Read Tales from the Tower, Volume 2 Online

Authors: Isobelle Carmody

Tags: #Young Adult Fiction

Tales from the Tower, Volume 2 (8 page)

BOOK: Tales from the Tower, Volume 2
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The first few weeks were touch and go. There were teething problems with some of the suppliers and a couple of the young people she employed were all fingers and thumbs and would have been better suited to working on a construction site. Another one couldn't grasp the concept of lunch-sized portions and created havoc with both the balance of quantities and with the future expectations of customers. Of which, initially at least, there weren't very many. No Sandwiches was, as he had pointed out, based on nothing more scientific than her own personal tastes, and for a while it looked as though she might have made a dreadful error of judgement. She was alone in her eccentric preferences. Everyone else was clearly quite happy with sandwiches, and her attempt to rock the boat was a disastrous waste of money and effort.

It was her old industry that came to her rescue. Twenty years' worth of business acquaintances don't go away over- night, and she was still getting dozens of calls and emails every day. She told them all what she was doing now, and some of them came to check it out and found that they liked it. There was no problem getting a table whenever they came in. The food was excellent and the place was quiet, and this was a combination that people in publishing valued. Soon the customers were arriving, and not just any customers, but the right kind of customers. Word began to get around. No Sandwiches was the new ‘in' place to eat lunch. She was up and running again, and what's more, it was just the beginning.


After that warning from the doctor he took to cycling, and over the summer he came up this road nearly every day on his way to Parliament Fields and the Heath. But he has never walked these streets at night before. Not any further than that Japanese restaurant. He has the sense again of going home, and of home being an uncomfortable and challenging place, but one, nevertheless, where he must go. But it isn't easy. All his senses are on red-raw alert, and he knows that in some way he is ignoring the warnings of the gods and striding on to challenge them.

And why not? What else is left for him to do, now that his wife has been transformed into a hag? It feels like their realm, this sudden transmogrification. She left him a beautiful woman and has returned to him a crone. He always knew. She never deceived him about this.

And yet, somehow, he didn't know. For all his powers of imagination, he has never envisaged her as she appeared to him that evening. He has always believed what his eyes told him, not his mind. He has been entrapped by her womanly arts, like a spider in the jaws of its deadly mate. His train of thought offers him a nice bone of resentment to gnaw on, but he stops it there anyway. It is nonsense. They didn't come together on Bondi Beach or at a Hollywood meat market. They met as mature adults. Their relationship is not based upon such superficialities, but on mutual respect. So why should it matter? Why should the colour of her hair make a difference?

It does.

He passes a corner pub. A man and a woman burst out of it, laughing, ducking beneath the rain. The man is wearing a linen jacket, which flies apart as he walks and shows the leanness of his body beneath a soft, white shirt. He has a set of car keys in his hand. The woman is raven-haired, wrapped in a long tweed coat. She takes his arm, tripping along beside him, hurrying from the rain, still laughing. For an instant the man's eyes catch his, and the look in them says,
Aren't you envious, mate.

As he walks on he understands that he has invented it, this silent exchange, and he sees why he has. It has provided him with the answer to his question. Because he is proud to be seen with her. She draws attention for all kinds of reasons, but her looks are high on the list of them. She has a great body for a woman of her age. She doesn't dress provocatively but she has a unique sense of style; a casual elegance which turns heads. But who will look at her now? He tries to remember other grey-haired women in their circle of friends and acquaintances. He spends some time thinking about this, and lights a cigarette to help him concentrate. Are there any? He can't think of any. Does that mean that there aren't any or that the ones there are have made no impression upon him?

So is that it? Is that the basis of their relationship? The whole fifteen years' worth? The fact that she looks good on his arm?

The rain is coming down harder. He needs to get out of it but he daren't go into a pub. So he ducks into the next takeaway he passes and orders a doner kebab and a black coffee. There are no tables, but there is a ledge running along one wall with stools pushed under it, so he eats there. The kebab is greasy and slimy with mayonnaise and some kind of translucent red goo. He isn't hungry anyway, and neither the smells nor the tastes produce the appetite he knows he ought to have. But eating the food and drinking the soapy coffee is the price of shelter from the rain, so he takes as much time over it as he can.

He is still severely rattled. His heart is going at an alarming rate. He feels its uneven rhythm in his throat, as unwelcome as a neighbour learning the drums and as difficult to ignore. He tries to listen to the conversations going on behind him at the counter, but his internal dialogue is too demanding and soon reclaims his attention.

He can't accept the conclusion he has reached about the nature of the relationship because to do so would be to accept an image of himself that he finds unpalatable. If his interest in her is solely based upon the augmentation of his ego, then he has become the kind of man he despises, concerned only with attracting admiration and envy. He will not accept that judgement upon himself. He declares, silently, that he loves her whatever she looks like, but when the image of her white hair returns to his mind he recoils as strongly as ever.

He asks for water and soaks a wad of paper napkins, cleans his hands and face. He drops the soggy mess into the remains of his food and puts the lot into a bin beside the door. Outside, the rain has slackened. He stands for a moment, looking in both directions. He wants to go back to the house and be comfortable and dry, but he finds he can't. He needs to keep digging until he comes to the bottom of this, and finds the real reason for his reaction to what she has done. And in a strange way, this realisation gives him new heart. It reminds him of his trade and why it has chosen him. He has never gone for the easy option of side-stepping life's challenges and turning on the television. He has always squared up to them and worked to dissect them, and define their nature, and present his findings to anyone with courage enough to read them. That, for him, is the art of poetry.

As he turns his steps towards the north again he takes out his cigarettes, but decides against smoking one and puts them back in his coat pocket. His heart is still frightening him, thudding away; the grim reaper limping behind like a teasing child. So strongly does this image strike him that he turns abruptly in the empty street and yells, ‘Fuck off!'

And he sees in himself the archetype of the Irish down-and-out in London, beyond the point of redemption, screaming at ghosts. And he sees, in the same moment, that he really might have ended up like that if it hadn't been for her.


She pulls up his number on her mobile phone, but she doesn't ring it. He has walked out because he doesn't want to talk to her. He doesn't want to discuss this thing she has done. If she phones he might not answer, and if he does answer, what will she say? There is no point in asking him to come home, because if he wanted to do that he would do it. So would she express her anger at him? Call him a superficial bastard? Tell him he can't handle the truth? Isn't that why she fell in love with him in the first place, precisely because he could handle the truth? Look it in the eye, call it by its real name, reveal it to the world in his poetry?

Could it be that he has changed? Lately he hasn't been working, or at least, he hasn't been working on his own writing, and she knows it bothers him. It occurs to her that perhaps he has lost it; that ability to see beneath the surface of things. And if he has, how does that affect the way she feels about him? Would she still love him if he gave it up? Threw in the towel? Stated that he'd had enough of looking into the underworld and intended to opt for the easy life?

She looks at her phone. The screen has gone dark but she knows his number is still there, waiting to be dialled. The obvious thing to do is apologise for doing this to him. She ought to have asked him first, or at the very least given him some warning. She could tell him it was a joke, or a test; in either case a mistake. She could promise to go to the hairdresser's first thing in the morning and get them to put it back the way it was.

She clears the screen on her phone and stands up, pours the sickly-sweet remains of the coffee into the sink. She rinses the cup and begins opening cupboard doors again, vaguely aware that what she needs is proper food. But the phone still draws her and she wonders whether it's another kind of nourishment she is looking for. She has good friends, several of them, in for the long haul. They have nursed her though bumps and fractures in relationships, and she has done the same for them. She knows she has their support through thick and thin. But she can anticipate their responses too well. They will approve her behaviour and condemn his, and what is happening here is somehow more complex than that. This is a vital step on her journey, and her instinct is to face it squarely, and on her own.

She thinks about the two women who showed her around the New York projects she went over there to see. One was her age, the other a few years older. Neither of them dyed their hair. And although the subject never arose in conversations, it was their example that gave her the strength to carry out her resolve. It wasn't a sudden decision, after all, but something she had been approaching for a long, long time.

He has cleared up the kitchen but not the living room, which she finds littered with newspapers and coffee cups and the empty packets from trail mix and popcorn. There are DVDs and their brittle cases all around the TV, and there is a snug, cushioned hollow in the centre of the sofa like a nest that some large, heavy beast has made. Is it evidence for her new hypothesis? Are these the signs of a man in a state of defeat, sinking gradually into resignation and torpor?

But in his study she finds comfort. It is a small room, which was her conservatory in a previous life, and it hordes his various smells. The predominant one is of stale cigarette ends, but there are undertones of musk and methane and licorice, merging into a combination that is unique to him. The desk is a chaos of notes and print-outs, but the rest of the room is tidy. The books on their custom-made shelves are lined up in precise order of height, the printer paper and spare cartridges are neatly stacked, and the unruly snarl of computer wires that tangle beneath her own desk are here disciplined into thick, neat bundles with cable ties. It is all in order and it reassures her. He has not disappeared from her life. He will come back here.

She carries her bag up to the bedroom and drops it at the foot of the bed. She needs to keep moving. She is afraid that if she keeps still for too long she will suffocate. It is not a new fear. She has always had it, and it is one of the reasons she chose the career she did. Being on her own never suited her. She has always been lost without someone around to reassure her that she still exists.

It is one of the first things that arose when she entered therapy. Her analyst seldom made suggestions, preferring to allow talk and reflection to bring clients to their own solutions. But this client did not spend time in reflection, and he had to suggest to her that she did; that she build some downtime into her life and spend it on her own.

She saw the wisdom in this but she never did get around to doing it. On the few evenings when she was not out at a party or a dinner she met friends and went to the theatre or the cinema, and on the even rarer occasions when she was alone in the house she invariably used the time to catch up with more distant family and friends on the phone. She thinks of this again now. She could ring someone just for a chat – she needn't even go into her own situation, but just listen and maybe get her mind back into gear for the other things that are happening in her life. But again she resists going beyond herself for help.

She turns on the bedside radio so that she will have voices to listen to, and begins to unpack.

Years of publicity tours have taught her to be a well-organised traveller. She has all her washing in a cotton bag, separated by a section of her case from the clean things. She empties the bag into the laundry basket and drops it in on top, then begins to unpack the rest. She puts her underwear into its drawer, then opens the wardrobe to hang up her dresses and jeans. But something that is lurking in there takes her breath away and she freezes, an empty hanger in her hand.

She had thought that his leaving like that had brought her to the depths of humiliation, but she sees now that there is still further to go. The garment that she sees there pushes her beyond humiliation and into the realms of degradation. It is a short black linen skirt, entirely innocuous. If they were both knocked over by a bus the next day they need have not the slightest fear that their executors would find anything here that revealed any details of their sexual life together. They didn't use sex toys or blue movies. They were a respectable middle-class couple with no dirty secrets. But that skirt, for her, told its own story.


He was amazed by her interest in him, and at the same time, deeply mistrustful of it. He had a girlfriend of a sort at the time, but both of them knew the relationship was going nowhere and it wasn't hard for him to extricate himself from it. He took great care that this new flame should never see where he lived, in a dingy ex-council flat that he shared with a constant turnover of Irish students and labourers and musicians, all passing through. By day he worked on his poems in one of several favourite libraries throughout the city, and by night he either joined his flatmates on their pub crawls or stayed at home and wrestled with demons. He lived on social security, occasionally supplemented by very small advances, paltry payments from poetry journals or competition winnings. Some months his postage expenditure was higher than his income from poetry. Every year he applied for every award, grant and bursary that was going. Once he got a thousand pounds from the Society of Authors by forging a doctor's note saying he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and unable to write. The travel grant from the Arts Council that enabled him to go to Australia just about covered his return flight and the barest of hostel accommodation, but it was the largest cheque he had ever received in his life.

BOOK: Tales from the Tower, Volume 2
11.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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