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Authors: Louise Voss

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction

Lifesaver (5 page)

BOOK: Lifesaver
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‘NO RAISINS! CAKE!’

Vicky sighed. ‘You can have some cake when we get home, sweetheart.’

‘So, are you having an affair or something?’ I asked casually, knowing that she wasn’t, but not liking her having in-jokes with friends other than myself. Vicky looked gratifyingly horrified.

‘Of course not! What on earth made you say that?’

I grinned. ‘Well, what were you saying to Katriona then, that you were fantasising about? Candles and music?’

‘Oh, honestly, Anna, I was talking about having a
bath
. On my own, with no waterlogged starfish beanbags or naked Barbies, or worse, slippery little children prodding and commenting on every inch of my body, and climbing all over me. I’m counting the minutes.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘An affair! As if I’d ever have the energy for an affair.’

In a sudden fit of rage, Vicky turned the radio up loud to drown out Crystal’s yells. ‘Up next we’ve got the Audio Bullys’, the DJ shouted at us, ‘with a song called
Real Life
’. Appropriate on both counts, I thought, as noise thrummed around the inside of the car, but Crystal merely increased her own volume accordingly. In a battle of wills, I thought, Vicky didn’t stand a chance. She punched off the radio again.

‘Steady on, Vic,’ I ventured from the back. ‘Listen, if you’re feeling really stressed, why don’t we go to a spa for the day sometime soon? Or maybe even a night or two—Grayshott Hall’s lovely.’

Vicky snorted. ‘Yeah right, like
that’ll
really happen,’ she said, and I didn’t know whether she hadn’t believed I’d ever get it together to arrange it, or that Peter wouldn’t have let her go.

She pushed her foot down harder on the accelerator, and we shot through the deserted streets of the industrial estate, Crystal and I exchanging worried looks as we were rocked from side to side, the car screeching around corners, its front wheels banging up onto kerbs. I half-expected her to start scattering trashcans and swerving up alleys,
a la
Starsky and Hutch. I reached out to put a tentative hand on her shoulder, which turned into a heavy clamp as I saw a teenaged skateboarder wobble out of nowhere towards us.


Vicky!

‘Mummy!’

Vicky stamped on the brake, swerving the car to narrowly avoid the skateboarder. He swore loudly at her, giving her the finger whilst scooping up his board and slouching back on to the pavement, yanking at the belt loops of his outsized flares.

‘Is there any chance that you could drive, Anna?’ Vicky mumbled at me. ‘I don’t feel very well.’

‘What’s a fucker, Mummy?’ Crystal asked, right before Vicky flung open the door, staggered out and vomited into the gutter. I scrambled out of the car and put my arm around Vicky’s shoulders, holding her hair back from her face.

‘I think I might be pregnant again,’ she whispered to me, chalky-faced.

Chapter 4

Back home, I felt lower than I had done for weeks. Vicky had sworn me to secrecy, at least until she’d done a pregnancy test and found out for sure—although she seemed pretty sure already. She’d almost bitten my head off when I had congratulated her, with a mixture of genuine and forced enthusiasm. I thought of the trapped look in her eyes.

‘It would be a fucking
disaster
,’ she’d hissed at me with such vehemence that I’d taken a step backwards and almost fallen off the kerb. I felt a thread of pure rage run through me. We’d parted on awkward terms, with her saying shortly that she’d ring me when she’d done the test.

I flopped down onto the sofa, phone in hand, and dialled Lil’s number.

‘Hello?’ Lil always used to recite her telephone number as her opening gambit on the phone, and I missed that she no longer did it. Nobody did it any more, I mused. I wondered why not.

‘It’s me, Anna.’

‘Anna!’ I heard the smile in her voice, and instantly felt better. ‘How lovely. How are you, darling?’

I paused, letting my eyes follow the pattern of the ceiling rose round in its ornate shabby circle. ‘OK. Ish.’

‘Is anything the matter?’

I began to wish I hadn’t rung her—how could I say what was wrong without breaking Vicky’s confidence? Instead I remembered the letter in my bag.

‘I’ve had this letter,’ I blurted, and told her all about Max and his dad, and how much I wanted to meet them.

‘That’s wonderful!’ she said. I pictured her cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder, so that she could press her hands together; a gesture rarely seen in anyone other than her generation. I’d missed seeing her do that too. ‘I often wondered about who you gave that donation to, and whether you’d ever know. Of course you must meet him!’

I’d really like to restore that ceiling rose, and the cornicing, I thought idly. They had been painted over so many times that what had once been bunches of grapes were now just vague undefined bumpy shapes. If you stuck wads of cotton wool soaked with paint stripper onto them, that was meant to do the trick. But surely it would take weeks. And I found it hard enough to clean my own teeth most days, let alone take on a project that labour-intensive.

‘Anna?’

I forced myself to answer. ‘Oh Auntie Lil, I just can’t.’

Without me having to tell her why I was so afraid, she understood. ‘Is he still healthy?’ she asked.

‘Yes. But what if…’

‘We’re so alike, you and I,’ she said. ‘That’s exactly what I would worry about, if I were you. It’s the what-ifs that’ll get you every time.’

‘I want to know him so badly. But I don’t want him to know who I am. And his dad didn’t give their home address, just the college where he’s a tutor. He teaches art classes, adult education.. What would you do, if you were me?’

There was silence while Lil thought for a moment. ‘Gillingsbury’s not that far. Since you aren’t working at the moment, why not go down there and ask for a meeting with the father, pretend that you want to enrol in whatever art class it is that he offers. Obviously he’s not going to start talking about his little boy there and then, but you could—what is it called these days?
Suss it out
? Maybe ask him where he lives? Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always rather fancied playing detective.’

I laughed. ‘That’s a terrible idea, but thanks anyway,’ I said. ‘And besides, I’ve got that audition tomorrow. Who knows, I might be back in work soon.’

We didn’t talk about Max after that, although I felt a lot better for having told Lil about him. It was as if he’d become a real little boy to me now, having Lil’s magic breath blown into the sketchy frail body I imagined, like Gepetto animating Pinocchio.

‘Break a leg, darling,’ said Lil at the end of our conversation, and once again, I felt so relieved to have her back in my life.

‘We’ll let you know,’ said the director the next afternoon, after I’d made a fairly poor attempt at a west country accent, reading several pages of script for my screen test. I wasn’t optimistic about my chances. Despite Lil’s good-luck wishes, I’d found it hard to concentrate, although I wasn’t sure if it was because I was out of practice, worried about Vicky, or—the most likely reason—because my head was filled with images of Max, like a grainy cine-film spooling through my mind when I ought to have been concentrating on the script.

They were cliched images, I knew: in my imagination, Max wore a cowboy hat and fired a cap gun. He had freckles, like the Milky Bar Kid, although I gave him ginger hair instead of a blond thatch. Even though he wasn’t yet five, he had an otherworldly wisdom about him. He appreciated life. He wasn’t a bit whingy like Crystal, (who moaned that her ‘calflings’ hurt if she had to walk more than ten yards. Vicky had to pretend to time her with the second hand of her watch to get her to walk anywhere: ‘Right, from here to that lamp-post: Go!’ and Crystal would then sprint off, leg pains miraculously vanished). In my imagination, Max never griped or behaved like a prima-donna. He was so used to pain during his two years of invasive treatments, I assumed, that he didn’t have anything left to complain about.

Yes, OK, I knew this was unlikely. It was another reason that I really ought to meet him, I thought, so I could dispel these fantasies. Kids were kids. They all moaned; none of them were perfect. I wished Adam had put a photograph in the letter, so at least I wouldn’t have had to imagine what Max looked like.

I was shocked at how badly I wanted to meet him. I could feel the longing in my empty womb; and it felt like negative space; a hungry space defined by my body surrounding it, like Giacometti’s wiry sculptures of people with holes in their middles. Or like the redundancy of my hands without a buggy’s handlebars to push.

Either way, it seemed a lot more important than a stupid audition.

I was in bed before Ken got home that night, worn out with the unaccustomed commute into London and the stress of the audition. It was a hot evening, and the bed had rapidly lost its initial appealing coolness. The duvet was pressing against me, so I stuck my leg out of the side, contemplating removing the quilt from its cover altogether, but feeling too exhausted to do so.

‘Thought I’d find you here,’ Ken said, coming into the room and sitting heavily on the bed to kiss me. He smelled like a photocopier salesman, of lager, trains and Xeroxed reports, and his mouth was warm and stale against my lips. I was pleased to see him, though, and tentatively reached out my toothpaste-fresh tongue to meet his. Perhaps I wasn’t so tired, after all…

‘Mmmm,’ he hummed, softly, kissing me back. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get back in time for dinner. There was a leaving drink for Sebastian in promotions, you know? The one who got caught with a topless temp in the conference room that time.’

‘Oh right,’ I said, not having a clue who Sebastian was, but deciding that since he had just left the company, there wasn’t much to be gained from admitting so. Ken occasionally talked about his work colleagues, albeit in soundbites, and I always nodded and pretended I remembered who he was talking about. If I was entirely honest, I didn’t even know exactly what Ken did all day, other than have a lot of expensive lunches.

‘So what have you been up to today?’ He stood up, peeled off his shirt and threw it towards the laundry basket in the corner. It missed, but he let it lie where it landed.

‘I went into London for that audition. You know, for the soap.’

Instantly full of contrition, he paused in the middle of undoing his shoelaces. ‘Oh, Annie, I’m sorry, I forgot. How did it go?’

‘I don’t know, really. The usual. But at least I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t care one way or the other, so we’ll see. It films in Bristol, though, so I’d probably have to get digs there during the week.’

I waited for him to protest, but he didn’t.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘Ring me as soon as Fenella lets you know. By the way, you haven’t forgotten about tomorrow night, have you?’

I looked blankly at him, frantically scrolling through a mental rolodex of upcoming events. ‘Tomorrow…?’

He sighed. ‘The Cherries showcase. That band I signed a couple of months ago.

My heart sank: yes, it was all coming back to me now—The Cherries; three nubile coffee-skinned girls with legs up to their nipples and a haughty air of cultivated superiority, at the ripe old age of seventeen. I’d heard the demos and seen the Polaroids: they couldn’t sing, but so what? They looked spectacular.

‘It starts at six thirty, so we should have time to grab a curry afterwards, if you want. I don’t think I have to do dinner with them.’

‘What shall I wear?’ I asked, out of habit, although I didn’t know why I even bothered asking this question. Not once, in six years of marriage, had I ever received a serious answer. I so longed for Ken to frown, stride across to my wardrobe, pull it open and contemplate its contents: ‘Let’s see now—how about that lovely Whistles dress with your purple boots?’ he’d say, and my dilemma would be instantly solved.

‘Oh, go as you are. You look fine,’ he said predictably, slipping his hand underneath the top of my Marks and Spencer's short checked pyjamas. ‘Maybe with stilettos too.’

He ran his other hand along my bare leg, which was still sticking out from under the duvet. I suspected that he was thinking about me in high heels. His fingers were working magic—thumb and forefinger tracing parallel tracks up and down my thigh in an almost abstracted way. It tickled, and made me shiver. I reached up and touched his face, looking with sympathy at the grey bags under his eyes and the way his thick black hair was sticking damply to his forehead. He’d aged so much in the past year. But then, so had I.

I pulled him towards me. ‘You look as exhausted as I feel. Perhaps we need to wake ourselves up.’

He nuzzled into the space between my neck and my shoulder, clinging on to me in a way which was suddenly utterly non-sexual, as if he needed somebody to hold on to; as if I was his mother. I thought again of Max—why had his mother walked out on him? And his poor dad—Adam. Although maybe Adam had met somebody new by now. I hoped that Max got on with her. Could another woman ever replace the warmth of his mother’s arms though?

‘What are you thinking?’ Ken was lying on top of me now, kissing my face, back in sex mode. He was sweating, but I felt slow prickles of arousal tingling my skin, like a distant memory of pleasure. We so rarely made love anymore.

‘Nothing,’ I said, sliding my hand into his trousers and banishing Max.

We fooled around for a while in silence, but instead of getting more lost in it, I could tell that Ken was becoming less. He hopped out of bed and peeled off the rest of his clothes and then, as if he needed the extra stimulus, rummaged around in the wardrobe (oh, if only he could do so when I needed his advice on what to wear!) and produced my highest and shiniest pair of stilettos. He reached under the duvet for my feet and crammed them into the shoes, before flopping back in bed beside me, smiling faintly with anticipation. Me wearing high heels in bed was his biggest turn-on. At least, of the turn-ons he’d admit to, anyway. I didn’t mind—it
was
pretty sexy when you were in the mood.

I dragged my spiky heels dutifully along his chest for a couple of minutes, but I could tell that he was feeling anxious and unrelaxed again, and this in turn made me lose any desire I’d started out with. I tried to get it back for both of us, to
make
him want me; whispering sweet nothings, stroking him and kissing the prickly bit on the side of his neck, touching him—but his erection had vanished, and I felt faintly foolish, as if my touch was inappropriate and embarrassing.

BOOK: Lifesaver
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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