Renaissance Man, by Ailsa Cox
artwork by Nicholas Royle

Fur tippets and a red velvet gown. A broad brimmed hat trimmed with scarlet – the look she’d envisaged from their first meeting. A Medici prince, like the ones in the paintings – hooded eyes and a Roman nose, exactly the same.

‘Hold still,’ she said, fastening a white ostrich feather to the hat, cleverly assembled from circles of cardboard wrapped round with scarves.

‘You don’t think it’s too much?’

She stepped back.

‘No, that’s perfect.’

She herself was going as Diana the Huntress in a fitted brown tunic slit at the sides and set off by a headdress fashioned from papier maché to suggest, in its white crescents, both the moon and the skull of a ram. Karen had a cat’s face, with wide-spaced sorrowful eyes, and she spoke in a cautious hushed voice. But she came alive when fancy dress was in the offing. No vampires or vicars for Karen. She wouldn’t be seen dead as a tart, unless of course it was a Venetian courtesan in platform shoes or an authentic dancer from Moulin Rouge.

The cab driver chuckled when he saw him. ‘You look like a popinjay,’ he said.

‘A what?’

‘A popinjay.’

They drove on through the night, passing through shadowy villages, waiting at deserted crossroads without streetlamps, Karen wrapped in a sort of furry cocoon, and him keeping his head slightly bowed, to protect the feather. Adam had no idea which road they were taking, or at which point they crossed the Welsh border.  DIWEDD – END. Something-Or-Other Hall it was they were heading for, a New Year’s Eve party, some old school pal of Karen’s, Jenny or Sarah, Cathy or whatever. DIM PARCIO.

Karen looked so amazingly young. Ageless. But he was too old for this. He only agreed to please Karen.

The cab suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. Through the bare winter trees, he glimpsed lights.

‘Can you pick us up later? Say two o’clock?’ said Karen, wrapping herself tighter in her furs.
       
‘That’ll be sixty pounds then. Thirty pounds each way.’
       
‘How much?’ The feather knocked against the roof of the cab, as Adam bent forward to negotiate.
       
‘New Year’s Eve,’ the driver said, staring blankly at the void beyond the windscreen.
       
He paid up.
       
Karen hadn’t brought her purse. It spoilt her costume.

Even before they walked through the door, he could tell the place was nearly empty. Because the party was in this hall place, he’d been expecting hundreds – and there were bands she said – so he pictured it like a concert hall with ribbons and balloons and seething crowds, somewhere you could lose yourself; and, though he wasn’t completely over his cold, he thought he could probably mingle. This place was more like a youth club, the bar serving cans and crisps – and then a small space for dancing in what seemed to be some kind of a barn. The cold clanged through the underpopulated space. He felt the fuzzy pain in his sinuses, like faulty wiring. It was nine o’clock. Five hours till they could leave.
       
He couldn’t tell who was in fancy dress and who was not. There was a man who looked exactly like Van Morrison. There was a woman in a white shirt and high boots who might have been a pirate. And a hillbilly dressed in check shirt and braces, a long amber-coloured beard matching short-cropped hair. The hostess herself wore a wedding dress and a coronet of fading artificial flowers.
       
‘Miss Havisham,’ he said. ‘Very good.’
       
She looked pained. ‘I am Lucy,’ she announced. ‘The vampire bride.’
       
The dancing began slowly, first the women bouncing enthusiastically – Get on up! Like a sex machine – then, gradually, the men. It was one way to keep warm, but the ground was awkward underfoot. This was once, apparently, the cowshed, and the stone floor was ribbed in places, to drain away cow’s piss. Besides, his robes weren’t made for dancing, but for parading at a stately pace. He gave up, deciding to get drunk instead. That was the whole point of the cab. So he could drink.

9.30. Four and a half hours. And the horrors of midnight and compulsory kissing still to come.

The place filled up a little more. One or two younger people arrived, gothy types with chalky faces and kohl-rimmed eyes. They were there, it seemed, for the band, which had a local following. The decks fell abruptly silent, and the youngsters gathered in small groups. The guitarists and drummers took their places, striking up a menacing thrum as Miss Havisham launched herself at the mike.
       
Black night – cold tomb – evil – on the rise –

She had the voice of a half-strangled crow. And when this dirge ended, another began, the young people listening with rapt attention – one or two partygoers, Karen amongst them, even trying to dance in a fitful sort of way. He couldn’t stand it any more. He went outside.
       
The temperature had turned wintery since Christmas. On the way down to the cottage, they’d passed through a landscape made bridal by hoar frost – valleys pearlescent with mist, the frozen branches of poplars blooming smokily. Though the snow held off, he trod on hard ground in his velvety boots. Yet the cold outside the cowshed wasn’t as chilling somehow as the cold indoors. And he could see the stars, sharp as diamond studs against the sky. For the first time that evening, he had a sense of where he was. Next to the cowshed there was another, larger building, cut off from the courtyard where he stood by panels of wire fencing. Something was going on there – people milling around; light and warmth radiating from the open doorway. He wandered round the complex of crumbling stone buildings and ruined walls, acting, in case anyone was looking, as if he was exploring the site out of interest. 10.05. Four more hours of utter boredom. 10.15 – he’d done the whole circuit in ten minutes. Mock gothic or genuine? He wasn’t sure. Not that he cared either way.

*

He was drawn to the distant hum of music, real music, coming from the main building. Coming closer, he could feel the rhythms throbbing through him like a heart beat, and pick up the microphoned voices – Thankyou! – and sense the atmosphere rising like heat from an oven. But you could only go so far because of the fence.

‘What are you?’

A woman stood on the other side of the wire, smoking, a little older than him, maybe in her later fifties, blonde and raddled.

‘A coxcomb!’  She laughed throatily.

He felt his feather nervously. ‘What’s going on?’

‘It’s a benefit for Oxfam – two or three bands – they do quite well. No, seriously, what are you?  The Merchant of Venice?’ 
       
‘To be honest, I’m not sure…’  He took a cigarette, though he’d given up, and the smoke brought on his cough. She was actually quite attractive, in a Marianne Faithfull sort of a way.
       
‘Come round –’

He longed to cross over. He would have given anything to stand inside that glowing space.
       
‘I’ll get you in.’
       
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t for all sorts of reasons. He resigned himself to drinking as hard as he could manage on the money he had left. Whisky was warmer, but a can lasted longer. He went back to the bar. ‘I still can’t figure it out,’ the girl said, scrutinizing him while she poured beer into a plastic glass, ‘not Aladdin, who’s the other one…?’
       
*

Karen was knocking back brandy and ginger; he added a single to the large double someone had already bought her on top of the drinks they had when they arrived. She was in a huddle with her chums, the Jennies and Sarahs and Carols; Miss Havisham glanced at him slyly – you again – as Karen smiled a quick thank you. This was their second trip to the cottage; Karen booked it again right after the summer, and at that time New Year seemed a long way ahead. So much might have happened by then; and in fact he expected it would. Earlier this evening, as they sat in the firelight, finishing their wine after the meal, she’d said, ‘It’s so nice being here,’ and he’d said straight away, ‘Shall we not go?’ but of course she thought he was joking. Tomorrow they’d go for a long walk, and with any luck they’d see snow on the mountains. Tomorrow, when all this was over.
       
He wandered back outside, and texted Happy New Year to his daughter, wherever she was, at her mother’s maybe, or some student bar in Bristol. Was it so bad, the thing that he’d done? Could he never be forgiven?  The DJ was playing Roxy Music and David Bowie, the frenetic figures in the cowshed stopping and starting like puppets.  He hovered round the entrance, watching them trying to keep pace with Five Years, wheeling round one another, their shoulders pantomiming solemn gestures in accordance with the lyrics. Karen was in ecstasy, swaying like the priestess she was meant to be; then, as the music switched to Ride a White Swan she quickly removed her headdress and snatched the hillbilly’s hands. Adam had the strange feeling that, despite his heavy garments, he was transparent. You could punch a hole through him and not see any difference.

The clock was slowly moving, past eleven towards midnight. Outside, the junior Goths were sitting round the picnic tables, smoking weed. A pasty-faced lad with black polished hair passed the spliff over.
       
‘Hey look, it’s a eunuch! Want some?’

Adam took his hat off, and placed it on the wooden table. By now, the feather was bedraggled and drooping, and the fabric round the cardboard was beginning to unravel. Sucking hard at the spliff, he felt suddenly lighter, and he began to see his situation much more clearly...

The hillbilly guy was out there amongst them. ‘Nice outfit,’ he said, ‘kind of medieval.’
        .
…More clearly and more coldly than he ever had before.
       
‘How long you been with Karen?’ the hillbilly asked.
       
‘Oh,’ he explained. ‘We’re not together. How do you know –’ what was her name, the hostess, Miss Havisham?
       
‘Me? I’m her son.’

*

When Adam first started going for Sunday walks with Karen, or meeting for drinks or a meal, or seeing a film, he thought they were on the road to becoming lovers. He didn’t want to pressurize her, didn’t want to rush things this time. They sometimes kissed, they hugged and she’d pet him like a dog, and then he’d let a hand stray towards the regions round her breast, or tenderly stroke her hair, but she never responded. He waited. Give her time. His expectations were raised when she booked the cottage last summer, but though they shared a room they didn’t share a bed.

Face it, he told himself. Some people aren’t really into sex. It’s never going to happen. He was only here because he had no better offer.
       
‘I’m thinking of getting rid of the car,’ he’d said earlier that evening.
       
‘How would you manage?’
       
‘You manage. You don’t really need a car, do you, in the city?’
       
‘But what about coming to Wales?’  Her face was troubled. She counted on Adam driving. That was the only thing she needed him for.
       
Three minutes to midnight.
       
2009, another blank slate. At first you count in weeks and then in months, and then a year’s gone by, and then the next. You never thought a man could go this long without a shag. You never thought you’d spend New Year’s Eve standing outside in the cold dressed up as a eunuch.

*

12.15. The kisses, the horrible ritual, was done with. Time was moving faster as he entered the homeward slide. The hillbilly guy bought him a drink, and he forgot to check his watch for over ten minutes as he told him about Vicky.
       
‘All this for a cat,’ he said.  ‘Just a cat. It wasn’t even my cat, it was my ex-girlfriend’s. I knew I should have got rid of it.’

Tigger liked curling up under the car on sunny days. They were running late, and this was one more thing he couldn’t be bothered making a fuss about. ‘You wait,’ he said to Vicky, ‘he’ll soon shift when I start the engine. Cats have nine lives, didn’t you know that?’
       
1.15. He checked his messages. Nothing. He’d tried everything to make amends, sent flowers, wrote her letters, even spoken to her bitch of a mother, but six months later Vicky still couldn’t get over it. If only it had been killed outright - but she made him take the limp, screaming thing to the vet’s, would not believe there was no choice when it had to be put down.
       
‘Maybe you should, like, atone,’ the hillbilly said.
       
‘Make a sacrifice,’ someone chipped in.
         
‘A sacrifice?’
       
‘Yeah, you know, for the spirit of the cat.’
       
Unbelievable. Just the kind of rubbish Karen spouted now and then when she was in a pagan phase.

1.45. Inside, the dancers had thinned out, just half a dozen or so, their faces purple from the light show. Karen hadn’t stopped all night. She’d been dancing like a woman possessed, sometimes alone, eyes closed, arms uplifted in some private sacrament; or, in a raunchier mood, circling whichever man she chose, her gaze locked on his. Now, as the evening damped down, one or two couples stumbled around to the strains of Moon River. Karen clung to the Van Morrison type, nuzzling his neck, and yes, smooching. Right before his eyes.
       
Adam had never made a New Year resolution before. He thought it was pointless. But he made one there on the spot, and swore that he would keep it.
       
Suddenly the music switched to Gloria - and with the very first chords, those who were sitting sped onto the floor, and the couples separated from each other, jigging and jiving with manic energy - G-L-O-R-I - Karen performed one or two twirls, snaking under the arm of Van Morrison man, and then, breaking free from his grasp, she shook her breasts, backing away, Salome-style - I-I-I-I-A!  Then she flipped, misjudged and was down.
       
In the seconds it took him to rush over – in so far as he could rush in the velvet gown – Adam feared the worst. She could have knocked herself out. She could have killed herself on that concrete floor. When she got to her feet, she was laughing, rubbing her head ruefully. ‘Oh I feel such a fool!’  But going bang like that, it must have been painful. He could feel a swelling on her forehead.
       
‘Sorry,’ she murmured, as he wrapped her up in the furry cloak, and handed her a glass of water.

‘Sure you’re alright?’
       
She smiled bravely. He was reminded of Vicky when she came off her bike. Sorry Daddy.
       
‘We should get you to A&E.’  
       
‘No, no, no....’ 
       
‘It’s fine,’ he said, waving Van Morrison away. ‘I’m taking care of her.’ 
       
She was shivering a little when the cab arrived, whether from the cold or the shock, he couldn’t tell. She snuggled into his shoulder, drunk and half awake. ‘Is my headdress there?’
       
He had the skull thing in a Tesco bag, but left his feathered cap behind.     
       
‘Good do was it?’ the driver asked.
       
‘Not bad,’ he lied.
       
Beyond the wire, the benefit was still at its height; he could see the lights glowing in the main building as they drove into silence and fog.
       
Karen whimpered like a kitten in her fake fur, and he kissed her better, his lips brushing the top of her head. He could feel the bump growing like an antler under the skin.
       
‘Karen,’ he whispered, his hands slipping under the wrap and onto her breasts. ‘Karen...’  He kissed her full on the lips, his tongue gently probing her mouth.  At last she seemed to yield. He took her hand, guiding it, with some difficulty, towards his cock, swelling inside the velvet robes.
       
‘Eeurch!‘  She recoiled instantly. ‘What are you doing?...’ 
       
They sat apart for the rest of the journey, Karen slumped into the corner. Soon he felt the cab go over the bridge and take the sharp left past the campsite. They were almost at the cottage.
       
He cleared his throat. ‘Just here will do.’
       
‘Sure?  I can take you all the way, it’s no trouble.’
       
‘No, this is fine. Save turning round at the top...’
       
‘You’ll need your torch, mate.’
       
Karen was staggering as he led her up the track, their feet crunching on the frozen mud. She really was very drunk; he wasn’t drunk enough.  
         
‘Why aren’t you wearing your hat?’ 
       
‘Someone told me I looked like a eunuch.’
       
She tittered. Adam let go of her arm as he stopped for a pee, inevitably spattering his costume.
       
‘You alright?’  He couldn’t see a thing; the darkness was so absolute he lost her for a second.
       
‘I feel dizzy...’
       
‘Not far now.’
       
He was right. A few minutes later, he could make out the lights of the cottage.  Even so, they should get a move on. You could catch your death out here. Neither of them were dressed for winter. His feet were getting soaked in the flimsy velvet boots, and now snow was starting to fall, gathering on his brows in icy clots.
       
‘My headdress,’ she gasped; her teeth were chattering so fiercely, the words came out in spasms. ‘Where is it?’
         
‘I threw it in the woods.’
       
‘You didn’t!’
       
‘I did. I threw the fucking thing in the woods.’ He paused. ‘I put the bag down when I went for a pee. It’ll still be there in the morning.’
       
‘Fetch it...’  A shoulder seam split as she pulled at his sleeve.
         
‘No Karen, you get it.’  He drew to a halt, the anger suddenly coursing through his bloodstream. ‘You get it. I’ve had enough. You get it, why don’t you? You get it. Go on’ - shoving her so hard in time to his words that she reeled and fell to the ground.
       
‘Come on, I didn’t push you that hard.’
       
She sat there, holding out her arms, pleading, ‘Help me up...’
       
‘Help yourself up. Or stay there. Freeze to death. You’re frigid - at least with me you are - you can freeze to death if you want to.  I don’t care.’
         
He strode on angrily, not looking back. The snow was falling faster; he could taste it like blood in his mouth. Should he turn back, help her get back on her feet?  No. He had made his resolution; she could take her chances out there on her own.  
       
Inside the cottage, the stove was still burning. He riddled the ashes, put in more coal, and got out of his daft costume. As he poured himself a large glass of single malt, there was still no sign of Karen. And you know what?  He didn’t give a fuck.
       
All this time, he’d been thinking about sacrifice. He’d have given his own life for his child; wouldn’t any parent? If anything happened to him, Vicky would be inconsolable. She was hysterical over a cat; think how she’d be if it was her father. But maybe he didn’t need to sacrifice his own life. Another life would do, a life that wouldn’t be missed. As a gesture of atonement, and to mark his resolution.
       
Quickly, he locked the front door, fastening the bolts at top and bottom, and switched off the outside lamp. Then he went round the cottage, making sure the faded velvet curtains, smelling faintly of cat piss, were all completely closed, sealing every crack of light that might lead Karen home. The scent of patchouli still lingered in the bedroom, her pyjamas folded on the pillow, her special crystals laid across the lace mats on the dresser. He thought of sleeping in the bed but decided against it, spreading his sleeping bag on the pea green sofa for what would be the very last time.
       
In fact he slept very little that night. He wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming, when he thought he heard a tapping at the window, and peering out, caught sight of a deer, lit in a swirl of white light, a little roe deer was it? – he was rubbish at nature – standing there in the garden, and then it was gone. In the morning, the snow was everywhere, like a fresh page in his life, and he knew that for him this new year would bring blessings.  He felt calm now, and restored to himself. As for Karen, her role, out there in the woods, suited her down to the ground. It was the most authentic thing she’d ever done.
                       


BACK TO CONTENTS



wordpress twitter facebook 


      BROWSE BY:
   Volumes

   Writers

   Artists

   News

home

   About

   Contact

   Submissions

   Help us
   raise money
   for charity