When Strangers MeetbyJ G Parkes©
(The Author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Alberto Casella for creating the original idea embedded in this story.)
Helen Manning stepped out onto the balcony of her hotel in Sliema on the island of Malta. The light had the soft diffusion of early evening and the heat of the day had diminished, though it was still comfortably warm. Across the blue water of Marsamxett Harbour lay the buildings and massive ramparts of Valletta. It was a breathtaking view, which never failed to hold Helen in its thrall.
Looking down she saw a ferry crossing from one side to the other as a customs patrol boat made its nightly entry from the sea, the day's work over. A yacht followed, heading for the marina. It was a beautiful, peaceful scene. At any rate, peaceful now that work on the large building site next door had ceased for the day. The only sounds were the gentle put-put of the boats' engines and the distant rumble of traffic, punctuated by the arrival of a car at the hotel entrance six storeys below.
"It's hot." Brian had followed her onto the balcony.
"Yes. Lovely. Makes a change from all the rain at home. I was beginning to feel like a fish."
"I'm going to get out of these clothes. Fix me a whisky, will you?"
"Um." Helen nodded and reluctantly followed him inside.
They were three days into a seven-day holiday and it was all going far too quickly. Brian insisted on buying his own liquor from a supermarket rather than use the refreshments provided in the room.
"Daylight robbery," he had complained. "I won't give them a penny more than absolutely necessary."
He was wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and sitting on the bed when Helen handed him his drink. The television was already switched on to the 24 hour rolling news. She crossed to the clothes cupboard and slipped out of her dress. Brian studied her as she removed her bra and stood in nothing but her knickers.
"Come here," he commanded.
"Because you're as near naked as dammit and I fancy a quick fuck."
"Sometimes you disgust me." She crossed to the bed.
"Yeh? Well, that's too bad. I'm used to getting my own way in the business and I mean to get my own way in my home. Or hotel room," he added. "Before you come back at me with some smart alecky remark."
Before Helen had time to realise what was happening he began to pull down her knickers, almost ripping them in the process.
"Do it yourself then. And be quick about it."
She did as ordered whilst Brian also shed his shorts. He pushed her down onto the bed and climbed on top of her, nudging her legs apart with his knee. She gazed up at the ceiling and tried to forget where she was and what was happening. She tried to ignore his hands mauling her breasts as he pumped in and out of her. This was not how it was supposed to be. Where was the love, the tenderness, the romance? He used her without any thought or consideration for her feelings. His breath was coming in short gasps. It wouldn't be long now.
"I'm going to fill your hole," he gasped.
He made it sound as if he was giving her a treat and ought to be pleased that he was about to flood her with his seed. He'd done it before; countless times. What was supposed to be so wonderful about that?
Helen winced as he achieved a climax and gripped her breasts tightly. When he was finished he sank down onto her, his not inconsiderable weight pushing her into the mattress. After a minute or so he pushed himself up and rolled off her. It had been this way for over ten years, ever since she had married Brian Manning. No, maybe not quite that long. At first it had not been so bad. Their love-making had been a little more passionate, but that phase had lasted an all-too-brief time. The relationship had quickly descended into that of master and slave. An exaggeration, perhaps, but that was how Helen often viewed it.
Brian increased the volume of the TV and sat up to watch as Helen got off the bed, pulled a negligee over her naked body and wandered back onto the balcony, ignoring the state of her undress. She reckoned nobody would be able to see her unless they were across the harbour on the Valletta walls looking straight at her through a powerful pair of binoculars. The odds against that were pretty high; in any case, she was wearing a negligee, so they wouldn't really see anything.
Helen leaned against the balcony rail gazing at the boats coming and going, but her thoughts reflecting on the past. Brian was the co-partner in a thriving home improvement business, whilst Helen had owned a small hairdressing salon. He was fifteen years older and had previously been married and divorced. There was one child of the union, a son, who had stayed with his mother.
"She's welcome to him," was his only comment when Helen had asked how Brian felt about that.
She gathered that children were not high on his list of priorities, so it was just as well that she had been on the pill since her teenage years and had not yet come off it. Perhaps she would one day, but it didn't seem likely given Brian's attitude towards his only son.
"Make sure you don't leave it too late," her mother had warned, longing to be made a grandmother.
Helen had laughed. "Plenty of way to go yet, Mum. Women are having children later and later these days, haven't you heard?"
"Maybe, but I don't think for one minute that children want ancient parents unable to relate to them at all."
"Don't worry. Brian and I will get around to having a family when we're ready."
Marital relations were already beginning to deteriorate when Helen's salon failed with debts she was unable to pay.
"Made a hash of that, haven't you?" Brian proclaimed, showing a disdain for someone who was less favoured than himself in matters of business. "No idea how to keep a decent set of books, that's your trouble. Got to keep an eye on expenses against income. Let them run away and you're in trouble."
Helen could only agree. She was a good hairdresser, but hopeless business-woman. It was a mistake to buy the salon when her employer had put it up for sale.
"Don't worry about it," Brian had expansively told her. "My business is doing well and I can afford to pay off your debts. They won't fling you in prison, I promise."
Helen managed a small smile. "I don't think they do that any more for debt."
"Probably not, but it could be deuced awkward for you. A financial hell. I wouldn't want that to happen."
"Thank you, darling." She kissed him.
"Is that all the thanks I get?"
"What do you mean?"
He fondled her breasts. "I thought you might offer something more."
Helen was surprised, but pliant. "If you want," she murmured.
As he entered her that night she was aware of the lack of intimacy in the act. He was making her feel that she was repaying him for his financial commitment to her business debts. That made her no different to a prostitute and, she had to admit, that was exactly the way he was treating her. It had been the same ever since. At first the reason why eluded her. After all, they were man and wife and she had never withheld herself from him whenever he had expressed a desire for sex. A distinct chill had entered their relationship from the moment Brian had offered to bail her out of trouble. It was as if he delighted in holding something over Helen; a sword of Damocles that he could drop at any time.
She had eventually found the reason when a disaffected secretary, who had been sacked for being a nosy-parker, had proved the charge to be justified when she informed Helen that Brian was in the habit of paying for his sexual gratification.
"Prostitutes, do you mean?"
The secretary gave a sniff. "Escorts - so called. Slightly higher up the vice scale."
Whether or not Brian had given up paying for sex Helen had no idea, but she doubted it. However, the information had made her realise that her husband was a man who got a kick out of paying women for sex and it was even better when his own wife was the receiver of his largesse. She had been reduced to nothing more than a fuck-toy.
Helen turned towards him. "Did you speak?"
"I said it's incredible."
"What is?" Helen entered the room and looked at the picture on the screen. Brian was watching the news.
"England have been bowled out for a hundred and fifty-one runs."
"What's incredible about that? I thought they were always losing."
"That's all too true recently," grumbled Brian. "This is a professional international side, for heaven's sake!" He snapped off the television in disgust and swung his feet onto the floor.
"Do we plan on eating in the hotel or are we going out somewhere?"
"Stay in I think. We could go for a walk along the front afterwards."
"You can. I'm going to the bar."
Helen began to put her bra on.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting dressed, of course."
"You don't need a bra. It's too hot."
"I prefer to wear one."
"Too bloody prudish, if you ask me."
"That has nothing to do with it. I don't like my breasts to be loose and shapeless."
"I like their shape."
"They're a bit flabby."
"Nonsense." He snatched the bra from her. "Put on that little blue number with the straps."
"It's a bit revealing."
"Good God, woman!" Brian exploded. "This is Malta on a hot day, for heaven's sake, minimal dress is the order of the day. I'm only wearing light slacks and a T-shirt."
Helen sighed. "All right."
She chose a thin summer dress, short on length and low on top. She was quite tall, slim, but not thin, with long, shapely legs and firm not-too-large, not-too-small breasts. She looked - in a word - stunning. Brian enjoyed looking at her and it pleased him to show her off to other men; the more she revealed, the more he liked it. He could imagine a few hardening cocks as she was admired and the envy directed at him. They could look, but not touch. Of course, she was always embarrassed, but that just added to his pleasure.
Brian looked critically at his wife before they left the room.
"How do I look?" Helen anxiously asked.
Why she should be so keen to please him she had no idea, but the fact was that she seemed to need his approval all the time. If he beat her up there might be a logical reason, but he had never laid a finger on her in temper. Often she felt like kicking herself for being such a wimp. Not exactly an icon of feminism.
"Not revealing too much, am I?"
"You could never reveal too much."
"I don't want to be arrested for indecency."
Brian looked at her critically. "I think the police will be so taken with you they'll forget to put the cuffs on."
"What sort of answer is that?"
"The kind that says you look very fuckable and just about decent enough to walk along the street."
Helen felt her face go red.
He pulled her towards the door. "If we're going, let's go."
"Got the key?"
"Of course I bloody have!" he snapped.
They left the room, walked along the thickly-carpeted corridor to a small foyer. There were two lifts, one on each side. Brian pressed both buttons and they watched the indicators. At first it looked as they were both racing each other, but one stopped and the other went past their floor and further up. While they waited, Brian pulled Helen, into his arms and kissed her, long and hard, grinding his hips against hers. They were still kissing when the lift arrived, the doors opened and a man emerged.
"Sorry," he apologised, as if it was his fault for finding them with their lips glued to each other. He went down the corridor as they entered the lift. Brian was laughing.
"God, that was so embarrassing!" exclaimed Helen. "Do you think he was shocked?" she asked.
"Devastated," Brian replied. "And fiendishly jealous."
His laughter could be heard as the lift descended.
Ian Grainger was deep in thought as he briskly walked along the corridor, passing Brian and Helen's room to the one adjacent. He was based there. Based? Yes, that was the word, for Ian Grainger was in Malta on business and not pleasure. In fact, the hotel was his business. He was a high-flying executive in a time-share organisation involved in letting rooms in the hotel to customers wishing to invest in them. At least, that was what they were told, but the investment part of it was extremely dubious.
Usually to be found in London, Grainger was in Malta on a trouble-shooting mission; or, more properly, a kick-them-up-the-arse mission. The sales team had not been meeting their quota and he was here to beat heads together; even fire if necessary. And he was willing to do it. There was no place for slackers or the timid. Go out and sell. Bring in the customers. Nothing else mattered. All his time was devoted to the company. It was too much for his wife to handle. She had walked out six months earlier and though they were still married, divorce was almost certain. He would miss Sheryl - and his two daughters. But he could cope with the loss; he would simply put even more effort into the business.
In his room he removed the jacket he wore to present the right image. It was far too constrictive and uncomfortable on a hot day such as this. He threw it onto the bed and switched on the TV without the sound. It was sheer habit without any real reason. Not only couldn't he hear anything, but he barely glanced at the moving images on the screen. He sat at a desk in front of a lap-top and opened up the e-mails. There were thirty-two of them, mostly work related and all them demanding answers and decisions. He became fully engrossed in the task before him.
The phone rang.
"Yes?" Grainger listened for a moment. "What the hell do you mean - there's a problem with the figures? What kind of problem?" His fingers angrily drummed the desk-top as the voice at the other end explained. "Don't give me excuses. I've heard enough to last a lifetime. Give me the figures within an hour or you're out on your ear. Do you hear me? Good."
He slammed the phone down.
Grainger tried to concentrate on his e-mails, but gradually became more and more aware of a nagging pain in his head. He was also having difficulty seeing the writing on the screen. He rubbed his eyes. The pain persisted and he felt slightly giddy. Suddenly he was conscious of a whisper. There was somebody - or something - in the room.
He looked round.
His left hand became numb and he opened and closed it a few times, trying to get the circulation back.
"It's no use."
Grainger tried to jump up, startled by the voice, but was unable to move.
Voice? Was it a voice? It was almost nothing more than a disturbance of air around his head that seemed to form the words. The numbness was spreading up his left arm and a mist was swirling in front of his eyes.
"It's no good resisting. It's time."
"Time for what?"
"You already know the answer."
"To shrug off this mortal coil."
"Where are you?" Grainger could see no-one.
"I can't see you."
"Of course you can't. There's nothing to see."
"What did you expect? A gaunt and hooded figure with a bony pointing finger and a sepulchral voice?"
"Something like that, I suppose."
There was a low laugh. "Carrying a scythe, no doubt."
"Oh Ian, Ian, Ian. You've been reading too many books and looking at too many pictures. Everybody tries to humanise me, but I have no form, no shape. I am nothing but a presence."
The whisper seemed to fill the room. It was all around Grainger, engulfing him and he had nowhere to focus. As a result he spun from one direction to another as he spoke.
"Why have you come?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
Grainger shook his head. "Not now. I'm not ready."
"That's true of many people."
"I have too much to do."
"Hopes, dreams, ambitions to fulfil."
"Everything stops when it's time."
"There must be a mistake."
"There's never a mistake."
"What if I refuse to go?"
"Refusal is not an option."
"Can't I make an appeal to a higher authority?"
"Yes, I know that story. 'A Matter of Life and Death'. But that was just a film - fiction. This is reality and I am the higher authority."
"You're a figment of my imagination. This can't be true."
"Why do you want to cling so tenaciously to life, Ian? Surely it's a mess. Your wife has left you...."
"How do you know about that?"
"I know everything. And your job is on the line. You drive everybody hard to the point where they hate you because you know that their failures reflect on you. The strain is telling. In fact, it's brought you to your present situation."
"I enjoy the cut and thrust."
"Do you really? It always intrigues me why humans resist me so much. You should welcome me with open arms. I bring an end to all your worries and troubles."
"I'd rather you didn't."
"Ah. But I'm afraid it's inevitable. It's time."
The creeping pain had spread to Grainger's shoulder and up into his head.
There was darkness.
Mario Delamara apprehensively approached the door. The sales figures for the last month were in his hand and he knew that they were below the target. He and his staff had worked hard to sell the timeshare rooms, but the results of their endeavours were disappointing. In fact, he had to admit, it had been a poor year. Ian Grainger, the firm's trouble-shooter and a most unpleasant man, had been sent to sort them out. Sackings were on the cards and Mario knew that his would be the first head to roll.
He stood outside the door for a moment, screwed up his courage and knocked. There was no response.
He knocked again.
The door opened.
"I've...." Mario cleared his throat. "I've brought the sales figures for you, Mr. Grainger."
"Ah. Yes. Thank you."
Mario handed over the papers and stood hesitantly waiting. Grainger casually threw the computer sheets onto a table and strolled across to the window.
"A beautiful view, isn't it?"
"Er...yes. The best in Malta."
"I like it here. A good place for a holiday."
"So a lot of people think."
"And I've decided to join them. Take the opportunity while I'm here."
"Holiday, sir?" Mario was puzzled. "I...I thought you were here to...to..."
Grainger turned into the room. "To what?"
"Well...er...examine our sales figures."
"I think we can leave that for a couple of days, don't you? No, I'm going to have a holiday and I don't want you to bother me. I'll be in touch when I'm ready."
Mario was feeling a little elated and relieved. He was off the hook; maybe it was only temporary, but at least he had a reprieve. Ian Grainger was proving not to be an ogre after all.
"And do me a favour as you go. Put the 'Do Not Disturb' notice out, will you?"
Mario closed the door, hung the notice on the handle, and happily returned to the top floor to give his colleagues the good news. A reprieve; at least for now. It was strange though, the difference between Grainger in the office upstairs, ranting and raving, and this friendly Grainger in the room with a view. Almost like two different men.
Dinner was over and Brian had gone to the bar leaving Helen, who disliked alcohol, to return alone to their room. She had contemplated taking an evening stroll, but decided to stretch out in the recliner on the balcony. It was dark now, but still very warm. The lights of Valletta glittered across the harbour and were reflected in the water.
She stood by the rail, drinking in the view.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
The voice startled her. It came from the adjoining balcony. There was a wall between them, but standing at the rail enabled people to see each other. Helen looked across and saw a tall, not over-handsome man in his late thirties, possibly early forties, gazing at her. His nose was too big, she noticed. Not quite in the Cyrano de Bergerac league, but definitely a little too large.