Ghosts know who best to haunt. An old Jamaican friend once told her that. She thinks about this idea a lot, after the velvet man leaves. About what it is to be drawn to something just for you: a perfectly fashioned event, a person, or a moment. It is the kind of thing that people write about—this flawless sense of fate—but she’d never understood it. She was a sensible woman. Better to do your nails, steam your face and cook for the week on a Sunday. To read the material two weeks in advance of the meeting, then a few days before to refresh the memory: that was success. To buy pak choi in the local market and better quality cuts of meat at the butcher; extra money-saving lightbulbs; keep numbers for the plumber and the local hot-line for nuisance neighbours by the phone; insure the dog.
Iron your skirt, because.
She was late for work that morning, smoothing her fingers over her knees and her well-ironed blue skirt when the velvet man entered the empty train carriage, sat down right next to her—when he might have taken any of twenty other battered, orange and blue patterned seats available—and murmured something softly under his breath.
She was not troubled in the first few seconds, nor even surprised at his long limbs or his sudden proximity. If forced to say, she might have explained that it felt like an old friend had wandered onto the train, after years of absence, and she’d recognised his saunter or the back of his head.
The man murmured again. His eyes made her think of those black velvet paintings that were all the craze in the seventies. Her mother had kept two in the drawing room, one of John Wayne, the other of five dachshunds playing poker. When she was a child she’d been smacked more than once for pulling a chair up below them so she could stroke their soft edges.
“Pardon me?” she said to the velvet man.
He smiled. She could smell his healthy, wheaty breath, took in his thick, white-blonde hair and his large hands that were spread over his denim knees. She looked down at his clean, well-shaped fingernails. Those eyes: oddly black where you’d really expect blue, given his colouring. She might poke her finger inside and suck something sweet off the tip of it.
“Tell me what I can do for you,” he said.
His face was open; eyes steady and perfectly calm. It was a kind face, and she thought there was a sort of bravery in exposing that to a stranger. She opened her mouth to ask him all the obvious questions—who are you, don’t talk to me, move away, what could you possibly mean? She could feel where the muscles in her wrists and thighs should be tensing for movement up out of her seat and away.
Instead, she paused. He was joking, of course. It was mere hyperbole—like those Nigerian men who told you they were princes in their countries; or like a new song that runs out of steam after it started so well.
“Tell me what I can do for you,” the velvet man said patiently.
His expression was solemn, watching her carefully, as if this might be the most important thing he would say today, or this week.
Suddenly, hotly, she considered the idea. The deliciousness, the expansiveness of it assailed her. She could be important, different; she felt a lurching in her chest. She was late on the train, heading for ordinary: the job, the lunch-break, the colleagues, the wishes, the dreams, all so irreparably dull and chipped.
The train pushed into the station and she knew what she wanted—at least, where to begin. She grabbed his hand; he rose up with her, and there was joy on his face.
The market was in full swing with mid-morning bargains, the scrape of bottles and boxes, smells of best meat and fish, and she’d never seen the city sky so blue, amplifying every blush in the arcade: melons hacked open, sides of salmon strewn with black peppercorns; strawberry tarts glistening in syrup.
And the peonies at the flower stall.
She came to an abrupt stop in front of them, dropping the velvet man’s hand, tucking her palms together like a little girl, teeth in her bottom lip. She was rocking slightly, almost breathless. Her parents had thought cut flowers a bourgeoisie affectation.
She looked up at the velvet man: he was beaming, waiting.
“But of course,” he said.
More flowers, she thought later, than anyone had ever got in the world. Armfuls of the pink peonies first, because she liked their little cabbage faces peeping up at her; fat roses next, ringed in sprays of eucalyptus, and the velvet man instructed the flower stall owner to make sure every thorn was taken off. He’d opened his mouth to say you’re having a laugh, mate, but then the velvet man gave him enough money to make him grin and set his assistant picking. Urged on by both men now, she chose huge daisies the size of her hand, laughing delightedly; a long box of cerise anthuriums, their bright plasticky stamens reminding her of hot places.
“Happy?” asked the velvet man, when all were chosen and she stood, sticky with sap and ever so slightly breathless at her own excess. She hesitated. He was still smiling, gently leaning down to move a leaf from her hair.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you. So generous. Thank you so much.”
“And now . . . ?”
His bow was near-genuflection. She stared.
“Whatever you want.”
She was the kind of woman who had always paid her way. Paid her half of the meal, despite her date’s protests. Not that there had been a million men in her life. She had an ordinary face and an easily concealed body, so there had been no more than a few gently drunken fumbles before Jack, at uni. She knew she could have gathered many more sexual experiences: a plain girl was easy, by necessity. But she was determined not to be seen in that way; invisibility was the better choice.
Jack was bearded and fairly ordinary himself: unexpectedly judicious in his courting. The first time they had sex he lost and gained his erection three times, sawing back and forth inside her so long that his eventual orgasm had them both mistaking relief for love.
She wanted to see things, do things, new things. The velvet man slid them into an black car sleek with butter-soft upholstery.
A private viewing of several complex and beautiful paintings, he guiding her from one piece to another, pointing out colour, texture, inviting her thoughts. She knew nothing of modern art, but as he smiled and shared his own pleasure in the work, she slowly began to say what she saw, felt, loved.
The velvet man hired a helicopter so they could zoom low over the city, snug together in the belly of a huge bumblebee, yelling happily over the roar of the blades. Below her, the city looked bleak and cheerless, and she was momentarily frightened, making herself small under the velvet man’s armpit. He smoothed the soft hair at her temples and squeezed her hand, yelling almost angrily at the pilot: “Take us down!”
“No,” she said, “can we just see something pretty?”
“Close your eyes,” he said, “I’ll tell you when,” and she might have dozed against his chest, or through some deeper reverie, and then the city was behind them and they were to-ing and fro-ing above green hills, watching silver-blue rivers pour deep into tiny valleys. She wondered if they disturbed the birds, and at the softness of the velvet man’s skin over his chest and arms.
“Happy?” he asked.
“Yes,” she managed to say, her cold cheek against his good shirt.
“I’ll do anything you want,” he said.
Jack had broken off with her in the second year, to sleep with a more intelligent woman, she suspected, then come back with his tail between his legs the term afterwards. She’d punished him for just long enough and then they’d stayed up late studying for finals in her neat and polished room—he politics and history, she marketing. They had married two years later; divorced seven years after that. There had been no children, a fact that relieved her nearly as much as the sight of his slightly sweaty-shirted back walking out of their small, well-organised apartment, hands gripping two suitcases she’d refused to pack for him, then packed anyway, and a large teddy bear he’d had since childhood. The divorce was uncomplicated, as such things go.
All the way through their courtship and lives together, she’d had jobs, maintained her own chequing account and independence; paid half the bills. She had decided to be the best of modernity: she would not be hoe or a bitch or a gold-digger or a floozy—or what did they call them these days? Thots and skanks and ratchet girlies. No. That kind of woman offended her. The rampant consumerism even more than the exchange of flesh.
A spa was next: entry via a discreet doorway off an expensive street. He waited patiently in the quiet foyer as she was taken away and stripped: washed first in sprays of perfumed water, a salt scrub applied, then thick, warm cinnamon oil ladled all over her body and rubbed in; more water to finish; the gentle breathing of the two women working on her tight neck, her loose calves. She had always been thin and relatively fit, but under their ministrations she felt like a crust of something—stale bread, a discarded piece of a pie. A sliver of something they were trying to render pliable.
One of the girls wrapped her in a robe and brought her attention to a tray of jewellery sent in for her, and the security guard beside it. Despite their professionalism, neither masseuse could restrain their giggles—a kind of raw pleasure that scraped against her as she watched them. They nudged her, all girls together, excited. She felt their envy and bewilderment, realised that they were examining her, trying to see what magic she had worked on this man. Where was it—in her pores and crevices, and could they have some, too?
She considered her own feelings as she touched the diamonds. There was a price to be paid, she accepted that. She did not want to think what, but certainly sex. She had never slept with a stranger before; the thought made her feel dull and determined. But she would go with him, and do what he wanted. There was no other ending to the story.
“Your boyfriend says he wants to watch you choose.”
She pulled her robe tight and watched the velvet man come in, through slitted eyes.
She had never really kept close friends; the few she did have, from university, and then two colleagues, a man and a woman, all seemed to admire her, but then no more. Jack had been more sociable than she: he had someone over at least once a month to eat the food she cooked and to remark on their flat. Someone had once politely called it a show home, and the praise always left her satisfied.
“Just so,” Jack had said, mimicking her. “Everything just so. Like you’re my fucking mum or something.”
“It doesn’t take very much to keep things nice,” she’d argued. “Just put it back where you found it. Everything in its place. The secret is in the upkeep. Just be organised.”
“I’d like to see you lose your mind, just once,” he said. It was one of the few things he’d ever said with substance; he was no puzzle. But it had surprised her: the force of his wish. Would he have revelled more in her temper or a screaming, undignified orgasm? Or did he want to see her stark staring mad, clawing at the sky?
She’d been glad to see the back of him. Friends of his called to tell her how much they admired her fortitude, her pragmatism; the quiet respect she afforded him during a short period of bitter-mouthed alcoholism, short because well—he was far too judicious to really become a nuisance in anyone’s life. He had done his best with her. Just she wore away people, over time. She knew that about herself. She was a transitory experience. Her parents rang infrequently, usually Tuesday, as if they kept a diary somewhere. She was a duty: that was fine.
She was shaking by the time they reached her neighbourhood, car inching its way through old buildings like oil. Some arrangement had been made with the market florist and all her pink flowers had been packed carefully, carpeting the floor of the car and overflowing in the back. The driver sneezed. The velvet man stroked her hand. He looked concerned—or was it the grim visage of a man about to claim his pound of flesh? She was horrified. What was the price of this day, of the diamond bracelet on her wrist, its sharp brilliance cutting through the evening gloom?
“Here,” she said. The car slunk into place.
He saw that she was shaking. His face, distressed. “What can I do?” he said, rubbing and rubbing the back of her thin hand. “How can I help?” Above them, the balcony of her simple, second-floor apartment loomed.
She turned to face him.
“We have to go somewhere else. I’ll do what you say, but not here.”
“I wanted to see your home, full of flowers.”
“Not here,” she hissed. “No.”
He drew away from her. “What is it that you think we’re going to do?”
She made a gesture, across her body, hand sharp, fingers flailing.
He shook his head, stroked her face.
“You still don’t understand. I do what you want. Your pleasure is mine. There is no price.”
She squinted. “But . . . ”
He laughed, low. Seemed softer than ever.
“Whatever you need.”
She could feel her backbone begin to unfurl. Could there be this kind of man? She didn’t know how it worked.
He gathered her face in his hands. “Anything I can do. It’s my pleasure.”
The feeling of recognition returned, that there are spirits that know what you are. She felt something tilt inside. She grasped his shoulders, hurting herself, hurting him, perhaps? It didn’t matter. All for her. He said so. An impossibility. Let him see her sins.
Her nails bite into his wrist, as they walk towards her front door. There is a nest of silver cobwebs in the eaves, a black garbage bag, strewn in the way. She keeps hold of his hand, fits the key with the other, smoothly opens.
The apartment smells of old washing-up and the cheese of mould. There are pieces of discarded clothing in the hall. They traverse the items, she kicking them out of the way. Old candle wax, long-sputtered across bookshelves. Dust everywhere, on alphabetised books and matching crockery.
She stands, hands dangling, as he takes it in, looking around him, back to her.
There is a half-eaten chicken leg in the middle of the living room floor. The sofa is stained, with matching stained cushions. Detritus teeters: saucers, each sugared with ancient meals. In the kitchen, piles of dirty clothes totter in front of the sink, the full dishwasher, the full washing machine. She has been washing the same clothes for three days, unable to do more than add new liquid, then sit on the dirty kitchen floor, watching the same items wash again, unable to make herself open the door and take the damp items out and spread them on her balcony, or through the flat to dry. Dotted through the rooms are dusters, including a feather one, spray polish, disinfectant, floor-cleaner, bleach. She has been carrying them around, and laying them in piles.
He watches her carefully, nods her on. They are not done.
She has been sleeping on a naked mattress for weeks; it is too much to make the bed at the end of a day. Most of the bed is occupied—half-drunk water bottles among the pillows, hairbands and used tights where she’s dragged them off and discarded them. Pills—all her efforts to soothe, improve, heal, take control: Omega-3 supplements, multivitamins, evening primrose oil. A cracked lipstick. There is old vomit down the side of the bed.
The velvet man looks at the flat and looks at her. She is swaying in her shame.
Her mouth cracks open. “I’m so lonely,” she says.
Into the night, she listens: to the scud of a broom across wood; the flushing of a toilet; the tamp-tamp sound of fresh sheets being shaken out; jangling clothes-hangers; a scrubbing brush against the floor, the rattle of pill bottles. Bleach, floor polish. He could pay, but he does it with his hands. Sounds of him lifting the bed, the desk, each one of her shoes. Bags of junk, stink, shame, removed. As dark deepens: the striking of a match for candles and incense; the sweet smell of peonies gathered and fluffed; a choice of low music—guitar and drum, and him, humming along; she begins to breathe again; she dozes; wakes to his lips brushing against her forehead; the snicker of the front door opening and closing.
Originally published in Come Let Us Sing Anyway (a collection).