The Swing, by Nicholas Royle
artwork by Neil Coombs

I'd just cleared the ball off my line and kicked it back up the park when I noticed this beautiful girl standing near to the goal. She was applauding my save and didn't look away immediately when I grinned at her. While she was looking down I had a good look. She didn't seem to have any holes as far as I could see. Her ears weren't pierced and I couldn't see any scars on her face or hands. Still, I thought, no harm in looking.

As the first half was quiet I stayed on the goal-line and talked to her. Even if there was no future in it I was flattered by her attention. I talked about the game and the lads on the team, my job, how to avoid arrest for burglary if you're carrying heavy bags stuffed with books and records; rubbish, in fact. I talked rubbish because I was scared of drying up. Also because it didn't look like anything could happen between us and so it was hard to justify the desire to talk.

It was the middle of winter and although the sky was almost all grey the sun shone for a short time and struck her face like it would a statue's. She was wearing glasses with an attractive black frame and the lenses were coated with something that made them reflect strange colours. Her skin appeared perfect in the sideways light and she wore her hair casually flicked over the right side of her head. She had jeans on that looked warm and comfortable. I wanted to tell her how stunning she looked but it might have confused her. I wished I had a camera with me despite the obvious handicap of my goalkeeper's gloves.

I asked the girl her name and she said it was Georgie. Her hair was long and dark. I told her my name. She said, 'That's a lovely name.' I didn't have any holes either so I couldn't work out why she was being so nice to me.

There was an attack on my goal which came out of the blue and I fumbled the ball. It fell to an attacker but I blocked his shot. Georgie was clapping again, her breath freezing in front of her face like big white roses bursting into flower. Our midfield must have fallen asleep because suddenly the opposition were coming at me again. Their winger put in a cross and I jumped for the ball along with three other men – two of their forwards and one of our defenders. Normally I would have been more cautious but, in spite of myself, I was showing off in front of Georgie. I got hit in the face. Someone's elbow caught me in the cheek. It was a mighty blow and I felt instantly sick as if I'd walked into a tree. I fell to the ground, too badly hurt to clutch my face, too shocked to know how to react. The pain was startling and I was terrified in case the damage was... what?... worse than I expected? A footballing injury. Surely it couldn't be that bad, could it?

With players crowding round me I tried to feel with my tongue inside my mouth. The rich taste of blood was in my throat. My tongue found the point of impact, where the inside of my cheek had been pressed against my teeth. There was a hole. My tongue seemed to go on for ever as it felt for the end of the hole. What if it goes right through? I thought anxiously. What if I've got a hole through my cheek?

And when I looked up and saw the expressions on the faces of my teammates I realised that was exactly what I did have.

Gingerly I fingered my cheek. I felt the edge of the hole and drew back like a tourist on the lip of a volcano. The only person who came forward instead of backing away was Georgie and she came so quickly I didn't have time to react. Deftly she threaded a large silver ring through the hole, attached a strong-looking chain and snapped the ring shut. 'I love you,' she whispered unnecessarily.

The rest of the lads were watching, some exchanging knowing glances and nudges and winks. They didn't seem to mind that they'd lost their keeper. A game's a game but some things are more important, they would have been thinking. Even if they hadn't scored I had. Things like that. They would have all seen similar things before. I knew for a fact that Jon, the left-back, had seen a girl he fancied in a pub the week before and had slipped a thin wire through the hole in her pierced ear while she was waiting to be served. Since he'd wanted to go to the pub anyway they stayed for a while before going back to his flat on the outskirts of the city.

With Georgie it was love at first sight. So she said later after she'd led me away from the field. We didn't bother to go via the changing rooms and pick up my clothes. She made no concessions like that, and there was no reason why she should, obviously. My life had changed and I had to accept it. It wasn't as if it had never happened before; just not on a football pitch in front of 21 blokes. It was a bit embarrassing.

We spent the next 36 hours at her flat, moving from the bed only to run a bath – which we let go cold – or to get more orange juice from the fridge. We got to know each other's bodies to the most intimate degree and talked when there was an opportunity. She didn't take the ring out of my mouth once. It was far too early for that degree of trust.

During those first few days I submitted myself to everything without question. It felt good to be with someone again but I knew that before long I'd have to start looking for weaknesses. Realistically the balance couldn't stay the same for long.

Georgie took me to see her friends. In the car she took no chances, securing me to the door handle with a stout chain. I liked watching her drive. She didn't wear a seatbelt and her lips never stopped moving as she mouthed abuse at any driver who either cut her up or proceeded too slowly. I liked to see them fearfully get out of her way, especially because if they didn't it tended to mean a violent jolt which jarred the ring in my mouth, reopening the wound and causing blood to flow. I put my hand on her leg at one point and she covered it tenderly with hers before taking hold of my little finger and applying a twist that threatened to break it. We both laughed at this.

On arrival at her friends' house she led me into a chatter of appraisal and endless questions rattled at Georgie. Where did you find him? What does he do? Is it good? Better than the last one? 'He looks good to me,' one woman in a gold dress said as she ran her hand flirtatiously up my chain, stopping just before the ring so that I could feel her trembling with suppressed excitement.

The host emerged from the kitchen with a flourish and a black woman whom he kept in tow by means of a length of gold rope, the type you see in theatre foyers and outside posh hotels, which was plaited into her bleached hair. The black woman was carrying a tray of cocktails in outrageously tall glasses. I could only imagine the punishment she might receive for dropping one. In fact, as she passed me I noticed several barely healed welts on her cheek and up the back of her neck.

In the main living room everyone reached for a glass. I thought I'd try to get one for myself, just to test Georgie's reaction. She was on the ball, all right, whipping out a short riding crop – much to my surprise – with which she beat me twice on the arm. I was surprised because the only other couple I knew who kept a riding crop were my parents. To my knowledge they never used it because their relationship seemed as close to perfect as you could get. They had matching holes pierced through the nasal septum and both wore rings. Whoever at any time had the benefit of the swing led the other with a thin chain. When the swing changed they seemed to accept the fact mutually and switch the favour of the chain. Of course, their relationship was the exception rather than the rule.

Georgie's second stroke with the crop raised a thin red stripe. That's what I don't like about love affairs – the blood. My own or anybody else's. But in most cases it's inevitable.

'Don't touch, darling,' Georgie said gently. 'We're not at home now. These are my friends.' Then she kissed me slowly and deeply, probing the hole in my cheek, much to everyone's enjoyment.

Out of the twenty or so people in the room the host and his black partner were obviously very much in love. Probably, like Georgie and myself, they had only recently met. There were several single people and a few other couples at various stages of getting to know each other. One woman wore a hood and had been hobbled with nylon fishing line but she kept a respectful two paces behind her partner, a tall, thin man with silver hair and four fingers missing on his left hand. At regular intervals he would turn and run his good hand under the folds of her tunic and she would appear to shiver. It was hard to tell if her reaction was one of pleasure or disgust. Another couple stood at opposite sides of the room, each partner flirting wildly with other people. Every so often one would tug the long thin flex that snaked across the wooden floor between them. They looked as if they were hungry for new experiences but reluctant to throw away what they'd got.

I felt my head being pulled round. Georgie was unclasping the chain from the ring. She smiled at me indulgently as she held on to the ring itself and said, 'Go on, have a run about.'

She was taking a chance. The other women gathered round me, hands reaching out to pet me and stroke my head. One or two touched the ring and threaded it round through the hole. It hurt but I tried to put a brave face on it for Georgie's sake. There were at least a dozen women touching me. It only needed one to take a fancy to me and snap some kind of lead or chain on to my ring and Georgie would have lost me. I imagined that the risk gave her some pleasure because she seemed to be enjoying herself as she watched the frenzy of hands and bared teeth.

There was something about the episode which struck me as less than tasteful and I felt it reflected badly on Georgie. This was probably the moment – when she snapped the chain back on the ring, all but smirking with self-congratulation – that I began to love her slightly less and the swing began. In the car on the way back to her place I think we were probably about level but I was the one who was chained up. The thing about relationships, of course, is that when you're in one all the normal rules by which you live change. Georgie had had to wait for something to happen to me in the first place before she could put the ring on me. Had she just marched up and pierced a hole in my cheek it would have been rape – an act upon which society still frowns. But when you love somebody the gloves are off. Georgie should perhaps have taken my docility less for granted.

I watched her at the wheel as she negotiated the ill-lit rainy streets north of the city, her dry lips constantly fluttering. At one point she turned her head and looked at me and gave me a smile. Sickly in the orange glimmer of street lighting and the green display of the car's dash, her face seemed years older than the one I'd seen on the football field awash in early sunlight.

With a sudden movement I reached for the handbrake and jerked it up.

The rear of the car pitched up in the air and the front wheels swivelled. The steering wheel spun out of control and Georgie's head punched into the windscreen which shattered like a huge chandelier crashing to a wooden floor. I had braced myself adequately and was still sitting in my seat unharmed when the car stopped moving. I unclipped my chain from the door handle and looked at Georgie. She was bent in half, her face on the bonnet, her legs stuck under the wrenched steering column.

I walked to the nearest phone and called an ambulance.

When Georgie came home from hospital she was in a wheelchair. Because I had sold her flat while she was in intensive care, she stayed at my place. The swing had happened and I started leaving things out of reach on high shelves and on top of cupboards. We were still sleeping together but the relationship – like Georgie – wasn't really going anywhere. I didn't need to chain her. Her legs were useless and I lived on the fourth floor. There was no lift. The hole in my cheek healed up nicely, leaving a neat scar. I went out to work as normal and thought about her sometimes as I sat at my desk looking for pierced ears among the secretaries and personal assistants.

She took to ringing me at work to tell me she couldn't wait for me to come home, so one night when I got home I ripped out the phone and bound her wrists behind the back of the wheelchair. I should have been enjoying myself both at home – where I should have been grateful for Georgie's attention – and at work, and in the pubs and clubs, sitting waiting for someone to fall on a smashed glass. But I felt increasingly numb, unable to appreciate what I'd got. I began to have serious doubts about the swing and only realised what was really going on one day when I stayed late to finish sorting some papers at work.

A very attractive woman whom I'd noticed looking at me several times over the past couple of weeks came into my office and leaned against the desk facing me. She made much of the short skirt she was wearing. 'Your wife loves you very much, doesn't she?' she said.

'She's not my wife but yes,' I answered.

'That's what makes you so attractive.'

Then she took the long thin letter opener from my stationery holder and, laying her left hand flat on my desk, plunged the blade of the letter opener into the middle of it. Although clearly close to fainting, she managed to pull the blade out of the desktop in which it had become embedded and show me the palm of her hand. Blood dripped from the fresh hole.

Clearly the swing was in Georgie's favour again, because I felt no desire for this other woman. I just watched her bleed for a few moments before picking up the phone to dial Georgie. The number was unobtainable and I remembered why. 'I love you,' I whispered desperately into the receiver.

This story was first published in Little Deaths (1995), edited by Ellen Datlow.

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