William watches from the painting across the room as Charlie pats the skin below her chin. From her cheekbones flow sprays of fine lines that mesh green eyes that glow in the dark. Her ears are sea urchins escaping from silver ear?rings shaped as shells. Her nose turns up, cutely, just slightly, at the end. She glances up. William's eyes are the colour of the sky under which he stands. In an otherwise generous smile she cherishes the playful curl of his lips, the fissures scored into weathered cheeks. She leans forward, away from his gaze, teasing a brush over her lashes. She draws back, turning one way, then the other, fluffing up her hair and wondering if Jasper may have gone too far with the scissors. She looks down, squinting at her watch. It is 8.30. She had decided not to go to the vernissage, be alone among people she didn't care for. But Carlos had called, made her promise, and she has no other plans.
Her eyes move along the file of carved bottles. She pauses, choosing White Linen, a youthful fragrance she dabs in the hollow between her breasts. They are firm breasts, dappled pink from the shower, alert in the discreetly padded black bra of Italian silk. Like the surface of the earth her stomach is a low curve abutted by the abrupt rise of her hipbones. The stretch marks silvered into her hips by Nicholas have paled to translucent threads as imperceptible as ectoplasm. Her bottom has become flat, like a boy's.
She slips into black suede ankle boots and approaches the closet like a wanderer at the end of a long journey, flinging back the doors. Soft, sheltering arms of countless furs draw her into their embrace, the smell of dust and jungles and bloody sunsets claiming her like memories of childhood. She closes her eyes, draws comfort from the lynx, panther, the leopard. "Oneshot," she whispers, climbing into the skin as if returning to herself, her hands like the hands of another as they caress her breasts, ribs, hips, the satiny down of her pubis, her fingers discovering a hint of dampness she savours on the tip of her tongue. She is wet still. Like a virgin.
She steps from the closet into her skirt, sips Perrier. In William's gaze she discerns approval. She has been good, except when she wasn't, and he wouldn't begrudge her that. William is dressed for the bush, eyes constantly amused, strong hands that stilled her as he kissed her neck, blunt, forceful kisses that would send tremors of fire through her body, his warm tongue slithering into her ear. He would peel away her clothes, as he peeled a ripe mango, cutting it with the tip of his Ghurkha knife, stripping back segments, perfect as orange flames.
That same knife is on the bedside table in a leather sheath trimmed with silver and stained with sweat. She holds it to her face. His smell has gone, pilfered by time; in the end, time takes everything, even the curve of her bottom. The knife is heavy, crescent-shaped, the filigreed handle studded with coral and turquoise, a gift from the maharajah.
The past lay about her in gilt frames and bibelots, a conspiracy of objet d'art that remind her of warm afternoons when they made love beneath the mosquito nets, the unseen hands of servants stirring the sticky air with the soft murmur of bamboo fans, the chime of cymbals escaping the Hindu temple perched above the riverbank like a giant white cat. There is nothing like sex in the afternoon.
The memory she perceives as a puzzle of irregular pieces that can be laid out and gathered in, then laid again in immeasurable patterns. Tonight, now, in her fur, she journeys to Nepal where William's blue eyes hypnotised the natives and Oneshot's hot blood united them in a way that was more profound and sacred than the vows they had exchanged at the little Norman church in St Nicholas at Wade.
William had seen the leopard first, a fully grown male striding without fear through the clearing. He held his finger to her lips, pointed: He's yours, Charlie. Aim for the heart.
The animal had stopped, conscious of their scent. Her arm was steady. Her finger curled around the curve of the trigger. She squeezed and the shot ignited a kaleidoscopic inferno as ten thousand birds rose screeching into the air.
"Oneshot," said Krishna, the gun boy, his black face gashed by a smile dyed red with betel.
The sounds of the jungle reverberated away from them in concentric waves, as if they were the heart of the universe. The leopard remained quite still, as if struck by a sudden thought, then it's legs buckled and it wilted into the dust. They waited before approaching. The animal was awash in a sea the colour of melting rubies, the tide expanding under their feet, pulling at them like wet sand. William put his hand in the wound, then marked her forehead and cheeks with blood, the hot liquid running into her mouth and making her feel in touch with something primitive and divine.
"Oneshot," he said, echoing the gun boy.
She could taste the blood in her mouth. "Oneshot," she whispers, stroking her arm, her side, her breasts. The leopard had once been a coat and was now a mere jacket she would often say was fake because she couldn't be bothered with all those dull discussions. She, too, was an endangered species.
She jiggles the mirrors, checking her rear view, a tinkling tube of silver bracelets like something alive as they wriggle up and down her wrist. Her legs are good, shapely still, a little short now all the girls were growing so tall.
She blows William a kiss before turning out the light.
The refrigerator is empty but for the mustards and sauces, some soup cubes, a small piece of goat's cheese she eats with a cracker. She is about to leave, but returns again to the kitchen, takes a bottle of champagne from the cupboard and places it on the wire shelf.
The gallery is in the borderlands where the rich and poor of Chelsea meet like Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. She can see mansions and tower blocks with one sweep of the eye. Long shadows slide from the converging squares of light framed by the taxi windscreen. The sway of the wipers remind her of a ballet. She notices a boy and girl kissing under a street lamp, bodies glued with the intense longing of magnets. The vehicle slows, hissing through dark pools as shiny as liquorice.
"You've changed your hair, Charlie," says Carlos as she steps out of the taxi on to the damp paving stones. "It's wicked."
She pays the driver, waving away the change.
Carlos looks cross. "You know it's nearly nine," he says, steering her into his lair.
Inside the gallery morose guitars offer a counterpoint to passing opinions, greetings, a safety net of casual intimacy over the taut wire stretched inside her, a dull ache without substance yet always present, like old scars and disappointments. Square canvases made up of numerous smaller squares are poised in the glare of criss-crossing lights, the assembled guests with tilted faces as indistinguishable as sunflowers in a field. She has forgotten her glasses.
"He's going to be big." Carlos takes a deep breath in order to reveal the artist's sorcery. The cubes of canvas comprising each painting move on a complex of pivots to uncover endless fresh perspectives, an infinity of protean abstractions as changeable as the motions of the day, pale greens meandering into lagoons of alabaster, ivory, ochre, rust.
"You can transform the painting to suit your mood, even your dress."
Charlotte is distracted. A waiter glides by dispensing drinks. She notices Sylvie Waugh and Greta Tennant glancing at her through the haze of champagne bubbles and smoke, anticipating her imminent approach. They are comrades-in-arms, women without men, battle worn and faintly comical as they lean closer to exchange that which can only have been exchanged before. She is hot in the leopard skin. She feels like taking it off, running naked. She did it once on the Promenade d'Anglais and William had been boyishly proud.
"Guess who's had a little tuck." Carlos is at her side, clutching a pricelist, gazing at Sylvie Waugh, smiling through pursed lips. "Everyone's gone mad over Dr Salazar."
Sylvie raises limp fingers to wave.
"Don't wave back. It's bad manners," he says. "She hasn't bought a thing in five years. Doesn't she expect me to eat?" He was trembling.
"You, eat?" she asks.
"You're one to talk!" He stands back, appraises her as if he is appraising one of the cubes. "Have you been at the monkey glands again?"
"Are you still beating your boyfriend?"
"I'd call you a bitch if you weren't looking so super."
"I'm still not buying one of these." She waves her arm over the walls as if parodying the Queen waving from a carriage.
"He's going to be very big."
"Not in my life."
"You're so figurative, Charlie." He's about to stamp his foot, she's thinking, but controls himself. He needs her. They need each other. "You have colour, dear. Have you been in the sun?"
"I was skiing with Nicholas and the children."
He winces, as if an ice cube were touching a raw nerve in a decaying tooth. Carlos's friends having children was scarcely tolerable. Their children having children was an abomination, an intimation of his own impermanence, a reminder of the grey hair icing his temples. "You should wear a mask," he says tartly, his expression softening as he remembers that a sale tomorrow is better than two spits of venom today. He looks her up and down in the same way she had looked at herself before leaving the house.
Their eyes meet, she hisses, clawing the front of his jacket. Carlos gives her an appreciative smile that made her think of William, of William's smile. How different they were. William wouldn't have been seen dead here, among these people.
"Come," Carlos says, "there's someone you ought to meet."
She follows him through the demons of blue smoke, offering cheeks to barren kisses, halting at a panorama of scorched vermilion veined in red and amber.
"Adrian Winter, my artist, and this is Roberto," he says. His eye-lashes were making a draught. "May I present Lady Wilde."
"Robert," says Roberto.
"Charlotte Wilde. Charlie," she replies.
They shake hands, the silver bangles ringing the hour as they slither up and down her wrist.
She shakes the artist's hand and Carlos, pricelist held like a flag of truce, takes him off in the direction of Sylvie Waugh and Greta Tennant. The bangles grow silent. They are alone. Two strangers. Robert is smiling and she notices that he has full lips and straight, even white teeth. He is tall, almost as tall as William, and wears a black jacket with a dark blue shirt unbuttoned at the collar. His sideburns are long and tapering, his black hair glossy under the lights. In his right ear there is a golden ear-ring.
"I don't think I've seen you before. Are you a collector?"
"Not of paintings," he replies, lowering his head towards her. "I met Carlos at a club. He gave me an invitation." He produces it from his pocket, a corroboratory piece of evidence, folded in two, phone numbers on the back.
She glances around the walls, at the moveable cubes. "Do you like them?"
He shrugs. "It's all clever stuff, I suppose," he says. He leans close again. "To tell the truth, I think they're a load of old rubbish."
"So do I," she says and he smiles, as if enjoying a secret.
The waiter passes. Robert takes two glasses of champagne, the action opening the next button on his shirt and freeing a few stray wisps of dark hair. She can smell masculine scents, the jungle, the leopard.
"Have you known Carlos long?" he asks, and she throws back her head to laugh.
He takes out cigarettes, lights up, offers the packet as an afterthought.
"I gave up."
"I don't think I'll ever give up."
"But you must."
"You'll live longer."
"It's not how long, is it, Charlie. It's how much."
Her name comes easily to his tongue, as if they have known each other for a long time. There is a spark in his eyes, a flame that lights something inside her and casts the faces of those around them into shadow. She manoeuvres herself in such a way as to turn her back on Sylvie Waugh and Greta Tennant. She has no desire to see them, say all the things that have been said before. Time is an athlete. You have to keep running.
More people are entering. Charlotte is squeezed into a corner below the vermilion canvas through which a tall girl with yellow cropped hair is navigating a sapphire river, rotating the cubes, screaming at each new creation.
"Yes. Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yeeeeeeeesss."
Robert says something but she doesn't quite catch what it is. Her eyes are stinging.
"I'm going to get some air."
She smiles, raising her voice. "I need air."
As he follows her out she notices Carlos with that tight, knowing little smile of his and doesn't smile back.
It is drizzling still. Robert draws her into the doorway next to the gallery, leaves his arm lightly on her shoulder.
"There're always too many people for that tiny space and everyone smokes," she says, regretting her words immediately. "It's fun, though," she adds, turning to look at him. He was gazing impassively out into the night.
The black shape of a taxi grows from the dark, its yellow light dimmed in the gossamer rain.
"Have you eaten?" she asks him. He shakes his head.
She steps out from the shelter. "Let's. My treat."
"Nice one, Charlie."
She gives directions to a restaurant in Montpelier Street and they settle into the taxi's leathery warmth, thighs touching, and it feels as if they are inside the body of a living animal. She hasn't done anything like this for ages. It was all HRT and fast walking, green salads and for what? For this. For those moments, fragile as perfection, those fleeting seconds when you become yourself again. She smiles, picturing Sylvie and Greta in her mind as two people at a graveside watching the past being lowered into the dirt. Instinctively, she rubs the collar of her jacket. The rain has brought the smell to life.
"Is it real?" he asks.
She stares back into his eyes. "Yes," she says. "It's a leopard. And he has a name: Oneshot."
"It's nice." He brushes the collar, the back of his hand burning her cheek.
"I shot him," she adds. She was glad he wasn't one of those animal rights types. She wasn't sure what type he was. He was like an exotic fruit, she decides, a durian perhaps, alien to the tongue.
He lights a cigarette while she pays the driver and holds the door for her to enter the restaurant. They didn't have a reservation but it was early still and Stefano seats them in one of the tables by the window.
"Bella Signora, I never see you for long time."
"I was skiing."
"Then you must have soup." He kisses his fingers. "We make this morning. Mama's recipe."
She nods her assent.
He looks at Robert. "And you, Dottore? You have the same, no."
"If that's what you suggest."
He speaks with confidence; a deep voice, rough around the edges. He studies the menu, asking for translations of things he doesn't understand, his brow creasing as he files away the answers. Charlotte believes you can read character in physiognomy alone, in his hollow cheeks, in the hint of complexity about his orphan's eyes. He looks strong but vulnerable. She has a sudden desire to take care of him. There are three dishes that have taken his fancy and he is finding it hard to decide.
"Let's have all three and share them?" she says.
"The wine?" asks Stefano.
She glances across the table. "Red or white?"
"Red," he says. "Always."
"Red it is. Pick a good one for us."
Stefano snaps his fingers and the two waiters hovering in the background begin a ballet, moving cutlery, finding olives, a basket bread. One of them opens wine, pouring a small sparkling ruby like spilt blood into Robert's glass.
He drinks slowly. "It's fine," he declares.
"You're quite the expert," she tells him and he leans forward with that air of sharing a confidence.
"I've seen it done on the telly," he replies.
They clink glasses and she drinks with unexpected thirst, as if the fire he has lit inside her needs to be quenched, the wine making her feel instantly frivolous and light-headed. As he refills the glasses she has to control an impulse to reach out and touch the back of his hand. Men are hunters. They enjoy their prey more after the chase. She knows these things. Charlotte plays with her food, watching him. He eats impatiently, leaning over his plate. She is amused by the way he uses a spoon as a pivot to steady the spaghetti. She will show him the right way another day, when they are alone. It seems already, so quickly, as if they are friends who have dined together before and will do so again many times in the future. It is when the past outshines the future that the eyes dim, the lines etch their marks on your face.
"What do you do?" she asks, the question rising unwittingly to her lips.
He shrugs dismissively, which is exactly how William would have responded.
"Bit of this, bit of that. Bit of the other sometimes." He pauses, pointing at her with his spoon. "And I know what you do," he adds.
"You ski," he says. "And shoot leopards."
"Not any more."
"What's it like, you know, hunting and that?"
Charlotte thinks for a moment. "Every second is bursting with danger. You feel completely alive."
"Live fast, die young."
"Is that what you believe in?"
"You're a dangerous character, Robert."
"Me? You're the one that kills harmless creatures."
The light is glistening about his ear-ring. He has turned up the collar of his jacket for the rain. She folds it straight and he smiles, mouth full of spaghetti vongole.
"You have quite an appetite," she says, and he sits back with a playful expression.
"How about you? How's your appetite, Charlie?"
She looks into his eyes and can't stop herself wondering how old he is. Nicholas was twenty-nine and she thanked God he wasn't yet thirty.
"Exquisite," she says.
He orders a brandy. He is out of cigarettes and calls for another pack, lighting up and blowing the smoke into the glass. The bill appears and she drops her gold card on the plate, signing the slip without trying to read it. She trusted Stefano, even if he was a crook.
Charlotte can't remember the last time she felt so light-hearted and laughs at nothing in particular as they run out into the night, hurrying between the cars as if with some unspoken urgency. On the corner they find a cab and she gives the driver her address. Harrods is lit like a funfair palace. Foreign girls with long thin bodies are leaning into the windows of cars outside the tube in South Kensington. One of them had been murdered just recently but there were more to take her place.
As they climb the stairs, Charlotte needs a few moments to herself. "Do you want to take a shower? I'll get some champagne."
She shows him the bathroom and descends again. In the powder room she studies herself in the mirror, lifting her chin, exploring her green eyes. Jasper had done a good job with her hair.
She collects the bottle and two glasses. He has surfaced from the shower and stands beside the bed with a towel loosely about his waist. He has broad shoulders, a netting of dark hair on his chest, a tattoo on his arm.
She goes to the bathroom to undress, stands naked before the mirror. She has always had good breasts, no sagging, the areola circling each nipple pink as a flower.
Charlotte returns cloaked in a towel, glancing momentarily about the bedroom. Memories are stifling. She should sell up, move into the future, buy a loft with exposed piping and a view of the ever changing river. He is looking at the Ghurkha knife and pulls it from the sheath before she can stop him.
"No, no, you mustn't," she cries, hurrying across the room towards him.
He drops the knife back on the table. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean nothing."
She had raised her voice, but smiles now, speaks softly. "Poor baby," she says reassuringly. "It's a superstition."
"I thought it was just a knife, like."
He was boyish again. She feels ridiculous making a fuss. "It's more than just a knife. If you take the blade from the sheath it has to taste blood before it can be returned. It's the tradition."
He retrieves the knife and nicks his finger which she sacks, their eyes locked together, two animals in a courting ritual, the taste of blood an elixir on her lips. She breaks away and gives him the champagne to open. The cork explodes from the bottle, firing across the room and striking William on the chest.
"Oneshot," she says and giggles, the bubbles from her glass like mosquitoes about her cheeks and nose. She puts the glass down, encircles him with her arms. He kisses her, his tongue pushing into her mouth. She turns her head.
"Slowly, slowly, catch a monkey," she whispers.
The towels that cover them slip to the floor and it is so effortless, so normal, dropping to the bed, drawing his weight upon her, burying herself in his power, his smell. She closes her eyes and it feels as if she is floating, rising and falling on the coils of sultry air that plume over the desert. She is a bird, soaring high, gliding above the world. She can feel the energy passing from him into every dark secluded part of her, setting her nerves alight, freeing her from all thought. The past has gone. William was dead. He has been dead half her life time, not hunting game, nor climbing in the Himalayas, but needlessly at the wheel of a car on the M2.
Robert is a patient lover, slow and compatible, waiting for her, giving more when she had believed there was no more left to give. His release is a gushing river, the sensation gliding down from her groin to her legs, burning her toes and turning through the soles of her feet, arching her back and making her growl like a leopard. He pants in her ear, drawing breath before rolling exhausted on to his back. She runs her palm over the fur of his chest. He kisses his fingertips and touches them to her lips before reaching for his glass.
"Your skin's so soft," she says.
"So's yours, Charlie."
She smiles. "How old are you, Robert?"
He drinks before answering, a moment for her to ask herself why she had asked the question.
"Twenty-five," he says.
"Twenty-five!" She sits back and looks at him again. "I thought you were older."
"You know how it is. You age quickly in my line of work."
"Charlie, you don't think I do this for nothing?"
"I don't understand?"
"Come on, darling, you weren't born yesterday."
He is rubbing his thumb and first finger together, a gesture from the souk and she hates it. His expression has changed. He has that look, the cocky look that belongs to a certain type. He refills his glass with more champagne and the way he drinks it down like water is careless, thoughtless. They're all so thoughtless these days. They make her so angry.
"You..." she says, and she would never be entirely sure how the knife came to be in her hand. William was watching. The sun has lifted over the trees. Aim for the heart. "Oneshot," she says and the blood just kept gushing out from one hole, then another, covering her face and running into her mouth, flooding the sheets in a ruby red lake, uniting them forever.