Vol. 3 No. 6 • February, 2010
Story by Richard Godwin
LUNCH WITH BELLA
Misery is endurable. It’s happiness that tricks us, offering an unwelcome glimpse into who we really are.
That autumn day still bears the crystal sharp clarity of a high definition film. Summer was dying. I was driving along under a deep cyanic sky, thinking it looked as though it was made of glass. And beneath the hiss of speeding cars that flashed past me I could hear the distinct gurgle of the river.
I felt solitary and content and was thinking of death, watching the leaves spiral downwards from the bleak trees and I found myself turning left off the stretch of dual carriageway that bombed past Hogarth’s house and meandering along that gentle stretch of Thames in Chiswick where neat Victorian houses face river gardens strewn with debris washed there by the tide.
I passed a pub on the corner, packed with rowdy drinkers, not the company I wished to keep. For ten years I had not tasted alcohol. Their transit had passed with barely a thought of booze. I drove away from the sound of human voices and heard it again: the waters of the Thames gushed and bubbled within their banks like liquid forced through the neck of a bottle.
I was meeting my wife for lunch and had the indulgence of time on my hands. I parked the car and ambled down the middle of the road, empty of traffic, a resonance of the life once led there by the original inhabitants of the houses. The place was alive with history and I realised that the past was a fiction. And the light. The light had that intense vivid quality to it that only an autumn day can bring, as if you are being shown something. It’s not as bright as the light of summer, but it has a surreal otherworldly sheen to it as if a crack has opened somewhere and another world is breaking through, leeching the sun of its power.
I recalled a school friend who lived in one of the grand houses and how, the tide high, we paddled his canoe along the waters that drowned the road. It was many years since I had been here, distant as it was from my life in Mayfair, but it seemed to have been living and breathing inside me all that time like some second life I had been conducting.
I thought of Bella and the lunch we’d have, perhaps she would be wearing a new dress, her tanned legs toned beneath it. Perhaps we would return home afterwards and make a little gentle love. I was a lucky man.
I paused by the embankment. Parched leaves scraped along the ground. The Thames drifted downstream towards an island populated by birds. Cranes and moor hens wrestled with space. The sky held an equipoise of each season in its etching of cloud and sun. It made me feel as if I had mislaid that brief spell of summer.
I reached into my pocket in search of something and found it empty and then wondered what it was I was missing. Nothing at all. My life was complete.
I wandered on, losing track of time. The sun had been warm on my back and now disappeared behind a cloud. A chill swept through me, the wind holding the promise of winter.
As I turned the corner I was struck by a foul smell of sewage. The waters were strewn with turds and condoms and an intense rage swept through me. My pacific mood had been unbalanced. I felt as though a drill had slipped onto a nerve ending. I wanted another mood. I wanted the old mood back. I wanted summer again.
I quickened my pace away from the stench. I sat and watched couples pass by, arm in arm, some arguing, different lives forming sketches of a day, and as I sat there my throat began to feel dry and I went in search of a shop. I would buy some water and leave.
Suddenly the grey water seemed alien. That is the only way I can describe it, as if I was no longer part of this. I saw how it swept past us, minimising our lives. I breathed in and an acrid smell washed over me. I swallowed, a sweet and sickly taste lodged in my gullet. And as I walked I could see there were no shops around and I began to feel light headed.
Around the river’s bend I could see Fuller’s brewery and I inhaled its strong caramelised odour. And there before me was The George sitting proudly opposite the polluted waters. The door yawned open and its lights beckoned me.
Some minutes later I found myself sitting on one of its benches holding a pint glass in my hand.
The first sip was as sweet as it always had been, living there in the back of my mind. The second was sweeter and I realised that for all those years I had been angry. Behind every dawn and sunset, and I’d seen some stunning ones, the shadow of booze fell between me and my own experience. I resented my work colleagues for my abstinence, spending hours picking at their flaws and studying their weaknesses.
Bella and I had travelled the world. I’d watched magenta suns sink, dissolve and bleed copper into the Pacific Ocean and rise in all their gilded blinding champagne glory over the Himalayas, but it was all second-hand because I’d been dead and now I was alive again. My other life had been happening to someone else and I realised I was nothing more than a hired hand in my own existence.
I went in and ordered another one.
‘It’s a lovely pub you have here’, I said to the barman.
‘Thank you, Sir.’
He felt like a long-lost family member and I went outside and sank my lips into the beer.
I was me again and every drop I drank immersed me deeper into my own glory. I felt fortified against the coming chill of winter.
Who was it who had wandered all those years searching for himself in vain?
Drink had lain beneath my pillow and every night I had slept in grief. It had winked at me like a vamp behind the naked form of my delectable wife each time she had yielded to me.
I looked at the foam at the bottom of my glass and realised I was late.
I raced back to my car. Bella would be waiting for me.
I knew the rat runs of London well. I found a place to park and calculated that she wouldn’t have been waiting long. We were meeting at a small Bistro tucked away in Belgravia. As I approached the restaurant I could see her seated at a table in the corner. The whole idea of having lunch with her seemed absurd. She hardly ever ate and was perpetually worried about her weight. Without reason. In observing her I wondered why she always chose to wear clothes that made her look oblique.
Her crossed legs protruded sharply from beneath the table cloth, she was on her phone and I could tell she was angry. She tapped a pen rapidly on the table as she spoke.
I froze by the doorway, unable to comprehend how I had gone for a walk and ended up drinking two pints of beer. I’d bought a pack of peppermints from a garage on the way and eaten them all, and now I braced myself for Bella.
As I walked through the door it all came back to me, the night before, the awful morning.
She turned as I approached.
‘So?’, she said, switching off her phone.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting.’
She glared at me.
She was wearing a vibrant floral top I liked but it looked wrong on this autumn day and suddenly she looked old. And hard. Like a withered bouquet at an abandoned table.
‘Have you come to a decision Michael?’, she said.
‘I am not’, she said, prodding the table with her pen and arching her back like a cat, ‘going to live with an unemployed man.’
‘Oh that! Well, it’s all very well for you to say that, but I told you last night what would happen if you didn’t come up with a solution today.’
‘I’m still maintaining your lifestyle.’
‘Yes. But for how long? And what will people think? I’m sick of lying. So you got made redundant, it happens to men your age. You have your personal problems, we know that. If you do not get a job very soon you know what will happen. Gerald has made me a very promising offer and I might just well take him up on it. I’m not your property you know. I didn’t marry you to have you mooching around the house. What will my friends think?’
‘I didn’t marry your friends.’
Perhaps it was the remorseless light of that autumn day that helped me see so clearly, but as I looked at her beneath her make-up I could see hard lines etched around her eyes and I wondered how I had ended up marrying her.
Our shared sunsets suddenly seemed like a cheap con.
‘I think you’re being unreasonable’, I said.
She arched her pencilled eyebrows.
‘Yes. Unreasonable and cruel.’
‘Oh grow up.’
I could smell the languid odour of the perfume I’d bought her and it made me think of rotting flowers and in that moment I realised I hated her. She was not even particularly attractive, just a cheap pastiche of femininity she’d fished out of some magazine.
‘Are you having an affair with Gerald?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous’, she said, cancelling the brief smirk that had flickered across her carmine lips.
She took a sip of her red wine, emptying the glass and as she continued speaking her mouth looked Bacchanalian, giving her the look of a spoiled child who has gorged herself on woodland berries.
She snapped a breadstick in two and munched angrily on a piece, staring at the wrapper resentfully.
‘I’m not ridiculous’, I said, ‘far from it.’
‘Job or divorce’, she said.
I could see the waiter hovering nearby waiting for a lull.
A wind was kicking up and a flurry of leaves beat against the window pane. Bella was saying something which I could no longer hear, listening to the leaves rustle instead and I looked at her stained mouth, waiting for a pause.
‘How much do you think I care about you?’, I said.
‘It’s a simple question.’
She folded her arms. This always had the effect of making her look more angular, like a square pair of brackets.
‘Well, right now, not a lot’, she said.
‘And why is that?’
‘Because you’ve been mooching about for months in your dressing gown feeling sorry for yourself. I mean, what is it with men, you get old, you can’t get it up and you think anyone cares! We need money to maintain our lifestyle and your redundancy cheque isn’t going to last forever.’
The waiter was sweeping crumbs from the next table and more than anything I wanted to shut Bella up. Her mouth had started to turn into a wind up set of false teeth and there were bits of breadstick lodged in the yellow enamel.
‘I think the waiter wants us to order.’
‘You know, most men would be out there selling themselves, making it happen. But not you. I’m ashamed of you, yes, that’s what it is. How can you let all this time pass by without even bothering, even lifting your finger to get re-employed?’
She sniffled into a lipstick rouged tissue.
‘Are you ready to order?’, the waiter said.
‘Yes. I’ll have the steak tartare’, she said, snapping the menu shut.
‘And for monsieur?’
‘I think I’ll have the poached salmon.’
‘Very good. And to drink?’
‘I’ll have another glass of house red’, Bella said. She waved a varnished finger in my direction. ‘He’ll have mineral water.’
I looked at the sneer on her face and smiled and realised I had never felt happier. That’s what true happiness is, an impermeable membrane which the poisoned actions of others simply cannot pierce.
I turned to the waiter.
‘Actually, I’ll have a large vodka and tonic.’
‘Very good Sir.’
He shuffled away.
Bella looked frozen.
As she summoned my name from her throat her voice sounded like a hammer cracking the edge of a bell.
‘I’ve something to tell you.’
I nodded, looked down at the starched linen, clasped and unclasped my hands in a gesture of mock contrition and then slowly raised my head until I was gazing directly into my wife’s empty eyes.
‘I’ve taken a lover.’
She raised her hands.
‘A younger woman, I knew it’, she said.
‘No. Much older than you, and wiser. In fact, I think I can hear her coming, she is being brought to me in all her glory, carried like a Queen on a burnished throne.’
‘What on earth are you talking about? Do you want me to leave?’
I looked into her eyes, her pupils like obsidian marbles stuck onto the painted face of a doll.
‘You know, marriage to you has been a living death. I raise my glass to divorce.’
Finally silence fell on the restaurant and I could smell the vodka on the tray.
Richard Godwin © 2010
Richard Godwin lives and works in London, where his play ‘The Cure-All’, a dark satire in which a group of confidence tricksters use the New Age to fleece their venal customers was produced by the Questors Theatre. His stories have been published on the net. He has just finished writing a novel for which he is seeking representation.
This is a dark, sensuous awaking to reality and all the darkness it holds. I suspect our minds holds more trickery than the devil. I’d like to read more of this from you, Richard. A very provocative piece.
This was a good short story. You managed to hold my head in the main plot while allowing me to enjoy the scenery going by. I also desire a glass of Boddington’s after that one. Well done.
It was worth the wait. Me, I wanted to strangle the bitch. Great character, etched in acid. She’s anybody’s property who’s got the price of a ticket. I wound up liking the narrator too, especially after he told her to go love herself.
Vivid and meticulous detail. Intimate. Very real. Continues to prove my early suspicion that Richard Godwin is capable of inhabiting and evoking for the reader any fictional world of his choosing.
Oh I like this, a different taste for sure. So full of imagery… its like you pulled me right in allowing me to sense everything first hand. Fantastic!
Strong, tight storytelling. very well done.
lovelovelove this.. and that first line?? oh! why couldn’t i have penned that??
The close of “…Bella” is as a conductor cutting clean the sound of his orchestra. Theres a brief pause required to register the extent of the intensity, and then the roar of applause. A masterful work, Mr. Godwin! I dig this departure from bare noir bones, this revelatory stretching out, this impermeable membrane of happiness : )
This story is compelling and powerful. Told in an elegant and psychologically probing stye.
‘Lunch With Bella’ is extremely well written. The style lures you into the protagonist’s epiphany which is all the more satisfying since the build up demands the final confrontation, it’s also an insightful meditation on the power of drink.