Edward Westman was one of those men particularly prone to entreating self-admiration, stooping slightly as he came across a reflective surface, praising in little whispers the contours of his facial features, his broad brow and finely shaped hands. He told himself that he constituted a vital area where his wife failed – Elisa Westman was a slight, pale woman whose gold-blonde hair seemed to fade into the morning air – and as Edward Westman mused, she seemed engaged only in the task of fading, from him, from praise, from everything. He attempted to better the situation in convincing himself that he had only married her in desperation to strengthen his name, declare his dominance, managing – albeit with a slight sense of guilt – to ignore the sickly demeanour of his children.
But one thing the bold Westman convinced himself that he would never ignore, was society. At thirty two years of age, he considered himself a seasoned drinker without the folly of fatigue, a successful cynic without the impenetrable layer of pessimism he had seen so many older men fall subject to. A favourite engagement of his was to stroll down to the local club in the evenings, amidst the crowd of well-rehearsed masculinity, play a little poker, enjoy the sensation of spirits of his tongue which he told himself to be a greater confidant to him than the words of any woman.
For it was evident he enjoyed the company of men, appreciated the concealed emotion and protruding countenances with a kind of fondness. In the club, beneath the orange-polished beams and leather interior, women were infrequent visitors – it was more often the case that man spoke to man, complained of women, smoked, played cards. It reminded Westman of an older Manhattan, a still stalking nostalgia of his early years, despite now being in London – but he told himself he enjoyed it all the same, that the alcohol had a certain taste of vigour without the presence of his wife. Whenever he had taken his wife out for a casual drink on Mayfair or Convent Garden if he was feeling decadent, the wine somehow always tasted empty, as if reflecting the general situation of his marriage. He told himself that it did not depress him.
But of course it did. It did as certainly as an old friend from training – Avory Pinlayer – slapped him congenially on the shoulder.
“Hey, hey, well if it isn’t good old Edward Westman!” Avory spoke with the certain icing-sugar dusting of a game show host, his syllables were bold and enhanced and he spoke with a peculiar pronouncement of his lower mouth.
“Good to see you, Avory, as ever.”
Westman was tired and therefore thankful that Pinlayer proceeded to dominate the conversation – a rather ravenous attack on his most-recent wife, for Pinlayer was a real player of the filed – helpfully providing particular prosodic emphasis on exclamations such as ‘goddamned’ and ‘bitch’ so that Westman could join in nodding emphatically. He tried to tell himself that the whole subject did not depress him – but it did. Images of his wife’s inevitable searching stare swam before his eyes, the strange nasal ring of her voice seemed to chew at the lobe of his ear.
“… Better off without ‘em.” Pinlayer appeared to finish, seemingly triumphant, his finely-shaped dark moustache finally relaxing and his voice seemingly stoppered by a great mouthful of amber-coloured, almost enchanting bitter.
Amongst Westman’s circles, ever since the war, a general distaste towards the women one was connected with did seem to grow. Of course, that age-old respect for the mother continued – although silently – and the men were most emphatically and vocally opposed to their wives, as if threatened by their forced domesticity back at home. Some nights at the club, as the air thickened with smoke, would just be peppered with occasional adjectives of approbation, but at other evenings, usually late in the week, whole arguments ensued. Westman had experienced many of those nights, usually laughing whole-heartedly into his liquor in an attempt to inhale the fumes and conceal the nervous twitches to which he was sometimes subject. He usually maintained this act up until the point where everyone was either too drunk or exhausted to notice.
Yet there was a paradox in that although a dislike for women was evident, it was the subject of women, and even more so – their entrance in to the club – which absorbed attention. Over the five years in which he had been involved with the club, it had been a frequent occurrence that Westman would sit with a few ex- American Servicemen he was on good terms with and add to the general shrieks of appreciation when what they considered to be a ‘fine woman’ walked in. Sometimes hands seemingly worn only by the repetitive past movements of installing artillery reached out, stricken, for the silk of a dress, the soft curve of a face. Sometimes the women would walk in coyly, in a small group, clutching little bags beneath their arms and attempting to prevent their laughter from disrupting their often bizarre arrangements of hair.
But over time, the men became discontented. The women visiting the club seized to laugh – they looked in a kind of disgust at the poorly polished tiles and would sneer and sidle away as the exhausted band struck-up some old tune dripping uncomfortably with nostalgia. Westman told himself women only laughed when they were nervous, and thus when the women seized to laugh, they had obviously accepted the club for the dull regularity which it was. But so many of the men, including Westman, could not accept that.
“What we need is some new stuff,” he remarked one Wednesday evening, speaking through a large cigarette so that some of the ash fell thickly, patterning his poorly-washed cream suit – probably an act of vengeance by Mrs Westman “You know, what about dancing, or some new high-society girls. This is London, after all.”
It was that following Saturday night that Westman had retreated to the club in especial need of distraction – for his wife was sick and swollen, screaming obscenities at him as he attempted to call the doctor. He ordered a double whiskey and plumped himself into his usual seat, breathing in the avid combination of soot and distinctively male sweat with a kind of sentimentality. His drink tasted of nothing and he listened half-heartedly to a group of ex-servicemen talk alongside him upon the subject of poetry. Some of them spoke lines of Latin, and he watched their lips linger almost playfully over the mysterious sounds. The barman, Smithy, slid him another drink across the bar and Westman took his hand for a duration which passed the conventional.
This was interrupted, however, by a dramatic flutter of attention around the club entrance. Natural light seemed somehow constricted, and then suddenly enhanced, pirouetting in a million spiracles from the finery of an elaborate, stone-studded headdress. It graced the head of a woman Westman thought to be the most beautiful he had ever seen. Her face was enhanced almost determinedly – bold cheekbone coated with rouge, lacquered lips, and seductively heavy eyes. The shine from her skin portrayed her to be one single tone in colour and thus expressed a perfection most men had hardly ever contemplated, except in some transfixed dream or another. The club was so suddenly silenced, half-full tumblers stoppered in so many hands rather than up to lips that one could hear the turquoise silk affair or her dress crackling close to the floor.
“My God,” breathed Smithy, close to Westman’s ear “Would you believe it?”
Another man on the barstool beside him, flicking a crop of greasy blond hair from his face, was also absorbed in apparent admiration. His fat red cheeks almost swaying as he spoke.
“ A gorgeous woman. Like I said to Pinlayer – what a woman needs is a fine face, a straight walk and something other than the hair on her head.”
Westman strained forward critically, looking at her strange advacements on apparently high shoes.
“She looks a little uncomfortable to me…”
Smithy interrupted bluntly. “Oh, who gives damn? Can you imagine the number of men who’ll be flocking in to buy her a glass or two of something tonight…”
His hands stroked each other as if in imagination of a fat sum of cold cash. He liked the cool green of dollar bills best, from when he had been serving in America, but had begun to accept that coming to England after the war was a sacrifice well made – the men seemed almost desperate for the comfort of alcohol, drank as if it constituted the very blood in their veins.
The clot of men in their customarily dark and finely cut suits started to dissipate as the headdress advanced precisely towards them. Westman tipped his drink back nervously, opening his eyes to find the female face almost aligned with his.
“Well, hello there,” He managed feebly.
Her mouth, although almost misshapen beneath its layers of lacquer, seemed somehow familiar, sending him almost subconsciously leaning towards it. He gathered himself quickly, placing a hand firmly on the barstool only to feel more acutely the hairs on his arm, prickling, on edge. He could sense that Smithy was making some kind of obscene gesticulation behind him.
The woman began to talk as familiarly as she danced towards him.
“I’d like to speak to you,” Her voice emerged tightly from her mouth, slow and beguiling deep in tone, placing particular, almost mocking emphasis on the final word. “Alone.”
Her sharp, outlined yes captivated him, the strange almost emphatic sway of her hips and the fierce odour of her perfume incensed him as she seized his hand roughly with a certain kind of strength and dragged him back through the incision she had made in the fascinating crowd. Westman managed hasty, almost choking gulps of hot air as he felt hundreds of eyes suddenly upon him, a chorus of whistles, the floor almost surging beneath his feet, like crossing from tile to carpet and then back again. But the girl grasping onto him did not stop moving until they were well out on the street, at a distance from the club where he was suddenly conscious of the firm grasp of her hand on his – and he thought of the fortune of a new life, being able to awaken with a new woman beside him, the new days sun spangling across silk curtains to bathe them both.
He must have been muttering, semi-drunk under both alcohol and anticipation as at the corner of a side-street, the woman turned to him and suddenly started laughing.
It stopped Westman in his tracks, horrified. The laugh was rich and awfully deep, as if stripped from the depth of her very lungs, He watched, stunned as her hand moved up her body as if her complete array of clothes was bound to collapse at any point, he stared and stared, almost oblivious to the faint yet evidently angered female screams on the opposite pavement.
Then there was only silence as the headdress fell to the floor and he felt the rough sharp slap of a hand on his shoulder.
He saw the ever-familiar crease at the corners of the eyes which distorted the eye make-up beyond repair. For it was not a woman at all – it was Pinlayer.
“You should have seen your face!” Pinlayer snorted, quickly removing Westman’s stunned still hands from his person “That’s the best nights entertainment the club has had in ages, jolly admirable how you played along, old chap…”
Westman flushed whilst Pinlayer continued, wiping his face hastily with a broad, damp hand, his body suddenly crude and obvious, straining against the delicate folds of the dress.
“It’s a real man who makes a perfect girl,” he laughed shrilly and awfully beneath a great growing smear of pink lipstick. “ Had you captured instantly!”
Westman left Pinlayer laughing as he hurried off into the night, threading the streets back home in an emotionless and automatic way often only acquired by taxi cabs and murderers.
The purpling shades of the night incensed Westman to the extent that he was almost delirious upon reaching home, groping up the pathway with an uncertain two feet, barely noticing the peculiarity of Elisa waiting for him in the porch. The intensity of her sudden stare made him feel roughly for the shrapnel wound beneath his breast pocket. He was not sure for that second whether he hated her or her immediacy.
“I saw you,” she spoke through the open door, her mouth moving ferociously as if chewing over syllables, the very energy of her actions ending her dishevelled dark hair haphazardly over one shoulder. Her eyes looked red and raw in the most vulgar sense, and Westman stared simply at her pulsing hands and attempted to tell himself it was a trick of the light. Tricks of the light came in handy, he thought.
But her tone was venomous, the tone he had only heard replicated by her once or twice in his life – usually as she held her hands to her face and shed fat, black horrible tears. Yet her face was comparatively dry.
“I saw you with another woman.”
She sounded triumphant in her distress. For once, it was a triumph Westman felt he could match, feeling smug as he opened his mouth and stared at the straining female body in front of him, her swelling hips marking profoundly against the fading nightdress, the lace all tortured and grey around the chest –
“I can explain.” He almost chuckled, remembering how easily he had fallen for Pinlayer’s dirty trick. He felt hot and yet somehow uncomfortable in his innocence.
“Don’t you bother,” She snapped, striking out against the night “I saw, the whole club saw, you’re a disgrace, an absolute –“
The smile still spread across his lips as he waited customarily for her to quiet, and yet, he could not help noticing that the tears had not yet fallen, that instead of crouching beneath her feigned distress and the tiredness usually tripping through her bones, she stood tall and guardedly in her bare feet. He never had before noticed that she painted her toenails – they glistened up at him like open red mouths in the act of approbation. A car accelerated shrilly on some neighbouring street and thrust him forward into the seeming reality of his wife’s apparent enjoyment of her speech.
“Not that it really matters now, anyhow,” She grinned at him, her lips almost offensive to him in a coloured shade he had not noticed that she wore. Taking at step forward, she stared up at him, clutching her swollen stomach as if it was something obnoxious to him “I’m going to have a baby.”
He felt the blood drain from his face, the alcohol fizzing in his veins and up into his throat.
“How does that not matter…?” His voice surged with an emotive concern he wished he did not possess. In the thickening night, with the kiss of cheap cigarettes still on his breath, he felt horribly helpless.
“Because,” She let her smile stay well after the last word, repeating herself slightly in her apparent ecstasy. “I’m having a baby, a baby girl – with another man.”
It was then Westman let his eyes finally fall to a hastily stuffed bag of her own clothes behind her, and Elisa watched him, as if taking a great substance from his apparent bewilderment, letting her long dark eyelashes bat against her face in the way she knew both irritated and beguiled him. It was the ideal conclusion for her, and as she looked beyond the shabby countenance of the man she had hardly known, she saw the car headlights she had been so recently accustomed to, threading towards her –
“After all,” she smiled weakly, watching the familiar car draw closer “It takes a real man to make a girl.”
Yet they were both crying.