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Authors: Louise Voss

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

Lifesaver (9 page)

BOOK: Lifesaver
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‘No. He asked me to lunch before she got back. They clearly aren’t happy together, it’s written all over their faces.’

‘You’re never considering it!’

‘I am. He’s gorgeous. And Baz Lurhmann? I’d be mad not to follow it up, at least.’

She laughed, knocking back her vodka and tonic. Several people turned to see where the honk was coming from—Vicky’s laugh had always been a source of embarrassment to the faint-hearted.

I remembered how beautiful she had looked then, her long curly brown hair falling over her shoulders as she tipped her head back. Her skin had been so pearly back in those days, before she had children. It was much more crepey now; desiccated, almost. Her laugh lines had taken up permanent residence as wrinkles, and all her features seem to have drooped. But in the bar of that theatre, I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t her who Ken had gazed at and come on to. She had a much smaller part in the production than I did, but she’d really shone. She was so natural.

There were certain actors who you just couldn’t understand why they weren’t phenomenally successful. Vicky, in her day, had been more gorgeous than Gwyneth and a better actor than Kate Winslet, but she’d never made it. Won a Laurence Olivier award for Best New Actress in 1992, and we all thought, go girl, you’re away—Hollywood beckons - but it had all been downhill from then on. She’d recently cut the top half off the blue sequinned dress she wore to the award ceremony, and given it to Crystal for her dressing-up box, which I thought was terribly sad.

None of us ever did make it: not Vicky, nor I, nor any of our course from Reading. A few minor successes—mine being a starring role in a Dwight Unsworth video of a song which went to Number One (yes, Ken’s offer was kosher, and yes, I got the part. And more)—but nothing to set Broadway alight. It could be a soul-destroying business, if you let it rule your life. Which was partly why I had always wanted children so badly, so that the acting wouldn’t have to be the sole focus.

The traffic had advanced approximately half a mile. The children were still gurning at me, and I needed the toilet. A tourist board sign on the verge of the motorway said Carnegie Manor, 1/2 mile, confirming that it was the same place Ken had taken me to that time.

I remembered how I’d felt when he’d brought me there. We were in his company BMW, I had new underwear on, and an old joke rattling around my head: ‘What’s the difference between a BMW and a hedgehog?’, the answer being, ‘With a BMW the pricks are on the inside.‘ I kept thinking of it, chortling to myself, opening my mouth to share it with Ken, then closing it again as I realized how he might not appreciate it. He probably thought I looked like an insane goldfish.

Still, it didn’t prevent him undressing me with his teeth on the thick old-fashioned counterpane of a huge double bed in an attic suite, with a view over the beautifully manicured grounds—not that I saw much of
them
. We’d smoked sly joints out of the creaky casement windows, and hadn’t left the room all day. Neither of us mentioned Michelle’s name all weekend, although I did have one thing to say on the subject:

‘If you ever cheat on
me
, I’ll kill you.’

‘It’s a good thing I have no intention of doing so, then,’ he murmured, and for some reason I believed it. I’d never stopped believing it, either—Michelle and he had just been wrong for each other, it was as simple as that. Ken and I were meant to be together. We would grow old and die together, I was sure we would. Hopefully with a few children around, but even without.

One other thing I remembered about that weekend at Carnegie Manor: we’d had our first argument there. Not, as I might have anticipated, about Michelle or his infidelity but, of all things, about meat. It came from nowhere, at the end of a blissful day. It was so clearly a defence mechanism on my part, because it happened just when I was beginning to realize that this was the man I wanted to spend my life with.

It started with the steak. We went down for dinner, and I had almost retched to see the great hunk of rare beef on his plate. It seemed to be still practically quivering with life. I managed to hold my tongue and avert my eyes throughout the meal, trying to concentrate on my delicious pumpkin ravioli, but felt sicker and sicker each time I inadvertently caught a glimpse of Ken’s knife piercing the meat, and the blood running out, staining his Dauphinoise potatoes a delicate pink. By the time we got back to our room, I couldn’t bear to let him kiss me. I suddenly panicked, thinking that this was symptomatic of our relationship; that it was tainted, dead like meat on hooks in an abattoir before it had even had a chance to live. The row blew up out of nowhere, a small furious typhoon out of a clear blue sky.

‘What’s the matter?’ he’d said when I pulled away from his embrace.

‘Nothing,’ I replied unconvincingly.

‘What? Are you tired? Have I worn you out?’

I shook my head. ‘It’s not that.’

‘What then? Don’t tell me I’ve got B.O. Or does my breath smell?’

‘That’s getting closer to it.’

I still remembered the look of hurt on his face. He cupped his hands and huffed into his palms.

‘It’s not you, exactly. It’s just…hat steak.’

‘The steak?’

‘Yes. I should have told you earlier but I didn’t want to spoil your dinner. I’m vegetarian.’

‘So? I was eating it, not you.’ I heard a tone of aggression spring into his voice.

‘I know. I’m sorry—I just find it hard to cope when I see people eating raw meat.’

‘It wasn’t raw.’

‘Well, near as dammit it was.’

He tsked, and headed for the bathroom. ‘I’ll clean my teeth then.’

I followed him in, watching as he unzipped his washbag and extracted his toothbrush and a tube of Colgate. I hated myself, but I couldn’t stop: ‘Colgate contains glycerine, you know. That’s usually animal derived. And it’s tested on them too.’

Ken glared at me. The mood was definitely gone. ‘So what am I supposed to do? Clean my teeth with my finger?’

I smiled and handed him my own tube of Nature’s Own toothpaste. ‘Borrow this, if you like.’ I knew I was being smug and annoying, but I couldn’t seem to help it.

‘Are you always like this?’ he growled.

‘Like what?’

‘So… sanctimonious!’ He finished brushing his teeth. ‘Ugh. That tastes like shit. But at least my teeth are clean. And here, look, I’ll even squirt on some more of this stuff if you’re that worried about the smell.’ He sprayed a generous blast of his aftershave around his neck.

‘Actually,’ I’d said piously. ‘A frequent ingredient of perfumes and aftershaves is castorium, which is the anal sex gland of a farmed beaver. And another ingredient you’ll find often used as a fixative is ambergris, which is made from a whale.’

Now he was really annoyed. His neck turned dark red, as if reacting to the aftershave, and he swung around to face me. ‘Are you
trying
to wind me up? If so, it’s working. I’m going to bed.’ And he marched out of the bathroom, slamming the door so hard that one of the round glass ceiling lights broke and came crashing down, raining splinters of glass on top of me, in my hair and clothes and around my stockinged feet.

I stood there, shocked and marooned, but somehow resigned. Yes, I had been trying to wind him up. At first I hadn’t been able to think of any earthly reason why, after the blissful day we’d spent together. Then I realized: he was married. I was testing him, trying to make him cut his losses before we all got in too deep. More than likely, he’d never leave his wife, and the whole affair would be the sorry mess that Vicky had predicted. What had I been thinking?

After a few minutes, the bathroom door slowly creaked open again. Ken appeared, wearing a hotel bathrobe and his outdoor shoes. With his bare, hairy shins completing the picture, I couldn’t help smiling at him. He crunched across the sea of glass shards towards me.

‘Stand still,’ he said, tenderly brushing glass out of my hair with his fingers.

‘All gone?’

He nodded, and picked me up in his arms.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, burying my face in his towelling shoulder as he carried me out of the bathroom and laid me on the bed like a princess. ‘I was being a total pain in the arse. I don’t know what came over me. Must have been the drink.’

‘I hope you aren’t always like this when you’re drunk,’ he said softly, undoing my suspenders.

‘No. I’m not, I swear. And for what it’s worth, I really like that aftershave,’ I mumbled, as his hand crept up my inner thigh.

‘I’ll tell you something, shall I?’ he whispered back to me.

‘What?’

‘That delicious red wine we just drank two bottles of was almost certainly strained through rennet, which, unless I’m very much mistaken, is an enzyme taken from the stomach of a newly killed calf. And may well have contained cochineal, too, which is-’

‘Yeah, yeah, I know,’ I said, shamefaced. ‘It’s crushed beetle. What can I say? I’m a sanctimonious preachy cow
and
a crap vegetarian. And I wear leather shoes. So could we please pretend that the last ten minutes never happened? I promise I’ll never protest again when you want to eat steak.’

Two hours later, we were drifting off to sleep in each other’s arms, warm and sated and comfortable once more. I was almost away when I felt Ken’s finger tap my shoulder. ‘Hnngh?’ I mumbled.

“The anal sex gland of a farmed beaver”? That was a joke, right?’

I laughed drowsily. ‘No. S’true.’

‘Wow. I wonder how they discovered
that
?’

He didn’t stop using aftershave, but from that day onward he never again ordered steak in my presence.

Chapter 8

The following Wednesday, at the exact time proscribed by Pamela Wilkins, I dialled the number of the main switchboard of Gillingsbury College. It was engaged. I imagined Poor Wilf eating his sandwich and not bothering to answer the switchboard. I redialled. Still engaged. I took a deep breath. Hit redial again. Engaged again.

In front of me on my desk at home I had a post-it note with my stage name on it: Anna Valentine, and a made-up address: 27 Field End. I had looked at streetmap.co.uk and decided against selecting a real road from there, just in case it turned out to be close to Adam and Max’s house. Gillingsbury wasn’t a big enough town to take that risk. I made up a name and checked it against the index on the map, to make sure that I hadn’t picked somewhere which was actually an industrial estate or a dual carriageway. I then decided that Field End would be well situated in a small village on the outskirts of Gillingsbury—there was a place called Wealton which looked as though it would do. I just hoped against hope that Adam didn’t live there.

Still, I had Plan B in mind—if questioned about the address, or if there was even the slightest murmuring of recognition of Wealton—‘my brother runs the pub there’ or ‘that’s where I play tennis,’ I’d decided to announce, smoothly, that it was only temporary and I’d soon be moving to a new flat…t didn’t really occur to me until later that unless Adam himself lived at 26 Field End Wealton, (unlikely, since it was a fictional address) he probably wouldn’t shriek, ‘No way! That’s incredible!
I
live there!’ In my entire life, no teacher or professional person had ever, when asking me my address, volunteered any kind of personal information pertaining to the revelation of it.

Which in itself was another problem. Even if I enrolled on his course, did I expect Adam to suddenly start talking about his son, for heaven’s sake? Of course he wouldn’t. I imagined him showing us how to use tile cutters, or what colour grout to apply to the finished design (I’d once seen a demonstration of mosaics at an art fair), and then casually announcing, ‘My son Max’s life was saved by a bone marrow donor, you know. Would you like to come and meet him?’ Yeah, right. What had I been thinking? The only way I would ever get to know Max would be by forging some kind of extra-curricular friendship with his father. And I’d never even met his father.

The line was still busy. ‘Come on Wilf, you idle git,’ I muttered.

The whole thing was insane. Yet the more I thought that, the more something in me—stubbornness, probably; a desire to make such a ludicrous scheme work; or maybe just a fatty streak of adventure - felt compelled to at least attempt it.

I reasoned with myself that if Adam was eye-wateringly ugly then he’d be grateful at my attentions, and if he was breath-takingly gorgeous, it would be all the easier for me to flirt with him.

All the while dialling, getting the engaged tone, and redialling instantly, I pushed aside the nagging persistent voice in my head reminding me that this wasn’t really very nice of me. I was content in my relationship with Ken, despite everything we’d been through, so there was absolutely no way I’d end up letting Adam
seduce
me or anything—I’d just have to use my acting talents judiciously and expertly to ensure he realized that I just wanted to befriend him…Actually, I hoped he was ugly. I wouldn’t have wanted the temptation of flirting with some broad-shouldered crinkle-eyed love-god. It was a pity that he was unlikely to be gay, given the circumstances - I decided I could have done with a nice gay friend. It wasn’t impossible—perhaps the shock of Max’s mother leaving had sent him over to the Other Side. Or perhaps she’d left
because
he was gay! That would have been ideal.

Dial. Busy. Hang up. Redial. It had become automatic, a background sequence, tinny percussive beat accompanying my daydreams. I realized that probably the only reason I was thinking all those thoughts about Adam was because the whole thing was so unreal. Despite his letter to me, and his name in the college prospectus, and Pamela’s cow-eyed and clear infatuation with him, Adam Ferris did not actually exist for me. He was a figment of my imagination. Or, a ‘fig leaf ‘of my imagination, as a girl at school had once said. I pictured Adam as Michelangelo’s David, executed in turquoise mosaic on a panel in my garden, with said fig leaf of my imagination protecting his modesty. The fig leaf would be done in nice dull green chips of tile. Ken would ask what on earth it was doing next to the shed. ‘It’s my new hobby,’ I’d tell him proudly...

BOOK: Lifesaver
10.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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