Night Angels Ch. 4bymoonfire©
The moment she walked into the restaurant, I knew it was her.
I should have known who it would be, anyway. And, I must confess, I’d been pretty certain. But seeing her made things different.
I looked at the slender figure poised in the doorway, silhouetted against the rain-wet street outside, and I thought to myself: dearest God. This is where it all gets real.
* * *
I had been back in town for a couple of days when she called me. It had been a strange time.
I spent most of it resting. Or recovering. Call it what you will. Our big deal had been negotiated, the contract drawn up, and Peter had decreed that our team, having gone many extra miles for Soft Info, were to take a week or so of well-deserved leave to spend some quality time with the loved ones. We’d all come home. All of us except Lucy and Charles, of course, who were off to some dreadful conference or other.
So all of a sudden I had time on my hands. Time to be alone. Time to be with myself. The days, which had for so long been crammed with frantic activity and rising tension, were suddenly empty and spacious.
I slept late, had a lazy breakfast, watered the plants. And I sat on the couch for hours, watching veils of rain blow past in the air above the river. I gazed at the pearly, luminous, shimmering skin of the river, so restless and so peaceful. I heard no sound except the rattling of water on the roof, my own breath and Mr Thelonious’s deep throaty purr. I did not even switch on the hi-fi or the TV. I just let the rain fall and let my thoughts float by.
How long since I had done this? I had for so long been a man of quiet, reflective habits. Or so I believed. Now I saw how for year after year I had filled up my days carefully, till every centimetre and second was carefully occupied. Not only with work, of course. But with hobbies, with activities, with music, with books and old films. Anything to keep the silence from coming in. Anything to avoid hearing my own thoughts. Anything, as long as I did not have to remember.
Now, the thoughts and memories washed over me. I remembered Ruth. The beautiful Ruth, as she was before the darkness took her and she became a haunted, emaciated, paranoid wreck, tormenting herself and everyone around her.
I remembered the rain falling just like this ten years ago, on the day they fished her body out of the river. I remembered the mixture of shock and relief when I heard the news.
Friends had been concerned about me initially, then relieved to find that I was taking it fairly well. He’s taking it fairly well, they said, as the tall, handsome, soft-spoken man seemed to settle into life on his own. He’d always been withdrawn, so they did not even notice when he became more so. He kept himself separate from everyone around him, buried himself in his work, permitted himself to love no-one, and did not allow himself to be loved at all by anyone - except his cat. He’d had a few girlfriends, to be sure, but they had drifted away. After a while, he stopped having girlfriends and took to using the service of an expensive escort agency. Those girls did not even have to drift away. They were gone when you closed the door. After a while, it was a relief to have the door click shut behind them. I stopped the habit. Only the cat remained.
The car purred, entirely content, as I idly fondled his ears. Mr Thelonious liked peace. He had no cravings. They had been cut out of him when he was a small rambunctious Tom. With a snip of the vet’s scissors, he’d left all restlessness behind.
And for years, I had tried to do the same. But my desire could not be cut away, and hard has I had tried, it could not be numbed. I had almost succeeded. But now a tall young woman with piercing grey eyes and a sudden, impish smile had smashed all my carefully constructed defences to bits. A quiet, reserved, dark-haired girl with long legs and full, soft breasts. A shy girl who had overwhelmed me with her fierce, uncompromising passion. Suddenly I wanted someone again. I wanted her. My ivory castle was in ruins.
I sat among the wreckage, stroking my cat, considering the strange new planet on which I had awoken, while the rain fell endlessly outside.
I realised that I did not really know what was going to happen next. Clear as Lucy’s passion for me was, she was still a strange and uncontainable creature. Couple-hood seemed only a faint possibility. Domestic bliss? Dream on.
And yet, I could not feel anxious or fearful. I desired her utterly. But even if she moved on, even if we never made love again, it was worth it. She had given me back something I had not even known I’d lost. She’d given me back myself, and the sweetness of life.
It was startling, overpowering, to be back in the sensuous world again. Late Sunday afternoon, when a lull came in the rain, I stepped outside to get some household necessities – coffee beans, some vegetables and garlic, litter for Mr Thelonious. I wandered dreamily down the block to the deli, lost in sensation. The clean, rain-swept freshness of the air, the wet street sparkling in the sun. Children playing.
I saw the women. And I desired them all.
A young mother bustled by me pushing a pram, wholly absorbed in the life within. She wore no make-up. She had long, hastily tied, pitch black hair, an aristocratic, aquiline nose, delicate high cheekbones, and full, dark lips. I imagined her to have Arabs in her ancestors, perhaps from Morocco or even Portugal or Spain. I imagined her making love in her marital bed, arms and legs passionately wrapped around her man, fertile and beautiful in the fullness of her womanhood, crying out as she came.
I saw a petite black woman, energetic and vivacious. She had chiselled, ebony features and sparkling, clear brown eyes under a fierce, spiky explosion of hair. She almost cannoned into me as I entered the deli. “Watch it, pops,” she said solicitously before she flew off into the distance. She moved with the swift, terse grace of a dancer. In the produce sector, I saw a young girl with green eyes, a tousled mane of red hair and pale pale skin. She was barely coming into her womanhood, trying – and failing - to hide the sudden voluptuousness of her body in a long, shapeless black Goth dress. She used her chaotic red ringlets to half cover her face. She met and avoided and then again met my gaze, painfully aware of my eyes, acutely self-conscious and touchingly beautiful. I saw the girl weighing my garlic and tomatoes, barely out of her teens herself, plain faced and red-nosed from a cold, but with friendly, humorous eyes. I saw her confident, friendly, warm sensuality, the affection she would give her boyfriends, how uninhibited she would be in bed.
I saw a woman in her forties, tall and rangy, with expensive clothes and the fine, aristocratic features of a ramp model. Her face was no longer free of wrinkles, and her eyes were intelligent, kind and warm - the eyes of a woman who had seen both joy and sadness. She moved slowly and thoughtfully, carefully choosing a bottle of red wine. She’d bought cat litter, too, I noticed. I wondered whether she too lived alone with her cat, or whether she had someone with whom she would sit naked in bed with that night, drinking that red wine after making love.
She noticed me watching her. She was unruffled, and acknowledged my gaze. She liked the look of me. She lived alone, and she liked the look of me. She smiled, a, sweet, slow, sidelong smile.
My phone rang. I wondered who it would be. I should have switched it off while I was on leave. Could it be Lucy? I answered.
“Is that John Gray? “ It was a woman’s voice, aggressive and demanding.
“Speaking. “ Who could this be?
There was a silence. I pictured the woman at the other end – edgy, angry by the sound of it – suddenly hesitating and filled with doubt. The line went dead.
I shrugged and continued my shopping. I considered switching off the phone, tuning out whoever this was. She would either not call again, or she would leave a message, and then I would have the option of calling back or not. But who was this? And why was she calling? While I was wondering what to do, it rang again.
“John Gray here. Who is this?”
“You know who this is. Don’t you know ? You should know!” Was it anger? Perhaps not. It was a tense and edgy voice, with the merest trace of a foreign accent. A voice that trembled ever so slightly in spite of the speaker’s efforts to sound in control.
“No, I certainly don’t,” I said, though a hard knot of certainly I did not even want to acknowledge to myself had suddenly formed in the pit of my stomach. There was a pause. I tried again. “Look, can I help you? Who is this? Why are you calling me?”
There was another uncomfortable pause. For a moment I thought she was going to switch off on me again. Then there was a rather breathy sigh.
“Look,” said my unknown caller, “this is stupid. We’ve got to meet. I was just going to shit on you but it won’t work. I have to see you. “
“Well, – “ I began, but she cut me off.
“Tomorrow, lunchtime. One o’clock. At Zanzibar’s. You know Zanzibar’s?”
“And how will I know who I am meeting? “ I said, with a tinge of irony.
“I will be right at the back. The table in the corner. You will know who I am,” she said decisively, and rang off. I stood staring at my phone for a long while, wondering, until I came to myself.
The woman with the wine had moved on. And I, it appeared, had a lunch date.
* * *
I did know Zanzibar. And I knew the table in the corner.
It was a perfect table.
It was a William Gibson table. No, it was a John le Carré table. It was the table the old spymaster George Smiley would have chosen to meet one of his East German double agents, had they ever chosen to conduct their dark business in our part of the world. Almost hidden from sight, in the far corner of an inexpensive and noisy but surprisingly good downtown eatery, it was the ideal table from which to “make your meet” - to study them as they sidled among the other guests and tried to pick you out of the shadows.
Whoever my mystery woman was, she was a subtle one, subtle.
And so was I a subtle one. For there are two tables in that corner. And I wanted to be the one who made my meet.
So I saw to it that I was half an hour early. Just another quiet, bespectacled man, a little craggy in the face, greying at the temples, quietly reading his book over a glass of Sauvignon blanc. “Mr Standfast”, le Carré would have called him.
I was only just in time. Fifteen minutes later, she appeared. A slender oriental girl. Delicate features, long, lustrous black hair. Simply and elegantly dressed in soft black trousers and a cream polo neck sweater.
It was her. The woman in the picture. Liu Mi. The other woman. Lucy’s lover.
Mr Standfast sipped his wine, invoked his absent God, and held on to his heart.
I saw my competitor. I looked carefully: I am what they call a good noticer. And I saw many things.
I saw a beautiful young woman, fine-boned and delicate. I saw her vulnerability. And I saw something else.
Call it grace, call it dignity, or even humility. Many years ago, I had seen an old Aikido master demonstrate his moves, swifter and more agile than many of the young men studying under him. I had always remembered his calm, poised unhurried grace. Even when he moved too fast for the eye to see, a sense of deep stillness rippled out from him. Now, as I watched this slight, quiet girl graciously and politely thanking the waitron at the door, and saw her clear, still eyes as she scanned the restaurant, I remembered that old man. No-one else noticed her, but she was the centre of the room. I had always been fascinated by something like this inwardness in Lucy – the way she could move through a crowded, busy space as if she was alone with her thoughts. Now I saw her teacher.
I saw her pause for a moment to gather herself together. She looked bleak. She had the air of someone who’d taken into herself some huge and heavy piece of news and who was containing it inside her, feeling the grief but determined not to run away. Someone who knew she had to do something almost impossible, something that nevertheless had to be done.
The thought came to me that I knew what that thing was.
She was coming to give Lucy away.
I returned my attention to my book, wanting to give her time to sit down at the reserved table next to mine before risking another glance. But she saw me. I am sure she’d never clapped eyes on me before. Perhaps she had a description to go on. But I am convinced that she would have spotted me anyway. Those dark eyes did not miss much - she, too, was a noticer.
She drew out the chair next to mine and took her place. The usual introductions seemed superfluous. For a few moments, we simply sat in silence. I put my book away and looked at this composed, determined girl, who seemed so fragile and so strong.
She looked very different from the picture on Lucy’s desk. The joyous laughter was not there, though I could see that joyfulness was more natural to her than the sombreness that filled her now. And she was much more beautiful than I had expected. She was clearly part Oriental – Japanese or Korean, I guessed – but something in her facial structure and her rich honey skin seemed to speak of Latino or Filipino parentage. Her hair was long and glossy and as black as night. Everything about her was delicate, finely drawn. Her hands were graceful and slender, but they also looked strong, and the nails were cut short. Working hands. She had obviously been crying, but she’d cleaned up her face, and her eyes were clear and very dark. She looked back at me, letting the silence be silence, taking stock of her rival. It seemed to be up to me to speak.
“So, we meet.”, I said at last.
She nodded ruefully. Another pause.
“You’re… different from what I had thought,” she stated. I looked my question. “I’d expected some pretty boy, some handsome hunk. But you’re… you’re older.”
Again, the silence. She seemed to be gathering up for a speech.
“Look, I am sorry. I feel so stupid, calling you out here. At first I just wanted – I don’t know what I wanted. To swear at you. To get a look at you, I guess. To confront you. All this morning I have been thinking about what I was going to say to you. I don’t know, reciting angry speeches in my head. But that’s just stupid…” her voice quavered a little, and she took a breath. I waited patiently for her to continue. “So, I don’t know. I guess what I am realising is, I don’t own her. She’s not mine. If she’s no longer interested in me, there’s nothing I can do about it.” She dropped her eyes, continuing doggedly. “I don’t know, maybe she will be happier with you. So maybe that’s just… that’s just what should happen,” she finished miserably.
I took a sip of wine and signalled to the waitron that we were ready to receive menus.
“Do you think that’s what will happen? That she will leave you? Leave you for me?” I asked as gently as I could.
She did not answer, but just sat with downcast eyes.
“Has she spoken about leaving you?”
She shook her head, mutely.
“You know, I don’t know what is going to happen either. You say she’s not yours to own. Maybe not. Though clearly you’ve… belonged together in some way. But I don’t really know where I stand at all. Do you know what I am saying?” I was speaking as gently as I could, trying to speak the truth to this young woman – speak it, even though I was not quite sure what it was. I tried again. “Maybe she – she does not belong to anyone. Certainly not to me. Maybe she’s not – not the belonging kind. I don’t think she is.”
That got a nod. We both knew the woman we were talking about. Impossible to pin down, always surprising: elusive one day, passionate the next. Lucy with her stratagems.
The menu arrived. I chose their salad with goat’s cheese and sweet peppers. She chose salmon and pasta. My usual favourite.
I considered my situation. My heart went out to this tiny, determined woman. Perhaps it was because my situation was so similar to hers. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t - I was not overwhelmed with the certainty that I was losing a loved one, only with fear that I might be rejected by someone I desired.
“Look, “ I said again, even more carefully than before, “For what it’s worth, er, I guess I’m sorry. I’m not sorry that, that I’ve met Lucy,” – it was strange, actually speaking out her name – “but I am really sorry that this has, er, has caused you pain.”
Well, that called forth the floods. Her face crumpled, she bowed her head, covered her face with her slender hands and sat quietly while her shoulders shook and shook and shook. My heart melted. Now I really did feel awful. I sat awkwardly while the storm subsided. At last she seemed to quiet down and I offered her my handkerchief . You can count on us middle-aged gentlemen for some things.
“Thag you,” she said, taking the handkerchief and blowing her nose – a loud, rather unladylike blast – “you’re such a nice man. I can really see why she’s gone, gone for you…”
Our food arrived. For a few minutes we allowed ourselves just to eat. Perhaps our honesty, and her tears, had created a sense of trust between us. There was no need for pretence, or for sparring. In one sense, we were rivals in love, but in another sense we were equally at sea. Castaways in the same storm.
“So…” I tried again after a while, “If she’s not speaking of leaving you, then why… why are you so sure that – “
She considered my question for a moment, looking at me levelly with her now rather reddened eyes. Then she sighed. “Oh, you know. Just the usual signs. I can’t fool myself any more. She’s just, just lost interest. She’s still friendly and loving, you know, but I don’t … It’s not there any more. It, you know. The fascination. The, the juice. The heat,“ she had another mouthful of salmon. “And, really, it’s not you. This has been coming for more than a year now. She has been drifting away. Losing interest. Looking bored, distracted. She felt I was… clingy. I tried to make space for her. She wanted to do this dancing thing, dancing for men naked in clubs, and I let her. I just asked her to promise me she would not fall in love with some nightclub woman… “ She laughed ruefully. “And what can I say? She kept her promise!”
I listened respectfully. This was a story I knew all too well. Affection fading, the loved one slipping away…
“And you have no idea why this, this change is happening? Why she is no longer… so, er, interested?”
“I wish I knew. I just don’t understand it. “ She faced me, eyes flashing. “I mean, what is it that you’ve got that I haven’t got? “
I kept my face straight and my eyes on my plate, thinking there was one obvious answer.
“Oh, don’t be boring. I don’t mean, like, a penis!” She pronounced the word delicately and fastidiously, and loudly enough for the couple at the next table to raise their eyebrows. I stared them down. This was the twenty-first century, and at this table this pretty young woman and I were discussing penises. As one does. Did they have a problem with that?
“We’ve done that. She and I have both had boyfriends. I had lots, when I was at school.” Her expression seemed to indicate that it was not a pleasant memory. “And I am OK with it. It was Lucy, Lucy who first made me look at a girl, at a woman. It was she who, who went for me, you know. And she was happy with me. For three years. We were so happy!” She looked sad for a moment and I thought she was going to cry again. But she continued speaking. “I don’t know. I don’t have her desire anymore. She does not desire me. And I’ve tried so hard! I know there’s nothing wrong with how I look. And she used to love being in bed with me, she used to say she knew no-one who could fu – could make love like me, you know. “ I listened silently, rather overwhelmed by this flood of frankness.