W9 & Other Lives - Carlo Gebler

Sample text

'TELEPHONE SEX'

THE HARROD'S COSMETICS HALL WAS HUSHED and
scented when Mark called in to buy his wife a lipstick. Samantha,
his wife, who liked to be called Sam, always wore pink lipstick,
which he detested, so Mark chose the same pillar box shade of red
as the salesgirl was wearing.
     'I don't hold out much hope my wife'll wear it,' he said.
     'She might,' said the salesgirl. From the shining name tag on her
breast, he saw that she was called Agatha.
     They fell into conversation. Mark invited her to lunch. Agatha
accepted, as long as it was only for an hour.
     He took her to the Brasserie on the Brompton Road. When they
sat down, he saw she wore no blouse under her uniform. Between
the lapels there was a lovely triangle of bumpy, freckled skin. He
wanted to put his cheek there and feel it.
     After weeks of wooing, Mark got his way. One Friday afternoon,
his wife Sam decided suddenly to go to her mother's in the country.
She took the children with her.
     At closing time, he went to Harrod's and told Agatha he had a
surprise for her.
     He brought her home. Agatha thought it strange to be in the
house, where signs of the wife were everywhere, but she said nothing.

102

     Mark gave her a Guide to the Hotels of England and Wales and
told her to chose somewhere for the weekend. Next thing, her
uniform was off. In bed, he said her skin was as smooth as silk. As
soon as they had finished making love, Agatha asked to use the
telephone. Agatha lived with her mother, and she didn't want her
mother worrying anout where she was.
     'I can't talk exactly. I'm going away for the weekend.' She spoke
quietly into the receiver.
     Agatha's mother, at the other end of the line, took the hint. 'How
nice for you,' she said.
     In the end, Mark and Agatha didn't go away at all, but stayed
where they were in the house in Primrose Hill, in the bed which he
had made up in the guest room. They only got up to eat.
     When they talked, he told Agatha about his miserable marriage.
Fifteen years of relentless hostility, Mark said, and yet he had
always lacked the courage to break free.
     Agatha had been married once herself, she told him. It had all
happened when she had been very young - a short marriage, which
ended unhappily. She had a child. The boy lived with her in-laws in
Scotland.
     She omitted to tell him that she had once suspected her husband
of an infidelity. In fact it was only a friendship, at least at first. In the
end, her jealousy had driven him to do what she had most feared. It
had driven him away and into her rival's arms. The experience had
taught Agatha a bitter lesson. Leave well alone and matters sort
themselves out; drag them into the light, and they only worsen.
     She was thirty now, and tired of being alone. Who knew where
this might lead? Even when she saw Mark change the bedlinen on
Sunday morning and thought, He could have waited till I'd gone,
Agatha said nothing. He has to, she reproved herself, the sheets
smell of us, and he must get them out of the way before his wife
comes back home.
     In the afternoon, they went for a walk in Regents Park. After thirty-
six hours of nakedness, Agatha found it strange to be in her clothes.
She had washed her underwear, and felt damp around her middle.
103

     They went into a playground near the mosque. Arab matrons, in
yashmaks, sat around on benches, while their children played in the
pale autumn sunshine.
     Mark held her hand. She saw the time on his wristwatch. He
would be bringing her home soon. Agatha imagined sitting in his car
outside the flat in Streatham. She envisioned him saying, 'When
will I see you again?' in an insincere way.
     In the event, when he got her home, Mark asked if he could
come in. Her mother gave them tea in the front room. It was rarely
used and smelt of apples. Her mother had the good sense not to ask
how the weekend had gone.
     After a year of furtive meetings, Mark told Agatha he was going
to leave his wife and that she had given him the strength to do so.
Agatha was thrilled but held her breath.
     He left Sam, as he had said he would, and rented a flat in a
mansion block at the bottom of Ladbroke Grove. There were
scenes and outrages. His children were distraught. His wife issued
dire threats, and once she made a feeble attempt to take her life
with twenty Disprins.
     Agatha saw him rarely. He had said it would be wisest during this
period of transition, and she saw the sense in that.
     When they did meet, he talked and fulminated while she
listened and nodded sagely. She never said anything unpleasant
about Sam. Not ever.
     After six months of vile solicitor's letters and increasing
unpleasantness from his wife, Mark's patience broke and he said,
'Oh, to hell with it.' Agatha moved in with him, bringing two
suitcases and a doll with a porcelain face. She had won this at a
fairground when she was ten. Since then, she and the doll had been
inseparable.
     Shortly after moving in, Agatha met Mark's children for the first
time. When Jason and Jennifer talked about their mother, as was
inevitable, Agatha showed no emotion.
     'God! you coped with that marvellously,' Mark observed at last,
after they had dropped the children home to Sam. It wasn't until
104

they were in bed together that Agatha expressed, through her
passion, everything she had been waiting to say all day.
     Agatha was again the perfect partner when she met Mark's
friends; when she met his family; even when Sam came upon the
two of them by chance in a restaurant.
     As the outraged and clearly drunk wife weaved towards them,
Agatha steeled herself. As Sam screeched into her face, 'You whore,
you husband-stealer, you cunt-brained slut ... ' Agatha remained
poised in her chair.
     When the wine hit her face, all Agatha thought was that it was
warmer than she had expected. She felt it run down her bare neck
and onto her breasts under her blouse. She saw a restaurant full of
people looking on with that painful English mixture of disgust,
fascination and disdain.
     She picked up the white starched table napkin and began to
wipe herself. She heard weeping. She looked and saw it was Sam.
The screaming harridan was now wet-eyed and puffy cheeked,
deflated, ashamed, humiliated.
     Two waiters began to lead Sam away. She was shouting
incoherently. Sam stumbled at the door and was gone.
     Agatha dabbed at her neck. Everyone was eating again.
Conversation had resumed. She had outfaced the enemy with her
silence, and she had won.
     'You were brilliant,' said Mark. She squeezed his hand in reply.
In bed, later, she asked him to make love to her twice.
     Having flung the glass of wine into Agatha's face, Sam decided to
throw in the towel. This was either because she had made a fool of
herself, or because the action had drawn her anger. Agatha couldn't
gauge which, but whatever the cause, the change was like a turn on
a pinhead. Sam now agreed to a divorce. Sam now agreed the house
in Regent's Park could be sold and the money divided. Mark and
Agatha began to look for a place of their own to buy.
     One Saturday, Mark and Agatha drove to Tufnell Park. It was a
grey, muggy, June morning. Rain seemed about to fall but it never
came. On the radio there was a programme about separation. They
105

heard a Radio Four voice saying, 'Divorce invariably involves a drop
in living standards.' Without saying a word, Agatha reached for the
dial and retuned to Capital Gold.
     The flat they went to see was a conversion in a Victorian house.
It overlooked a railway line. There was only one bedroom.
     'Divorce always means a drop in living standards,' whispered
Mark, as they stood in the tiny kitchen. 'Where am I going to put
the kids when they come for the weekend?'
     'We'll sleep in the living room,' said Agatha, 'it'll be an
adventure.'
     She put her arm through his, and the next moment a train
whistled past outside. They stood listening as it rattled away down
the line.
     The train clinched it, and they decided to buy. Once it was
theirs, Agatha took charge of the interior decoration. She painted
the kitchen marigold yellow; the hallway Prussian blue; the
bedroom was apple green; and the tiny front room with the marble
fireplace, she painted a lovely off-white.
     They planned to marry when the divorce came through. Agatha
found a new job in an art gallery. The children came every other
weekend. They often talked about their mother but, when they
did, Agatha only smiled and said the nicest things.
     'You handle them so skillfully,“ Mark would often praise her on
Sunday evenings. Agatha's only reply would be to squeeze her arms
around his back until he called out, —Steady on.“
     Then Mark's work took him abroad for a week.
     At one o“clock in the middle of the
second night he was away, the telephone rang.
     'Who's that?“ asked Agatha sleepily.
     'I'm Val.' Her voice was a husky parody of a seductress.
     'Who?“
     'Tell Mark that Val loved lunch, and is available for him any time,
any where, any place.'
     The dialling tone sounded. Agatha was awake now. She rattled
the bar pointlessly as characters did in films. Who the hell was Val?
106

     'But I don“t know any Vals,' said Mark, when he got back.
'Let's hope she rings tonight.'
     She did. Agatha answered and motioned Mark to pick up the
receiver in the hall.
     'Hi. Val speaking. Is Mark there?“
     'I'm so pleased you called,' said Agatha, —please keep talking.
The police are recording everything you say.
     Val slammed the phone down, and then rang back immediately.
     'You“re a big fat hooker,' she shouted, and hung up.
     Mark and Agatha held each other and laughed until their sides
ached, and tears ran down their cheeks. Agatha felt reassured.
     In the following weeks and months, however, Val's calls
continued.
     When Agatha answered, she left messages of thanks for meals,
gifts - usually lingerie - and outings. When Mark answered, Val
plied him with questions. 'Do you want me in red stockings or
black?' 'On top tonight or underneath, cherie?'
     They christened Val 'Telephone Sex', and Mark regaled their
friends with stories about her calls. He did a very good parody
which started, 'Do you want me on the kingsize tonight or in the
back of the Cortina?“ Agatha always laughed along, but without
much enthusiasm.
     Mark was almost certain that it was a friend of Sam's - naturally
Val wasn't her name - whose husband had left her for another,
younger woman. She was acting alone, he believed. Agatha
disagreed. Surely the woman had Sam“s blessing. She kept this to
herself. Only a few months to the day they planned to marry, and
then Agatha could rest, certain she had beaten her old inner
adversary, the green-eyed serpent.
     It was November, the month Mark and Agatha had met.
     The telephone rang.
     'This is Val.'
     'Yes,' said Agatha, 'I know who you are. He's not in.'
     This was what Agatha always said now.
     'I want to leave him a message.'
107

     Instead of her usual tone of phoney sexuality, Val was curt and
businesslike.
      'Cosmetics hall, Harrod's, one o'clock. And fingers crossed it's as
good as the last meeting.'
     The line went dead, and Agatha felt a tug at the back of her solar
plexus.
'Was that "Telephone Sex?"' asked Mark, strolling into the kitchen.
     'No, wrong number.'
     In bed, that night, when Mark reached over, Agatha said she
didn't want to. Later, while he slept, she stared at the ceiling and
the band of light cast across it by the street lamp outside.
     The tug was now a stab in her middle. It was jealousy.
     In the morning, Agatha promised herself she wouldn't, but she
couldn't stop herself coming out with it.
     'You've seen your wife, haven't you, and you haven't told me!'
     She saw his face redden slightly, and his Adam“s apple bobbing
as he looked up from his Sunday newspaper.
     After a pause he finally said, 'Yes, I did, but her solicitor was
present. We're tying up loose ends and trying to be civilised about it.'
     There followed a long account of an innocent meeting in a pub,
one lunchtime.
     'You“re seeing her next week, aren't you?'
     'No.'
     'Don't lie to me. You“re meeting in Harrod's, in the bloody
cosmetics hall, where you bloody met me. "Telephone Sex" rang to
tell me.'
     He blinked. Agatha knew she was right.
     'We“re buying the children“s Christmas presents,“ he said. 'It was
the only idea that came into my head as a place to meet.'
     Agatha threw plates. She threw a chair. She emptied her make-
up bag and stamped on it, scattering powder, smashing phials of
perfume, flattening her lipstick and squeezing the red out.
     Mark had never seen her like this before. 'You've always been so
reasonable about Sam,' he pleaded. He was disturbed.
108

     'I hate you,“ shouted Agatha, hurling her shoes after him as Mark
retreated down the stairs.
     The front door slammed and there was silence.
     Tears rolled down Agatha“s cheeks. This was a moment very like
another, years before, when her marriage had started to fall apart.
     She sat in the kitchen and stared through her tears at the red
lipstick on the cork tiled floor. It looked as if it had seeped from the
flattened cartridge. Why did this happen at the very moment when
she'd almost won through?
     As darkness fell, Agatha remained seated, not even bothering to
get up and turn on the light.

WESLEY



THE TAXI DRIVER WHIZZES THROUGH BELFAST. It is
early morning. We talk, the driver and I, of cars and babies and the
new car I bought - this was years ago - and how I was never able to
get the smell of the baby's sick off the back seat.
     'I know where you're coming from,“ he says.
     He has a pleasant face and wears a chunky identity bracelet.
     'A couple of years back now ...
     ' I feel a confidence looming.
      'Pre-ceasefire?'
     'Yep. Pick up two suits on the street - we“re not meant to but
they look okay; one goes in the back, other in the front; he says,
"Town centre".
     'Off we go. Then the one in the back, he says, "Driver, look
between the front seats!" I think, new car - she was new then - and
the eejit“s been sick. So I look down and I can't believe it.“
     'What?'
     'It's a gun. "Republican Army," he says. Then the one in the
front, he flaps the visor down and takes my license from behind.
I keep it there; you know, handy for checkpoints.
     'He opens it and he says, "Hello, Wesley." A bit like Cilla Black
on Blind Date. And I think, oh God! Why am I called Wesley?
110

Couldn't I be John or Tom? But it's Wesley and that's like having
'Prod' tattooed right across my forehead.'
     '"This your home address,Wesley?' he says.
     'But I can't speak, the words literally won't come out. '"Just nod," he says.
     'Thank God, at least he“s a pro, I think, and he isn't shitting himself
because it“s his first time out. I“m not going to get killed by accident.
     'I nod and they tell me where to go. It“s in west Belfast, of course.
I drive there very slowly, and all the time I keep praying, please,
don't let us be stopped at a checkpoint, because I know for sure I'll
be killed in the crossfire if we are. And God hears me. There are no
checkpoints, not one. And then we arrive, I hand over the keys, and
we go into a house.
     'There are two others there and oh my heart sinks when I see
this: They're in balaclavas. Armed too. "This is Wesley," says one
of the suits. Oh Wesley, that name.
     '"Go and stand over there," says the other suit. "Look at the
wallpaper. These two will look after you."
     '"Of course, anything you say.– I'm over to that wallpaper
quicker than Roger Bannister ran the mile.
     'The suits leave and the old cogs start turning. The guards are
going to shoot me. That's the plan. It'll be on the news, Wesley X, well
known Loyalist, executed by ASU, blah, blah. I start to sweat. I want
to pee. I think I“m going mad. I“m a cert for Purdysburn - I know it.
     'Then I say, whoa, Wesley! Hold on. You've got to stop this.
     'So I look at that wallpaper. It“s beige with red pictures - woman
on a swing, sedan chair and a guy on a horse - and I look at that
wallpaper like it“s a woman, or I put it up myself.
     'Then I hear the door opening. The suits are back.
     '"Listen carefully, Wesley,– one says. Your car's outside, the key's
in the ignition. You count a hundred first and then you can leave.
But don“t go to the cops, Wesley. We know where you live, Wesley,
and you don't want a home visit, do you, Wesley?"
     'They go. The door closes. I count. I get to a hundred. Then I
think, my hundred might only be their ten. I do two hundred. I do
111

five hundred. I do a thousand.
     'Then I say goodbye to that wallpaper and I get out of the house.
And you know what?'
     'What?' I say.
'My fucking car isn't there. Now the fear kicks back in. It's dark
by now, it's west Belfast and I'm a Wesley.
     'I start to run and I don't stop until I hit the top of the Grosvenor
Road, and I see police Land Rovers driving towards me. I start to
wave but they don“t see me. But some guys on the street, they see
me waving to the cops. Oh no, I think, that's it. They think I'm
some sort of tout. I'm in for a kicking.
     'So I have no choice. I just run right out in front of the first Land
Rover and it screeches to a stop two feet from me.
     'One of the policeman gets out and I explain what's happened
and that“s it. He takes me to the police station. I hadn't smoked
for ten years but I had eight fags then, in a row.'
     'What about your car?' I ask.
     'It was up in Poleglass.'
     'How did it get there?“
'It's a mystery. Someone stole it while I was counting, or the
Provos never left it outside. I don't know.'
     'Had it been used?'
     'Oh yes, they had someone in the boot, drove him quite a few
miles. That“s what the cops told me.'
     The driver looked around his car interior and then jiggled the
pine freshener dangling from the mirror.
     'She“s a nice runner, this motor, does forty to the gallon, but you
know I never open that boot, but I get this really strong smell. I've
sprayed it, I've washed the carpet, I've even hung up one of these
pine fresheners in the boot - but nothing shifts it.'
     The driver stared through his windscreen and swallowed.
     'You talked earlier,' he said, 'about the smell of the milk a child
has thrown up and how you couldn't get it out of your car. Well, in
that boot my friend, which nothing will ever shift, I have the smell
of human fear.'