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Authors: Frances Fyfield

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BOOK: Staring At The Light
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1

There was never enough light in late November, not even in the morning. She lay, brownly naked, sprawled in a huge armchair
upholstered three decades since in cherry cotton, now a dull colour of rust, rumpled and torn in places. She looked as if
she had been flung into it by an almighty force, then shoved down and left, stunned and broken. Her buttocks were sunk into
the cushion, one arm behind her head supporting a mass of red hair, which was pulled half over her face. A hand extended itself
beyond the hair to clutch the back of the upholstery, the fingers plucking at the frayed fabric. It played on his conscience,
this endless, distressful movement of her long fingers, as if she was copying him. He had been so busy with his fingers. Delving,
stroking, stirring. They were fat, broad fingers, he had, poking out of swollen, ugly fists.

The breasts were smaller than he liked, rather languid things resting against her ribcage as she lay in
the hair with her torso twisted, the legs splayed over the arm of the crooked chair, ankles close, feet arched An auburn bush
exposed. Her left hand lay above her cleft, as if to protect it. Too late: his eyes had seen, his fingers explored, greedy,
greedy, greedy, and his hands were still steady. Not like hers. She was touching herself, almost absentmindedly, one finger
twisting a small clump of that abundant pubic hair into a tight curl. He imagined the bush decked with ribbons. Apart from
these minute movements of the hands, she was perfectly still. A woman satiated by every kind of abuse it was within his talent
to inflict. Her mouth was slightly open. Breathing deeply, blowing away a wisp of her thick red hair.

He almost regretted what he had done to her. She looked so exquisitely helpless. So pliant, so biddable, so deliciously responsive
to commands. Nothing about her was beyond imagination, and still her fingers kept moving piteously. She was
willing
, he told himself angrily; she asked for it. Look at the way she lay now. Wide open. Trusting. He was the mere beast to her
beauty. She had
asked
for it.

It was a room that cried out for devotion and expertise to make it into something of habitable beauty, although that was a
matter of indifference to him. The air was damply warm, condensation streaming down the ceiling windows, dripping now and
then, somewhere. He wore gloves and a scarf. When the heat rose from him, the scarf began to smell like an old bandage, with
overtones of turpentine, antiseptic and sweat. His nose was red, adding to
the melancholy of his features. There was misty, diffused light; still the brightest light of the day. It was his torture
chamber, decorated with his triumphs and disappointments.

He smiled now. His face rearranged itself from one set of folds into another, reminiscent of someone pulling up a set of ruched
curtains to let in the sunlight. When he was serious he looked like an idiot, with a chin that seemed to reach his chest,
but as soon as he grinned there was a massive rearrangement of everything: his furrowed forehead seemed to disappear into
his hairline, his dark eyes were almost lost, and he seemed like a rumpled boy. The volume of hair made his head look overlarge
for his thin shoulders. When he smiled, he looked perfectly, malevolently mad. Which, in his sober moments, in this room,
with his bed in the corner, he knew he was. One had to be mad to inflict this abuse. He felt wretchedly older than his thirty-three
years. Such cruelty pained him. At the least, the very least, he should have tried his hard-earned domesticity and offered
her coffee. Dreadful coffee, but still a gesture towards hospitality.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked. ‘I mustn’t let you get cold. Must I?’

‘No. But I have to move. Dammit, I can’t move.’

But she did move, cautiously. Leaning forward, the torso twisting in a way that made him wince, she reached for a packet of
cigarettes that lay in the ashtray on the footstool beside the chair. Lit one, inhaled and put it back in the ashtray. Then
she stretched
out one leg and clasped the toes, extended it fully, grasped the calf with both hands and stretched the whole limb, still
in the chair, until her foot was level with her ear.

‘What do you mean, you can’t move? What do you call
that?

‘I mean I can’t stand up. Until I’ve done this.’ She grasped the other leg, held it with both hands behind the knee, straightened
it. There was a small
crick
. Then she swung her feet onto the floor, raised herself on tiptoe and stretched. Thinner than he liked. As unselfconscious
as a cat.

The shifting of the tableau and the moving of the image saddened him. Sarah Fortune was the perfect model. No vanity. She
was a perfect piece of design, and his fingers were tired with the painting of her.

‘Let me see,’ she asked, moving towards him with the cigarette in hand.

‘No!’ He was shrill. ‘And don’t come near me with that thing. It makes me want one, and I shouldn’t.’

‘Pooh. I don’t know why you think of it. You could do with a few more antiseptic cigarettes. Every single bloody thing you
do is bad for your health. But I won’t look if you don’t want.’

‘Not yet, please. I’m ashamed of it.’

He shielded the canvas with his body, not trusting her, quite, although in his way he trusted her absolutely. She had that
effect: she was natural and warm and generous to a fault, but the habits of mistrust were so deeply ingrained in him that
they had become the natural response. Just like his shuffling
walk, like a man avoiding the middle of the pavement and clinging to doorways, always looking for shadow. She had long since
supposed that he had always been a little like that. It was not merely a response to his current circumstances. He would always
have looked far older than he was, even as a boy; over-matured and slightly shifty, even in his innocence. He was still innocent
now or, more aptly, a man who had never mastered the social code that governed the rules, constantly, almost childishly, uncertain.

‘Do you know’, he said, with more than usual animation, ‘that you have one leg longer than the other? At least, you do in
my version of you. I shall call it
Miss Sarah Fortune with unequal legs
.’

‘No,’ Sarah said. ‘I never knew I had one leg longer than the other. But thank you for telling me. I shall have to amend the
way I walk. Do you know what time it is? We’re going to be late.’

‘Late? Does it matter?’ Cannon had a limited view of what mattered.

She was pulling on her clothes, retrieving them from the three-legged chair over which they were draped, neatly, as if they
were important, which, as she smoothed on the dark tights, fastened a bra of white lace, buttoned the tiny pearl-coloured
buttons of her blouse, he had to suppose they were: they turned her into something else entirely. No suit of clothes had ever
done that for him. He sat down, weak with fascination.
I used to be a tart
, she had told him, long since.
Still am, but more of a hobby
. Naked, he could imagine that; when she was clothed, he
could not. A tart with a heart. Sarah Fortune seemed to know about love: she gave it briskly and unstintingly. But, judging
from the state of her body, she was also familiar with brutality.

‘I don’t suppose it matters in the long run’, she was saying, ‘about being late. But it does create a poor impression. And
it’s bad manners. Have you got any other clothes? Something cleaner?’

The question surprised him. It was totally irrelevant to anything in his mind. He was watching the slow transformation of
naked girl into woman. She brushed her hair and tied it back, shrugged on the jacket of the suit, reached for her fawn raincoat
and the tidy leather briefcase. A set of innocent-looking pearls gleamed round her neck. The small nuggets of gold in her
ears had never come off. He plucked the single daisy from the milk bottle in which it resided and handed it to her, hoping
to make amends for the lack of hospitality, which shamed him even here.

‘Thank you. How kind. On second thoughts,’ she said, ‘you’re best off to show yourself exactly as you are. Only you’d better
wear the coat that smells of smoke. Then no-one will want to come near you.’

He smiled. Then the face fell back into its bloodhound folds. ‘Not many people
do
want to come near me,’ he said matter-of-factly.

She patted his shoulder, ruffled his hair and planted a kiss on his cheek. ‘Hardly surprising, is it?’ she said. ‘You snarling
the way you do. Come on, now.’ She paused. ‘I’m forgetting the most important
thing of all. Have you still got his letter? The bits you have left?’

He nodded, plundered the pocket of the coat to pull out a charred half-sheet of paper, badly crumpled.

‘You were crazy to tear it up,’ she said. ‘I’ll keep it, shall I?’

‘I’m crazy full stop.’

‘Does he mean what he says?’

‘Yes. Even Johnny has rules. Even Johnny has to set limits.’

The day outside was cold and raw. He pulled the odoriferous scarf round his face and shoved his hands inside his pockets.
They throbbed and hurt, but the pain, the glorious pain of them, was a comfort. It meant that they were functioning. He followed
her meekly as she clattered downstairs from the attic, swept into the road and hailed a taxi. The driver slowed and listened
to her crisp instructions to take them to the Strand, wondering, as he pulled away, what such a woman was doing with such
a man. Maybe even a man down on his luck could afford a hooker these days. The cab seemed to smell of smoke. Woodsmoke and
paraffin, overlaid with soap, and the high-class tart threading a daisy through the top buttonhole of her coat as if the faded
thing was made of gold.

‘Hurry, Cannon, please hurry,’ she was saying, pushing him out first, proffering towards the cab driver a note that was far
too much and a radiant smile that made him, sour though he was, smile back.
‘Stop
sulking
, Cannon. I tell you what,’ she continued, ‘
smile
at the buggers. Mesmerize them …’

Obediently Cannon sustained his smile as they sidled past Security, where Miss Sarah Fortune’s evident familiarity shortened
the process of bag searching, to which she still submitted with a brief exchange of banter. She towed him through behind her,
although their gaze followed him with jealous suspicion. Briefly. The High Courts of Justice were well accustomed to eccentrics
and at least this one was wearing clothes. An unnecessary number of clothes.

It was important to be on time for Master Ralph, but also pointless because the appointment schedule never ran to order, usually
erring on the side of lateness but very occasionally, the opposite. Sarah Fortune, solicitor of the Supreme Court in what
her employers, Matthewson and Co., described as her spare time, knew these corridors well but, in common with half a million
habitués, never quite conquered the unmasterable procedure. It was a place where unhelpfulness was an art form perfected into
a refinement of itself. The Masters dealt with the dull preliminary business of civil litigation. Cannon was before the court
to be reminded of his obligations and Sarah, who hated this establishment with as much hatred as she could muster, was determined
to enjoy it for once. She was good at enjoyment.

Another surreptitious cigarette. The woman from the Crown Prosecution Service, who arrived to demand the immediate execution
of the confiscation
order against Walter James Smith, better known as Cannon, criminal manqué of this and larger parishes, was highly amenable;
in other words, nice. A lame enough word, for a civil servant with a civic duty often executed, as Sarah knew, with a rigour
bearing on the ruthless.
Nice
, in Sarah’s courtroom vernacular, meant approachable, reasonable, articulate, lacking in messianic zeal as well as egotism,
and having the perfectly reasonable attitude of wanting to get out of these Gothic halls as soon as possible. Sarah knew that
half the art of all this ritualistic confrontation was common sense and the achievement of a dialogue with the opposition.
Get it down to basics. The Crown wanted immediate possession of Cannon’s house, and that was for starters. They wanted it
on the basis that it was an asset accumulated from the proceeds of crime and that although Cannon had served his sentence
for the crimes it was not the same thing as paying his debts.

Cannon took a seat on the uncomfortable bench. He did not look like a criminal as much as like an outmoded anarchist of a
vaguely Middle European school. He was still smiling, content to sit with his arms crossed, hands still in gloves, surveying
the scene. ‘Do you think’, Helen West said to Sarah Fortune, each of them greeting the other with the kind of mutual recognition
and liking it was natural to disguise from their clients, in case amity was seen as complicity, ‘that you could get him to
stop doing that? I’m so afraid his face might get frozen, like a salesman.’

‘He does something with his jaw,’ Sarah muttered. ‘And he’s very proud of his teeth. He can keep up that smile for hours.
I can’t control it.’

‘Oh, yes, you can. His coat smells. Did you arrange that, too?’

They were in a line for Master Ralph. Some litigants could spend a while in there, while others were spat out with all the
ceremony of phlegm. Sarah did not want a conflict with Helen West, not when she held all the cards and a client who was unpunishable
by law because he was, for the law’s purposes only, as mad as a snake. Helen West was wincing, not paying attention to any
kind of portentous news, feeling her jaw, pinching it with the spread fingers of her capable-looking right hand, as if pressure
alone would stop it hurting. ‘Bloody tooth. Hurts like hell. Sorry.’

‘Nurofen?’

‘I want my head cut off. I’ve had every damn thing done to this damn tooth. Still hurts. Look, give me a break. Just get him
to sign over his house as part payment of his bloody debts. Then we’ll all be happy. I don’t understand why he delays.’

‘He wasn’t living in it and it was never really his,’ Sarah murmured, rooting in her handbag for pills.

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