The Intimate, by Conrad Williams
artwork by Beth Ward

That man, that Ripley, swept the blunt snout of his car into our drive, slewing the wheels as he braked. He stepped on to gravel and froze, as though taking a few seconds to acquaint himself to its yield. A yeast coloured jumper matched the hue of his beard; I could hardly tell where one ended and the other began. I ducked behind the lace curtain when he scanned the house, moving back to the oriel’s ledge only when I heard the doorbell ring.

Ashbery went to answer it, pausing in the hall to calm Zola. Ripley’s voice was different now.

*

Before moving here, I lived in Ullapool, in a small row of terraces that looked out on to Loch Broom. My father was a carpenter and he advertised one of the rooms in our house for Bed and Breakfast to supplement his wage. Often, he would be called away as far as Oban and might stay overnight, so that it would be just Mother and me taking care of the house. While I set the table, she would fry eggs and white pudding; mound bacon on to hot plates. We had the usual influx of visitors: city types motoring as far North as possible before returning to the Smoke; Europeans with monster backpacks. On this occasion, Father was away for a few days in Drumbeg, helping his cousin to build a barn.

My mother was playing a Nat King Cole record and smoking a cigarette – something she was not allowed to do whenever Father was around. When the doorbell rang, night was tucking itself between the mountains like tar wadded into a fissure. I slipped into the hallway and watched Mother greet the man with a long kiss that was so gooey it was as though neither of them had teeth.

‘How was Durness?’ she asked, when the kiss broke down into a coda of smaller pecks, like drips from a tap.

‘Bitter,’ he said, releasing her. ‘When will Leonard be back?’

‘The weekend.’ My mother paused, hooking a finger over the V of his shirt from which coils of black hair quested. ‘Kim is here.’

He seemed to lessen, the bones in his arms and legs softening.

‘Ah. Jean, why for Christ’s sake? I thought this was going to be our time. I thought you were going to send Kim to her aunt’s place.’ His voice made my name sound hollow. From here he appeared soul-less; his eyes too pale to be arresting; his expressions too prescribed to warrant any kind of investment. Yet here Mother was, cooing over him, apologising, cupping her hand for a brief time at the yoke of his crotch.

‘I thought it would be a good idea if you two met,’ she said.

He lead her into the study. Closed the door.

*

Back in my room I kissed my hand in the same way that my mother had kissed the hairy man. I squeezed the mound between my legs.

I didn’t like the certainty of his movements; the way he knew where to take my mother – it meant he’d been here before. I thought of Aunt Alex; was she aware of the stranger? Or did she think my frequent visits to her house were born of a more innocent spur?

When Mother called me downstairs, I considered for a moment pretending that I wasn’t there – hoping she might think me absent, playing with my friends on the quay. But when her voice came again, more stridently, I knew she was wise to my plan. ‘Coming,’ I shouted, hoping to disguise the reluctance piling up inside me.

They were in the kitchen, trying too hard to appear relaxed. My mother’s hair was unfettered, the way it gets in the wind when she hangs washing. The table was set for three. Mother had lit a candle. When Father was here, we ate from our laps in the lounge with the TV on.

‘Now then Kim, I want you to meet Mr Ripley. He’s an old friend of mine. We were at school together.’ A look passed between them and I knew she was lying. She seemed much more fluid than when around Father. I supposed that was Ripley’s doing, and I hated him for it. Her hands performed lazy curlicues as she spoke; she smiled often. In her voice was a trace of hysteria.

‘Hello Kim. I’ll not be having any of this Mr Ripley nonsense,’ he smiled at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes. ‘I’m Duncan to you.’

I went to him and drove a bread knife through the back of his hand.

*

Mother locked me in my bedroom before driving him to hospital. She kept asking me why I’d done what I did, her face growing ever more ashen. At the table, Ripley was rigid, staring at the bluish slot in his hand that was rapidly puffing up. He’d turned to me and made to say something but remained quiet. He looked as though he were about to comment on how little blood there was; his expression so placid, almost comically detached. I’d laughed. After a hard clout around the back of the legs, I found myself on the bed – my feet had maybe touched the ground twice, three times.

Shaking a little, though more from exhilaration than shock or regret, I opened my diary and wrote two entries in the section marked Things To Do:

Tell Father about Ripley.
Kill Ripley.

It never came to that because my mother, in her haste to get Ripley to hospital, steered the car off the road and into a river. Neither of the bodies were recovered. I might never have found out, if Father had not returned prematurely.

*

I worried when dawn came and the amber lights on the boats in the loch were subsumed by a thickening background pallor, lending form to the swells of water. The hospital was some distance away but even if Ripley’s wound was more serious than it appeared, I doubted the round trip could have taken more than three hours.

I was hungry and soon forgot about where my mother was. After the fourth day, I managed to assuage my thirst somewhat by forcing down the brackish gloop that sustained a vase of tulips. I took to squatting in the centre of my rug and rocking to and fro on the balls of my feet; a sensation that was oddly pleasurable and it was at such times that my mind would turn to Ripley and I’d find I wasn’t mulling over my enmity towards him; he’d seeped into my being with all the fleet absorption of a water based face cream – and I liked it. I tongued the slit between thumb and forefinger; my fingers squirmed like severed worms in my lap.

And then in failing light, my eyes so dry I can feel the lids pucker and peel away from their meat; I think of monsters in my wardrobe and their insistent clamour. I think of running through dream-mud to my parents’ room and slotting myself between them; their hot breath gently hammering my head, a deliciously comforting sense of weight around me. But still they knock, still 

It was Father of course, shouldering down the bedroom door. When he saw me, I noticed him flinch before approaching: that instant appalled me perhaps more than the sight of Ripley kissing my mother. For a beat, I was utterly alone. And then his arms blocking out the light and I couldn’t believe how many tears I cried, when I felt so very dry.

*

How could I tell him, once the grim news came through? Father came and joked with me about my IV; said I could use the stand to hang my cap on. Then his face fell and although I failed to fasten upon a single word he said to me, I knew what was wrong. I hated the collapse of his features: all of it down to Ripley’s hand (oh I missed his bland scrutiny).

In my hospital bed, I found it hard to concentrate on Mother. She skipped through my thoughts like a mischief – I couldn’t fix her to a stable part of my thoughts so that I might picture her in various states of distress, or joy, or the many poses of comfort she affected when I needed succour. All I could hear was her invective, a key in the lock. All I saw, the seamless union of their lips and her hand, shockingly knowledgeable, cradling him.

For a few weeks after I went home, I was visited by Dr Raglan, who would ask about my quality of sleep and look into my eyes as if for something lost. On my way to the kitchen for a snack, my shoulders draped with a blanket, I would chance upon Father sitting in a chair by the fire, his head drooping into the spread of a book about eagles or crofters or mountains. The blanket arranged over his knees made him appear invalid. Telling him now might make him withdraw into himself even more.

One day, he took me away with him to Skye. On the ferry across the Kyle of Lochalsh we stood on the top deck and yelled into the wind. Driving through all that strange, rich colour, I almost felt whole again and believed we’d arrive home to find Mother preparing beds to bright music on the wireless. That night we stayed with Father’s cousin in Dunvegan and after breakfast, we walked to the beach, through a field that warned of a bull and made me too nervous to enjoy the bleached sand once we arrived. The ammonia reek of bladderwrack and Father’s hand on my shoulder. The sea stretching away north where it would grow sluggish and cold, eventually still.

*

Ashbery entered.

‘There’s a man, a Duncan Ripley to see you. I planted him in the conservatory.’ Ashbery’s voice was gently clotted, like a palate made sticky with milk. I could, and often did, listen to Ashbery talk for hours about his childhood in the Orkneys. Now though, all I could here were the metallic angles of Ripley’s speech.

Ripley was studying a photograph and taking punctuative glances through the window at my unkempt garden. Now he took the brown tip of a hydrangea leaf between his fingers and rubbed. The scar on his hand was like a slit in dead bark. This man, that I had met fleetingly. This Ripley. Lord of my waking moments for so long.

‘I thought you were dead.’ I’d hoped to startle him but he merely transferred his weight from one foot to the other and placed his hand on the back of a chair. The leaf sprang away firm and green as he turned. I saw how I’d been mistaken; how the light stitched itself into the whitish buttons of his eyes and fastened me to the spot with their utter absence of age. A sensation not unlike jarring one’s foot whispered up my spine, making the light seem tangible, all of it drawn to the jut of his jaw as he spoke.

‘I’ve spent ten years walking and thinking. It feels like – ’

‘Ten seconds?’

‘It feels like ten years actually,’ he said, sitting down. If I raised my skirt slightly, I’d be a moment away from my thighs (He kissed her, their mouths meeting like dovetailed joints of wood).

‘What happened?’ To his credit, he didn’t pretend I was chasing a different line. He described it all. As he talked, Zola walked in and lay at his feet. He slid a shoe under her chin and waggled it softly. In a moment, she was asleep.

‘Your mother was a good driver. What happened wasn’t her fault. I think I was in a state of shock after you stabbed me,’ his hand covered the scar, ‘and I was being irrational, panicking too much. But by then there was a lot of blood.

‘I… began clutching at her arm. She lost control.’

Zola fretted quietly in her sleep, as if his disquiet were somehow being transmitted through the still cradle of his instep.

‘There was a moment of real silence. I thought it was the moment of my death but now I realise it was because the wheels of the car had left the ground.’

Standing slowly, so as not to disturb Zola’s slumber, Ripley went to the window and looked out on the field, the sliver of river beyond the forest’s arc.

‘In the water, the car turned upside down. The windows were open. The car filled up quickly but I just sat there and watched the blood hang in the water like threads of cotton. Then I released my seatbelt and got out. I let go of the air in my lungs and rose to the surface. I walked away without checking to see if your mother had made it.’ All of this delivered in monotone.

Looking at the tweed weave of his jacket soothed me and I was able to approach him. Although we hadn’t traded more than a hundred words in our two meetings, I placed my hand on the curve of his shoulder, my head on his back. His warmth spread through my fingertips. In my thoughts, his face bloomed, the way it had appeared all those years ago: thinly boned and hirsute. I saw myself slipping my fingers beneath the flesh and lifting it away from the boss of his skull to seek the reasons for his influence over me. Barely a night went by without my thinking of him.

‘It’s why I’m here, Kim,’ he murmured. ‘I need you to help me die.’

*

Outside, the light had taken on a defeated hue. Bruised, it receded beyond roofs that marked the leading edge of the village. Miles north, it would be dark, lights sprinkling Loch Broom. A brief tang of the early morning catch, a memory of gorse. Leaving home, I was growing to believe, was a little like dying. Your soul never really caught you up; mine would be forever bound up with the minute shift of mountains and brittle winds slung down from the Arctic.

‘Are you okay?’ Duncan asked. My hand had been eclipsed by his. How had that happened?

‘Yes. I’m sorry, I was just thinking of home.’

His fingers tightened slightly against mine; the skin warm and dry and pliable. ‘Thinking of your mother.’

‘Not particularly.’ Zola kept time with our modest pace; gone were the days when she’d scamper ahead only to toil back dragging half a branch in her jaws. ‘It’s funny how you’re the cause of my position today. If it hadn’t been for you, I might still be setting tables back home. I might have married a fisherman, or a carpenter like my father.’ Clouds blended in the sky directly above us, ostensibly born of nothing more substantial than the gathering night.

‘It’ll rain,’ I said. ‘I left my umbrella – ’

‘It won’t rain.’ We stopped. He was very close to me. I could smell linseed on him, and something faintly bestial, like horses in a stable. Beneath that coir riot of beard, his mouth was soft and tamely devouring. It was the closest I’d been to kissing my mother goodbye.

*

We ate in the dining room, which faced the westering sun. Ripley looked good; his face trapping light in its planes and angles, catching in the hooks of his beard like spun gold.

‘Will you help me, Kim?’

‘I’ve spent countless nights doing unspeakable things to you, Ripley. I’ve dreamed up deaths for you, God yes. But now you’re here, I don’t hate you any more. I never hated you. Bastard.’

‘I’m an old man. I’ll not be able to rest – ’

‘At the end of your life you come to me for absolution. My father died not long ago. Broken. You tore my life apart. You almost killed me. I should have put that knife through your eyes.’

I’d made her a cup of tea the night before Ripley’s arrival. She was smoking, listening to Jeri Southern LPs and reading a book though I didn’t see its cover. I used to torture myself about that novel; how crucial it was that I discover its identity so I might read it too, so that I might emulate her a little. Thanks poppet. I kissed her hair.

‘So you’ll help me?’

Throwing my napkin aside I stood up and leaned towards him, hands gripping either side of the table. ‘You’re the only man that has meant anything to me. You’ve ruined any relationship I’ve been in; you’ve driven away everybody I meet because I can’t get you out of my mind.’

I reached down and cupped him in my hand. Told him to leave. He didn’t say a word. Watching Ripley fold himself into his car, I nearly called to him. This was more difficult than the funerals I’d attended; I turned my sadness into resentment.

In the conservatory I picked up the photograph that had pricked his interest; an old, slightly fuzzy picture of me as a baby in my mother’s arms. She’s standing on the jetty in Ullapool, Beinn Eilideach rising behind her shoulder. In the background, a tethered boat. A figure on the deck, looking towards us, not so out of focus that the sprawl of a splendid beard cannot be defined. My mother’s smile is pained; I always thought it was because of the sun in her eyes.

I replaced the photograph and looked to the lairy sky. Ripley was wrong. Here came rain. Nothing but.





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