Thursday, January 5

Her New Dressing Table

DAVID PASSED his wife’s new dressing table and a sneer crossed his lips. He was walking from his bedside, where he had just pulled on his watch, and was on his way to the bathroom to find the cotton-buds. His ears felt a little waxy and they were irritating him.
When he got to the bathroom he could not find the cotton-buds in their usual place and suspected that his wife had moved them to her new dressing table; so he returned to it and sneered once more. In the right hand drawer, second down, were the cotton-buds. He took one and, with perceptible delight, cleaned his ears. He looked at the brown residue he had left on the white cotton and tossed it into the bin next to her new dressing table.
Even though it was that awful limbo-like period between Christmas and New Year’s, their bedroom was awash with light—as awash with light as any room can be in the middle of winter, anyway. It was on the top floor of their building and it had tall windows that touched the double-height ceiling. Their bedroom faced north. The amount of light that fell on their bed-linen was almost constant throughout the day. It was this room, this very room, he thought, rocking on his heels, that made the pair of them fall in love with the place. His wife, tackling a strand of hair that had fell on to her forehead, remarked—“Oh my goodness, look at this room, David!” and David beamed, and the estate agent beamed and licked his lips, rubbed his file and cleared his throat.
The flat overlooked the town. Well, not exactly the town, David noted in his head, but a lot of the town; the railway station, a big supermarket, a few office buildings, shops, and many housing estates made up of variously priced dwellings. In the distance, like a green hairpiece, were woods & fields.
When they had first moved there, the two of them took extensive walks in to those fields, but the novelty wore off and now they rarely ventured out.
He could hear her in the kitchen clearing up after breakfast. The smell of smoked haddock still lingered. She was singing tunelessly.
His attention fell back to the new dressing table.
It was made of dark Swedish wood and was panelled in light blue plastic with a palm tree pattern upon it.
She had spoken a lot with the designer before it was made. The designer, she had told David on numerous occasions, lived down in the west country and made these bespoke dressing tables to order and they were very expensive. So taken was David by her excitement that he said he would buy her one for Christmas. She immediately picked up the phone, called the designer and ran through the design with her. “She’s so lovely, David. Isn’t her furniture wonderful?” and she showed David the catalogue again.
It arrived and they stood it in front of the tall windows.
David sneered at it again. He was a reasonable, if slightly morose, gentleman, so he considered sneering beneath him. Yet, here he was, sneering at a piece of furniture.
The bill had risen from what his wife had originally told him—“The designer says the pattern I want has been discontinued so she’s having to source it from elsewhere and it’s costing her a bomb . . . I asked for that secret drawer—you know, that secret drawer I told you about, where I could keep all of my expensive jewellery—and I didn’t realise that’d be extra . . . Her usual courier won’t take anything that big, she’s having to use someone else!” It nearly broke his bank. Then she demanded it before Christmas, stating that only a sadist would withhold it. He gave in to her. She adored it, but come Christmas morning she had nothing to unwrap and sulked for the rest of the day. He sighed and that is when he had first sneered at the new dressing table, when he placed his Christmas presents on their bed.
Four days later and he still cursed her new dressing table.
She walked in. Her slippers made a slapping sound on the hardwood floors.
“That should see us through ‘till dinner, now.”
“Yes,” he replied.
She was humming now but it was still tuneless.
Dismantled of her apron, her dress was allowed to boast her childless figure. He took her by the thin wrist and spun her. She twirled in the stark white winter light from the tall windows.
“Oh, David!”
He laughed.
Their bed was made perfectly. The sheets looked freshly ironed. He thought of heaving her on to them and uplifting her dress. First he pulled her to his lips and kissed her. He had forgotten about her new dressing table and when, as a lover is often likely to do, he opened his eyes mid-embrace, he stared at her eyelashes as they sprung into the mild daytime from the tall windows.
“David, what is that? . . . David!” she recoiled from the kiss and moved towards her new dressing table.
He spotted it. A dirty cotton-bud. He had, quite apparently, misjudged the distance between himself and the bin and had thrown the cotton-bud on to her new dressing table. It lay there looking ugly.
“David, what the hell is this?”
“Calm down,” he cried, pulling it from her grasp and tossing it, directly this time, into the bin.
She was fired up. The white of her eyes showed brilliantly. David backed off, away from her.
“That’s disgusting! Throw it in the goddamn bin!”
“I thought I had!”
“Well, you hadn’t!”
He sighed. Passion escaped him.
“It’s brand new and you start throwing dirty cotton-buds on it?!”
He took a deep breath and, not quite knowing what he was saying, fiddling with his fingers and blinking as he looked at her, said—“Sometimes I think you love that dressing table more than you love me.” As soon as he said it he wished he could reclaim the words. Suck them back in, or knock her out so that she did not remember them. It was a silly thing to say, an awful thing to say, but it was out there now.
Still fiddling with his fingers, he took a step back, bumped into the side of the bed, and she opened her mouth to shout.
. . .

THE ARGUMENT was interrupted by the front-door buzzer. Its usually intrusive noise startled David and he breathed a subdued sigh of relief. She was nearest the door, so she would answer it. As she walked off, he rubbed his temples.
She flung around—“We’ll discuss this in a moment.”
“Maggie . . .” he raised his hand at her, to apologise, but she was gone.
He wilted on his feet.
“Hello,” she said into the PA by the door to the flat. Much aggression had disappeared from her voice.
“Hello, um, sorry to bother you but I was wandering if I—we—could pop in for a moment . . .” The sentence trailed off and Maggie was unsure whether or not she should answer the question, if, indeed, that is what it was.
“Well, who is it?”
“I’m Crystle,” said the voice on the other end, “and I’m here with my partner, Mike.”
“What do you want, Crystle?”
“Your flat was home to the studio of Arthur Moriarty . . .”
“Arthur Moriarty.”
“Yes, yes, and who is he?”
“He was an artist, ma’am.”
Like a splash of cold water, Maggie was instantly awoken by this “ma’am” business.
Crystle, on the other side of the PA, must have sensed this because she followed straight away with—“Very sorry to bother you but we are both, Mike & I, massive fans of this Arthur Moriarty and would like to look, just for a moment, at his studio. Honestly, ma’am, we’ll be in and out in a couple of minutes.”
“Now’s a bit of an awkward time . . .”
“Please, ma’am, we’ll only be a minute, really.”
Maggie, whose finger was beginning to ache holding down the intercom, thought for a moment and said clearly so that she would not have to repeat it—“OK.”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
Maggie pressed the lock for the front door for a few seconds then released.
She did not realise her flat was home to anyone famous, nor did she really care.
David was still in the bedroom. Rather than return to him, she continued to lean on the wall next to their front door. She breathed deeply, attempting to calm herself, and ran her hands over her dress. She was what one might call an arresting lady, choosing the words “arresting” and “lady” wisely because she epitomised both. While her husband had been dulled by life—like a butcher’s favourite knife is blunted over time—she had retained, even if only fractionally, the inimitable charm that had driven young men to chase her across the playground many years previous. She worried—and I shall harp on no longer about it—that she had, indeed, fallen out of love with David. But, after all, one cannot be blamed for what fades after “I do.” A smile spread across her face as she realised that nothing other than her new dressing table had brought this to her attention. She was really very fond of the palm tree pattern.
As David called from the bedroom—“What is it?”—there was a knock at the door.
She opened it on two young people: a young man stood just behind a young girl.
“We hope we aren’t disturbing anything.”
“Not at all.”
Besides a yellow necklace and matching yellow earrings, the girl was dressed entirely in black. The young man had a thick woollen overcoat and dark jeans. He had blue eyes that shone from over the girl’s shoulders. Maggie stepped aside to welcome them in. They scrubbed their feet on the mat. They were no older than thirty.
“Who is it?” asked David, emerging from the bedroom at the end of the hall.
The hall was long and thin and all of the rooms branched off of it. There was a light fixture in the middle, addressing its crowd of doorways, skirting, frames and plain walls with a yellowish glow.
“Mmm, fish,” said the girl, her nose in the air.
“Very nice.”
The couple entered and looked around. A speechlessness fell upon them. They stared, to and fro, at everything David & Maggie had taken for granted for many years, and did so with open mouths. David simply stared at them. He thought of going to shake their hands but then decided otherwise. His argument with Maggie was still fresh in his head, the way the smell of haddock was still fresh in the flat.
“This has never happened before,” said Maggie, “My husband and I have never heard of this Andrew Moriarty—”
“Arthur Moriarty. It’s Arthur Moriarty.”
“Arthur Moriarty. We didn’t realise anyone famous had lived here.”
Crystle peered her head around the corner and looked into the kitchen which, if she had been looking, caused Maggie to wrinkle her mouth.
“Oh, he wasn’t actually famous, ma’am. He did a few paintings and then he, sort of, committed suicide.”
“Really?” Maggie’s “really?” was akin to the “really?” someone might let out after they had been told the local supermarket had stopped stocking pomegranates.
“Yes. He was a fantastic artist.”
“What did he paint?” Her understanding of art was very limited but she enquired, mostly, out of politeness.
David still stood some distance away, leaning with an outstretched arm on the doorframe of their bedroom.
“Nudes. Female nudes,” as though there were something she was not quite giving away, “but they were always very abstract. At first you wondered what it was, then it became clear. They were very explicit, I suppose.”
“Oh, dear,” said Maggie. She looked briefly at the veins on her hands then asked—“And his studio was here?”
“Yeah, the biggest room. I think it’s that room there.”
She was pointing to Maggie & David’s bedroom. David flicked his head around to check that they were, in fact, pointing at the bedroom. They were.
“Well,” said Maggie, feeling most welcoming, “come have a look.” Gazing down and not meaning it as she said it—“Don’t worry about taking your shoes off.”
The couple walked through. David moved aside with an awkward smile.
Maggie was glad that the bedroom was tidy and that the bed was made. She felt a little uncomfortable about letting these strangers into the master bedroom, their bedroom, but it did not really matter. She was very proud of her flat, if anything, and when there was a chance to show it off—to friends or relations—she seized it with both hands. And they would see her lovely new dressing table.
Crystle entered the room first, very softly on her feet, turning her head from side to side and the whites of her eyes amplified around the irises. David followed, just as softly, behind.
“Wow,” she said. She took the whole room in.
David made a similar exclamation.
The two of them moved into the centre of the room, between the foot of the bed and the new dressing table. The exposed hardwood floors creaked slightly in the exact place that Maggie and David knew it creaked. They avoided treading on that spot because they knew it creaked so.
“The view and the light! The natural light just pours in here, doesn’t it, Mike?”
“You can see why Moriarty chose this room as his studio. It’s perfect.” By now Crystle and Mike had ceased to acknowledge the presence of the Maggie and David. “Just think, his models probably posed right here, or maybe he set his canvas up here . . . or over there! . . . or, no, wait, do you remember in that photograph . . . wasn’t he set up over there?”
Mike tried to keep up.
Crystle did all she could to keep from running around the room, pointing at one thing or another, taking deep breaths, breathing through her nose, wondering-o-wondering, imagining, filling as much of herself as she could with the unseen ghost of Arthur Moriarty. Her cheeks were rose-coloured from the cold outside. They swelled with her smiling. The exposed hardwood floor creaked in the exact place again. She was speechless.
Maggie watched them. It confused her, didn’t make sense, so she admired her new dressing table again. She saw that Mike looked down at the new dressing table for a moment but then he went back to looking at the room and at Crystle. His eyes in the blue swimming blue attached to her.
Then Maggie turned around and saw that David was only fixated on the exact place where the exposed hardwood floor creaked; as Crystle began to bounce upon it, as if she knew not what she was doing.

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