Friday, April 27

To Afterwards

THE WORDS ‘Ind Est’ on the big green road-sign drew Samantha’s attention to the grey collection of buildings that stood where a field once lay. She had preferred the field. She never really noticed it when it was there – it was, after all, like many other fields – but now that it was an industrial estate she missed it. Her tracksuit stuck loosely to the sweat that had dried on her body. Uncomfortable in lifts, the showers at the gym were a hundred times more daunting and she just could not bear them. Besides, it was only twenty-five minutes in the car back to her home. The shower there would be all to herself. Samantha was easing into the middle of her forties. Three years ago, an hour after she waved her youngest into the school, she gained membership to a gym. She did not know why she visited. It just seemed like something to do, something to occupy the hours. She was not unattractive. Since her twenties she had, if anything, become more appealing to the eye, while many of her friends lost their looks and their husbands, Samantha just received more eyes from men in the pub on Sunday, queuing for the carvery. The big car that she sat in swallowed her whole yet at the same time made her feel a little unstoppable. A body would bounce right off of it, and another car would hardly bring it to a stop. It thundered along, churning underneath her. Her thoughts drifted from the industrial estate to dinner. Did she need to pick up any ingredients? Deciding what to cook every night was something she loathed. So rarely was everybody happy with what she decided upon. She ignored the turning for the supermarket.
Only when she pulled into the drive did she remember that her husband was at home.
He was laid up from an injury to his ankle. He could not go into work and was sleeping in the living room, spending his days in the study. He disturbed her peace. Like the field now christened by an industrial estate, she did not appreciate the peace until it was removed – by the call for a cup of tea – from her weekdays. She walked into the house and heard the radio echoing down the hall. The house was spotless. The house was always spotless.
She had backed the right horse. He had provided for her. The house was cavernous in places; the grand entrance with its spiralling stairs, the huge lounge, the kitchen that you had to shout across. However, the kitchen was overlooked, through an open door, by her husband’s study. Recently she had avoided it when she could, unless he was on the telephone.
‘All right?’
‘Yeah,’ he was in the middle of something. She washed her hands. He looked up after a moment – ‘How was the gym?’
‘Yeah, it was all right. Was doing that Swiss ball, you know.’
She checked the number of teabags left. It was just something to do. Then – ‘ I’m just going to go take a shower.’
‘OK.’
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘Nah, ‘m all right.’
The stairs flexed beneath her feet. Although the radio was quiet, she could not ignore it. The silence of her weekday house was missed.
Her early days in the gym had been equally tiring and rewarding. She was exhausted when she finished, being a mother and a housewife the rest of the day became a bigger task, but it left her with a feeling of having achieved something, something that she could not quite derive from mothering. After a couple of months, as fat began to swim from her limbs – arms and thighs –her friends and family complimented her. She did not care for the compliments. She did not care. Compliments did not flatter her nor make her blush. As she asked her husband for the money to take out another year’s membership, she could not define the joy the gym provided her. He handed her the money in crisp notes. He was delighted with the effect it was having on her.
The water rattled on the shower floor. While it ran into warmth, she undressed. Still her clothing clung to her skin. Void of natural light, one was forced to be lit by unforgiving light. It was light that showed every flaw.
Under the hose, her film of sweat was diluted off. In a heavy wave it ran onto her breasts – with her neck held high – then her tummy and down on to her thighs, where the matte rippled and glossed. It filled her hair, broke the dam of her brownness, and shifted down her back in sheets.
She began to hum an old show tune to which she did not know the words.
Cleansed. It was one of the best feelings in the world. Her feet on the shower-mat – washed weekly and fluffed daily – she towelled herself off.
What had most surprised her was how dearly her muscles grasped the wooliness of exercise. Her muscles, her joints, her tendons, all warm. Just as she held the tan she darkened abroad so her body held on to a sensation that, to her, was without definition. It was as when she were first in love, a prolonged physical cosiness long after the cause had upped and left.
The mirror was steamed up. She could not see herself. She could only examine the red blush that clouded her sternum. Why did that go so red, she wondered. What was there that should glow so after a shower? Massive shapes of steam tossed and tumbled within the room. She could only get so dry.
The en suite door was opened and the artificial light came flooding in eagerly, like schoolchildren rushing to a playground fight. It stood out against the artificial light shed by numerous bulbs
Steam, grey and nebulous, escaped. Their large bedroom, the master bedroom, was cool. During the weekdays the boiler hung dormant. The house cooled. Her nakedness relaxed in it, the final plains of moisture evaporating from between her legs and underneath her arms. She looked out of the window. The street did not move. It may as well have been a photograph: an anonymous depiction of the quiet life, people raising children and forking out for designer clothes that were outgrown in six months.
She was aroused, on cue. Her belly rumbled.
After marriage she so rarely pleased herself. To her it was both dishonourable and unappealing. If he could not extract it from her then that was that. Familiarity had numbed her, she concluded, and it was as inescapable as wrinkles.
Slowly the efforts and experiences of the gym plagued her. Why did a workout trigger such a hollering from her sex? Her cunt became sensitive. Brushes with the body-puff she used in the shower made her shiver. She tried to ignore them but could not.
Now it was something she looked forward to.
She looked forward to the gym, to the shower, to afterwards.
Moving carefully over the carpet toward the bed she put her hand on to the protrusion of her womb. It paunched out of her; holding up her navel, descending into her bush. The bed chilled her hot shoulders. A bed bathed in light. She closed her eyes. The map of blue veins on her breasts opened and up pushed her womb and she felt the moist waiting there for her. Not moist lingering from the shower but of her own creation. She moved her fingers and rubbed a hand up her flank all the way to her neck.
Swimming close around two fingers, she mangled her body below the slim anchor of her wrist. In and out and when out the cool felt carried away. Cuticles shone more when they were glazed.
Some time passed and the phone rang. It was her mobile vibrating very loudly on the bedside table. She dried her fingers on her ribs and picked it up – ‘Hello?’ She sat up.
‘Hello, is this Samantha T—?’
‘Yes.’
‘Hello, it’s Mike F— from the garage… We’ve got your Benz.’
‘Ah yes. Hello, Mike.’
Her fingers were still wet, under the nails and on the first set of knuckles. She sat up some more into the pillow.
‘ I’ve got some bad news.’
‘Oh?’ She did not know if she said ‘Oh’ aloud and in what tone, nor if he had heard it.
He continued – ‘It’s the gearbox. It’s totally gone, I’m afraid. We could try and fix it but there’s no guarantee it’ll last that long. It’s a pretty common problem in these models, I’ve noticed. The best thing is to replace the whole gearbox.’
‘Oh dear.’
‘Now, I don’t wanna replace it without your say-so because it’s quite expensive —’
Impatiently – ‘How much?’ It throbbed.
‘About four thousand, maybe four and a half … uh, that’s including labour, of course.’
‘Jesus.’
‘Yeah. Would you like to discuss it with your husband?’
He seemed to patronise her. His tone was off, but she was not interested in it. She resumed with her free hand.
‘Yes. I will probably ask him to call you up and find out a bit more. I’m a little busy at the moment but I’ll speak to him later.’ The pink seed she had emerged pulsed. ‘Then he’ll decide whether or not it’s worth it.’
‘OK. I thought that would be the case. Get him to call us as soon as he can and we’ll work something out.’
‘Will do.’
‘Cheers. Bye.’
‘Good-bye.’
The phone went back on to the bedside table. Her legs spread and she slunk down off the pillow. It did not take much longer. She could feel it. It was as if she stood on a platform waiting for the tube: first the breeze comes, then the shaking and the sound, then finally a light growing and a train races past, an inch from her nose.
Her fingers moved in and out of her, the seed burst and she came. It rocked up her body. Her spine lifted off of the bed. Her toes curled strongly into bony rocks. She gasped louder than the house deserved. The gasps whimpered out as chemical joy lathered in the flesh around her cunt.
The sun was unkind to her opening eyes. She caught her breath. A radio station tuned into her consciousness.
Rubbing it calm, she, for the first time of the day, grinned. If her husband had seen the grin he would have said ‘1988’ and forgotten what it was like to have children.
With unsteady legs she got off the bed and went to her large wardrobe, which, in sliding white doors, took up three-quarters of the wall. Clothes hung in varying colours and materials, like a technicolour piano. In an arrangement of shelves she picked out a very unimpressive tracksuit; something she only wore around the house. She acknowledged that it was the most comfortable item of clothing she owned but she prayed she would never be found dead in it – shoeless at the bottom of the stairs, clutching her breast on the sixth step down, falling the rest of the way, a beautiful woman poorly dressed in a faded tracksuit, disappointed paramedics.
Her hair was nowhere near dry when she straightened out the duvet. In clustered damp strands it caressed her hot neck. Her pillow was damp, too. It would dry.
He was up, left leg encased in a plastic support, rifling through the biscuit jar as the kettle boiled.
She walked over. Her secret. Her secret still steamed in her underwear – which, too, would dry – and asked how he was but she did not quite make out his reply; it was delivered halfway through a very expensive shortbread biscuit. She noted that there were not many of the very expensive shortbread biscuits left.
She remembered the gearbox. Questioning briefly if the conversation had ever taken place, and whether it had spurned her fingers on more, she thought she should tell him the bad news.
‘I have some bad news.’
‘What?’ He held the last bite of shortbread next to his mouth. Crumbs were there as well, caught on day-old stubble.
‘The garage called me about the Benz.’
She told him the story and he swore a lot and limped the dozen yards back to his desk in the study.
‘Jesus, Sam.’
The kettle clicked off.
‘You can forget about your fucking holiday.’
He did not mean that. He couldn’t possibly mean that. She showed that she did not care for his threats and went to the window to check on the stale bread she had thrown for the birds in the back garden. It was untouched. Soon the rain would wet it into the grass, turn it to mulch, make it ugly.
‘They said you need to call them back.’ The lawn was perfect. It had grown a little longer than she liked it, but that was because of the rain. It was spring. The grass was just trying to catch up after the winter.
‘I will. Jesus. Four-and-a-half grand? Really? Fucking hell.’ He had started working again. When he worked he paid no attention to anything else. Then he looked up – ‘He probably tries to take the piss with women. Let me give him a call. I ain’t paying five grand for a new gearbox on that thing. I tell you what, that car’s been nothing but a pain in the arse.’
Samantha stared out of the window. She did not hear him. She heard the radio discussing a legal inquiry. The bread lay there. It looked like rain overhead.

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