Méchant Loup

Méchant Loup

(first published on my main blog http://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/)

The wolf-whistle cut across the cool evening air, shrill and insistent but the girl in red did not respond. Instead, her pace picked up as her shiny red shoes clattered along the path.

From a dozen yards away, the man in the wolf costume bristled with indignation as his bid to gain her attention failed. The heels of the shoes were too high for her to walk fast enough to get out of sight quickly enough, and the height of them made her wobble in a way he found most appealing. Glancing at her retreating figure he watched as her long legs in fishnet stockings tried to stride, but the combination of short, tight skirt and those absurd high hells meant she could not take more than short steps. The percussive sound of the heels on the concrete path was music to his ears(the real ones under the furry ones) and he levered himself off the bench and started to saunter after the retreating girl. His long loping gait caught her up in a very short time and he saw that she was indeed a real prize worth pursuing.

She glanced back at him as he caught her up, sweet, heart-shaped little face hidden amid the folds of the crimson hood. He smelled her scent, warm and woody and with a hint of hazelnuts and saw that under the short cloak, she was carrying a wicker basket filled with nuts and fruits. Apples and pears jostled with walnuts and chestnuts and hazelnuts and their mingled fragrance added to the enticing aroma of warm woman.

Going somewhere nice?” he said but she tried to ignore him.

Don’t be like that,” he called as she broke into an awkward run. “I’m only being friendly. What’s the matter with you? Bet you look so lovely when you smile!”

The path dipped into a wooded area, and the light from the park lamps dimmed. The girl was only a few paces ahead, stalled by cramp and doubled over panting.

Leave me alone,” she said, her voice hoarse and quivering with fear.

I’m just being friendly,” he said again.

The girl slid her shoes off, placed them in the basket, and took off like a hare, red cloak flapping. She’d hitched her skirt up so as she ran he could see the tops of her stockings. He licked his lips, appreciatively. The path wound into the spinney at the end of the park, twisting and turning in the town planner’s attempt to make the park seem huge and wild. Her nylon-clad feet made a dull thudding as she ran into the trees before vanishing from sight.

He set off after her, letting out a wild howl of enthusiasm, his trainers scuffling through the fallen leaves. He liked the howl, so he did it again and again, feeling the pulse of blood through his body, exciting and primeval. The joy of the hunt, he thought, in delight.

After about five seconds of running he stopped dead in his tracks as his howl was answered by one that was so much wilder it made his heart skip a beat. It’s a dog, he said, but when it came again, louder and closer, he knew with ancient instinct it was no such thing. Around him, the trees seemed to close in, cutting out the light and sounds of the city beyond the park. The path ahead of him had vanished amid nettles and brambles so dense there was no way through. He pushed back the wolf’s head of fake fur and lolling comedy tongue and tried to see what was going on.

He was surrounded by black forest, huge trees and tight undergrowth, and his breath hung in clouds around him. Frost coated the carpet of fallen leaves and as he marvelled at the sudden drop in temperature, he heard the growl.

Deep shining eyes, tinted with scarlet, were watching him, and the breathing of the creature was mixed with a low, menacing growl. His nerve broke and he started to run, pell-mell, not looking where he was going, his whole being consumed with survival instinct. He didn’t stop running until he floundered into the oozy black mud of the boating lake, drained for the winter, and fell on his face into it.

As the foul-smelling mud seeped into his costume, he listened, hoping that he was hidden from the thing that chased him. When nothing happened he eased himself up from the muck and headed homeward, Hallow e’en party and girl forgotten. As he reached the park entrance, he stopped for a moment, reeking with filth and with fear. A howl rang out, long and mournful, the sound muffled as if by trees, and ended in a peal of what sounded very much like laughter.

What am I worth?

 

 

What am I worth?
 
What am I worth?
Five K a kidney?
A snip, if you’ll pardon a pun.
Bargain bin good looks,
Reduced due to store damage
And some slight fading.
A cheap sense of humour,
Tending towards blackness
But not quite sick, not yet.
That must be worth a bit.
A Lucky Dip of hidden talents;
Go on, have a gamble.
Even I don’t have a clue
What’s hidden deep inside.
That bland tub of sawdust
May hold mysterious gifts
Awaiting your longer reach.
Go on, I dare you:
Make me an offer.
How much? You’re joking!
No way, no sale, pal!
I’m worth more than that, I think.

Snip

 

Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

Your girlfriend?” she asked.

Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

That’s all I can do, now,” she said.

*

He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010

Snag

 

Snag

By Vivienne Tuffnell

 

There was thunder in the air and a scent of coming rain, and as he went down the steps into the cool of the cellar bar, he had an odd sense of expectation, though he couldn’t have said why. It was just the usual post-work drink on a Friday, a couple of glasses of something cold before going home to shower and change ready for the night ahead, a demarcation point between the world of work and the real one. So he didn’t know quite why he had the feeling he might have had if he had been expecting to meet someone, when the chances were at this time, the bar would be deserted.

It wasn’t quite deserted. In the corner to one side of the door two women lurked, chatting in bored tones over white wine. He knew one of them slightly. They had history, but not the earth-shattering or even earth-moving sort, so he nodded to her curtly so she didn’t think he was ignoring her.

He was about to order a drink from the languid and damp-looking barman when the door swung open again and in a sweep of rain-scented air a woman walked in. A girl really, though as he glanced at her he realised he really couldn’t guess her age. She had the freshness of skin only the under twenties usually have but her eyes had a kind of self-aware intelligence he’d rarely seen in anyone under fifty. She was oddly dressed, and as she entered the bar, the woman in the corner said in a deliberately audible stage whisper,

“God, I hardly think wearing a sack is exactly the height of fashion.”

The girl paused, her arm nearly touching the bar. The dress was a bit odd, true enough; the fabric did indeed have the open irregular texture of hessian but as he looked at it he saw that the cloth had a shimmer and a gleam and a softness that could never come from sackcloth. Raw silk, or linen and silk mix maybe, cinched in with a wide, worn leather belt of burnished brown with a plain buckle of some dull metal.

He saw her brow contract and the girl bite her lip with hurt and on impulse he leaned over and said in an equally loud stage whisper,

“Ignore her, it’s a lovely dress.”

She gave him an uncertain smile.

“Do you think so?” she said, her voice soft and musical. “I made it myself. Excuse me, I should have a word with her.”

She turned away from him and went unhurriedly to where the other woman had now turned her back on her.

“A word?” said the girl, touching the woman’s shoulder gently.

“Well?” she demanded, staring up at her with undisguised contempt.

There was a definite pause and even the barman stopped polishing glasses to see if a fight was about to erupt. Then the girl leaned down and spoke directly into the woman’s ear. The woman’s face froze as she listened, and then went very red and finally so pale her blusher stood out on her face like the imprints of a slap. She seemed to gasp and then got unsteadily to her feet and rushed out. Her friend stayed still for a second or two and then rushed after her, shouting,

“What did she say? What did she say?”

The girl gave a small secret smile and walked back to the bar.

“What did you say to her?” he asked, impressed.

She smiled again, a pleased smile.

“I only tell people their own secrets,” she said and ordered a drink.

His curiosity was piqued.

“OK,” he said. “Tell me one of my secrets then.”

She sipped at her wine and shook her head.

“You won’t like it,” she said.

“You don’t know any,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “But as you saw from the lady over there, usually people don’t like what I tell them.”

He was a little stung.

“How do you know these things anyway?” he asked. “Are you some sort of private detective or something?”

She shook her head.

“I just have a gift for it,” she said. “An instinct for knowing things if you like.”

“Bet you don’t know anything about me,” he said, a little galled.

“I know you’re getting married in a month,” she said.

“Anyone here might have told you that,” he said unconvinced. “She could have told you that.”

“I’ve never been here before,” she said. “And I don’t even know your name.”

If it was a pick-up line, he wasn’t going to fall for it by telling her.

“But I do know you’re having serious doubts about it,” she went on and his certainty began to waver.

“Oh yeah, why is that then?” he asked, a touch aggressively now.

“That’s for you to know, not me,” she said.

“Lots of people have doubts. You’re not much cop as a psychic, you know. Bit of guesswork, that’s all that was, and maybe some local knowledge,” he said.

She shrugged unconcernedly and took another sip of her drink.

“As you say,” she agreed and it annoyed him that she wasn’t arguing. Then she raised her eyes to his and he saw for the first time that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. He’d so seldom seen a woman without makeup that her face seemed indecently naked and he found himself blushing at that thought. Her eyes were fringed with long thick fairish lashes and he found himself thinking how much nicer it looked than being caked with so much mascara raising the lids must be aerobic exercise. Despite virtually living with his fiancée he was certain he’d never seen her without makeup.

“You keep a photo of your dog from when you were a child in your wallet, under the one of your fiancée,” she said, her eyes looking deeply into his. “She hates dogs, most animals in fact. That’s one of the reasons you’re having second thoughts. You know the others.”

He was shaken, badly shaken but he tried to hide it.

“I take it back,” he said. “You are pretty good as a psychic. Nice trick. How’d you do it?”

“As I said,” she said. “I have a gift.”

There was an awkward silence.

“What did you tell her?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“That’s not for you to know,” she said. “I was going to remind her to get her Lottery ticket tomorrow, because her numbers will probably come up, but when she was so nasty, I thought, no. It’s not her time.”

“So you reckon her numbers will come up?”

Again she shrugged.

“Nothing is certain you know,” she said. “But when I came in here and saw her, the chances were those numbers would be coming up.”

“What numbers were they?”

She laughed out loud.

“Come on now!” she said. “I’m not telling you that. It’s not for you. You aren’t the one who dreams about leaving her highflying, highly paid and hardworking career to live a life of decadent luxury where she need never wear the same pair of knickers twice.”

This time he was shocked.

“How do you know about that?” he demanded. “There was no one else there.”

She smiled.

“I told you,” she said. “I have a gift.”

He was beginning to feel very unnerved now. He had had a fling with the woman who had left. It had been some years ago and it had ended almost as soon as it began. The evening had begun with a lot of drinks then back to her place for more drinks, leading to various confessions of their dreams and ambitions and finally to bed. Languishing in post coital bliss he had made the mistake of asking her how it had been for her.

“Not too bad,” she’d said. “But maybe next time I’ll draw you a map and a set of instructions.”

Understandably from his point of view, there had been no next time. But he had always thought bitterly of her every time he saw the Lottery draw on television. He’d never so much as bought a ticket himself. He’d almost decided to stop coming here on a Friday until he told himself sternly that he would not let her ruin something that he enjoyed. He enjoyed the few quiet drinks here in the dull quiet hiatus between Friday afternoon and the start of the weekend. He enjoyed them so much it was a real effort to go out again properly later in the evening.

“So what are my dreams then if you know hers?” he asked, feigning indifference by finishing his beer and signalling for another.

“You want to make a difference but you don’t know how,” she said and he found himself blushing again as if she had revealed his intimate dimensions to the world. “You worry that if you marry your fiancée you never will get the chance to make a difference anywhere, anytime, except maybe to the prosperity of the shoe and dress industry.”

He was speechless with shock. These were not things she could have found out from anywhere; these were thoughts he had never so much as given voice to. Even in that drunken game of truth or dare he had not revealed his true dreams and ambitions and he had never so much a breathed a whisper of concern about his intended’s taste for expensive shoes and designer clothes.

She finished her drink and set the glass down.

“I must be off,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting my sisters. We work together.”

“What do you do then?” he asked and she frowned slightly.

“It’s a bit difficult to explain,” she said. “You might call it human resources, I suppose. We have our own company.”

“Are you any good then?” he said. “I could put some work your way if you like.”

“We are good,” she said without any false modesty. “The best. We have sufficient business currently though, thank you. It was kind of you to offer though.”

She started to move away from the bar. The sleeve of the dress caught on something, a nail or a splinter and a tiny shred of fabric ripped away and hung on the edge of the bar. She grinned at his distraught face ruefully. He was clearly expecting the kind of tantrum most women were likely to throw at ripping their dress.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m pretty good with threads. And you’ll be all right too. Just listen to what your heart is really telling you and you can’t go far wrong. You’re a kind man, you know. Go make a difference.”

She walked away from the bar, her worn Greek sandals slapping softly on the smooth floor and her strange dress shimmering around her as she walked. He unfastened the shred of fabric from the nail it had caught on and held it up to the light. It felt like silk, so soft he could almost not feel it at all and through the oatmeal coloured fabric he could see finer threads of what looked like gold woven into the material. A faint and agreeable herbal scent seemed to cling to the scrap, a fragrance of bay and thyme so very unlike any of the power perfumes popular with city women but which really gave him a headache. He tucked the shred into his wallet with the picture of his dog and went home.

A week later he found himself in the bar again, listening to the music of rain and traffic outside and contemplating his coffee. He’d half hoped the girl would be there again, but inside he knew she wouldn’t be. Even so, when the door opened, his heart lifted. It was the woman he’d had the fling with years back. He got up and went over to join her, motivated by some curiosity he’d not have given in to before. Her face looked jaded and sour and her perfume had gone sour too with too hot a day and too little fresh air.

“Bad week?” he asked lightly.

She looked at him with the amused half contempt a woman reserves for an inadequate lover who still tries to be friends in the hope of a second try.

“Yes, actually,” she said acerbically. “First of all, I split up from Paul. He expected me to forgive him his little slip but when I told him about mine he blew up and dumped me. Then I was so upset I forgot to buy my Lottery ticket. And of course, guess what?”

“Your numbers came up,” he said quietly.

“Four and a half million quid lost just because that little bitch last week told me that if I didn’t tell Paul someone else would,” she said bitterly. “And you? Bad week?”

“No, actually,” he said. “I split up with Michelle.”

She looked at him with some interest.

“So that makes it a good week then does it?” she said sarcastically.

“Better that now than later,” he said.

“Why did you split up?”

“We want different things from life,” he said simply.

She gazed at her wine for a minute.

“Well, an ill wind and all that,” she said. “How about coming back to mine then and consoling each other? I bet after two years with her you won’t need a map any more, not with her experience after all.”

It might have stung once but not now.

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m going out shortly.”

“You don’t hang around,” she said sharply. “Plenty more fish in the sea after all.”

He smiled.

“Not exactly,” he said, finishing his coffee. “I’ve got my first shift as a volunteer at the Night Shelter.”

He went out into the evening, sunshine showing through the grey clouds like gold thread through raw silk, and smiled at his second chance.