still,’ she said, fastening a white ostrich feather to the hat, cleverly
assembled from circles of cardboard wrapped round with scarves.
think it’s too much?’
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.
driver chuckled when he saw him. ‘You look like a popinjay,’ he said.
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.
looked so amazingly young. Ageless. But he was too old for this. He only agreed
to please Karen.
suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. Through the bare winter trees, he
pick us up later? Say two o’clock?’ said Karen, wrapping herself tighter in her
be sixty pounds then. Thirty pounds each way.’
much?’ The feather knocked against the roof of the cab, as Adam bent forward to
Year’s Eve,’ the driver said, staring blankly at the void beyond the windscreen.
hadn’t brought her purse. It spoilt her costume.
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
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.
Havisham,’ he said. ‘Very good.’
pained. ‘I am Lucy,’ she announced. ‘The vampire bride.’
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.
and a half hours. And the horrors of midnight and compulsory kissing still to
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 –
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.
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.
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.
stood on the other side of the wire, smoking, a little older than him, maybe in
her later fifties, blonde and raddled.
coxcomb!’ She laughed throatily.
his feather nervously. ‘What’s going on?’
benefit for Oxfam – two or three bands – they do quite well. No, seriously,
what are you? The Merchant of Venice?’
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.
to cross over. He would have given anything to stand inside that glowing space.
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…?’
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.
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.
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.
it’s a eunuch! Want some?’
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...
hillbilly guy was out there amongst them. ‘Nice outfit,’ he said, ‘kind of
clearly and more coldly than he ever had before.
you been with Karen?’ the hillbilly asked.
explained. ‘We’re not together. How do you know –’ what was her name, the
hostess, Miss Havisham?
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.
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.
thinking of getting rid of the car,’ he’d said earlier that evening.
manage. You don’t really need a car, do you, in the city?’
about coming to Wales?’ Her face was troubled. She counted on Adam
driving. That was the only thing she needed him for.
minutes to midnight.
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.
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.
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
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?’
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.
should, like, atone,’ the hillbilly said.
sacrifice,’ someone chipped in.
know, for the spirit of the cat.’
Just the kind of rubbish Karen spouted now and then when she was in a pagan
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.
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.
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.
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.
she murmured, as he wrapped her up in the furry cloak, and handed her a glass
bravely. He was reminded of Vicky when she came off her bike. Sorry Daddy.
get you to A&E.’
fine,’ he said, waving Van Morrison away. ‘I’m taking care of her.’
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
He had the
skull thing in a Tesco bag, but left his feathered cap behind.
was it?’ the driver asked.
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.
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.
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
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.
his throat. ‘Just here will do.’
‘Sure? I can take you all the way, it’s no trouble.’
is fine. Save turning round at the top...’
need your torch, mate.’
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.
aren’t you wearing your hat?’
told me I looked like a eunuch.’
tittered. Adam let go of her arm as he stopped for a pee, inevitably spattering
alright?’ He couldn’t see a thing; the
darkness was so absolute he lost her for a second.
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.
headdress,’ she gasped; her teeth were chattering so fiercely, the words came
out in spasms. ‘Where is it?’
it in the woods.’
‘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.’
it...’ A shoulder seam split as she
pulled at his sleeve.
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.
I didn’t push you that hard.’
there, holding out her arms, pleading, ‘Help me up...’
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.’
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.
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.
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
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.
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