to pass up. He glanced round at the others in the low light of the room. Everyone was occupied, talking, drinking, putting on music. Nothing looked like it would get out of hand. And if he didn’t take the chance now, he never would, not with the life he and Leo lived. The thought of Leo crossed his mind in a small, guilty flash, but he dismissed it. This was just a one-off, another thing he need never know anything about. And he’d make sure he took precautions, so there would be nothing to worry about. He took Katie by the hand, giving her back the joint. ‘Come on,’ he said.
Leo returned Oliver punctually at half past seven, declined Charles’s offer of a drink and headed back to Stanton. The house seemed bleak and empty without Oliver. Why the hell couldn’t Rachel have been reasonable and let the boy stay, for once? It was going to happen sooner or later. The fire which Leo had lit earlier, and in front of which Oliver had played contentedly with his toys, had burnt down to a dismal heap of faintly glowing ash, too far gone to rekindle. Leo tidied away the toys and wandered into the kitchen. There was very little food in the fridge, just the remains of lunch. Time with Oliver had been too precious to waste in a supermarket, and they had just picked up a few bits and pieces in the village. The thought of cheese and biscuits for supper wasn’t exactly tempting. The full bottle of whisky in the cupboard, however, was. Leo took it out and stared at it. Did he really want to be here? Sunday morning with no papers, the prospect of waiting for the village shop to open so that he could buy something for lunch, eating it on his own, then heading back to London with the rest of the weekend traffic … It was depressing. How much pleasanter it would be to go back to Belgravia now, be with Joshua, and on Sunday morning wander out to some quiet London restaurant with Joshua and the Sunday papers, and while away the time over brunch and a glass or two of wine.
Abruptly Leo put the whisky back in the cupboard. He put his things together, switched off the lights, locked up, got into the car and headed back to London.
‘Damien says you live here with some older bloke. What’s that all about, then?’ Katie lay on Joshua’s bed and smiled
up at him, stroking the side of his face.
Joshua reached across and picked the remains of a joint out of the ashtray. He drew on it deeply for a few seconds, then blew out the smoke and handed it to her. ‘He’s a friend. That’s all. I don’t really feel like talking about him.’ Joshua lowered his head to kiss her.
From the other room came the insistent reverberation of music, and the sound of voices laughing and talking. In the kitchen there was a sudden crash, followed by laughter, and Joshua sat up. He buttoned up his shirt and went through to the kitchen, where a group of young men and women were variously sitting and standing around, drinking. The surfaces of the kitchen were littered with beer cans and bottles, and the air was heavy with cigarette smoke.
‘Come on, Les,’ said Joshua in a tone of mild reproach to one of his friends, who was crouched down trying to scoop the remains of one of Leo’s glasses on to a newspaper. Joshua went to the cupboard and took out a dustpan and brush, and handed them to Les. ‘Try not to make too much mess.’ He glanced round. ‘Who put that grill on?’