Red and Black
Michael sat down in the middle of the road and began to cry. No, it wasn’t particularly dignified but that’s just how things ended up. Snotty-nosed and sniffing. When he’d gotten the call. When he’d absent-mindedly flicked his indicator on, pulled over, opened the door, stepped out into the humid afternoon and then promptly fallen to pieces. Not literally, of course. Just in every other sense. Crumpled. Crumbled. Crushed. Because of her. Margaret. Margaret who had stepped lightly into his life and made a disproportionate imprint on it. Margaret, Margaret, Margaret who was going to leave him. Margaret who had left. Margaret who didn’t love him. Margaret who was just terribly, terribly sorry.
I decided that the only solution was to seduce him. I say solution because there was a problem, you see. The problem was that I’d fancied Michael for quite some time now. By ‘fancied’, I mean something like felt strongly attracted to, was fixated by, was obsessed by, was ‘if-you-don’t-come- here-and-jump-my-bones-right-this-second’ by. You could say I was infatuated. Or just majorly bent on. The problem was that I was stuck on him, couldn’t get him out of my mind and it was oh-so- frustrating.
I’m not saying I was in love. It’s nothing like that. It didn’t have that degree of depth. I can’t tell you the thoughts that went through my mind at that moment but, in the blink of a neurone, a blue-print flashed before my eyes that ended with Michael and I twisting the sheets and started with me walking over to him, crying in the middle of the road. It was gut instinct.
The scene change is flawless, in my memory. In one moment, I was walking home from work; warm afternoon, slightly sticky, out of work on time and feeling generally good. The next moment, I was moving slowly and with determination to a sobbing profile in the middle of the street. Putting my hand on the curved shoulder. Saying, “hey, listen, we need to move off the road a bit, OK?” Gently lifting the sobbing wreck, not physically lifting but that compelling way of holding and drawing that makes the other person helpless as kitten in their mother’s jaws.
We sat down on the gutter. I was both keenly aware of the filthy concrete underneath me and of the object of my obsession next to me. He was staring at the road between his feet, his sobbing easing and, with a snort of the nose and a wipe of the eyes, turning to look at me through red-rimmed gems.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. And smiled.
To which he smiled back. And simultaneously began to laugh and cry. I laughed and reached out. Pulled him closer to me in an I’ve-got-you, pat-pat-pat on the back, feel-good hug. I felt him relax.
And the fly inadvertently entered my web.
It’s not like I was getting in the way of anything in particular. Anything real, in any event. Between Michael and Margaret. Margaret who was terribly, terribly sorry. Margaret who loved Sy. What place was there for Michael in the middle of that?
She found him at the Terminal Bar and Grill. He was sober, for a change. She didn’t know how she wanted to find him, sober or drunk, they were both so appealing in the moment. What to do, what to do? Option 1. To talk through those awful few minutes of making the call, of the how’re-you-I’m- good-how’re-you chit-chat before breaking the news. “Listen, there’s something I need to tell you. Something I want to say”. Or Option 2. To drown those new memories with a couple of shooters and a load of wine and to talk about anything else. Insert some strobe lights, a little disco music, some just-for-laughs moves on the dancefloor and, through the dull ache of a headache the next morning, the welcome numbness of something unpleasant being in the past. Panadol and coffee. A really good shower in a better hotel.
But sober it was. Option 1. So she told him about it. Of catching Michael on his way home from work to get ready for the dinner that he’d planned for them, Michael racing to make sure everything was Just So. Of her sitting through the chit-chat until it felt right for her to say what she wanted to say. And then doing it. Breaking the news.
Dropping the bomb.
Sy’s reaction was typical. Calm. Cool. Reassuring but … Not withdrawn, more like with her, but from a distance. Watching over her. Margaret spoke, he listened. He sipped his coffee and watched people reflected in the mirror next to them. She stirred her coffee and snapped the biscotti into ever smaller pieces. He nodded when she needed him to. She held his hand and it felt warm. His fingers were cold.
Oh, it sounds like he was miles away but he was there for her when she needed it. She knew there was a fire within him. She could see the embers’ glint reflected in the back of his eyes. The way that he was always so reserved with her, she knew that all it would take was one little breeze and those sparks would be whipping right up.
On Tuesday, she asked me the most peculiar question. Margaret, that is. She asked me whether I would ever go out with Michael. If he was single. If he was into me. If he wasn’t going out with her. She asked it, from the corner of her eye and the back of her throat. I’d told her the truth.
Then she asked if I really, truly would. I knew then what it was that she was thinking of. I knew, if not when, why or how, I knew what I could do.
All the same, I decided at that point. Women.
As we air-kissed goodbye and I told her I’d see her later, I concurred: so are men.
She may be young but she’s not stupid, Margaret. She did her share of stupid things, as do we all, but fundamentally she knew that there was something I wanted out of Michael and that if I saw an opportunity I would take it. She knew it because that’s what she was doing with Sy. The only difference was that I knew what I wanted out of Michael. Or of Michael. Or up against Michael. Margaret didn’t know what she wanted out of Sy. She just had a conviction that there was some mystery buried within him and it was hers to discover. After they’d seen each other a few times, showing up at the same parties, she’d heard the bing-bong of opportunity and hurried upstairs to put her make-up on. She’d set her sights on him. Or he on her. They seemed to find each other late in the night, when the party was over and people were leaving and the party was just beginning and the heavy drinking started. Sometimes he wouldn’t touch her and sometimes he’d just reach out and hold her hand. Still she didn’t have much of a clue about where he’d come from, what he did or who he was. It captivated her. She needed to know more. Maybe she was thankful not to have to focus on her own life for some reason.
We’d sat there on Tuesday and she’d painted the picture for me. In painstaking detail. How this was right. How she knew. How I could “take the chance to get to know Michael a bit better”. No, she was young but she sure wasn’t stupid. She was smart and she was cunning and sitting there, in that crappy cafe with the 70s decor, sitting just outside the grubby kitchen in the weird, old-oil stinking booth, it was plain to me that she was some kind of deluded romantic and she’d clocked me. On the spectrum between Smooth Operator and Shark, I was somewhere and she’d clocked me And she was using me so neatly in efforts to pick her way into Sy’s locked drawers that I couldn’t help but wonder where on the spectrum she was.
Margaret had this habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves. We were walking down Fleet Street on the way to City Thameslink train station. The day was overcast, drizzling and wet and the grey and black overcoats of other commuters whispered softly as they moved past us. I don’t know what they whispered but it would not have been unreasonable to think that they were whispering about what a pair of evil schemers we were. Every now and then, Margaret would hawk and spit onto the pavement. She was a good spitter, for what it’s worth, but it was still something that I had never seen any other person do. It didn’t help that I was already tense thinking about what she was proposing, but she’s an accountant for God’s sake. A female accountant that spits on the crowded rush-hour footpaths of central London. I wondered why Sy hadn’t snapped her up already.
“You let me know when you arrive, and I’ll make the call,” she was saying. “I already know what I’m going to say. I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot.” I wondered if she’d been thinking about it the night before, when we’d been out. Out with Michael and some of the others, having a bit of a bop about the dancefloor aided by some cocktails, some red wine, some shooters and a some thank-goodness-End-Of-Year-is-over relief flooding through our systems. It had been a massive year. The company had changed hands. There’d been a lot of uncertainty around what the new regime would look like. Too little time and too few resources. It was harder for the younger ones like Margaret. The rest of us had already had all hope of a social life long since extinguished.
Michael had been pretty drunk. We all had been. It was like something out of a tragic coming-of-age drama; him with his hands on her hips, close to her, trying to do some sexy little dance with her to the wrong kind of music. Sweat beading on his forehead, moisture beading on the side of her G&T,
strobe lights flashing. Me pressed up against the back of him, blaming it on the crush of bodies on but really knowing that I wasn’t above copping a cheap feel or three.
It had been a good night, but I suddenly doubted whether Margaret had enjoyed any of it. I was sure she had been thinking of Sy the whole time.
She glanced over at me. “Do you want to know what I’m going to tell him?” I replied that I honestly didn’t. She accepted this with a shrug. “What will you do?” she asked. I swiftly stepped around some uneven pavement and inadvertently shoulder barged a middle-aged lady bustling in the other direction. I heard the arrhythmic clip-clop-clip-clop of her heels as she fought to keep her balance. I didn’t look back.
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “I won’t know until I’m in the moment. Let’s not forget that he’s totally into you, barely knows me from a bar of soap and certainly doesn’t know that I… like him.”
“What do you think you’ll do?” she pressed.
“Maybe I’ll just… be there for him,” I shrugged. She spat.
The plane was two hours late. It was my turn to be at the Terminal Bar and Grill. With Michael. We were on our way to Amsterdam. Not for a weekend of live sex shows, weed and Amstel. It was the Finance team’s quarterly meeting, so more like PowerPoint presentations, pipeline projections and blah, blah, blah. On the way out of the office we’d seen that the plane had been delayed so, rather than heading straight to Gatwick, we decided that we’d have a little pre-departure pick-me-up.
I was having wine. Michael was having beer. It felt weird drinking alcohol at 3pm on a Wednesday but it felt nice being one-on-one with Michael. The bar was quiet. It was bright, but we’d managed to tuck our way into one of the darkest corners of the old joint. Maybe we were hiding from any colleagues that may have been passing by our little hiding place three doors down from the office. I kidded myself that maybe Michael just wanted some alone time with me. Half-kidded.
Not that he was saying much. So I led, made small-talk really, as we sat there. Our small suitcases side by side. Our knees touching underneath the table, ever so slightly. All of my nerve endings were focussed on that one touch so entirely.
“When were you last in Amsterdam?” I asked, after too much silence had passed.
He looked up. “Few years ago”. I looked at him expectantly, with my best ‘I’m riveted’ eyes. He took the bait and a swig of his drink. “We were there for a mate’s stag weekend. A whole group of us. It was the same weekend as the Queen’s Day festival so it was a huge street party.” He laughed a bit. “It was totally crazy. A million hot people getting pissed in the street. One of my mates had taken a bunch of mushroom and was having the absolute time of his life. I’ve never seen anyone having such a good time.”
I laughed, “come on now, you’re going to tell me that you didn’t indulge?” He grinned. His teeth were bright. “Oh, I had some. I just wasn’t having the time of my life. There were too many people
around, I got kind of spun out. I was twitchy and anxious and it took ages for me to chill out and relax.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Just ages?”
I held up his hands in a show of submission. “Ages. And a couple of spliffs.” We both laughed at that. I jostled his knee as I shifted in my seat. Accidentally, perhaps. He didn’t move his leg away.
Amsterdam. Where Brits go to let it all hang out. I wondered.
She started taking up a lot of bad habits. At work, coming in later. Her work became rushed, mistakes were made, filing deadlines missed. I know that there had been a few serious discussions. Outside of work, more time with Sy. More drinking. Other things. I’d been to enough parties with her and, quite frankly, been around the block enough times to know what she was up to.
I’d been there myself. So studious when I was younger, a proper goodie-two-shoes. Then I’d finished my studies, qualified, and the floodgates opened. Just a crack, at first. Cocktails at home with friends, the occasional cigarette, bars. Then the floodgates had been blown open in a surge of delayed gratification. Being drunk every night for weeks at a time, around town with friends or just around the house. Weed, pills, more. Clubs. It was amazing, at the time. Taking years and years of self-control and denial and turning them into an explosive period of growth and self-discovery. The greatest discovery, of course, being the cliff at the end of it all where, as you shoot over the edge, you finding yourself learning that there is something to be said for a bit of clean living. No drinking on a Monday night, no cocaine on a Tuesday, that sort of thing. And certainly maintaining a very wide berth between your private life and your professional one.
Margaret was on the wrong side of the cliff. She just didn’t know it. I knew it. I also knew that nothing anyone could say or do would change her course. It was up to the natural course of events now to take her barrel over the edge and into the waters below. She’d either bob away with the rest of her life or splinter into flotsam.
Margaret and I got along well; I think she understood that I’d been in her shoes before, so to speak. She just didn’t understand that there comes a time when stepping out of those shoes is necessary. The bill that she had forgotten to pay didn’t help. Such a small thing and easy enough to miss. But it had been missed, penalties had been incurred, angry letters exchanged and there’d been another serious discussion. This one had been led by the Group Finance Director. Led, to hear her tell it, by “that idiot from Corporate” who just had some inexplicable issue with her. Their discussion had resulted, so I learned, in a letter on her file. A strike 1. Her reaction was true to form. There was too much caffeine in her system and probably something else as well, trying to offset the head buzzy from weed and heavy from the hangover. She had reacted badly.
She’d phoned in sick, phoned up Sy and they’d gone on a bender together.
“It wasn’t so much that I was blind to the truth.” Margaret rolled over and looked at Sy. “It’s just that I was seeing the truth differently”. He turned his head and looked at her, his dark hair tousled in the
pillow. He brought his cigarette to his lips and drew deeply. The end glowed brightly in the blue shadows of the bedroom. Tendrils of mid-morning light caressed the wall behind his head. His stubble cut a line across his cheek. He exhaled gently. Thoughtfully. Her chest felt tight. Her pulse raced.
“Everything was about work,” she forged ahead. “Everything was about getting a job with the Big 4. Qualifying. Getting on the ladder. But I see things differently now. Thanks to that idiot from Corporate. Thanks to you. Life’s too short to waste. I must work, what, fifty-something hours every week? For what? I’m underpaid and get nothing in the way of benefits. For what? I want to be a real person. Like you.”
He drew in again. “So why don’t you?” he exhaled in a cloud.
“Maybe I will”. She rolled over and onto one elbow, so she was right up against him, one hand on his lightly furred chest, his heartbeat beating gently beneath her fingertips. She sought out his steely grey eyes. They returned her gaze impassively. No, not impassive. Just calmly. So in control. She felt a flush of some emotion. Possessiveness, jealousy, need and want. There isn’t just one word for it. When someone has everything and is everything that you want. When you feel like you’re drowning while they’re walking on water. Maybe on some level Margaret knew that she was drowning, but she certainly had the vision that Sy would scoop her away to distant shores.
He was showing her a different side to life. There’d been Michelin-star meals, expensive wines. clubs that most people didn’t know existed. Afterwards, they’d stayed in some gorgeous hotels. He never let her pay. He let her order whatever she wanted. He sure as hell was attentive enough in bed. He cared. “I will. And I want to do it with you”. He continued to meet her gaze. She forged ahead.
“I know we’ve only been seeing each other for a little while. Been together. But I think I love you.” She laughed nervously to lighten the incredible seriousness of the words. “I think I’m in love with you. Isn’t that crazy?”
He took another drag on his cigarette, his eyes suddenly searching, suddenly intense. He inhaled, smoke billowing from his nostrils. She had a mental image of a dragon. She suddenly felt embarrassed, silly and young. She rolled out of the bed and headed into the bathroom.
He reached out and picked up the newspaper from the floor next to the bed.
When she emerged from the shower, slightly sweaty and wrapped in a towel, he was reading the newspaper. A tumbler of bourbon clinked gently in his hand. She could smell its sweetness.
That thing he did with the newspaper upset her off slightly. He’d take each of the inserts, flick through them in turn, read bits and pieces and then toss them to one side. Onto her side. She gathered them all up (did anyone actually read these?) and, with slightly more force than necessary, threw them on the floor. With slightly more force than necessary, she dropped onto the bed and turned to look at him. It wasn’t just the newspaper. It wasn’t the newspaper at all, really. It was that she’d opened herself up to him, really opened herself up. She’d told him how she felt. And he still hadn’t said anything to her. She knew, well enough, she’d read that much into him. But she wanted
to hear it. Hear something. Anything. There’d been enough guys in the past, immature little boys who didn’t know who they were and didn’t know what they wanted. She’d found this man and this time, this time it was different.
He looked up at her. “Well?” she demanded. He passed her the tumbler.
She took a sip.
“If you don’t take chances,” said the face above the striped pyjamas, “you might as well not be alive.”
I was talking to myself, framed by the mirror in my hotel room, standing in front of a pair of wine glasses and a tiny wine bottle somehow priced at €12. It had been a big night. The presentations had crawled by and I had entertained myself by feigning interest, clearing down emails on my phone and soldiering my way through the bowl of mints on the table. Afterwards, there had been the usual drinks reception held in some museum by the canals. There had been a lot of polite chit-chit over “red or white? Red or white?” Then there had been some increasingly frank chit chat over drinks, as many of my colleagues drifted back to their hotels and the more committed few stuck it out. Then there had been a goodly number more home truths over whisky with the hard-core few. Not aiming to solve the problems of the world. Just aiming to tell it like it was.
Six of us. Then five. Then four. Then it was Michael and I in our taxi, heading back to the hotel. Michael looked tired. We were both drunk. I squinted at my watch. 3:10am. Jesus. We needed to be back at work in, what, 5 hours?
“We,” I said, “are in so much trouble tomorrow.” He looked over at me blearily. Seized by a moment of bravery I reached out, grabbed his hand in mine and gripped it emphatically. “I know we’re going to get through this together!” I raised our two hands together. “Death to PowerPoint!” I cheered. He gave a wonky smile and I let our hands thump back to the back seat of the taxi. A few moments later I let go of his hand.
Then I was back in my room, in my pyjamas, looking at myself in the mirror and geeing myself up. Sufficiently geed, or insufficiently geed if I’m being perfectly honest, I was away. Two wine glasses and one small bottle of red in hand.
The door closed behind me with a firm thump and the only way forward was down the carpeted, lamp-lit hallway to room 412. I tapped gently on the door. There was no response. I tapped again (rapped, really) before the door swung open.
It’s amazing what your brain can absorb in such a short period of time. Even with my booze-addled wits, one second was enough to register everything. A very drunk Michael, lips and cheeks red from wine, hair ruffled. White t-shirt and blue plaid boxers. Surprisingly hairy legs. A confused expression.
I tried for my most charming smile. “Look at the size of these bottles. This calls for a nightcap.”
He shook his head, a bit dazed, a bit confused. I took it as an invitation and stepped quickly around him and into his room. His lamp-lit room had all the hallmarks of a business traveller after a night on the tiles; suitcase open, shoes, socks, shirt, trousers and tie thrown to all four corners of the room. It smelled deliciously musky.
“Are you serious?” he asked thickly as I set down the two glasses, cracked the seal on the wine and began pouring.
“Yes,” I replied in my most serious voice, “I am.”
I handed him a glass, clinked with a quick cheers, and sipped at my drink. Watched him drink like a drunk. Sipped my drink again. Let me be clear, I wasn’t in much of a fit state myself. You know that kind of drunk where you can focus on what’s right in front of you but everything else starts to spin? That early precursor to a morning of some serious nausea? I was right up there. However I was probably more cogent than Michael, who drained his glass in one swallow.
I laughed with a huff. “That was fast!” I hesitated. “Listen, you look bushed. I don’t know what I was thinking. Sorry. I’ll leave you too it. Have a good night. See you at breakfast, maybe.” I took his glass back from him and, along with the empty bottle, turned towards the door. I paused and turned back.
“Crap,” I said.
“What?” he asked, shuffling from one foot to the other. He looked shorter without shoes on. His legs were so hairy. The lamplight backlit them and turned them golden. God, those legs.
“I forgot my room key.” He looked perplexed. “How am I going to get back into my room?” He looked perplexed. “Maybe there’s someone on – no, there wasn’t anyone on reception.” He looked perplexed. I looked him directly in the eye. “I’m so sorry – can I crash here?” His eyes flicked towards the bed and back to me. I looked down, away. “I’m so sorry; do you mind?”
“S’pose not,” he muttered. He turned and shuffled the few steps to the side of the bed (‘his side’) before lifting up the duvet and sliding in with a soft groan. He reached back and threw a couple of the smaller pillows onto the floor next to him.
I walked around to the other side of the bed (‘my side’) and did the same. The sheets were cold. My heart was thumping so hard I thought I was going to be sick. I twitched with adrenaline and was suddenly drunk and stone-cold sober.
He flung out an arm and turned off the light.
“We could make a living out of doing this sort of thing,” said Margaret. I supposed that you could, but I had never thought about it until then. She sipped. “Only, you know, classier,” she added.
We were drinking coffee a few blocks from work. Well, my work. Margaret no longer worked there thanks to ‘that idiot from Corporate’, though being truly impartial the fault wasn’t entirely his. She’d sailed into the office after a three-day bender, sorry, bout of “food poisoning”, had over-reacted in her return-to-work interview and attempted to pin her recent performance issues on anyone and
everyone she could think of. She’d left with three months’ pay in lieu, which was an unexpected
reward for doing the wrong thing. It had been an eventful couple of weeks.
She hadn’t seen Sy in all of that time. The invites had dried up abruptly. When she’d tried to call him there was no response. Texts and emails; nothing. It was pretty clear to me what had happened but I think she was still holding a hopeful candle that “he just needs some time to himself right now.” In my view, it hadn’t done her any harm. With no stress at work and no partying, she was looking good.
I said so. Margaret said that with the cash and the free time, she’d taken up dancing. Modern Jazz. I wasn’t sure what that was but it looked good on her. Not good enough that I was considering going into any Black Widow gold-digging sting with her. A bracelet glinted on her arm as she sipped at her coffee.
“Is that new?” I asked.
“This?” she asked, shaking her wrist gently, watching the small gems as they caught the light. “I found it at Sy’s place. I guess he just didn’t get around to giving it to me yet. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Margaret launched into an anecdote about her dance instructor. He was from Chile. Apparently he’d really seen some things under Pinochet and she just knew that there was a story to be told there.
As for Michael… Well, I’m not one to kiss and tell.
by Lindsay Gallard from the United Kingdom