Authors: Tracey B. Bradley
A novel by
Tracy B. Bradley
ondon presented well at any time of year––the blossoms of a fresh early spring, summers with throngs of sightseers, colours and festivals, and the long low-lit days and moody skies of autumn. But it was those few compressed weeks around Christmas that conjured a magic like no other time, of generosity, kinship, great food and great get-togethers regardless of the chill––which is why Gillian and Edgar fled, year after year. Their pilgrimage had been a custom, but this year?––this year something was up. Something that was slow in coming, but nevertheless needed attention.
Gillian was no different than any woman, or most women, who wanted to know what they did, or didn’t do to get to a particular place in their life. Sometimes a woman can be amazed at her luck and other times, most of the time, it is said in exasperation, “what did I do to deserve this?” And the ensuing feeling of nothing-to-lose in trying to find out.
Not even a fortnight earlier she had been fired from one of London’s biggest ad agencies, a veritable shark tank. She had made it to forty-two, ancient by advertising standards. “I won’t compromise myself,” she told her boss, at their last meeting, repeating what she had told herself thousands of times in twenty years. “Putting out” didn’t have to mean sex, to snag a client or to keep one happy. Not for her. But it meant she had to work twice as hard to accomplish anything. “If you weren’t as alluring,” her boss said, “I’d have fired you years ago.” And she was alluring, and once-upon-a-time she had known it––tall, slender, and a mass of red hair that turned heads.
It was that typical dark London precursor to winter, and the “infernal panic,” Gillian liked to call it, that is known as Christmas. And Gillian had spent the day shopping. Now, from the café in Liberty’s, Gillian was absorbed in her silent and subtle entertainment, sipping tea, sometimes something stronger, and watching Spokes, the chauffeur, snooze, illegally parked, waiting for her, while she waited for someone to tell him to move along. But now the game was thwarted by an old weathered woman who set up a small fold-out chair, just across the road from the back door of the department store, running interference. What did she want? To sell some lavender? Collect money for the children, which the children would never see? Gillian was no stranger to organized philanthropy, but she also had a soft spot for anyone sitting in the cold, begging.
Gillian finished her tea, dabbed the corners of her mouth, and took up her packages. Knowing she would undoubtedly be approached for coin, she folded a fiver in her fist, to make the encounter pass as rapidly as possible. She waved to get a snoozing Spokes’s attention, stepped out into the narrow street, and hurried across. As she came around the front of the car, she took all the bags in one hand and stuffed the five-pound note in her other, ready to pass off and then get in the car. Spokes stirred, got out and came around to open the door for Gillian. The wizened old woman held up a flat hand, to refuse the charity, which stopped Gillian cold. “Here,” said the old woman. It’s a spirit card. It’s time.” Spokes broke the spell by taking Gillian’s packages. Gillian took the card and whispered, “Thank you.”
“You’ll understand.” The old woman smiled, projecting a feeling of complete acceptance in her eyes. Gillian turned to get in the car. The old woman called after her, “it’s the solstice you know, the shortest day of the year.”
The next night Spokes drove Gillian and Edgar silently through the glistening streets of London, past the festive shop windows soaked in light and gold and red, exuding the warmth and hope of giant candles, while mannequins blankly clutched beautifully wrapped gifts, hid behind mufflers, stood in fake snow, and overgrown nutcrackers twirled magically with giant mice and ballerinas. Endless dots of lights lined the cornices, cupolas, and eaves of Victorian London, turning it into a make believe town, a land of fun for the rich, and not much else for the down and out. The down and out. Gillian remembered tucking the card into the seat back. She reached forward and withdrew it in the dark, turned on her opera light and studied the card. It was a dragonfly in emerald and orange––her very colours, her blazing red hair and characteristic emerald outfit––with three phrases written beneath: “Mesmerize, All Potential, True Self.” The drive was silent as usual, but for some reason, something had descended on them. Edgar was always in his own world but Gillian got a different sense this evening. She pondered the card, its lovely design and then placed it in her bag. Twenty years and, although she was used to the detachment, she feared the unknown, she feared her loss of intuition, or the fact that her intuition was telling her something she hadn’t wanted to face for almost twenty years. She had fought off the advances of company reps, agents and publicists for what? The one man permitted to make an advance to her––who would be welcomed with open arms––had been oblivious for years, and she, in turn, worked 24/7 to avoid facing the truth.
“Fun time of year,” Spokes uttered, somewhat sarcastically, as the traffic tightened to a jam.
“Yes, quite.” Twenty years earlier Gillian had shed her Brooklyn fourth generation Irish background for London style, sophistication, and a hint of Queen’s English mixed with her favourite Sloan Ranger-isms. “Rather,” she added. She ventured a look at Spokes, at the fine line of carefully clipped hair along the back of his neck, his profile, the line of his jaw. She had noticed it before, many times, but Spokes had his place, as did Gillian. And those times she looked, he seemed like a mannequin or robot, unflinching and stiff. She turned, crossed her legs, and detected a slight movement of his head. History was chasing her out of London tonight, or so it felt. She had had one dalliance in the twenty years since meeting Edgar––otherwise been downright faithful. She usually ended up drinking her frustrations away. But one night, at least ten years ago now, Gillian had just returned from a visit to her parents in New York, it was summer. New York had been a steamy build up to her indiscretion with Spokes. Once again she had been trying to focus on her endless visits, of old school chums and family, and keep her mind off of the fact that the east coast heat could drive a person to painful throes of horniness. Spokes was to meet Gillian at Heathrow, where he had been instructed to drive her to the country house, leaving London to the throngs of tourists. Gillian had drunk her way across the North Atlantic on morning-flight mimosas, but it was already late by the time she arrived. It was one of those times in her life when she had time enough to wonder why she and her husband didn’t have sex, at all. So she spent much of the flight drunkenly hoping that the steward would escort her to the washroom for an inaugural mile high. But that was just part of it.
It was year ten, at that point, with Edgar (sex had dried up completely around year five). She hadn’t dallied or dillied at all. But on that particular trip to New York, by herself, she finally saw the folly of her faithful and hopeful ways. Finally, again. It was a recurring pattern. She had never wanted to admit that she was absolutely unfulfilled, but she couldn’t ignore it anymore. This feeling would come and go like the tide, but not as frequently. And New York in the summer was not a good place to be if you were hoping to stifle a strong sex drive. Everything seethed with sex. Men wore tank tops that clung to their chests, showed off their biceps, hair in their armpits, their shoulders, while sweat streaked their backs. If they weren’t in tank tops, they showed off glistening chiseled torsos. They played pick-up basketball, jostled each other in the street, while kids played in water shooting from fire extinguishers. And everything clung, shorts to bums, bums to seats, hair to necks and foreheads. You couldn’t step outside and maintain any kind of cool look when the humidity made it all droop. So you went with it, gasped, then gawked at all the sweaty sultry forms that passed you.
During iced tea at Coney Island, on that same visit, with her gay pal Val the oh-so-randy gay Randy, she was pushed closer towards self-doubt and the Spokes incident. Randy and Val slogged it out as junior clerks in Manhattan but when not in suits were quick to strip down to the sheerest of things. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in Lacoste in this heat.” Randy liked to shout to the more toffee nosed males, gay and straight that were within earshot––the Hampton types who had gone astray. Then he’d lift the front of his shirt to fan himself while showing off a prized six-pack.
The women ducked their heads from the returned nasty glances. “God you are a Show-van-ist!”
“If he doesn’t stop I’ll flash something too, and it will be even prettier I can promise. It’s a Brazilian like no other.”
“More like an Argentinian,” Randy added.
“He had no trouble being down south.”
Gillian looked incredulously at Val, “A
waxed you down there?”
Randy rattled the ice in his drink, “I’m going to be sick.”
Val nudged Gillian, “You should try it.” It’s a kind of pleasurable pain, you know, when a guy is down there. Sort of S&M, but with a waxing thrown in. And it turned him on, so who cares?”
“Now you’re being a bad influence on her. Besides she’s married so she
it. That’s what the magazines all say. So how’s Mister Big anyway?” Randy asked, purposely and loudly slurping the remnants of his Big Gulp, for effect.
All Gillian could do was stare at the passing crowds and answer, somewhat disconnectedly, with a monotone, “fine.”
“That bad huh?”
“Well what is bad anyway?”
Val took Gillian’s hand, “Really and honestly? Fine? Fine is not good.”
“Oh God my life. I wanted so much to be a good person and now I’m filled with bad thoughts.”
“You aren’t capable of bad thoughts.”
“New York in the summer––bad.”
“I mean look at everyone, look a the two of you. All sweat slicked and ready for action. I mean Val could your shorts be any shorter? And your nipples? Not much left to the imagination.”
“I like her nipples. They’re not as nice as mine but they’ll do in a pinch, or be pinched.”
“And heels? On the boardwalk? What if a co-worker saw you?”
“They’d be too busy staring at Mister look-at-my-crotch.”
Randy barked back, “Well that’s where the action is––
“What have you got in there? Your lunch?”
“I guess I’ve been living in that ivory tower too long or something. I mean, to be honest, I’m at the breaking point.”
Not only was it the sex, but it was watching the couples who were in love, and how they related to each other. Val and Randy were always comparing bedroom notes, but there was real love to be had amongst the looks and glances of passers by. She saw then, over those days in New York, that she and Edgar had grown apart. For a while she had looked forward to vacations as a time that he would relax and they would recharge their batteries and relationship, but for the past five years at least, even the vacations hadn’t helped. Edgar would lie on his back and snore beyond the decibel count of the air conditioner, or make annoying conference calls from the other room at odd hours. The silence of resentment had finally descended—they had rounded a corner from which they could not return. So, heat soaked and sultry, New York had finally decided it for her. Or so she thought. She was forever plagued by these resolutions to finally do something––act on an impulse, end her life with Edgar and run off somewhere with someone. But rarely did anyone to run off with materialize, and then she’d be back at work buried in someone’s demands. And she hated the idea of opening up to anyone about the prison she was in––the silent prison of no touches, no words. It was always “this time I’m going to do something,” but then she’d back down, Edgar would do or say the smallest thing that would keep her hanging on, the weather would change, something would happen, she’d fear tarnishing his reputation and being dragged down or tossed out. The resolve never panned out––never had time to pan out.
So this time, at her most vulnerable, having backed down once again, it wasn’t her fault that, on that return flight to London, the hunky steward’s eyes seemed to follow a line from her ankles to her crotch, every single time he walked by. And it wasn’t her fault that his shoulders barely fit inside his shirt, or that his forearms were covered with black hair on his white skin, down to the backs of his hands, or that his biceps fought at the sleeve edge of his shirt. She couldn’t help the fact that the hours he had spent running up that spiral stairway to the first class lounge had developed an ass that would rival one of Da Vinci’s wrestlers. It wasn’t her fault that his burgeoning crotch was at her eye level. These were all things she was merely a witness to. But add to all this the fact that the lightness of her summer dress, the sweat that had dried around her neck, and the naked feeling of small panties and not much else, and it made her feel very sexy. As for the steward, well, he was her type, a bit of silver in the temples, and those pants that hugged that big butt in a most flattering way, and revealed a very generous crotch. Two thirds the way home, when it became obvious that first class demands and her endless requests for mimosas was going to run him off his feet, or make her pass out, she finally succumbed to her desire and headed to the washroom. It so happened she had to squeeze past him and a tray of gin and tonic, so she took a moment to pause. “You first.”