Both the boys had not been long back from the war, Andrew’s room now littered with the organised debauchery of the prohibition – long-empty decanters, ladies stockings, handkerchiefs scattered like doves in the public square. Michael had expected no less of him – for Andrew was man of means, a man of slicked-back hair and fast fingers which seemed to conceal any exposure of personal insecurity or embarrassment.
So it was a shock when silence fell. It fell as both men were customarily slouched in their respective chairs in Andrew’s apartment, drinking misty tumblers of gin and tonic, Andrew occasionally standing to sluice in more alcohol which he stirred determinedly with his index finger – Michael asked a question.
“Who is that, then?”
He motioned a querulous hand towards a striking painted portrait of a young woman which stood amidst an accumulation of papers on Andrew’s desk. It were the eyes which captivated Michael – the intensity of the shade almost projected in a kind of appeal, the freshness of the skin draped over the bones as if concealing something terrible. It was as if Andrew was also concealing something terrible as he seemingly waited for the sound to dissipate, draining his last mouthful of gin with evident difficulty. Then, noticing that Michael was staring at him expectantly, he stood up abruptly.
‘That,’ He gestured, striking firmly, almost vindictively, with the depersonalised pronoun ‘is a woman I met on the train going home.”
His syllables were long and languorous, seemingly indicating that Michael was not required to interject .
“It was an initially dull journey up to Boston, you know. I was still wearing my uniform – though not out of pride by then, but by a kind of sick conformity. I felt empty – couldn’t wait to get home and crack eggs back into that same old pan and hear the familiar murmur of boiling oil.”
His eyes were squeezed shut as if he was attempting to access a long series of memory.
“Gee, I was tired. Well, I was sat in my carriage, fumbling with the paper bag left over from some cold cuts and chewing a pencil which seemed to have soaked up the kind of flavours of the past, if you know what I mean. No one forgets that easy.”
He surveyed the room for a moment.
“Naw, nothing and no one forgets. The dust in the carriages which took the men to fight was still shimmering there in little grey lines – I guess I felt lucky to have been able to see hat dust twice. It was the type of dust that seems to almost physically weigh upon you – it was beguiling the back of my throat, my eyes –
You can be sure I was a mess when this girl suddenly stumbles in! Well, a woman, you know, but couldn’t have been any more than thirty – dressed to the sky in one of those tight cotton dresses, and unforgiving shoes, almost made her feet purple to look at – like swollen fruit. Yet the way she held herself – it was strange –she seemed bent, almost insect-like. She groped for the opposite seat as if she was drowning.
Well, I raised my voice immediately, asked her if she needed a hand, and she turned to me, almost horribly.
She was fascinating. I glanced over her fine cheekbones, the pursed and painted lips which seemed to decorate her face – but it was her eyes. I stared and stared – for they were almost incomprehensible to me. There was a woman, pressed to the seat with her tiny hands almost white against the upholstery, and yet her eyes seemed inaccessible – as if all expression in them was buried deep in her face. I strained forward a little.
Again I asked her if I could give her a hand – a little casually perhaps, for I was tired, and I was conscious of the smell of stale tobacco on my clothes and could only anticipate her distaste.
That was when she angled her whole body towards me, almost desperately, and grabbed my hand.”
He clutched his left hand with his right almost passionately, as if imitating the course of action. His suede shoes struck erratically on the polished floor as he rolled on the balls of his heels. The mirrored surface seemed to reflect some objects with a greater intensity than others – or finely clothed bodies, the stained glass chandelier, the whole decanter of whisky packed in the corner. I put my glass to my dry lips but for some reason, did not drink.
He continued, his voice rising a little.
“So there I am, with this girl fast at my wrist, and I remember the feeling of something distinctly unsettling – almost confrontational – about it. It was as if her eyes belonged exclusively to herself, not permitting the gaze on any other – the eyes of a spy. Well I had just managed to loosen her grip slightly and ease her gently into the opposite seat, when she started talking – as her mouth opened she pulled the black ribbon hat from her head so I could see fully the almost strained contours of that face –
“He never asked if I wanted a hand, no nothing like that,” She tremored, almost meditatively, the words spilling over white teeth between slightly oily red lips “No, that was the problem with Henry – he did not like me really, I could not do anything to provoke the slightest positive reaction from him. It was society who adored us of course… “ And she looked up at me.
“I’ve ran away from my husband.” She gushed “but you know, you know mister – “ Her voice was hoarse in her sultry kind of way as if she had been whispering for a long time “All I wanted was to feel that I did not belong to anyone.”
In retrospect, that last remark was quite ironic, as little did she know as she sat back, almost resplendent, opposite me, I sketched that strange face, the pitted eyes, delicate nose, onto my paper. I could still feel the dust in my throat – so I did not forget it – but there was strange intimacy which I had not felt for years – just in tracing the hair and limbs of teeth of an actual stranger. It gave her identity to me, I guess. Her untellable eyes, the way she held her fingers as if her hands were vulnerable to collapse. Captured her, I did, captured her, you could say.”
He sucked at his teeth, seemingly silenced in these ponderous romanticized expostulations, almost awfully, horribly so.
“Well,” Michael managed, gazing at the framed piece on the desk “You’ve done a remarkably good portrait of her. What did you do – bring the original paper home and copy it back out?”
“Oh, that – he declared, almost in laughter, sweeping his hand over the desk so that the picture frame tottered precariously “Oh, no. I did that when the girl got out of the carriage a few stops down the line – I went to see if there was another passenger next door, out of a kind of coldness, I guess – and there were two female friends sipping wine with those horrible bird-like gestures and having, as they expressed in dripping voices, a ‘marvellous time.’
He stood still, finally, uttering the words almost emptily.
“And one saw me and they got talking about artistry and one asked me to draw her – just like that.” He sucked the skin of his thumb urgently, almost as if kit was a cigarette. “Gave me the money and everything – another kind of prostitution, you could say. And that is what is there on the desk, nothing more than a dirty bit –“
The words seemed stoppered in their sentence, as he unfurled a paper from his breast pocket and looked at it with a haunting fondness.
“No, this is what I drew of that first girl,” He mused “So I guess she still does belong to someone.”
He turned out the image to show Michael.
It was a mirror.