The Web (Chapter 5)
An interlude of normality if basket cases writers can ever be said to experience that.
Malcolm truly did not like this kind of thing. Everything was too well organised, too rigidly controlled. It wasn’t that he didn’t like being where he was, had he been on holiday he could have tolerated any amount of enforced bonhomie, but work was different. He disliked being nice to people he wouldn’t normally spit on in a fire because someone else thought that he should be.
Looking at the schedule it was obvious that word had gotten back to Cyril that it was not good for Malcolm to be alone or maybe Cyril just wanted to get his money’s worth.
Malcolm dressed casually. This was a writers’ guild audience and they expected the young professorial look, the tweed jacket, open necked shirt, and slightly unkempt hair. The hair they would get whether they wanted it or not. He badly needed a hair-cut. He pushed his wallet in to his trouser pocket, threatened the thick fast greying hair with a comb, gave in to its wilfulness and left the hotel.
He had surprised himself, and the audience had surprised him a little too. Perhaps Roman writers didn’t take themselves so seriously. You got an audience of wannabes like these anywhere else in the world and they would talk with embarrassing earnestness about what you were trying to achieve with this character or that literary device and ask had he really experienced the angst that such and such a character showed. If he was in the mood he would sometimes go along with them but generally he just kept it straight. Only very occasionally had he told them to stop talking through their arses.
He had spotted her earlier in the evening. She wasn’t really a part of the set, was too glamorous to be one of the Proust and white wine brigade. He watched her watching him and smiling to himself he made his way over to her.
“Good evening,” she said. She was an American and close to, a very beautiful one.
“Good evening. Can I get you a drink?”
“No thanks, I’m fine. You were interesting.”
“I’m glad to hear it. And what is your particular subject Miss? Mrs?”
“My name is Laura. My subject is sex.”
“Joan Collins style?”
“That’s rather a contradiction in terms, isn’t? Joan Collins and style?”
“You could have a point.”
“You are very handsome did you know that?”
He smiled a little. It was entirely possible that she had had too much to drink or maybe she just had taste.
He wasn’t sure if he’d meant it to end like this or not. She clearly had, was undressed almost as soon as they got in to the life to come up to his room but his own motives for bringing her back here were a little less certain. Perhaps he was testing to see if he could still manage it. There had been no one since Jenny and Jenny always took the initiative always made things happen.
She sat up and looked at him. “You’re going to hate me for this Normally I would rather die than fuck and run but I… Oh, hell. My husband is due here and I do not want to give his bitch of a kid a stick to beat me with.”
Her candour, her language embarrassed him and in turn his embarrassment made him feel more foolish. This was a grown-up woman and he was supposed to be a grown-up man.
“Please,” she said, “don’t lie there looking like I should leave the money on the side.” She bent and kissed his face. “It was great, I mean that. What you said by way of warning, well, I admit I was ready for a disappointment, but I didn’t get one.”
“We aim to please.”
“God, you are pissed off with me, aren’t you? Look, John, things are really heavy for me at the moment, my life is screwed up beyond bearing. I have family problems that you would not wish on your worst enemy. If you think I have used you then O.K. yes, I have. I needed something nice and happy and wonderful in my life, and you just gave me that.”
“Like I said, we aim to please.” He reached up and touched her face. “And I am not pissed off with you.”
“No. I’m not that much of a male chauvinist, but I would like to see you again.”
“Hmm … That’s a little bit difficult with Daniel being here. While it was just me with the step kid from hell it would have been easier.” She sat of the side of the bed, her naked back a smooth area of creamy whiteness that he couldn’t resist touching.
“I’m only here for three days,” he said.
“Berlin, I think.”
“Any chance you’ll be in Paris?”
“I think that’s after Madrid.” He stroked her back until she eventually turned and folded in to his arms again.
“You’ll get me shot,” she said.
It was seven o’clock and the ‘phone rang. Malcolm woke with the second ring and was surprised by how well he felt, how little he remembered of his night’s sleep.
He lifted the phone, made himself more comfortable and said; “Room two eleven.”
“Hello, room two eleven.”
A silly grin spread across his face as he thought she sounded like Lauren Bacall, “Laura,” he said.
“Look, you can tell me to go and get lost but Daniel called last night, he’s not going to get here for a couple of days and I just put la principessa on a plane for Palermo, would you think me a terrible person if I said that I would like to come and see you, right now.”
“I wouldn’t think you were terrible, a little over optimistic perhaps.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have thought so. Would you like me to come see you?“
“Very much so.”
“Give me half an hour.“
He smiled and wondered just what had made his luck change.
She was true to her word. Just thirty-five minutes after he put the phone down, scarcely time to wash, and brush his teeth, she was there.
He smiled as he let her in and when she took off her designer label rain coat to reveal that she was wearing nothing but a black lacy slip, his smile became a grin.
“Am I the most terrible woman you ever met?”
“Shame. I wanted to be.”
“The title’s open.”
She sat eating toast and drinking coffee, while he lay next to her trying not think that maybe she might have a different motive for being here, something other than the fact she fancied him.
“I couldn’t believe it when I put that little bitch on the plane.” She laughed. “Love can really screw you up when you’re that age.”
“Sixteen. Sweet sixteen and never been…well hardly ever.”
“Are you unhappy with your husband?”
She turned to look at him pushing her long auburn hair from her face. “You think that’s the only reason you should cheat on someone? I mean is that what you would approve of? I’m unhappy so I cheat. It couldn’t be perhaps that I just find you attractive?”
“I hope you do.”
“Oh, I do. And to answer your question, no, I am not unhappy with Daniel. He and I have a very good relationship. I hate his kid but that’s by the by.”
“Why do I hate the little bitch? I think it has to be that I don’t like clever kids with attitude, particularly I don’t like beautiful clever kids with attitude.” She sighed. “Oh, it’s all too complicated to try and explain. Let’s just say that she and I don’t get along.”
“Is your husband older than you?”
“Yes. He’s fifty, I’m thirty-two – I know you didn’t ask but I thought I would tell you — but that really doesn’t matter. No more than his morbid attachment to his dead wife matters. I never stepped in to the family expecting to take over as wife or mother. I never saw myself as a replacement for either. My relationship is with Daniel, if the kid doesn’t like it then I should be able to say; do the other one, sweetie and I would if I thought for one moment that Daniel would back me, but I know he won’t, he can’t, the kid means too much to him. And, sadly I don’t. Oh, listen to me. Where do I get off bitching to you like this, it isn’t your problem? Are you married?”
She snuggled down next to him. “Ever wanted to be?”
“I didn’t think I ever would. I mean when I was what around twenty and I looked at my life, the way you do when you’re that age, I never saw being married as something that life might have in store for me. I had a career in mind. I was going to be an actress I knew that, but, well, it didn’t happen. I slogged through college, got a moderately good degree in business and went into a nine to five in PR. Then I met Daniel at a New Year’s party two years ago. We hit it off straight away, got on really well, then I met the kid, la principessa, daddy’s little princess and I wouldn’t mind if the little bitch didn’t have it all. Brains, money and looks. Someone once said to me; to see that child was to fall in love. Daniel fell. The day Mattie died. I may not have been looking to be a substitute for his wife but…” She started to cry, and Malcolm held her close.
He wanted to say something reassuring but all that would come in to his head were mundane platitudes like, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think and I’m sure Daniel really loves you, so he just held her while she wept and when she was done with weeping, they made love.
She said; “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. You must think I’m a pretty strange lady.”
“A bit.” He was dressing, getting ready to go to the lunch Cyril Livingstone had arranged for him, to wow some more wannabes with his wit and humour and bon mots, he was very good at it.
“I don’t normally do this sort of thing but…”
“I was irresistible.”
“Well, yes I suppose you are.”
He turned to look at her. “Don’t give me that.”
“You don’t think so?”
“No. Oh, there are always ladies, usually they have dyed hair and sometimes they’re of a certain age or they’re widowed or divorced, literary groupies but you’re not one of them.”
“So why? And don’t bull shit me with irresistible …”
“Your word,” she said and started to get up.
“Do I have to have a reason other than I find you attractive?”
He pulled on a tweed jacket and shrugged. “S’pose not.”
“So, what are you doing this evening?”
“Another worthy gathering, another dreary cocktail party,” he made an exaggerated yawn.
She laced her arms around his neck. “Will it be very tedious?”
“Dull as ditch water.”
“You might meet a pretty lady, who might go to bed with you and then she might tell you that she fell in love with your silly face when she saw it on the back of a book on an airport book stand.”
“No,” he said and holding the sides of her face, kissed her forehead. “That only happens in fiction, this is real life and I am going to be late if I don’t go now.”
“Where is your worthy gathering?”
“I’d like to come.” She looked at him her green eyes very serious. “Life sometimes imitates art, John.”
She took him to the airport. He knew that she was meeting her husband and that she worried that not to offer to take him might seem churlish, but he still enjoyed her company for as long as he could. He wanted to ask a lot of silly questions, teenage stuff that would have embarrassed them both, so he said instead; “Will I see you again?”
“Paris probably.” She looked at the flight information for her husband’s flight. “Unless Daniel is very upset about the kid going off and decides to follow.”
“Is that likely?”
She looked at him. “With Daniel, very likely. I told you,” she said. “They’re in love with each other… or if I didn’t exactly say that you must have understood that that was what I meant.”
“How would we get in touch?”
“I’ll come along to one of your evening talks.”
“All right.” He smiled. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Will you, John?” Her voice was small and desperate. “Will you really?”
“Don’t be silly, of course I will.”
Her husband’s flight was announced, and Malcolm saw the change in her. She became nervous, flustered uncertain as to where to go.
“Want me to make myself scarce?” he asked.
“No. You can meet him if you want.”
Malcolm wasn’t at all sure that was what he wanted but it was clear that she would prefer it if he stayed so he waited.
Daniel Highlander was a tall, elegantly clad individual with thick grey hair and a neat moustache and beard. His manner, as he walked towards his wife and her companion, was confident and more than a little chilly.
Laura stepped forward for a kiss. He touched her cheek briefly and said immediately, “Why the hell did you let her go alone?”
Laura stood back her eyes angry. “Well, hi sweetheart have you missed me? I’ve missed you…”
“Laura, I asked you a question.”
“How could I stop her? That child pays no attention to me what so ever.”
“Then you should have gone to Palermo too.”
“You know I dislike that man.”
“Laura, I don’t care whether you like him or not.”
Malcolm felt embarrassed, wanted to leave them to it. Eventually he summoned up the courage to say; “I think that was my flight, I’d better make a move. Thanks for the lift.”
Laura turned to him. “Oh, John, I’m so sorry.” She drew her husband forward “Darling this is John Malcolm, you remember I have some of his books. We met at a reception…”
Malcolm stuck out his hand which was touched rather than shaken by Highlander who muttered. “How do you do?”
“I’m fine. Well I’d better go. It has been a pleasure to meet a true fan,” He kissed Laura’s hand briefly. “And thanks for the lift once again.”
He nodded at Highlander who nodded back, and he left them there still arguing about her dereliction of duty and his excessive concern about the child. It was not, he was pleased to think, his business.