Passing Through - 1/3 - Passing the time/Three-day work trip
By Stephen Thom
1. Passing the time/Three-day work trip - 2007
K watched her frantic waving through the window. His eyes felt sticky as he widened them to mimic her own bulging white eggs, and her hand spread a pointed pink rainbow. He raised his own as if catching a tennis ball, clamped it back on the steering wheel, and pulled off.
He could still see the urgent hand-wiping in the mirror, the screwed-up smile. It stalked him to the end of the street. In a deep unit of his brain he felt that he detested her today.
It was possible to detest everything when you're this tired, K thought. A red bulb slipped into the edge of his vision, and he stopped. Sleek, glassy, coloured mounds assembled around him.
'I feel so happy today. I can't believe how happy I feel.'
Why would you say that? People don't commentate on their feelings.
'I'm glad you're happy.'
'I put four yoghurts in your box. Two for both mornings, for your fruit. You'll have to put them in the minibar when you get there. You will have one, won't you? K?'
'Two for both mornings, the vanilla type, because they might not have it in the shops. For your fruit. Two each, because one's not usually...will you ask them to put them in one of their own fridges, if you don't have a minibar?'
'Yes.' I will absolutely ask them to put my four vanilla yoghurts in their fridge.
'And phone me when you get there. K, when you get there. You didn't last time, and I have to sit and wait and...'
'It's only an hour away this time.'
Her hair was a frizz explosion. She fingered the edges of her dressing gown and hit little peaks at the end of each sentence. He dug the balls of his hands into his eyes.
'I'll ring when I'm there.'
Her hands were shaking as she put them round the back of his head.
K binned the yoghurts in the parking lot, checked in, and headed for the bar just past the reception. A girl with weird earlobes served him a pint and he finished it in four gulps. The second went just as quickly, and by the third he felt relaxed. The smooth wood of the bar stretched out beneath his hands, nondescript suits flitted past, and a dark hue pressed into the walls behind him. Staff were lighting little red candles on the restaurant tables. Someone rustled a newpaper at the far end of the bar, and he watched the girl's hips as she fetched him a whisky.
The clock on the far wall read seven pm. A tweedy old man and his blue-rinse wife swanned into the restaurant. K picked at crumbly flecks in his inner eye. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a decent night's sleep.
The newspaper rustler was a bright white face at the end of the bar now, jabbering away at a leaning suit. The newspaper soaked up excited beer spills. She kept waking up in the night. Puffing about. He should have asked her why. But he knew what it would lead to. Last night he'd opened his eyes, and he knew she was watching him. He could feel the horrid little eggs burrowing into him.
There had been a second time...a second time, he might have awoken. He thought he saw her through the dark, standing facing the closed door. Not a centimetre away from it.
He drained the glass and looked up. The lights at the bar burned. A skinny young man in a waistcoat ambled over and took his glass.
'Where's the girl?' K mumbled.
'Where's the-?' The kid's eyebrows furrowed, then his lips pursed. 'She knocked off.'
K waved the back of his hand and struggled off the stool.
Lukewarm lamplight pinched his eyes as he groped at his mobile, swigging from a tiny bottle. He lay back on the thick duvet and let the dial tone mush around his head. The bedside clock clicked past eleven as it droned on. He felt the duvet swallowing him. The dial tone died.
She was screaming.
'Not now, I told you not now, I told you before, I told you to wait!'
He held his breath. There was an empty static rustle, and he heard her whimpering.
'He only left. Only this morning! I told you to wait!'
There was a fried buzz to her shrieks. K clutched the duvet in his left hand. There were wet, guttural noises.
'You come to me!' She screeched. 'You come to me, you fucker! You wait 'til then!'
There was a final, broken-breathed pause. Then a wall of static screaming.
'You. Don't. Ring. Me!'
K absorbed the dead click and sudden silence. He lay the phone down and gazed at the mottled layers of shadows melding on the ceiling. His heart was thumping and his fingers bunched the sheets underneath him. Fragmented images swam with the dark shapes above.
How many times had he been gone this year?
He lurched up from the bed and slumped down beside the minibar. A car's horn blared outside and he twisted the cap off another little bottle. The glass chinked his teeth and drunken voices drifted up as wheels screeched. The pool of bedside light spread to his left knee and already K was picturing her in a thousand different positions. Some man, some...man.
A relentlessly enthusiastic, dressing-gown wave at the window. Four vanilla yoghurts. For your fruit.
A phone call.
When had -
Three-day trips, so not the first day. In case. Wait for his call. Call me as soon as you arrive. The second day...
The back door? Past the fence at the end of the back garden. Not through the street. prying eyes. The back door, wedged shut... lips pressed together, hands groping...
Standing in front of the bedroom door at night.
K fished for a third bottle. His face itched.
Younger, subservient. Freaky dynamics.
A washy yellow circle fanned out on the ceiling and he felt for the car keys in his pocket.
I feel so happy today.
He left the car at the end of the street and stuck close to the hedges. The moon cut a bright hole in the sky, following him as he brushed against spiky protrusions. Parked cars lined up to usher him past and the padding of his shoes amplified. He'd wanted to go the back route, but was scared of the possibilities.
With this in mind, K slipped into the next door garden. His head swithered with dizziness as he knelt to crawl across the dewy grass. Negotiating upset kids' tricycles and footballs, he eased over the waist-high fence at the back.
The gravel pathway crunched as he landed and he crouched down again, waddling closer to his own rear fence. Through murky shifts he had a sudden feeling of utter ridiculousness, and jolted upright. He saw the bedroom window, saw the square of light, and ducked back down.
Squatted in the dark beside his fence, he fluctuated between urges. His hands and knees were wet and dirty, and the night air had flattened the boiling internal drive. Puffing wisps of cold air, he drew dot-to-dot lines in his head, rebuilding and remoulding the dissipated images. He knew he wanted to. From the wooden planks in the fence he brought the waving rainbow hand, the dressing gown, the phone call. The phone call to be sure. A light rain cooled his brow, and he had him pulling her top over her head; kissing her neck, reaching round to unclasp...
K went for the fence, clamping his hands on it and bounding. His right leg was less ready, caught, and his cheek hit the grass with a thump. He lay frozen in a paranoid frenzy, staring at the box of light. He lay as long as he could bear it. There were no movements to break the dull glow, no tangled shadows.
I'm glad your happy.
Slipping across the grass in some kind of strange, waterless breaststroke, K flattened his back against the wall of the house. He tried to hold his breath, and felt it escaping in quivering bursts. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he twisted his legs and head, raising his chin towards the light. He was wedged awkwardly against the wall, squinting, when he heard a smash.
He pulled his head back, pressed it into the dark wall beside the window, and breathed. Then he nudged his right cheek out to peer inside.
There was a scream, and a garbled volley of words. Her voice. He edged his face further from the wall. The room gained sudden, crisp clarity, and he could see her arms gesticulating. She was shouting, pained screeches. He saw her turn; the back of her head bobbing, the hair frizzy and wild. Then she spun and faced the window, her face a twisted, wrinkled mask of vitriol. Her eyes were deeply sunk, her pupils were dilated, and she swung a bottle in her left hand, spraying drops around as she pushed it to punctuate her ravings.
K motioned to duck down again, but resisted as he took in the gleaming fishbowls of her eyes. The furious white portrait vented at the window a while longer, before veering off round the room. Her fingers stabbed and the bottle flared before she stumbled and clattered against the cupboard, dressing gown fanning out around her.
There was no-one else in the room.
He watched her a while longer. He watched her swig and spit and mutter at the carpet. He watched her pull herself over the the bedside table, pull down a tiny plastic pouch, rummage, and greedily swallow something in the palm of her hand. He watched her drink straight after, then drink some more. She gnawed at her bottom lip. The rain painted a fine film over his forehead. The pointing and talking became ever more clouded, and her head swung into her chest. Her eyes rolled back. She mumbled some more, drooled, and fell asleep against the cupboard.
K turned away and sat leaning against the wall underneath the window. The clear cut of the moon was still watching him, and a spread of stars had slipped out, blinking accusingly. He rubbed his dirty hands against his trousers and felt the rain mingle with waves of relief. He tried to count up the days he had been away, and tried to think of the amount of empty bottles he had come home to. It didn't really matter. He did the same, in a way. She had to pass the time. He thought he would get rid of the little plastic pouch. It was probably responsible for the phone conversation.
If it was more than that...it was likely more than that. There would be things people could do. People she could talk to, or something.
Padding back down to the fence, he thought of the barmaid's hips. The rain fell heavier; great, drilling drops.
* * *