David is a romantic. Most people wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t think of him as…tender in this respect, no one would, he knows, he doesn’t look it, as many he sees on the streets don’t, but who can really tell, after all, who can tell. He doesn’t make that mistake, he doesn’t look at a bulgy man his eye only chances upon from the other side of the road and think, he doesn’t look the part, he’s not young and handsome, wavy hair, strong arms, he doesn’t look like Errol Flynn, so he’ll never even think like he does. And who does he think he is. No, for all he knows, the man could have a heart of gold, full of dreams and poetry. Like David.
Old smoochy. Come now, we won’t go that far. Smoochy. He isn’t that. He has manners. He’s always been a gentleman. You don’t have to look like Errol Flynn if you have manners. Oh, he loves the old pictures. Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart. And Joan, before all others, beautiful, decent, underrated Joan, Joan, in her sister’s shadow. He looks up and behind him, at her poster across the room. It’s a blow-up made from an autograph card, he got it cheaply from an art shop, at least that’s what they call themselves, art shops. Insultingly cheaply. There she is, youthful against a cushion, her right hand behind her head, her hair, her beautiful hair, stuck up, the words “Sincere Good Wishes” above her signature. He had replaced a smaller print with it, and it not only did the space better, it was also not quite so bold, on the other she leans into the camera and looks right at him, looks at him the whole time, and there can be times when he’d feel judged, rightly judged. She also looks older on that one, more styled, an evening dress, pearl necklace. He much prefers this one. The end of her hair would be so soft.
Soft as your spot, soft as your spot. He chuckles, and turns back to the window. He doesn’t share this soft spot. He doesn’t need to. That’s the problem with so many people, their eagerness to share betrays a desperation they often don’t know they have. And what do they share. A lot about themselves, a real lot. That’s where the bad manners already begin. He doesn’t feel the need, no longer, not since long. You have manners, you don’t need that. And with manners he can feel content. That people can tell. That he is content. Fine with himself, fine in himself, good humored, mannered. The secret to his success, the secret to his secret, because he doesn’t look the part. The romantic. You don’t ask for anything, you will be given.
Oh, you old bugger, how many times have you had this conversation. He smiles. From his second floor window he has a good view on the row on the other side of the road, and beyond. It’s lower than his, and he can see across the roofs, and the chimneys. All brick here. He doesn’t ask for much. Right now, at last, some rain is falling, a little, without the promise of holding for long, and looking warm. Not yet enough to combat the heat. It is quite hot at thee moment. Low pressure, dense air. The overcast sky is dying everything in hesitant light.
But it is true, what mature age has before youth. Experience, patience. Knowing what they want before they do, not asking yourself. Charm, that’s the word, charm. He’d had many relationships, many more than some, and he wasn’t done, ageing doesn’t cool the passion, but gives it pace. One wouldn’t think how many he’d had, people wouldn’t think. Of course, they’ve grown much better, hadn’t always been very good. Youth. Impatience, frustration, heartbreak. Farther back it’s been disastrous. He now thinks back of his real relationships, those that worked out. Those that had been good, real. Consumed. Don’t be rude. Words can be too much, don’t be rude.
They were wonderful, their stories, each one, sweet and wonderful. You’re patient, you’re charming, it opens doors, it’s working wonders, good manners will go a long way. He’s thinking back on some of them. Their faces, their smiles, their scents. Their hair. Never too long, but the sweeter each one has been. Not one an idol, but those imperfections make it better, with ever time a little better. And there is only one true idol. He turns once more to look at her, in her light dress, with ornaments over her shoulders, a hand behind her head.
Of course he knows. He knows, he tells his Joan, he knows, of course he knows. A little fantasy won’t hurt, a little make-believe, a story of beauty. The prerogative of the romantic. When ugliness sounds you hang the sky with violins. But he knows, no need to worry, he knows.
His most recent love, her name was Violet, what a name. For the name alone he could have asked her, but it wasn’t her name, it was everything else, her voice, the shyness of her disposition, those beautiful eyes, and her hair. The many imperfections, too, you won’t shun those, who are you yourself. They shared a male on the first day, Violet and he. He is a good listener. Expect that from the young men, so full of themselves. Women like an open ear. And a good listener won’t ever pretend. He always liked to listen to a woman. He always listen with attention, to every detail, their story is their first gift to him, and they can tell. And so they give another. Whether very young, or mature, like he himself. She was barely thirty. Unhappy, like so many. This veil of shadows. At the heart of the hurt was a young man, what else. He remembers his name. But what of it. Soon into the meal she had told him everything, her parents, not a happy household, her last job, a cascade of woes. He was there for her, then, in the small restaurant with its cheap red and white checkered table cloths, and for some time after. She never had a relationship like this, and for him it was a little better than before. It was short, it only lasted for as long as they needed another. And he always hears from them again.
David leans forward and pushes the sash window all the way up. It is really hot today, the rain has no effect whatsoever. And it is letting down. It’s already late afternoon. Too bad, during the rain the child next door is inevitably home. To his left, they gave him a room right next to this, why did they give him a room on the second floor. That brat, he can hear him. He curses, a very rude word, and he can’t help but enact what he’d like to do to this brat, this spoiled brat, does it to the air, and finally he lashes out at his armchair, gives it the lashes someone should give the brat.
What are you doing, you ridiculous man. The armchair hasn’t done anything. Sit down, it’s still early. He looks at Joan, feeling foolish. Embarrassed. But it spoils everything, this little brat, the noise. He may be forgiven a little temper. Joan only beautiful, Joan not looking at him, it’s better than the other. He knows, he wants to tell her. Of course he knows.
Violet had dark blond hair, the sort that looks quite ashen in a certain light. She’d worn a blue, short jacket, and brown slacks, a good combination. Cheap, of course, probably not new when she’d bought them. Her nail polish was peeling, and she might have helped it, absent-mindedly. She wore very little make-up, eye-liner, a little mascara, that was it, and he’d liked the modesty. There are always some others details one will fall in love with. He gets up to make himself a cup of tea. It’s still early. He’s good with the times alone. Solitude is much easier for him than for others. Most people are consumed by desperation. No wonder they can’t make it work.
Perhaps later the air will be better. Just a little. Sometimes one has to go out for a reason, to meet people, to meet someone. There’s still time. First a cup of tea.
He had really loved her hair.
David has always liked double weather. Sunshine hitting the asphalt while rain is still falling. It’s atmospheric. It gives you both for the admission of one. The last drops are sounding on his umbrella, and the light gleams off the aubergine bricks and into his blinded eyes, quite golden, and the sky above him is shredded. But it’s all too damp, all too warm, the air weighs down on him with the mass of a whale rotting in the summer. The evening might bring relief.
He’s wearing a light summer suit and brown shoes. Listens to the sound of his steps. At times like these he envisions himself in a more exotic part of the world. Morocco, Tangier. He’s seen pictures. In his tan suit, having left the hotel for an evening stroll after a very rare and short-lived fall of rain, ready to explore the strange city’s night life. It helps with the heat. It would be normal to be hot in Tangier. Only the red bricks don’t fit. He can make them. A hidden quarters, unknown to most visitors, reserved only to the locals, they call it the Dark District, full of dim opium dens, square caves of disreputable character. The dark district of sin. It’s not perfect. But he’s getting there.
Had Joan ever been to Tangier? He bets she had. A star like she. But not to the Dark District, not to any of the more dubious corners, she was too decent for that, angels do not go there. She would have worn a veil during the day, to protect her hair from the harsh sun, and she would have kept to the shades, and to the fanned cafés.
David is torn out from his thoughts and back into the here and now. The rain hasn’t yet died away completely, but already some people where out and about. The local version of Tangier’s night life, visits to the relatives, but mostly pubs, until last order. How petty, all this. Who will begrudge him his little fantasies. What had brought him out had been a denim jacket over a blue T-shirt and a pair of shorts, not dissimilar in color to his own suit. Not a good combination. It testifies to lack of care. But the shorts aren’t too short, and she makes up for everything with the way she’d made up her hair, dark brunette hair, probably dyed, full, and made up a little like in the old days.
She stands below the red and white canopy of the off-license, that thing hadn’t been rolled back in since Victoria had died. She’s looking left and right in frustration, but seems oblivious to the passersby. He’s late. Perhaps he’s not coming. Perhaps they should have arranged a better spot to meet.
They always stand out, don’t they. Not in any different light, not in sharper focus, or more saturated. Just in meaning. She isn’t as youthful as her outfit suggests. Maybe mid-thirties, maybe end. That doesn’t need to be the explanation for her hairdo. The older fashions frequently make come-backs. That’s their strength. Yes, sometimes he believes everything had already been reached to satisfaction, and one may as well leave it at that.
The off-licence has been closed hours ago, she’s only used the canopy to shelter from the rain. She isn’t damp, though, which either means she has sheltered just in time or she’s been dropped off, perhaps by a cab. David guesses the former. Means she must have been standing there for a while. He doesn’t pause or change his pace, nowadays people can be alarmed easily, they either don’t care or are alarmed, indifference or fear, only extremes these days, indifference or fear. He passes her without been granted a glance, then halts and half turns. Can I help you, my dear? He’s expected a frown, no one is used to being offered anything anymore, everyone has ulterior motives, everything has to cost something. But her demeanor doesn’t change, and she only shakes her head and mouths a no, thank you. David loves these first moments for their delicacy, much, if not everything is decided in them, they send him on his way, and he’ll be on his way, or they’ll allow a single beam of sunshine in. It makes them very rich, these moments. Tense, but a tension that’s to be held under. He looks into her eyes, those beautiful eyes, and nods, and turns to walk on. Hey mister, she says, would he know the time. He does, and he tells her. She can’t help but to give this a scoff, muted, but audibly angry. David briefly glances at the watch she’s wearing. Have you been stood up? Kinda. She replies in the same manner she dresses, younger than she is. It doesn’t suit her. The imperfections, the smaller and the bigger ones.
Can I bum a smoke from you, she asks. He apologizes, he is a non-smoker. Never touched one in his life. And he wouldn’t. Nasty habit, ugly, unhealthy, and it makes people look stupid. He doesn’t tell her that, never a good start to lecture others. The last drops are falling from where small abundances of rain have collected. She curses under her breath. Well, I hate to leave you standing, in distress. I’m alright, she says, you’re very kind, though it doesn’t sound as if she means it. Too preoccupied with being stood up. Those young men of today. Well, I hope he’ll turn up soon. She makes a sour face. You can’t trust them, you know, men that age. If a young men doesn’t treat a lady the way she deserves she may as well consider he options. He’s her boyfriend, she informs him sharply, and what the hell is this his business, anyway. David apologizes again, he’ll be on his way, if he’s her boyfriend he’ll no doubt be here any minute now. Like hell he’ll be, she mutters, and lets out a string of expletives, the sort he normally reserves for the brat next door.
David looks at the young woman. She isn’t happy. Neither in the relationship nor in general. More than anything they want to talk, to tell someone, even though they often don’t know. It won’t solve their problems, it won’t solve their lives, but it’s a start, it can help give an idea about direction, looking at it all soberly, saying it out loud for the first time, and if he can he can give a piece of advice, with more decades on the shoulder he has reached the point from where he may.
Tell you something, he nods, I’’m not doing anything right now, I’m on an evening’s stroll, it doesn’t make sense for you to stand out here the whole time, why don’t we go for something to drink, right across there, the pub, you’ll be able to see the spot from there. My expense, of course. We’ll have a drink, we’ll talk, and if your fellow…when your fellow comes all you have to do is knock at the window, or shout out the door.
She’s considering this, gnawing on her lower lip. Young people of today, they always seem to think it’s all done with making yourself up nicely. No thought left for grace. The Joans of yesterday, they are no more.
What kinda creep are you, she finally quips. It doesn’t sound hostile, perhaps it’s just her way of looking tough. No, really, it’s no trouble, I can afford a couple of pints, and I’m not doing anything special. Get your hands off me, and now she shouts, and a man who’s passed them is looking back at them. He hadn’t even touched her. Yeah, look at me like a sheep! What are you taking me for? Did I ask you to pester me? What is it you’re after, you old lecher?
This causes an elderly lady to stop, and unlike the man before she doesn’t continue on her way. David tries to placate the girl with raised hands, but she misinterprets, repeating her warning about being touched, and it’s all much too loud. Several pedestrians are now interested, though most keep on walking. David tries to sound as reasonable as possible, but he notices he’s shaking his head a tad too vehemently. He assures her of his good intentions, no dubious thoughts, but she calls him an old pervert, and waves him on. David can’t decide what’s worst, her loud voice, his impression that she’s beginning to enjoy this, or the basilisk eyes of that woman. Finally he has no choice but to leave, and were he only a mile away already. My deepest apologies if I have offended you, it was misunderstanding. Have a good evening. Each sentence counterpointed by the repeated “Move on. Move on.” Were he only a mile or two farther. He’s sweating, and although he’s been walking a considerable distance already, and faster than he’d liked to, he thinks he can still feel their eyes in his neck, more eyes now, all their eyes. That’s your reward for being friendly. For caring. What times we’re living in, when caring is being punished, when it’s mistaken for ill intend first thing, and always ill intend. People no longer believe that another’s intentions can be pure. His heart is racing. Such a thing is enough to get someone in trouble. No harm’s been done, he’s only meant well, and it’ll land him in trouble.
He wants to go home, but he can’t yet. It’s all been too close. The shortest way is the way back, and he can’t go the same way back. He’s not sure he can walk that way in a long time, even though it’s his neighborhood. Stupid! You’re stupid! Such a thing can happen, people are so mistrusting nowadays, you mustn’t approach anyone this close to your home. To your home!
He tries to collect himself, but can’t. Best he can achieve is a somewhat normal gait, and not giving into the temptation of looking back and about him. He’d walk until the first chance to turn right, then back the parallel street, it’ll take him far beyond his house, but the better is, the better is. There are shops he uses where it happened. He can’t see himself visiting those shops in a while. If anyone had witnessed this, it’s too embarrassing.
His mood is spoiled. He’d peered to the right before entering his house, and everything had looked normal, only few people out and about, and no one had looked in his direction. No one had pointed. Just a middle-aged man, returning home. Invisible.
Walking upstairs he had heard the brat and his mother. Still? At least some peace now, instead he could still hear him. Wasn’t he supposed to be in bed already? He should go, knock at their door, here, let me put him to bed, let me show what parenting is supposed to be like. Whacking the little brat’s behind, ten, fifteen lashes with the belt, so, that’s what he needs! Complaining, nagging, shouting and screaming all day long, he needs to know how hard life can be for an adult, even without this constant noise! Privileged, sheltered, spoilt little brat! Proper lashes with the belt knuckle! He’d said it out loud. Then repeated it even louder, in the hope they could hear him. Proper lashes with the belt knuckle! They didn’t go quiet, so they hadn’t heard him.
It had taken him a while to calm down, a long while. He had barely managed to get into his slippers, and he’d gotten angry at the things. He’d poured himself something soothing, but had paced up and down endlessly, knowing how easily it will exhaust him. He’d called the girl names, ugly names, names he’d normally not use, but he couldn’t help himself. Don’t meet anyone here. Not around here. Don’t meet anyone this close to home.
He’d grunted and cursed a lot, and he’d gesticulated. It’s one thing to be composed among people, and to keep it that way. Over the years the safety of home has transitioned from a place where he can let himself go to a trap in which he has to let himself go. Finding it ever harder to stop.
Now he does stop. Finally. Heaves a breath, and looks down at his feet. It’s not so much about finding the right moment. They just happen. One moment it’s all over. He has stopped before her portrait. Had placed the sherry on the chest of drawers below her, because he knows. Of course he knows.
He looks up at her. For once he wishes she would be looking at him in this one, too. So he can apologize. But he can. No eyes needed for that. He apologizes. That soft dress, that soft, soft hair. She could be looking into a far distance, or a near-by fireplace. Tiny white lights in her eyes.
David is an early riser, so he’s already long up and about his morning routine when the knock comes. After showering and shaving, he’d be as apt at shaving in the dark or with a blindfold as others before a brightly lit mirror, he’d chosen his attire carefully and made himself a small breakfast, nothing too fancy, he doesn’t exercise enough for that. A slice of ham, scrambled eggs, sweet potatoes, mushrooms and baked beans, small portion, and a glass of orange juice. As per his habit, he’d cleaned the dishes right away, fastened a tie, and gone down for the papers. He couldn’t have gone through with not visiting the shops for the time being, at least not those right outside the door. Best to get it over with right away. It turned out that he’d worried for nothing. No one acting suspiciously.
Armed with the papers he’s just made himself some coffee — two sugars and a splash of cream — and now the knocking at the front door. Twice a double knock, sharp, loud, though not overly demanding beyond that. David freezes. Nothing ever good about visitors. He immediately connects the knocking with yesterday’s events. Mustn’t do that, mustn’t do that, all kinds of reasons why someone could come knocking, and they’re never ever good, the landlord, someone who wants to lay out rat poison in the cellar without having announced themselves. But the timing. The timing. If he pretends he’s not home. They wouldn’t force their way in.
Again the knocking, same knocking, twice a double knock. They could have spotted him when he was out buying the papers. He goes downstairs, makes sure he’s loud enough, so they won’t knock again, but they do, same knocking. Yes, yes, coming, coming.
They’re two, two men, one only a little younger, slowly growing belly, and a moustache, single silver hairs in between the almost black ones. He doesn’t like facial hair. The other quite young, gaunt, and with this resting expression of boredom David knows to be cruel indifference. He carefully avoids being too surprised. The older addresses him by name, it’s alright, they can read his name on the letter box. The man identifies himself as Inspector Langdon, but doesn’t introduce his partner. Whether they could have a word with him. What’s this about? David takes care to make it sound very polite, intrigued almost, and then not to wait for an answer, but to usher them in, please wipe your feet.
He’s read about the hoarders, the people who never clean, and who keep everything indoors, even garbage. He doesn’t have to worry about his home being presentable, he’s always neat and tidy. Unusual, to have your front room on the top floor. Evidently it’s only the inspector who’s doing the talking. I much prefer it up here. Can I offer you gentlemen something, coffee, tea? Water? Langdon declines, his partner doesn’t bother. David gestures to the table, and Langdon sits down on the chair. His partner makes himself comfortable in the door frame. David sits down on the bench and takes a sip of his coffee. It’s fine. His hand is not shaking.
We’ve received a complaint, Langdon begins. Well, not so much a complaint. More like a member of the public advising us. About an incident involving you, last evening, further down the street? Langdon cocks his head. David is ignoring the other chap, but can feels his eyes all over his face. Goodness, and they’re calling you fellows for a thing like that? When need be. This had come from the gaunt leaner. David regards him with a brief glance. Perhaps you can tell us about what happened, Langdon suggests. Oh, just a misunderstanding. The young lady looked distressed, and I was offering to buy her a drink, to settle down. I had nothing else to do, it wouldn’t have been a bother. Unfortunately she took it the wrong way, can’t be helped. I understand, nowadays when a stranger addresses you, I can see how this might look like. Didn’t occur to me in the moment. I think she was more upset than I realized.
They don’t take notes, and they don’t nod or glance at each other.
You have any idea what could have upset her? No, frankly. I take it she was angry with someone she’d been waiting for, at least that’s what she told me. But I don’t know, to go off like that, there might have been more. I can’t tell, I only met her the moment before.
Langdon lets his eyelids do the nodding. One can sympathize. A lot of reacting to do, and in this weather.
That’s really all there is. I felt terrible, of course. But there was nothing else I could do but to move on. Very unfortunate. I can’t tell, of course, but you might want to advise her to see someone.
More he wouldn’t suggest. He doesn’t want to come across as nosy, or as ill wishing.
Oh, but it wasn’t she who notified us. We wouldn’t even know where to find her. The whole scene was witnessed, beginning to end. Langdon is watching him closely. That old bitch. The lady who’d stood by and watched. Someone should rip her in half, bottom up.
Yes, quite possible, the street wasn’t empty. She made quite a scene. I’’m very sorry, if I’d known that she was in this sort of distress… You live here on your own? Yes, yes, for…six years now. Six years. Langdon cranes his neck to look at his partner, who just purses his lips. It’s very unusual for plain-clothes police to come by people’s house for such a thing.
You ever heard the name Irene Abbott? Abbott, Abbott, Ire… Or Valerie Cain? Valerie Cain, no, can’t say that I have. Not watching the news…? I don’t have a set, I’m a radio man. So you haven’t heard about the two murders. Strangled, not raped? Blunt object to the head, then strangled? You mean those two poor women. In Croydon, right? And in Greenwich, adds the gaunt starer. I’m sorry, I’m not good with names. See, the witness, the witness of the encounter last night, she’d followed the news, and the description as being given by a witness in Croydon, similar type of situation, the victim being seen with a man no one can connect her with — that description fits you. Ripped in two halves, that damn bitch, starting from the bottom, where it hurts.
Fits me, yes, I see. Yes, but if you forgive me, I seem to remember from the news that it was a pretty generic description. Could fit a lot of people, a lot of people look like that. As do you, the gaunt one says. As do I, yes, David doesn’t laugh, it’s not a laughing matter, the death of two women. I’m not a remarkable looking man. No. What can I do? Do you want me to make a statement of some sort? I don’t know how this works. Perhaps telling us where you were April 12th this year and December 29th last? Gosh, if I can peel that from my mind this quickly, but most likely I was at home. I’m not going out much. And you live alone. I do, yes. Langdon fills a pause with a soft drum-roll on the table.
You drive a vehicle? No. Not since…God, that must be near twelve year by now. Now why did he ask about a vehicle. Right, there had been a witness report, about a dark green car, seen in the vicinity in Croydon. David isn’t even sure he could drive after all this time.
There’s another pause, and David decides to let it work. Too much talking can make him seem nervous. He’s an innocent man, but even innocent men can become nervous, and that can give the wrong impression.
This time it’s Langdon who gives his colleague a pursed lip. He receives a shrug in return.
Alright, I think that’s all for now. A forced professional smile as he gets up. David does alike. It’s in his make, to get up when others do.
Ah, Joan Fontaine. You’re a movie buff, Inspector? They don’t make them like that anymore. Quite so, quite so. Yes, she was quite something. Not like your usual Hollywood crowd. Oh, I don’t know. Four times married, must have gotten around. Not her, not her, married, as you said. Decent woman. Langdon’s eyebrows have narrowed, just a little. It had come out a little sharp. But even if, we don’t know, do we. What matters is the acting. And she was like none other. Langdon looks at the picture and shrugs. Personally, I prefer her sister. David notices that he glances at him out of the corner of his eye. To each his own, Inspector, to each his own, and this time he laughs. I’ll see you out.
David needs only little effort to keep himself away from the window. From looking to see whether the two are still there, or have their car parked in front. He is in control. He’s calm. Of all his emotions it’s mostly the insult, but even that he regards coldly. He turns to the picture. What does he know? He smiles at her. He could kill the man for what he’d said.
Ever since the two men had been there David’s had an occasional peek out the window. Not obsessively, one can easily drive oneself mad, just now and then, but he was soon able to satisfy himself that he was not under surveillance. Such a thing can happen all too quickly, one day an ordinary and perfectly innocent citizen, then a single suspicion derailing your whole life. Being innocent isn’t enough. Innocence is something one can only protest. It’s for the justice system to prove, but there you go, that’s other people, it’s out of your hands, and the justice system is prone to prove your innocence by failing to prove your guilt. Hardly reassuring. What if they fail in that?
Oh well. Nothing else but to go on with one’s life. Getting up in the morning, having breakfast, reading the papers with a cup of coffee, two sugars and a splash of cream. Listening to the radio, the news, to supplement the papers, a variety of programs while doing his house chores, a play, drama or reading in the evening. He did his shopping, he picked up his allowance, he went on walks. Always somewhere else, he likes seeing new places. He sat down in cafés. Twice he sat down in a park, watching as the pigeons drew close to see if he had some bread crumbs. Beat it, he’d said to them. They’d understood. He’d said it in a way they’d understand. Tonight is a special night, however. A small Deptford cinema is showing Kind Hearts and Coronets. David assumes it is small, these days none of the major picture houses is screening the old classics anymore. 1949, Ealing Studios, directed by Robert Hamer. Dennis Price and Alec Guinness. But mostly, another Joan. He sometimes feels a little guilty, almost as if being unfaithful when knowing he’s going to enjoy another actress. It’s alright, she seems to say without looking. So many other talented actresses besides little me. How could I be jealous beside so much talent. There you go. Modest as always. Nothing is more becoming than modesty.
Greenwood’s voice makes her seem almost raunchy at times. It’s a stain, in his opinion. It keeps the immaculate from her. But compared to what populates the screen today she still ranks in the heavens. And a stain, as so often — well. There’s even a line about that in the movie.
David starts off early on these occasions. He rather arrives early. Makes something of it. The temperatures have let down a little, and he can afford a three piece suit as long as it’s of light fabric. He dabs on cologne, he straightens his tie, marine blue with a corn yellow Damask pattern, he checks his teeth and combs his hair. Outlined on the stand, his outdoor assembly, wallet, with just enough cash, his cards, a photo print of Joan, next his monthly subway pass in its own scabbard, a small leather-bound notepad and pen, finally his keys. Everything else is already in his pockets, you never know. One final look in the mirror, and he wishes Joan a good evening. Sometimes he can almost hear her replying. You, too, David. You, too. But he knows. Of course he knows.
During summer everything slows down in the afternoon. Objects that are static seem even more so. Houses, fences, trees, the cars parked everywhere. Sharp shadows, a mute quality over everything. What David likes about afternoon screenings in the summer is that it’s still daylight when one comes out. Nothing more pleasant than going to watch a movie and come out when it’s still day. And it has been pleasant, from start to finish. The cinema had been small indeed, and only a few other people had come to watch the movie, leaving everyone more than enough space around their chosen seats, his own had been in the front, of course, and the noise level had been tolerable, no one had taken advantage of the popcorn sale at the counter. How can they even offer popcorn for a film like this? Sell it for the stuff half made in computers.
He’d seen it before, of course, the more he was able to enjoy the scenes that really mattered, the ones with Greenwood. He’d mouthed the line along with Price when it came, his scene with Sibella in front of the fireplace. “You are the perfect combination of imperfections.” The perfect compliment. And so true. Followed by a listing of all of her facial attributes that are meant to say they’re not attracting each by themselves, but as a whole they’re superbly attractive. But he leaves the most important one out. Her voice. Which had been, for David, the most rattling blemish, rousing, almost exciting in its slight hoarseness. A guilty pleasure from which he’d feel soiled later, he’d known, but irresistible. There’d be no way to even think these thoughts in front of Joan, his Joan. But Joan hadn’t been there, save in small, and sheltered away in his wallet. When the film was over he was still in quite a state. He’d spent the entire rest of it since Greenwood’s last scene like this.
When the lights had gone back up he’d seen her. Sitting in the row behind him, but on the far right. Not an ideal spot to watch from. Folding a short, black trench coat-like jacket, and grabbing her handbag. Dressed all in black, the hair a little longer than shoulder-length, straight, if a little billowing. In her mid-forties, perhaps. She’d gotten up before he could, but he was glad to see that she was not hurrying out, but sauntering in an absent-minded manner.
Out in the foyer now he just caught her entering the ladies room. He could make use of the gents as well, but he’s worried that she would be gone once he came out. Instead he studies one of the folded program brochures. It’s one of those cinemas showing films only for one or two days, except for a small choice of contemporary pictures. He slowly moves through the foyer, reading the program, until he is positioned ideally. When she comes out, sooner than expected, and walking a little more purposefully, he’s able to catch a better glimpse of her face. Very skilled and tasteful make-up, fine features. The nose a little strong. He’d been wrong about the all black in the dim theatre, her top is black, but her trousers aubergine. She is about to walk around him, which he counters by moving to the same side, still reading, and then apologising. This always derails people’s trajectories, the apology. Allow me? He holds the door open for her. She smiles, and thanks him. Not a lot of chivalry nowadays. What the young men of today are lacking, the more it stands out. Wonderful picture, isn’t it. Yes, it is. I wonder how many there were in the audience who hadn’t already known that. Yes, I suppose they’ve all seen it at least once already. And how many times have you? Oh, this is my third, I guess? And I suppose you’re all in for Dapper Dennis? Actually, I’m all in for Alec Guinness. Ah. Quality taste. Yes. All these roles. Her smile brightens for an instance, and she moves to walk on. I won’t keep you, have a nice evening, he says. You, too.
And that could be all. And he’d be good with it. A brief, pleasant chat between two cinema lovers after the picture, and never shall they meet again. Except they always stand out, don’t they. This is the most delicate moment, the moment that decides everything. How to go on from here? Will it go awry? And when it does, will the consequences be a scene, or just the lovely moment be tainted? He supposes even Valentino had suffered when the impression had soured.
Unless you’d like to join me for an after-screening cap. Because she’d hesitated slightly. Not because of him. More as if she isn’t yet quite ready to return to everything. The very moment. That very delicate moment. It seems weird, I understand. Have a god evening. Not at all, no. My apologies, it’s just rare to find someone to talk to about the golden age of cinema. That’s fine, I understand. I agree. She has quite a deep voice herself, dark, in tone with her hair. He gives a slight bow and is about to depart as she looks in the distance with pressed lips. Alright, why not. You sure? Yes, I agree, not too many appreciators, let’s have a drink. There? David turns to where she’s pointing, a coffee shop right next to the cinema. He’d found it quite remarkable when he’d arrived because it’s sea-themed. Ah. My, my. Right for people like us.
Manners. How age succeeds where youth won’t. They go in, it’s only half past five in the afternoon, and The Anxious Mariner is surprisingly mildly visited. They take a booth by the window, and he waits until she’s seated. Unfortunately she’s picked the seat against the wall, now he’ll have the whole place in his back. He really hates that. He won’t let it on. Not once. I wonder whether we’ll be served mussels here. Clams? I think the owner just likes the sea, she says. Nothing like that on the menu. By the way, I’m Linda. Very nice to meet you, Linda, and just then a young waiter is coming. Ahoy, David exclaims in good humor, but the lad might have heard it before. Linda orders a white wine, chilled, and for David it’s a little early, but he orders a sherry. And yours? David has to wait until the boy has departed, he never likes spouting out his name to the whole world. Mine? Oh, where are my manners, it’s David. David. Yes. The first awkward moment usually looms between order and the arrival of the drinks, because one might want to wait for those, or one doesn’t want to be interrupted by the waiter. Best to get right to it. Waiters won’t keep in mind everything what’s said between their customers, and all one has to do is keep it light in those moments.
It’s rare, people going to a picture all by themselves. Normally they want to make it part of an evening out, they go to the movies to start it. But that’s more the big movies, Linda says, the movie palaces or whatever. I don’t miss them, David is emphatic. Can you imagine, such a bunch watching this picture, munching popcorn, and always with their mouths open. I was eating, Linda admits. I hope it didn’t disturb you. You must have been eating like a little bird, then. I didn’t hear a thing. As a matter of fact, he had heard her, loud and clear, but he’d unlearned the compulsion of turning to the eater and glaring at them in the dark, hard as it had been. Discipline. Now that he’d seen and met her he could forgive her a little nibble, but it was still one of those stains. No movie nights for us two, dear, if you’ll insist on eating.
You always go to the movies on your own, then? Always. Well, not that I wouldn’t mind sharing the experience, talk about the picture afterwards. Has to be that someone special, though. The drinks arrive, the young man putting down the glasses without proceeding to place them before the guests. David cannot stand rude people. Has there been someone special? I’m sorry, that was forward. Oh, not at all, not at all. Yes, there’d been, yes. She’s passed. Why not, David thinks. I’’m so sorry. Oh well. It’s been years. That’s life and death to you. Yes, I suppose. You must have loved her very much. That I did, that I did. Must have, if I let her come to the movies with me. There she smiled, finally, a good, genuine smile. Do you have a photo? Not on me. Plenty at home. Not a shrine, I assure you. He’d actually felt a tiny temptation to show her the photo of Joan. He wouldn’t have, of course, he knew, after all. Just a small, delightful sensation. So, I take it you’re not in the habit of inviting strangers after a screening. No, not at all, David laughs, first time. I’’m quite surprised myself. And I’’m not in the habit of going with strangers either, and she lifts her glass, and they clink.
It’s going quite well. He’ll see where it’ll lead to. He won’t force it, he never does. Pressure is the enemy of romance. They don’t talk about the film, he’d be all ready if the subject would turn to it, offering expert opinion about acting, camera work, editing, writing, reserved, in plain words, not to come across as an amateur film critic, he hates those. But so far she seems to have forgotten all about the picture. He learns that she is unmarried, divorced, but that’s been a while ago, and good riddance, and from the way she speaks he gets the impression that there’s someone else, someone with whom she’s also dissatisfied, or unsure, or perhaps there’s cause for a grudge. I’m in no hurry, she says when it’s about another round, and it sounds like a confirmation. He wants to keep a clear head, so he’s ordering a hot chocolate, delighted that they fix it with milk. He’s feeling adventurous, so he’s taking it with a cap of whipped cream. Oh, that looks delicious, she blurts out when it arrives. Please, he offers her the spoon. You don’t mind? Of course not, go right ahead. I promise I won’t gobble it all down. She only has two spoons. Would you like me to order you one. Oh no, please, I’m not careful, and you’ll have to roll me out of here.
The thought of putting the spoon into his own mouth in a moment gives him a hot flash, and he delays it. The face and voice of Joan Greenwood appears, mingling with the cream, sounding through Linda’s moving lips, and he has to slow his breathing, lest it become audible. Linda’s voice is quite deep itself, and she is in this fascinating habit of slurring her words slightly at times. He finally takes a scoop, making it only a tiny amount of cream, so it won’t spoil the moistened spoon. She doesn’t notice.
Linda has begun talking about her boyfriend, he’d missed the beginning. Everybody has a boy- or girlfriend, nobody can deal with being alone. And everybody is unhappy with them. Nothing dramatically wrong with them, it turns out, a lack of affection on his behalf lately, and she beginning to believe it might be hers in fact, as she isn’t shocked or even surprised. A long drag to come, as she puts it, dragging out the “drag.” It’s a good sign. Telling him about her problems, having only just met him. And he is a good listener.
Listen to me, blabbing on about my relationship troubles, as if she’d been prompted by his thoughts. I’’m a good listener, David smiles. So I noticed. Shall we have another daring chocolate and wine. Yes, why n… Gosh, look at the time. It’s been flying. You’re right, I won’t want to keep you from your man. Oh, God, no, trust me, he’s probably God knows where, anyway.
But they pay, sometimes things just set themselves in motion. David makes a sensible choice between the obligation of leaving a tip and the young man deserving none. Had the chap shrugged it wouldn’t have stirred the air. You shouldn’t have tipped him, Linda says outside. Goodness yes, have you noticed how rude he was? If you can’t do a job properly you hate, you might as well leave it. Quite right, my dear, quite right. So. They stood outside the café. It’s been a real pleasure. Likewise, David. Likewise. Her smile was broad, warm and wonderful. You’re taking the tube? I think I’ll have a little stroll in the park over there before turning in. It’s such a lovely evening. You live nearby, then? Not far, not far. Alright.
Alright, she says. The overture to a goodbye. He won’t force it, he never does. It’ll have been the most pleasant afternoon, that’s all. He fought with whether he should ask her for her number for a moment. It’d be too forward.
Tell you what, I’ll walk with you. You’re sure? Yes, it’s not far from the station, anyway. And she actually holds out her arm for him to hook in. David almost feels rejuvenated. A lovely evening indeed. When last had he been this lucky?
Arm in arm they enter the park, an elegant lady in black and aubergine, and an elderly gentleman. Passersby could have taken them for relatives. There aren’t many of those, and the park isn’t wide, but lengthy. Once up and down they walk. What a lovely park, she only says once. Past a small fenced playground, and through spots of dense foliage, and along a canal. They return to a round pond around which a number of benches are arranged. David makes for one of them, a tad laboriously, and sits down. Are you alright? She sits down next to him. It’s nothing, it’s nothing. They come and go. Dizzy spells. I’m not the youngest anymore, sometimes I forget. I’ll only need a moment. I’m not in a hurry, she smiles. Let’s sit here for a bit. That’s right. He needed a moment. He needed just a little time.
Have you ever wondered, she’s looking at the pond, how they keep the water fresh? I mean, it’s not running, nothing replenished. It just sits there. Like so many lives, David thinks. I think the answer is, I don’t think you should be drinking the water. She smiles. Yes. You’re right.
Parks become shaded so much earlier than everything else. The trees have for a while now begun to shelter away the sun, and the first stars have become visible. David and Linda have the park to themselves, at least this section.
Feeling better? Much better, yes, thank you. One more round, what say you. Alright. It’s getting quite dark. You’re right. We don’t want to get mugged. I’ll protect you, she says, and gets up, already holding out her arm.
What if they indeed get mugged. What a terrible ending of a wonderful evening. But they meet no one. Which is quite extraordinary, given the still warm weather. People. Like lizards. A slight drop in temperature, and they scurry back in the warm inside. I always dreamed of having a little park to myself, she muses. That’s probably quite shallow. Wanting to be wealthy. Rich. Well, quite a lot of people wouldn’t mind, he replies. That’s what I mean. We all want the same, and it’s always to do with money. I don’t really know what else to wish for. I don’t really know what else to do with my life. Quite pathetic. David agrees, though he wouldn’t say, of course. They arrive back at where the path leads the closest to the canal. The foliage is so thick here. She’s hooked in his left arm this time, which feels just right. The heart-side.
They stand facing the canal, the sky a deep marine above them. What is that building over there? She throws her chin out towards a tall cube of a brick building rising from behind the shrubs on the other side of the canal. You know what? I never learned. How should he know. First time he’s in these quarters, as far as he can recall. Now look at that! People seem to have an outright aversion to trash bins. He can’t stand it, people dropping their garbage where they walk, it’s uncivilized. It may look ridiculous, as if he’d pick up every piece of trash laying around, but so it be. He steps into the crook off the path, onto a patch of damp soil and grass where further progress is barred by nettles and bushes before the densely growing finer trees.
Ha! Look here! I thought it was a wrapper. What is it? It’s a salamander! I didn’t know we had them in the city. Come over here. Where? There. David whispers, so as not to scare away the thing. He doesn’t know how well salamanders can hear, best to be tender, you don’t see them every day. You see? Under the bush, where the nettles end.
A single blow with the rock is enough. David uses quite a deal of strength, and it fells her flat to the ground. Another quick glance around, no one else around, and it’s already quite dark. He can see Linda moving, listens out for sounds she might be making. From his side pocket he pulls his tool. Quick now. Quick.
David tosses the rock he’d picked up from near the nettles into the canal. Canals are convenient. Not always around, though. He doubts he can manage to move Linda over and in there, and she would float. He isn’t there yet. Linda is still moving, moving more now. He lowers himself and places his right knee in the small of Linda’s back. This causes her to react, but he’s already placed the black rubber hose around her neck, crossed it behind her, and now pulls will all his might. Linda’s hands flutter up, grappling with his hands, with the hose, up his arms. The sounds she’s making. Once he feels something in his lower back, above the right kidney, but it’s a very weak blow, and he kneels in with more force. He feels a sharp pain on his right hand, between thumb and index-finger, her right thumbnail is digging in, and now tears open a wound down to the base of his thumb. He tries to ignore it, but eventually he has to shake it off. It takes so long. So long. Only once he throws a glance over his shoulder. He redoubles his effort until he himself is groaning. Keeps the hose taut when the resistance finally begins to abate. Keeps it taut still. And keeps it taut. There’s no movement anymore. And he’s still keeping it taut.
David slumps into himself on top of Linda. Collecting his strength. He doesn’t have to feel her pulse. He knows when one is dead. It’s been ugly. It always is. So ugly. But it’s done now. It’s out of the way. He feels his own heartbeat slowing. He’s breathing calmly.
He erects himself, still kneeling on Linda, and twists his neck. No one. The scratch is a nuisance. And he should take care of her thumbnail. If there’s time. David moves Linda closer to the edge of the foliage, but not yet in. A bit further away from the canal. A light is shining up the brick wall of that building on the other side, so he can see her head. Her full hair, now in disorder. He reaches in his left pocket.
He finds the base of her skull, his right middle-finger gently stroking through the growth. If not here, than closer to her temple, where the skin is looser. He takes the tweezers from his left, keeping the bag in it, and focuses on the base of the hairs against the light skin underneath. It isn’t dark for him. He can see well. He plucks out a hair. Nothing. It hadn’t felt as if it broke off. He tries again. Residues? The third, nothing. He curses. What is wrong with her hair? The forth one comes out with a small bulge. Too small, but he can have a quick dab, a quick touch. There are already spots on his face itching, itching with anticipation. It’s a little spark, no more. He carefully places it in the small plastic bag.
He’s getting frustrated. What is wrong. Hair after hair, just follicles. Blows them to the side, one after one. The side of her head. He can’t yet, a few more tries, one more, one more. There. This one’s come out with a big one. Causing him a little shock. He looks at it. Whitish, reflecting some light, almost smooth. And so soft. So soft. He dabs it at the microscopic spot that itches the most, right in his Ala nasi, the right one. The effect is enormous. There is nothing smoother than a root sheath, nothing, and it’s cold, cold and smooth. It’s lightning, just where it touches the skin, and David is liberated. He is nothing but that spot, his whole being is concentrated within this tiny spot, no thought, no emotion, no memory, but the contact, and the release is immense. He groans. Dabs and groans. Until it’s becoming too much, and he vigorously scratches the spot with the nail of his ring-finger, giving him the highlight. Immense, but not the utmost. He dabs a few other spots that demand attention, dabs and scratches. They go dry so soon. He gives his head a shake, and places the hair in the plastic bag.
David looks about himself. He can feel himself doubting that he would be able to see anything, anyone. The next. The side. No more than six. Eight at the most. Even number. Always, an even number.
He’s quicker this time, already the second pluck, it’s a little smaller, but it’ll do. His left cheekbone, inwards. So cool, so smooth. He spends less time on it. The next he finds is big, oh it is big. Deformed, but big, it’s half stripped off the follicle. For the chin, the dent below the lower lip. It’s causing him to spasm, to lean back, and he feels his diaphragm press outwards. The air escapes him with a sounding purge, a low growling following. So good, so good.
Hair by hair, sheath by sheath, the useless hair discarded, the used, dried out ones bagged, from all around Linda’s head, so not to make it obvious. David feels delirious. Two more. Two more. Two more, but then you’ll stop. You’ll stop. It’s four more. And it’s still hard to force himself to stop. He’s breathing heavily, with his eyes closed. It’s never the utmost. It never will be. He opens his eyes, and wordlessly thanks her.
He needs a moment. Just a little one. He doesn’t have it. He mustn’t have it. Now it’s all ugly again. The things he has to do. The things he has to be back to. Back to knowing.
He exhales, then bends down and fills the small bag with pebbles and small rocks, closes it, and throws it into the canal. He steps over to Linda’s feet and drags them deeper under the foliage, then walks over to her head end and does the same, careful not to turn her over, he doesn’t want to see her face. She’s heavy. They’re heavy. He pushes her deeper under with his feet this way, legs first, then torso. But she doesn’t want to go in any deeper. It’s not deep enough. He bends down, and pushes her with his hands, the twigs poking and scratching his hands, a nettle burning his left pinky. His hands. The scratch. He forgot about her nail. David walks over to the embankment. On the other side a long, grey wall raises the vegetation, but luckily not here. His left shoe slips down, and he wets his foot, but he’s able to drench his handkerchief. He finds Linda’s right hand, and carefully washes her thumb, and where her hand is bloodied. He meticulously cleans all away from under her nail. He cursorily does the same with all her fingers. It’s exhausting. But he has no time for a pause. He finds another rock, small, but it’ll do, ties his handkerchief around it, and throws the bundle far out into the water. He listens out, looks around. Nobody.
Linda doesn’t go in deeper. But there is more space in there. He has to go in. Bends down, pushes the twigs and branches aside, ducks under and in. It’s hard, and in there it’s almost completely dark. He probes with his foot. Something black in the dark. He touches it, it’s a tree-trunk, or a piece of it. Not large, but it’s an obstacle. He has to labor hard to get it out of the way, to push it to his right as if opening a door, but finally he manages. From here he can pull Linda in by her feet, and he doesn’t pause, even though he’s completely exhausted, and the last is dragging her torso after, again almost turning her over, but it’s comparably easy.
In there with her he can allow himself a short rest. Only as much as he needs. When he emerges again, the twigs stubbornly clutching at him as if trying to keep him there with her, there’s still no one.
David finds the hose. Calmly, stoically, he slips it off the chain, his fingers working the nubs. He attaches the chain to his trousers and his wallet, and stuffs the wallet back in his back pocket. He lets the hose fly the farthest into the canal. Then he takes a deep breath and has a look around. Too dark to make anything out well. He pads himself down. Everything where it’s supposed to be. He straightens his hair, and leaves the patch. Walks around the vegetation. It’s dark on the other side. But it looks dense. Yes, he remembers, it’s very dense. Can’t see a thing even in daylight.
He turns, and walks the way back through the park. Not fast. No need to haste. Not good to haste. He’ll have to take the night buses home.
David brews himself a coffee. Two sugars, and a splash of milk. He’s just had breakfast, two slices of toast, one with cream cheese, the other with orange marmalade, and an egg, he hadn’t felt very hungry. Dressed in a simple, two-part grey cotton suit he’d gone down to fetch his papers from his regular news agent six houses down the row, greeting him cordially like on every day, without as much as glancing at the headlines. He’d changed into his slippers and gone upstairs, pausing long, to look at Joan.
The house speaker faces calls to resign over an alleged affair with a minor. Labor stands accused of betraying Londoners in several boroughs as some of its members’ involvement with one of the biggest real estate companies are being revealed. Crime is on the rise in North London. David shakes his head at all of this, sipping his coffee, occasionally looking out the window. Temperatures have fallen yet a little more, and the sky is overcast. He flips back to the front page to scan the international news. Tensions, posturing, skirmishes, riots. They could just as well replace it all with the same update very day, in large fonts, scrawled all over the page: Still All Bad. He finds the crossword.
Nothing about it yet.
Lately the crossword has become a little too easy, he believes because people had complained, simpletons that they are. Sibling of Edward VIII. with six letters, come on, now. David cranes his neck, it had almost sounded like a bicycle accident. Two man arguing, one of them on a bike. He throws an amused look back at Joan. Six letter word, component of pumps and engines, third one an s. When he’d gotten home he’d said good night to Joan from a floor down. He’d been a little ashamed. About the small stuff. He’d felt like saying that the other Joan could never hold her glass. The night buses had taken a long time, and he hasn’t gotten much sleep, but enough to look fresh. He’d go to bed a little earlier tonight.
In the morning, just when he’d finished showering, the brat next door had started again. Boarding school, David had thought. They should send him to boarding school. Problem solved, for everyone. It had sure taught him some discipline. With the y and the e already filled in, the famous American singer with seven letters is easy, too, even though David has never consciously listened to a song of hers. He’s not fond of modern pop music, he’s not too fond of any modern music. This is no fun. It’s insultingly easy. He vaguely wonders whether he should send in his own complaint, but dismisses the thought almost immediately. He finishes the crossword, throws the paper and pencil on the table, and gives himself a stretch.
You shouldn’t have asked the inspector whether he’s a film buff. Then again, he’d already seen Joan. David goes to make himself another mug. Hums an old melody he can’t quite place while waiting for the kettle. Probably from a picture. When they find her they’ll trace back her steps that day. Determining the day from her boyfriend’s testimony, her visit to the cinema. Ask around, at the cinema, places bordering it. Establish that she’s been in The Anxious Mariner.
He walks back upstairs and stops before the poster. Lovely Joan, her hand behind her head. Her hair must have been so soft. Wouldn’t it be something if you were the one who’ll be the end of me? Joan is looking into the distance to the left and seems to ponder that. “Sincere good wishes.” Indeed, yes. Indeed. David has to chuckle. I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. He takes a sip, and almost burns his lips. Sucks in fresh air to cool them, and walks over to the table. Yes, that place had been too close to the cinema. He could have either left it or not. One of these days. One of these days. Who can tell?
He looks out the window, down at the street and the profoundly uneventful stream of trivial purpose. If it’ll be the day… I suppose they won’t object if I’d take you along, would they, he finishes aloud. I’ll be there, no matter what. Of course you will be, my dear. Or not. Or nothing will happen. All it is, he finally got it to work. Joan understands. She understands because he wants her to. Quite enough for that. He knows. Of course he knows.