He is hungry-looking. He wears a brown homburg. It covers his bad eye. He lights a cigarette, sucks up the smoke all the way from his shoes to his head with a sickly shudder. His good eyeball is haddock-yellow. His fingers are stained.
Smoke over, he enters the Bar Minuit. It’s seedy and plush. Flesh presses flesh. Rich, poor, jet-set, low-life, artists and the sexually ambiguous. Flank against shank, crotch to thigh or buttock, lip to cheek. All lured in by the promise of; oblivion and transgression; the back rooms with their dark writhing corners and for a few, like him, something more.
He’s come for her tonight. He means to make an end of it. As he pushes his way through to the bar, a sailor’s spittle hits his jaw. The flick knife in his pocket aches to unbend but he’ll let it go this once. No false moves now.
“Dame Blanche,“ he barks at the barman, behind whose head the mirrored tiles glint back with his distorted reflection in the pullulating mass. He doesn’t like what he sees. He lowers his hat. He would spark up again but there’s no room. The barman comes back. He nods to a red studded door on the left.
Beyond it leads an improbably long corridor barely lit by greenish lamps. Like underwater. But he’s been here before. He knows this is the right way. Through the amnesiac absinthe wave he finds the other door, black leather this time with metal studs piercing the skin and a crescent moon glinting with stones like a woman’s brooch where the number should be. This is the place, he’s sure of it. He doesn’t knock. He remembers no peephole but after a beat the door opens just enough.
He slips inside. The air is heavy like before. A blanket of darkness wraps itself around him. The sweaty tang of fleshy white flowers invades his lungs. Then he sees them; barely discernible, low-lying Gardenia clouds above their huge troughs on the floor. It’s so very warm. He doesn’t want to, but removes his coat. Lays it on a velvet couch beside him as he sits. Ahead, an alcove curtained with a gauzy membrane shivers. Or rather, something moves behind it. He squeezes his good eye hard. The form takes shape. Silvery, a slice of moon. A scything curve in motion. A human blade. He knows it’s her. Her hair catchs a whisper of creeping light and with the following gesture he understands she knows he is here. There is music. her dance begins, if it can be called a dance. It is not for him, it is just because.
She is a ripple. Sometimes liquid mercury, sometimes unearthly white, sometimes a shadow. She is not naked but may as well be. Her sheath is a second skin, clinging like beaten metal leaf about her breasts, her childish buttocks, her long thighs, then, loosening at her knees into a sway of petal lips. She comes closer, passing through another layer of gauze but not quite out yet, not fully revealed.
He is confused by the temperature. He knows it to be hellishly warm. His armpits are damp. Rivulets course down his back. His shirt sticks. He licks his lips and tastes salty wetness. Yet, he feels cold. As though icy, liquid mint has been poured into the top of his head, down into his spine and is now creaking its frost into his veins. He reaches for his coat but when he looks, it’s no longer there.
The music changes. He can’t account for why but something in its rhythm and tone is making it hard for him to think. He should leave. He badly needs a cigarette. He tries to get up but can’t. He tries again. A sharp hiss close to his ears forks him to his seat, raising the hairs on his skin into sharp prickles. He wants to move but goddammit his bones have become anchors to the deep. Mocking his incapacity further, a hand grips his left shoulder from behind, pinioning him deeper still. Another hand wearing a long satin glove and holding a cigarette enters his field of vision. It releases the cigarette into his mouth. He sucks hard. Desperation? Maybe. At least it’s something he is able to do. He wants to unfreeze, to be his own man as he was only moments ago, but can’t.
In the blink of his haddock eye she is in front of him. Naked save for high stiletto heels, round dark spectacles that blot out her eyes completely, and of course, the gloves. He could almost touch her if he had his arms but breathing is the only motion he can harness now. She must know this. She begins to undulate. She holds his gaze although he cannot see her eyes. She bends down and parts her legs so he can see into her darkness. He dives deep with his eye until suddenly she snaps shut, straightens up and stands so very still. He is breathing harder than ever against the invisible weight, heavy as death upon him. He prays the oxygen pumping short and quick into his lungs and veins will revive his limbs but before his ribcage can swell to fullness, she flips one leg astride him. Christ!
She leans in as if to kiss him but instead takes his smoldering cigarette straight into her mouth hot side first, without a flicker. The cigarette reappears between her lips. She smokes it and returns it to his lips where it stays until ash is in his lap and his lips burn with the hot stub. The cruelest smoke of his life. He is certain if he can’t move now and have some release he will have a heart attack.
What’s got into him? He didn’t even have a drink. He must do something. Anything. He opens his mouth and tries to speak but no sound comes out and before he can try again, she is off his lap and has thrust something into his mouth. One of her gloves. She stands before him for a second time, hand on hip, legs apart. She leans in towards him once more. Something flashes in her hand. His flick-knife? It’s too dark and she moves too fast. He cannot be sure but the last thing he remembers is her voice,
“You will never kill the White Lady.”
Get it off me! It’s got its claws in my back, Luke get it off me it’s gone fucking mental.
Oh my God Babe, it’s stuck its nails through your t-shirt, are you hurt?
Don’t know?! Just get the mangey thing off me. Get it off me!
Lisa was shaking, disturbed from her broken sleep into a worse nightmare than she’d been having already. She’d been deep in one of those dreams where you’re not sure if you’re asleep or awake. So it had taken her a few seconds to realize that the kitten was really there, that it had somehow snuck back into their room, had managed to haul itself up into their bed, and had squeezed itself between her and the headboard where it was now digging itself into her back. No, this wasn’t a dream and yes, it was really happening.
Babe, I can’t quite reach it…….
She leant forward to let Luke get in behind her and as she did so, a shocking thought dawned. She was in a position of power here, quite literally. This was a very critical moment in the kitten saga. One clumsy heave backwards from her, and it could all be over right now.
What a turn around this was from a few days ago when they had come upon the stray on their way home from a night out in Shepherd’s Bush. Then, she’d felt a huge wave of compassion surge through her body for the helpless little ‘puss-puss’ lying there but just a few terrible nights later, and the thing she had been so keen to save, that she thought they could learn love together, had rather quickly turned into something she now wanted to crush against her bedstead until its little bones cracked like chicken wings.
She took a deep breath and…
Hold still Babe, I’ve got it…. Luke said tugging at the back of her favourite nightshirt that the kitten was now clinging to.
Damn! She’d bottled it. Damn. Damn. Damn, she thought as the deranged kitten freed itself from Luke’s grasp and made a renewed attack on her kidneys.
Shit! Shiiiit! Luke, for fuck’s sake, what are you doing?
Sorry Babe, I slipped and ….I don’t know… He’s a tough little bugger. If I could just get a proper hold on him…..hang on,….that’s it! Try to hold still…Babe…if you can…?
Coming back from that Polish meal on Thursday night they’d found the terrified thing barely alive by a parked car. Lisa had gone all RSPCA over it and, overriding her usual hygiene concerns, to Luke’s pleased surprise, she’d gathered up the limp, little orphan into her scarf and had insisted on taking it home right away. They’d made up a bed for it in the kitchen, had given it a saucer of milk and had enjoyed stuffing it full of sardines until a dangerous-looking bulge stretched out its belly so much that it looked like it was going to pop. Happily, though, it didn’t and just dropped off to sleep. Everything had been going so well up to that point. Her and Luke, getting on, doing the mummy and daddy thing at last, even if it was just with a kitten.
But then, a few hours later, it began mewling and miaowing, prowling about and smashing into things. And if that wasn’t bad enough, that was also when it started with the crazy scratching. It scratched the furniture as though bent on destroying it. It scratched the carpet as though wanting to dig itself out. It scratched Lisa’s expensive shoes.
It was then that Lisa realized, just how ugly the thing was. It had been very dark when they first found it so they hadn’t taken a good look. And then, when they’d got it home they’d been so busy trying to keep it alive they hadn’t really noticed how its thin, scanty fur in turn, stuck up in patches or lay flat in horrid, oily curls but barely covered the scrawny, pinkish body beneath. They hadn’t taken in that its head was far too big and lolled on a thin stalk of neck. That nothing about it was cute. That it’s eyes were so terribly frightened that when Lisa looked into them all she wanted to do was hit it not stroke it. Maybe if they’d seen some of this on Thursday night they would never have brought it home?
For fuck’s sake Luke….Am I going to have to sort this out by myself too…I mean can’t you ever do anything right? Lisa said as she went to get out of the bed.
Stop it Lisa. Don’t. Start. That! I can do this…I can do it alright. Just give me a chance for once.
Luke had blocked her exit and uncharacteristically Lisa backed off because of something new in his voice and because she was just so exhausted. They’d had three nights of this. The kitten had kept them awake. Had made unreasonable demands. Wouldn’t stop trying to get into their bedroom. Tonight for example, the first time it got in it bit Lisa’s foot. She had yelped and kicked out and through her half-open eyes had seen the thing fly through the air and thump pathetically against the back wall. She’d half hoped then…? But no. Luke had taken the stunned creature outside and then there it was again only a few minutes later pulling at her sheet and making that dreadful noise. It was just too much. One way or another this had to stop.
Yes! There you go Babe, that’s one claw free. See. Not long now I promise….Babe, I promise.
They’d tried hadn’t they? They’d given it three more days and nights than it would’ve had if they’d just left it where it was. So there was that. But the situation was getting worse not better. Which, regrettably, pointed to the sad truth that some things were just not worth bothering with, were in fact, better left alone. Lisa wasn’t happy that she was being forced to go against her naturally humanitarian streak in this. But sleep, she realized, was just more important. In any case, didn’t Grof, or was it Maslow? Well, one of those psychologists, didn’t one of them say in that paper, The Hierarchy of Needs, the one she’d been reading recently for her course, didn’t he say something about, how basic needs had to be satisfied before any moral concerns or higher altruism could really come into play? Well there it was! Life was funny like that wasn’t it? Making you live a thing so you could really understand it….amazing! Anyway, theirs was a case in point. Even science was behind them here. In this situation hers and Luke’s basic needs were being eroded. They were under siege for God’s sake! With very good intentions but not enough forethought, it turned out that by their actions they had gone against a psychological principle and well that, apart from anything else, was bound to spell trouble. (Pause) She was still muddling through her thoughts when Luke finally managed to disentangle the horrible thing from her nightshirt. The shirt he’d given her when they first got together.
Thank God for that!
She flopped back down on her pillow and her musings on Grof or was it Maslow?…. faded into an exhausted whatever! I. Just. Need. To. Sleep. It’s only a bloody animal….. and you know what, it’s most likely very sick…. …yeah we’d probably be doing it a favour….if…?
Yeah? I’m going to put it to bed outside Babe hang on a minute…
Luke turned back. He was holding the thing by its neck between his finger and thumb. He looked at Lisa. She looked back.
Don’t bother putting it to bed Luke. I’ve had enough. Just, you know. She made a lazy gesture with her hand. Do you think you can manage that…or will I have to get up and do it my…Luke turned on his heel and was out of the room before she could finish.
Lisa pulled the covers up and fell into a doze through which a few moments later she barely heard the flush of the toilet and Luke creep back into bed beside her.