HORLA FICTION (April 2019)

 

PREOCCUPIED 

by Glyn Carter

 

MARTIN and Jess checked into the smart London hotel late in the afternoon. They were both successful in their careers but didn’t like to shout about it, so they wore clothes that bellowed out their modesty, she in her tight white jeans and small denim jacket that cost way more than denim was ever meant to cost; he in beige chinos and overloud shirt under a navy linen jacket. They had left themselves plenty of time to freshen up and get changed, then go somewhere nice for a relaxed meal and a drink ahead of the show. They were reaping the benefit of never having wanted children, so their lives, their pleasures, their responsibilities were for themselves alone. Being an innately selfish pair of individuals, it was little surprise to either that their paths were diverging, and the wedding vows once cementing their partnership now seemed to weigh it down, like concrete boots.

But they kept up appearances, not least to each other, and continued to indulge in the pleasures that dinkydom afforded. Last month it was Prague, a midweek trip to avoid the mass of stag dos (their work-life balances allowing weekday flexibility). Previously, there was a weekend at a Scottish manse hotel owned by a very famous film star who, unfortunately, did not put in an appearance. On the up-side, the only stags were those roaming the surrounding park.

Having completed the establishment’s formalities, they trundled their cases across the lobby’s marble floor to the lift, where they stood in silence as they waited, both inspecting the floor indicator as it counted down towards them. Inside the lift, they stood facing forward, again checking the indicator as it rose. Then Jess, aware of how redundant the inspection was, said to Martin “You seem preoccupied.”

“You’re not exactly Tigger yourself,” responded Martin.

Nor was she going to be.

Outside their room, Martin inserted the keycard and turned the handle. It remained locked. He took out the card and pushed it in more firmly, and the door again refused to open. “Last time we were here it was real keys,” he grumbled, and regretted it immediately. It made him sound like a fogey, which in no way did he consider himself to be.

“No it wasn’t,” said Jess. She took the card and smoothly opened the door.

It definitely was, he thought. Therefore, his wife had been here since, without him.

She was only one step into the room when she stopped. “What’s that?” she said.

“What’s what?”

“The shower’s running.”

They both listened. The only sound was the muffled noise of traffic from the street, and the ping of the lift’s doors back along the corridor. “No it’s not,” said Martin.

“It was,” Jess insisted, and continued into the room.

He followed, pulling his case past her to the window side of the bed. It was a spacious double in a high quality hotel – bottom end of five star, but five star none the less. Martin jumped backwards onto the bed, and relished the bounce. “It’s like you’ve never stayed in a hotel before,” Jess sighed.

“And you’ve been to lots.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jess took her make-up and washing bags out of her case and headed to the bathroom. She turned on the light.

“You’ve been here without me, for a start.”

“I have a career,” She said over her shoulder as she entered the en-uite’s oh-so tastefully tiled brightness. “I have a life.”

As she turns into the room she sees the naked flesh in the bath. It is a body, glistening with droplets of water, clearly dead from its absolute stillness and the way its limbs sag into the space between its torso and the tub. A man’s body, a dark-haired man’s body, with the hair on his back still slicked flat. Martin’s body. She recognises its contours immediately. 

“My God,” she breathed.

“What’s the matter?” called Martin from the room.

“No- Nothing,” said Jess, shaking her head clear as she came back.

Martin was still lying on the bed. “Not up to scratch? Dripping shower? Hairs in the plughole? Loo-roll end not folded just so, into an arrow?” He swung his feet to the floor, grabbed the handle of his still-unopened case, and wheeled it towards the door. “Come on, let’s go. Let’s find a decent hotel that knows how to set up a bathroom properly.”

“Shut up, Martin,” said Jess.

“I insist. If it’s not up to scratch for you, I shall have words. I shall demand our hard-earned money back.” He went to the ensuite. “Let me see this dismal attempt at quality hoteliery.”

Martin staggers at what he sees. The naked body, still wet, lying in the bath, motionless and dead-cat limp. His wife’s body. He recognises her lotus tattoo immediately. 

He shook his head clear, and went to the sink to splash his face with cold water. He dried his hands and face, and shouted “Come here. Come here.”

Jess appeared at the door and he pulled her in. He gestured at the bath. “Look at that.”

They both looked at the empty bath. Martin stooped to run his palm along its bottom. He stood, and wiped his palm on her face. “Bone dry.” He turned to the toilet and pulled off the neatly folded first sheet of paper hanging below the chrome cover. He dangled it before her eyes. “Just so.” He stepped on the wastebin pedal and dropped it in. “Phew, we can stay here after all.”

Twelve minutes later, Jess stood in front of the dressing table mirror to smooth her black dress over her hips. Martin watched, buttoning up a fresh white shirt, wondering if there was or was not a bit more flesh on her than last time he’d seen her in something shapely.

She saw him in the mirror, looking at her. She couldn’t read his expression, but better that he looked than he ignored her. “What do you think?” she asked.

“Good choice of colour,” he said.

“Meaning?”

“Flattering.”

She turned to face him. “You can’t resist, can you.”

“Resist? Resist what?”

“Sniping,” she said. “You were inferring that my figure needs flattering.”

“Hmm. And that’s not very flattering is it.”

“No.”

“Implying.”

“What?”

“I was implying. You were inferring, I was implying.”

“You were still sniping.”

“It’s not sniping if it’s the truth. It’s passive aggressive.”

She didn’t rise to this. She had known it was a mistake to rise to his barb in the first place. She just sighed, and said “We’re supposed to be having a romantic weekend, a nice city break, a show, a meal…”

“Salad,” said Martin.

She glared at him.

“Come on, it was a joke!”

“Not a good one. And ‘It was a joke’? Lame as a legless centipede. Is that really the best you can do these days? I remember when you wrote sketches for Footlights. Such a wit. You were the next Stephen Fry, the next David Mitchell.”

“Were you going to be the next Mel? Or was it Sue?”

 “‘Lighten up.’ Now that would have been clever.”

“Lighten up. Lose weight. Okay, I’ll give you that one.

“You give nothing.”

“I give lots.”

“Name one thing you give me.”

He moved behind her, places his hands on her shoulders, and pressed her down onto the stool in front of the dressing table. He slipped the top of her sleeveless dress off her shoulders, and began to squeeze her trapezia. Both hands to the left, kneading into her tension, then both hands to the right. She closed her eyes and let her head loll sideways.

A hand on each side, he pressed his thumbs into her muscle, and reached down to her thoracis, and up to the capiti in her neck, finding where she was knotted tightest. He knew all her cords. Gentle now, his fingertips stroked the back of her neck, under her ears, and towards her throat.

With his thumbs still pressing her capitii, his fingers squeeze her windpipe. He can see himself in the mirror. His hands are like claws. His knuckles whiten. His teeth are bared in a silent snarl, his face is red, as his muscles strain and eight fingers tighten into her throat.

“That’s actually quite nice,” Jess said. She smiled at him in the mirror.

He smiled back, and leaned down to whisper “What are the odds on us making love later?”

Her smile grew, and she is beneath him, open, receiving him, her fingernails raking his back. Her legs lock around him. “Harder,” she urges, “Fuck me harder.” And he speeds up, but still she wants more. “Yes! Yes! Give it to me you wimp!” His fucking becomes ever more violent, her motions more vigorous, and she looks up at him. His face reddens above her. Suddenly he stops, a rictus grimace distorting his mouth. He rolls off her, holding his heart, juddering. She watches him jerk, no orgasm this, his dick is limp. Then he is still, as gone as was the body in the bath.

She smiled, and raised herself to walk out from under his massage, leaving his ministering hands empty. She sat on the still-made bed, and said “Don’t put your nice new shirt on making love. Shagging could be an outside bet.”

“Ah, coming in off the rails.”

“How tasteful.”

Martin went to the chair near the window. He’d draped his tie over it. He picks it up, and twists it around both fists.

He turned to her. “I have a question.”

She isn’t interested, she’s looking at a magazine. But she says “Fire away.”

The tie is gone. A gun appears in his hand. He screws on the noise suppressor. He raises it to eye level. He supports his right wrist in his left hand, and lines the sights up to her head. She is still reading, and her hair has fallen like a curtain for him to hide behind. He holds steady, slowly breathes out, and squeezes the trigger. The muffled bang, the recoil, the harsh smell burning his nostrils…

The red hole in the side of her head. The splatter over pillow, headboard, and bedside cabinet. Porridge and tomato purée.

“That line,” Martin said. “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. Was that actually part of the wedding ceremony?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I remembered longer than you did,” Martin said bitterly.

To this fact, which would never disappear, she had no riposte. She got up from the bed, and dragged herself to the bathroom.

Martin went to the window and opened it to let in the cool air and the city’s noise. Dusk had been and gone and London was at its best, all neon and headlights, where stars cannot be seen in the sky but walk at ground level. He inhaled it all, taking London into himself, with all its anonymity and adventure, its darkness and its danger. “I love this city,” he announced to the streets below.

Behind him, the toilet flushed.

“What show did you book?” Jess asked.

Wicked,” he said, not turning, but smiling.

“And you’re sure you’ve got the tickets?”

“On my phone. I’ll check if you want.” He reached for the i-phone he’d put on the bedside cabinet. “Hang on.”

The tiniest of smiles appeared on Jess’s mouth as her eyes narrowed at the image that word brought to mind. Martin’s head twists as a hangman’s noose around his neck pulls him upwards. He is on tiptoe, then the rope pulls higher and his feet are clear of the carpet. They flail and reach to the bed for support, to no avail. His hair is wild and he claws at the rope. His eyes bulge helplessly.

Her grim smile hardened.

He stretched the screen and showed her his phone with the QR square enlarged. “See? Brewery piss-ups R us.”

“In that case,” Jess said, “You should be able to manage a G and T before we go out.”

“Mine’s a—’

“Dry martini,” she interrupted, unwilling to let pass an opportunity to highlight how predictable he had become.

Martin, already inspecting the contents of the minibar, did not object to being a man of habit in this regard. If vodka martini, shaken not stirred, was James Bond’s staple…

“Oh no!” he exclaimed. “No lemon slices! Whatcha gonna do?”

Jess went to her suitcase and delved, to pull out a single lemon in a sandwich bag, and a small Sabatier-sharp fruit knife. She took the lemon from the bag…

…and holds the fruit knife by the blade, raises it behind her ear, looks hard at his heart and sends the knife spinning across the room to plunge deep into its target. His shirt blooms red…

Martin plucked the lemon out of the air one-handed, and took the knife she passed him handle-first across the bed. “I don’t suppose you brought olives?” Jess hated olives.

She reached again into her case, and produced a small jar half-full of olives that she’d earlier taken out of the fridge at home. She threw it to him as she’d just thrown the lemon. To herself, she said “Let no man put asunder.” To Martin, she said “What would you do without me?”

Martin leaps into the air and pumps his fist like a Premiership goal-scorer. He jumps for joy on the bed.

He caught the olives and turned his back on her to mix the drinks. He cut a generous slice off the lemon and used it to stir her gin and tonic. To himself, he said “Till death us do part.” He popped two olives into his own martini and licked his fingers. He turned with a drink in each hand, and passed one to his wife. “Cheers,” he said.

“Cheers,” she responded, and they chinked glasses and took sips, each watching each other.

Martin returned to the open window and looked out.

Jess runs at him with arms outstretched and palms upraised. She’s onto him before he can turn, transfers her momentum, and she rotates over the transom and plummets down, down, screaming to the pavement seven stories below.

Martin turned back into the room. “Darling?”

She was beside the bed, glass to her lips, resting her right elbow in her left palm in a classic pose of detached sophistication. “Yes dear?”

“How about… How about we take a shower together before we go out?”

“We’ll be late for the show.”

“Not if we pass on the meal beforehand. We can grab something after. Gerrard Street will still be open.”

“I’m all made up.”

“Come on. Romantic weekend.”

“A shower.”

“With soap. You know you want to.”

She smiled. Her eyes twinkled. “Spontaneous naughtiness.”

“Isn’t that what city breaks are about?”

She turned. “Unzip me then.”

They stood under the shower, his black body hair slicked down, her lotus flower nicely rained on. They smiled as they soaped each other, for the sensation was pleasant, and the knowledge of what was to come, breath-taking.

He stood back, stiffening against the tiled wall. He grabbed his heart. He looked at her, panicked, wondering all too briefly at the lack of expression or concern on her face. Just that lingering smile. And he knew. “The olives,” he croaked, as he slid down into the bathtub with a guttural retching groan. He was crumpled, and motionless. His eyes remained open, and she looked into them, wondering if they still saw.

Jess smiled on, victorious, and saw the washbag under the mirror. It held the vial of a hugely expensive and hard to procure chemical with which she’d laced the olives in this very bathroom. She must dispose of it before the ambulance arrived.

Then she too stiffened, and choked. Her legs gave way and she slowly collapsed on top of her husband. Her brain played back a blurred visual of him mixing their refreshments, when his body hid from her the addition of that extra ingredient that would deliver her drink’s true kick. “The G and T,” she moaned, still looking into his face. Was that a ghost of smile there in his dead lips?

The shower ran on.

Later – or was it earlier? – the hotel room door opened. Jess in her white jeans and short denim jacket stepped into the room, and halted. Martin could be seen just behind her, still in the corridor.

“What’s that?” Jess said.

“What’s what?” said Martin.

“The shower’s running.”

They listened.

“No it’s not.”

“It was.”

He followed her into the room, and shut the door.

By the closed window on the other side of the room, invisible to the couple, stood another Martin and Jess, both wrapped in the hotel’s thick white bathrobes. Her hair was turbanned in a handtowel. His hair was wet, never to dry.

As Martin bounced on the bed, and Jess said that it was like he’d never been to a hotel before, the woman in the robe said “What God hath joined together…”

Martin implied, and Jess inferred, that she’d been to many hotel rooms with other men; and by the window, the man said “How many times is this now? I lost count in the two hundreds.”

“Stop complaining,” she replied. “There are many worse punishments could’ve been meted out. You prefer me, or the inferno?”

“Hmm, a toughie,” he said.

She shook her head. “You get ever more predictable.”

Be-denimed Jess went towards the bathroom and reached for the light switch.

 “It only seems that way,” he says, “As I feed your false sense of superiori—”

“Shh,” she says. “I like this bit.”

Clothed Jess turned on the light and entered the bathroom, and towelled Jess ghosted across the room to follow her.

 

 

***

Glyn Carter is a writer and filmmaker based in Hastings, England. He abandoned a career in environmental and community work and local government, to follow the creative muse. Glyn’s short films have won awards, been screened at BAFTA, and gained commercial online distribution. He’s written feature film screenplays, and ‘expects Spielberg to call any day now’. His first collection of short stories An Eclection of Fairies – Fairy Tales For The Modern Age was published March 2019, and is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.

(Like Paul Green, who has a story here at Horla, Glyn is a member of ‘Creative Writers of Hastings and St Leonards’, on England’s South Coast – clearly a productive circle!)