Trying to boil water in a small, long-handled pot. The flame was tiny, sputtering. There was hardly any gas left in the canister. The water had to be boiled, and boiled well. It was orange, the colour of old iron. He tried to tell himself it was nothing bad. There is nothing harmful about iron. It is supposed to be good for the blood. Maybe it would make a man of him. But he was careful. You never knew. Germs. It is never wise to give them a head start.
The flame wheezed. He would have to risk it. He added a teaspoon of coffee and stirred vigorously. Perhaps friction would speed things along.
Someone was at the door.
He wiped the spoon on his vest.
A woman was standing out in the passageway. She looked vaguely familiar. The expression she wore was tearful, apologetic. A suitcase was at her side. He became aware of his heart beating as vague familiarity welled up into something else.
‘You can’t be fucking serious,’ he said.
‘Bastard,’ she said. She leaned to pick up the case, but he got there before her, a real gentleman.
He squared the sheet on the bed. He made it last longer than necessary, tucking the corners in just so. He could feel her standing behind him, next to the sink, taking in the state of the place.
The canister gave a final pop. The flame died.
‘I’d make you a coffee,’ he said. ‘But, eh...’
‘No, fine,’ she said. ‘I’m not...can I sit down?’ She wasn’t asking for permission. There were no chairs in the room. There was nothing in the room apart from the bed and the wardrobe. The toilet was on the other side of a threadbare curtain. All mod cons. He reached out onto the balcony for the stool, which was filthy, the result of prolonged rain followed by a heat wave. She lowered herself onto the edge of the mattress.
He wasn’t good at small talk. He wasn’t good at confrontations, either. This one was of his own making. Not just his. They’d concocted this situation between them. It had been a long time coming. He sat on the stool, his knees up around his chin. It was ridiculous. He tried to read her eyes, but she wouldn’t look at him. The grate over the drain in the middle of the floor had her transfixed.
‘Look at me,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ he said.
‘Are you still writing?’ she said. She wanted to get down to it. Of course she did. ‘I haven’t read about myself for a while.’
‘No, I gave it up,’ he said. ‘It was causing too many problems.’
‘Yes, tell me about it,’ she said.
He hadn’t meant it like that. It was true, though. That was the problem.
‘So I’m no longer your Muse?’ she said. ‘No, hang on, how does it go? That’s right, I’m the oxygen that breathes life into your words.’
‘Sarcasm was never your strong point,’ he said. ‘How are your kids?’ He was relieved to note she hadn’t brought them with her.
‘They’re at my mum’s,’ she said. She looked at the drain. A cockroach scurried out of the grate and stopped, its antennae gyrating, next to her left shoe. It about-turned and scurried back again. ‘Thanks for asking.’
‘So, what happened?’ he said.
She splayed her fingers in her lap. Some of her nails were broken. The skin around all of them was chewed. She looked at him. She looked at him for a long time. Her eyes were dull, like neglected emeralds. ‘He found out,’ she said.
He knew all about jealous spouses. Well, one. He didn’t blame his wife for reacting the way she had. So much deceit, all those years of trust being cunningly, methodically, mathematically chipped away. Secrets cease to be secret, sooner or later. You have to deal with the consequences. Not that he had wanted to leave. He had been thrown out, quite literally. His wife’s cousins were large fellows impervious to his whining. And here he was languishing in this dump, skint, but at least he was safe. ‘How did you know where to find me?’ he said.
‘You emailed me months ago,’ she said. ‘When you moved in here. Then you disappeared. Have you given up the Internet as well?’
He’d been offline for a while. Had it been months? The laptop was out of sight, under the bed, probably covered in dust and worse. He used to get a signal through the wall, but they had wised up to it and put a lock on. He couldn’t afford an hour down the cafe, never mind his own connection.
‘Strange, that,’ she said. ‘Giving me your address. Very old-fashioned.’
‘I wanted you to send me flowers to brighten the place up,’ he said, lamely. There was only one reason for telling her where he lived. He was sitting looking at it. ‘How did he...I mean, what did he...’
‘He didn’t speak to me. He went out and came home drunk. He started shouting, breaking things. I dressed the kids and took them to my mum’s. I haven’t been back to the house since. He’s okay, though, if a bit hysterical, judging by the texts he’s been...’
‘So you decided to jump on a plane and come to me?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Mad, eh?’
He looked at the drain. ‘I can’t help feeling responsible,’ he said.
‘You don’t say!’
‘Let’s not argue,’ he said. ‘I haven’t got the energy, believe me.’
‘I can see that,’ she said. ‘You look like shit.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. He couldn’t help himself. ‘So do you.’
She started crying, quietly.
He scratched the side of his face. ‘I haven’t eaten since Tuesday,’ he said.
Her fingers, blunt claws, started opening and closing as if she were trying to grab something to stop it getting away. What it was, he had no idea. It certainly wasn’t her dignity. She’d lost the last vestiges of that when she knocked on his door. She clenched her fists tight. He heard something break. He could have been mistaken. ‘God, what am I doing?’ she said. ‘You are so selfish.’
‘I know,’ he said.
She took a tissue from her pocket. Her nose. That way she had. Still the same. Delicate, but effective. ‘Could we go for a walk?’ she said.
It was an idea.
‘I’ll need to get changed first,’ she said. She hoisted the suitcase onto the bed. The lid flapped open. A pair of jeans. A white blouse with red roses. It looked new, the way it was folded. He should have given her some privacy, but where could he go? He leaned against the wall and rubbed the stain on his vest. It was damp. It wasn’t the first time he’d watched her undress. He wished it was. He wanted to feel something, he really did, but there was nothing sexual in the white cotton and naked skin. It was almost unreal, he was standing outside himself, watching these two desperate characters playing a scene; an excerpt from the jaded routine of married life.
His mouth made a sound.
She turned to face him. A challenge. Look at me. Look at all of me. He tried not to stare. Her breasts hung heavy, overripe, a vertical crease of wrinkles between them. His heart. His hand moved to his chest. Whatever dream he’d written her into, whatever it was they had shared, its time had come and gone years ago.
A crack like a gunshot as she pushed an arm through the sleeve of her blouse. ‘You’re some piece of work,’ she said.
‘What is it you want from me, for Christ’s sake?’ he said.
‘Don’t you dare shout,’ she said. ‘I can tell by the look on your face. Think about all those things you wrote.’
‘They’re just stories,’ he said. ‘I told you that.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘You’re a liar.’
She was right. For him, the line between fiction and confession was so fine it didn’t exist. He was fooling no one, not even himself.
‘Okay, I’m a liar,’ he said. ‘My wife could tell you all about it. But I never lied to you. Not once. Call it misplaced loyalty. If it’s the truth you want, look around you. There’s mould on the ceiling and bugs crawling out the floor. That’s the truth. That’s my truth. You’re welcome to it.’
She sat on the bed and stared at the grate. The cockroach had taken cover. Perhaps all the noise had given it stage fright. ‘I want it to be like it was,’ she said. Her words were measured. Controlled. As if she’d practised them. ‘I want to feel wanted, not owned. I want you. Most of all...’ She was struggling. ‘I want you to leave me alone.’
‘I didn’t ask you to come here,’ he said.
She buried her face in her hands. She was crying again. This time she meant it. ‘Yes, you did!’ she said.
He remembered a tumbler in the cupboard over the sink. It was still there. He held it close to the tap, which spat orange liquid, as he knew it would. What happens when two things, two good things, are attracted? Sometimes they make something bad. Iron is good for the blood, and oxygen is good for everything else. But when you put them together all you get is rust.
Water came into the equation somewhere. Offering her a glass of it was more than he was capable of.
‘I’m sick of this place,’ he said. She was climbing into her jeans. He pulled the curtain closed and used the toilet. She was waiting for him when he came out. Her perfume. He followed her down the passageway, all the way to the lift. There was a place he knew. Coffee and rolls. He hoped she had money.
* * * * *
I read this story at the Waterstones Sauchiehall Street Truth or Lies event in June, 2017. It first appeared in Northwords Now in 2012.