His favourite music was Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Driving through the flat, unrelieved landscape of the Irish midlands he listened to it repeatedly on the car stereo. Under a grey, autumn sky he hummed, La ci darem la mano, to the rhythm of the falling leaves. The Champagne Aria intoxicated him. Il Mio Tesoro saddened him. Madamina made him dream of women, fabulous women, a multitude of women, women he would never know, unattainable. It was wonderful music, at once light and vivacious like a sparkling wine, and at the same time dark and melancholy, with a dreamy, sexual sadness in it. It was full of life and love and lust and damnation. It was the only music that could sexually excite him. It made him sweat just to listen to it.
Through the grey cloud, avenues of broad sunlight opened in the sky. The faded green of the autumn leaves shone with vivid colour in the sudden brightness. On either side of the car fields rose and fell with tired regularity. Ahead of him, a slender grey spire pierced the sky, striving upwards from the horizon. Through the open window he heard bells ring out over the music throbbing around him. “Don Giovanni,” he sang out loudly with mock drama.
The road descended into a shallow valley holding the town in its palm. The roofs of the houses appeared all at the same level with the spire of the church pointing above them. The road twisted round and met the river flowing into the heart of the town. It was a middle – sized Irish town with two main streets cutting across it. Everything else formed around those two principle axes. To get to the hospital he had to traverse the town and debouch on the far side near the football grounds. It took less than five minutes. It was early Monday morning and the town was deserted.
The hospital was a low, flat building, standing in the middle of broad, sweeping lawns. Inside, at Reception, the hygiene was obvious and sharp. The corridors smelled like they had been doused with ammonia. The white – coated receptionist took his card from him.
“I have an appointment with the administrator,” he told her.
She studied the card with a slightly annoyed expression then looked up indifferently at him, her eyes wincing from the light. She offered a minuscule smile that remained totally impersonal. Instantly, he disliked her.
“The representative from Bedcare is here to see you,” she announced coldly to a button microphone strapped teasingly in front of her mouth.
“Thanks,” he said, letting his fingers drum on the raised wooden counter that encircled her, “will he be long?”
“I don’t know,” she answered lazily, examining her fingernails.
He looked around the empty foyer and down the polished corridors radiating away from it. There was no one to be seen. He looked back at the receptionist engrossed in the study of her fingernails. In an instant, before she tilted her head back to look up at him, he had labelled and catalogued her. She was a slug. Heavy, slow – moving, lifeless. There was nothing in her to interest him. Her eyes were empty, her mouth shapeless. Her dimpled chin was her only remarkable feature and this only because he believed it to be a sign of sexual appetite. He wanted to probe it playfully with his finger and see if she would react.
“Do you know where I could stay tonight,” he asked her, “I’d like a change from the Elvira.”
“Why not try the Hotel,” she said listlessly, and slumped back into a deep lethargy.
He guessed her age, late twenties. It made him sad. She should have been full of life.
“Ah, John, delighted to see you, really delighted!”
A loud, excited voice made him turn round. A short, stout man in a neat grey suit and tie embraced him warmly. He noted the man’s greying hair, thin on top, with a liberal sprinkling of dandruff on his shoulders.
“Hey, Davey, you don’t have to make love to me!”
“But I do love you, Johnny, I love you! Can’t you see?”
The two men stood and looked with mutual pleasure at each other.
“C’mon up to my office,” Davey said. “We can talk!”
John followed him through clean and shining corridors that seemed to need no daylight. Despite the grey cloud outside the floors and walls of the hospital shone with sterile radiance. Davey led him into a small, brightly-lit office with steel cabinets against the walls, and files opened untidily on the desktop. He plumped himself into a too small, upholstered leather chair and motioned John to sit opposite him. John noticed with distaste that Davey had grown fat; his flesh shook with every movement and gesture, even when he spoke. He reminded John of an overweight cocker spaniel.
“Why don’t you come here more often,” Davey complained.
“I have to go where the business is,” John apologised.
“I can’t believe it,” Davey laughed. ” Beds! No one ever thought our Johnny Carter would end up selling beds!”
John shrugged his shoulders haplessly.
“Nonetheless,” Davey considered, “it’s an honourable profession, people need beds for sickness, and for health. For sleep… For lying in… For sex! ”
He made an obscene gesture with his arm. John, a little embarrassed for his friend, opened his black briefcase and explored its contents distractedly. He pulled out some sheets of glossy paper.
“Here’s some literature. We do more than beds, you know. You might be interested in some of our lifts and hoists.”
“Can you use them for sex,” Davey asked, taking the paper.
” With some imagination,” John said.
“I’ve got plenty of that,” Davey laughed again. “I always did have.”
Davey leafed through the literature without interest.
“There’s a special offer on our new model,” John told him. “One nurse can use it with a little training. I can give the training. It’s part of the deal.”
“What’s the offer? ”
“Free demonstration. Free trial run. Free training. One free if you buy five. These are good, Davey. The steel in these is beautiful, and strong. You’ll never have any problem with them. They’ll last a lifetime.”
“Yeah, whose lifetime,” Davey laughed, his flesh rolling round his body.
“How much are they?” he asked then seriously.
“Five thousand each. One free if you buy five.”
“You already said that. And V.A.T?”
Davey considered a moment then reached out to the phone, pulled the receiver off and dialled.
“Is that you, Matron? Good! Can you set some time aside for a bed-hoist demo this afternoon? Bedcare have some promising equipment. Good. Mr. Carter from Bedcare will give us the demo. If you like it, there might just be some extra budget floating around. Where? Ward 5. Good. Two – thirty? Good! Thanks, Matron.” He put the phone down.
“You’ll have to charm her, Johnny boy, but if you do she’ll eat out of your hand! It shouldn’t be any trouble to you. Charm always was your favourite currency!”
“Still is,” John said,” but supply is not always up to demand.”
“Christ, I can’t believe it!” Davey said with sudden loudness. “Is this really us here, talking about hospital beds? Jesus, Johnny, have we been reduced to this? I remember when we were young; we lived it up! We were the Golden Youth, all balls and lust! Drinking and screwing, drinking and screwing! Our Irish boyhood!”
“It wasn’t quite that way,” John reminded him quietly.
“That’s how I remember it,” Davey said, thumping the table, “before we got married! That’s what happened us, Johnny, we should never have married!”
He sat back into the tight, leather grasp of his chair and eyed John speculatively.
“How’s the wife and kids?” he asked.
“Good for a man, responsibility,” Davey said ponderously.
John had had enough.
“I have to go find somewhere to stay,” he announced.
Davey sat up with sudden animation.
“Have lunch with me,” he said. “I want to talk some more. Nobody else I can talk to. Nobody would understand.”
“I don’t know,” John hesitated, “I want to rest…”
Davey looked sadly at him.
“I have to talk to someone,” he pleaded.
“We will talk, we will,” John promised him and got up to go.
“Half – past two, Ward five,” Davey shouted after him.
John negotiated the empty, bitter – smelling corridors leading to the foyer. He felt a need to escape. It pushed him quickly past the receptionist, half – asleep behind her counter.
“Goodbye,” she said, with a melancholy air.
He did not answer her. He needed to get outside. Once outside he could breathe freely. He rushed to the car and put some Mozart on. The Overture rushed over him, immediately relaxing him, and then the staccato complaining song of the servant Leperello. He sang with it.
“Non voglio piu servir, non, non, non, non…”
It made him feel so much better.
He drove out of the hospital grounds and towards the town. He looked with distaste at the low houses and narrow streets that seemed to close him in.
“These places really kill me,” he said sombrely to himself.
The receptionist in the hotel made a better impression than her hospital counterpart. She greeted him with the welcoming, professional enthusiasm her training had cultivated in her. She was blonde – haired and blue eyed with a bright, smiling vitality. This vitality, John noted with satisfaction, translated well to the swing of her hips and sway of her buttocks as she led him up the short flight of stairs to his room. She opened a bright, box – like room for him and showed him inside.
“This is it,” she announced, almost proudly. “I hope you’ll be comfortable here. If there’s anything you need, just let me know.”
She stepped across the room and opened the windows out. He admired her movement, it excited him. He wondered if, like Byron, he should just throw himself on her like a thunderbolt and drag her to the bed. Having opened the windows she turned to smile at him.
“The river goes right by us,” she told him, ” you can see it if you lean out – and in the evening the sun sets opposite. I think this is one of our nicest rooms.”
“I’ll leave you then,” she said, with a hint of regret.
” No, no, please don’t go,” he wanted to say, but though he was full of sudden, surging sexual longing for her, he could not. It would only spoil the moment. It would only offend her.
He began to unpack his small suitcase. He showered, washing away the desperate unease he had felt with Davey in the hospital. He had felt it even before meeting Davey, he realised. It was something he had come to associate with these small towns. They depressed him utterly. They were too small. They were claustrophobic, oppressive. They exhausted him. He was glad he had left when he did, years, years before, and not ended up like Davey. Davey was so pathetic. John felt sorry for him.
“You kill me, Davey,” he thought unhappily, as he washed with soap and scalding water. He sang with anguish, “Dalla sua pace, La mia dipende…”
And sang, with even more pain, those lines that haunted him
with their sadness, ending,”Morte mi da… morte mi da!”
After his shower he rested on the bed. Through the open window a light breeze played, stirring the air in the room. He slept briefly, then woke before he could dream, feeling even more tired. The afternoon stretched before him like an expanse of desert. The prospect of an entire week like this horrified him. He pushed the thought of it out of his mind. He thought instead of the blonde receptionist and what they would have done together if he had asked her to stay and she had stayed. His mind was sweet with the thought of her for five minutes and then he fell asleep again, this time to dream.
When he woke he rang down to reception.
“I’d like to have lunch,” he said. “What time does the restaurant open at?”
He had a whisky in the bar first and looked forward to some wine with his lunch. He was enjoying this prospect when a heavy hand slapped him from behind.
“There you are, Johnny boy, wonderful to see you!”
He turned round to face Davey, who was smiling manically at him.
“Are we going to have lunch together then?” Davey asked. “You know how much I want to talk to you, Johnny boy, you really are like a breath of fresh air around here! ”
He leaned in over the bar to grab the barmaid’s attention. He pointed extravagantly at John.
“This guy used to be the local Casanova,” he announced to her. “You wouldn’t believe it! He could screw anything! The day he left this town it just shrivelled up and died! Have you ever heard of anybody having sex here? No! It never happens! Not real sex anyway. Not since Johnny left us!”
The barmaid, who was only a young girl, looked away, embarrassed.
“C’mon then,” John said, pulling Davey away from her, ” let’s devour flesh together. If that’s what you want. ”
They ate at a window overlooking the flowing river.
“Damn good chicken,” Davey said, pushing the chewed meat to the front of his mouth with his tongue, and slurping from his glass of wine.
“I know,” he apologised abruptly, ” I eat like a pig, but I love my food. Selina won’t eat at the same table as me… nor the kids. Can you credit that, Johnny? Somewhere in the Irish midlands there’s a hospital administrator whose wife and kids won’t eat with him because they think he’s a pig. I don’t care, they don’t like me anyway, and I’ve stopped trying to please them!”
With knife and fork, with clumsy savagery, he cut through the pale chicken flesh in its warm, red paprika sauce.
“Jesus, John, when we were growing up together people liked me. Everyone did, my friends, my teachers, my girls! My girls really liked me, but not as much as they liked you! I hate being disliked by my family! Christ, I had sex three times a day with that woman. Those kids are mine. Damn it, John, I’m not asking for respect or for love, I just want to be liked.”
“I like you,” John lied.
“I think it all started when you went away,” Davey said. “Maybe people only liked me because I was your friend? I felt lost without you, Johnny. I strutted around, but it wasn’t the same. I was no fecking use on my own!”
“I guess life just changes for us,” John offered.
Davey looked critically at him.
“Now, Johnny, I don’t like to say this, but you have a tired look in your eyes. I mean, I think you’re starting to go downhill too. Have you seen yourself lately? You used to be my hero! I can’t believe it, you selling beds and all that! It doesn’t make sense!”
He waved his wineglass elaborately in front of John’s face before loudly slurping from it.
“You had an air of invulnerability about you. I expected great things from you; there was a sense of destiny about you. We all thought Johnny boy would conquer the world, and then you discovered God or something! I mean, did you ever hear the likes?”
“I’d prefer if we talked more about you,” John said.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Johnny, I didn’t meant to hurt you, I really didn’t. God, I’m insensitive sometimes. Selina always says so, that bitch!”
Davey hunched forward over his dinner plate. He had a furtive air.
“The worst thing is, Johnny,” he confided, looking out of the side of his eyes, ” the worst thing is the women. I used to be an attractive guy. I was sought after. Now, all I get is…”
He shook his hand limply above the empty wineglass.
“Jesus, Johnny, the wife won’t let me touch her. Never. And I’m dying for it. Jesus, I’d screw anything!”
In spite of himself John began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Davey wanted to know. “I’ve just confessed to you, Johnny. I’ve just told you that I’m dying. That’s what I came here for. I wanted to tell you. I’m dying. And all you can do is laugh!”
John was laughing uncontrollably, attracting interested looks from the surrounding tables.
“Ah, sod off, you old bastard!” Davey roared at him, then began to shake with laughter himself, his flesh shaking like jelly.
John was doubled up with laughter.
“I’m sorry, Davey, I think it’s so sad, I really want to cry for you, but I can’t help laughing!”
Davey’s face grew sombre.
“Yeah, Johnny, well sometimes I think I should just put an end to it all. I mean, who’d care?”
He sounded serious. John put a steadying hand on his shoulder.
” Don’t be ridiculous, Davey, only a romantic suicide is worthwhile. Remember we used to say that long ago? ”
“I could make it romantic.”
“You’re too old and too fat,” John said with comic cruelty. “People would only laugh at you!”
And the two of them, as if they were real friends again, laughed together spontaneously and loudly.
“Ah, frig it,” Davey announced, “I’m going to have some sherry trifle. I love sherry trifle!”
Later, when they were calmer, Davey asked,
“How are things with you, John, really?”
“Fine, fine,” John said tersely.
After a pause, he said,
“I’m still in search of that destiny you spoke of. I guess I always will be. Chasing the unattainable, you know…”
“Still running after women?”
“Yeah, still running after them.”
” Anna’s fine.”
“And besides Anna?”
John considered for a long moment.
“Davey,” he said at last with a sigh, ” I wish I knew!”
In the afternoon he demonstrated the new model of hoist to a group of nurses. They were glad of a break from routine and proved an easy conquest for him. They laughed when he chose one of them to lift from a seated position on a chair to a supine one on the bed. The operation was smooth and successful, John’s touch practised and easy. He spoke, he knew, with elegance and charm; he seduced them. As he stretched across the nurse lying on the bed to unfasten the hoist straps he noted with satisfaction the mischievous fire in all their eyes.
“You see how easy it is to get someone into bed?” he said to the nurse under him and they all laughed.
The matron, a short, heavy woman, bustled about.
“It is a superb hoist. Look at it, girls! Look how shiny it is!”
“I could lift five of you at once with this hoist,” John shouted out, ” and put you all to bed together.”
They laughed and volunteered to be lifted but the matron shooed them away like a mother hen.
“We don’t have time, girls. We must get back to work!”
After they had gone the matron stayed with him examining the hoist, asking him questions about its “functioning”, as she put it. Then, out of the blue, she asked,
“Are you very religious, Mr. Carter?”
John winced involuntarily.
“Not particularly. Why?”
“Something about you reminds me of a priest, that’s all.”
John leaned towards her with a conspiratorial air.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he whispered, “I’m Don Giovanni. I spend my time seducing virgins! Do you have any here? I’d love to seduce them!”
The Matron laughed with delight.
“Oh, how shocking you are, Mr. Carter, I hope God isn’t listening to you! You could be in big trouble!”
She grew serious again.
“But really, Mr. Carter, there is something about you. I believe you have some religion in you. You try to hide it but it shows. You might have a vocation you don’t know about!”
John displayed his wedding ring.
“But there are many different types of vocation, not just the priesthood. You don’t know what God has reserved for you, or how he speaks to you. He may be talking to you right now, using me to tell you something. You need to listen, perhaps.”
“And how do I listen?” John asked sceptically.
The matron took him by the arm.
“I belong to a prayer group. We meet every evening after work. You could join us this evening.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” John excused himself. “I’m not free this evening!”
Mercifully, she desisted.
“It’s up to you,” she said. “God will always be there! Remember that!”
Without further ado, she turned on her heel and waddled heavily away from him. He watched her leave through the swinging doors of the ward.
“Stupid old biddy,” he muttered savagely under his breath.
He left his car in the hospital car – park and walked back through the town to the hotel. The town, blanketed with grey cloud, seemed to sleep through the afternoon. Even the shop fronts had a somnolent air, their owners looking out dreamily through shadowed plate glass. John strolled past them indifferently, forgetting the resentment he once had stored up against the awful stagnation of small town life. Once, he feared he would never escape this town, like a too tight jacket constricting and making uncomfortable his every movement and gesture. Once, at the end of a certain love affair, he had wanted to cut his throat. He shuddered to remember how pathetic he had been. That woman had married the owner of the town supermarket. She was now a rich widow. That was small town life for you.
He stopped in the centre of the town at the crossroads whose radiating branches quartered it. On his right the street led to the estate where his parents had lived. They were both dead now, but standing at the traffic intersection, and feeling he did not know which way to turn, he could still hear his father’s voice saying,
“Johnny, why do you always run around? When are you going to start taking life seriously?”
His mother’s feet had passed by here every morning on her way to Mass. He looked to see if she had left her footprints for him to follow but there was only a ghostly trace of her; nothing of substance. She had cried outrageously the day she learned that he had made that girl, Veronica, pregnant. That was the day he had decided to leave the town. He couldn’t stand it any longer. His father had tried to hold him back.
“You don’t understand,” John told him. “This place kills me, it kills me!”
What was he doing back here? Why had he taken a job that would bring him back here, again and again, to face the ghosts he thought he had lain? The bells of the church rang out suddenly for early evening Mass and startled John out of his reminiscence. He walked quickly across the empty road. He whistled a fragment from Mozart as he approached the entrance to the hotel. A smiling, dark – haired woman stepped out of the doorway towards him. He glided past her, dipping his nose into the rose scent of her perfume. Her mouth opened softly over glistening teeth. He wanted to kiss that mouth, all women’s mouths in that one mouth. He wanted to slip his arm around her narrow waist and pull her after him. It was too late. With infinite sadness he watched her walk away from him. The unattainable.
When he returned to his hotel room he found a bible placed on his bedside table.
“Goddamn!” he cursed loudly, throwing it to one side.
Why had they done that? Had someone who recognised him said it, “you know, he was a priest once!” Why couldn’t people mind their own business? We all made mistakes in our lives, we all did things we regretted! It had been an aberration, that was all, a bizarre, confused, crazy episode! He resented, nonetheless, that it had stolen the best years of his life!
The phone rang.
“Davey is here to see you.”
“I’ll be right down,” he answered reluctantly.
The last person he wanted to see was Davey but he realised he had to do business with him. If he could sell five of the new hoists his commission would allow him to go on holiday. Still, he could not suppress a growing irritation and sense of frustration as he made his way to the foyer.
“There you are, Johnny boy, I had to see you. You know, Selina really got excited when she heard you were in town! Said to bring you around! I always wondered if there wasn’t something between you two!”
Davey clapped his hands boisterously.
“I’d love to hear your confession, Johnny!”
John couldn’t stand it. Dave was too much for him. He had to get away.
“I’m not feeling well…”
“But I have so much I want to talk to you about!”
“Please, Davey, I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Jesus, Johnny, a half – hour is all I want! It won’t take any longer than a good screw! ”
“In the morning, I’ll feel better in the morning,” John pleaded.
“Christ, you sound just like Selina!”
He mimicked her coarsely.
“Tomorrow, Davey, I’m not feeling well. Don’t touch me!”
“I’m sorry, Davey,” John apologised.
Davey looked resentfully at him.
“Ok, Johnny boy, I just get the feeling sometimes that people want to avoid me. I’m shunned like the plague around this place. I thought you’d be different. We go back all the way, you and I! You know, Johnny, I always felt you walked out on me!”
“It had nothing to do with you, Davey!”
“I know that, I know that, but I always felt betrayed by you. I always felt let down. I just couldn’t understand it, Johnny. I thought you’d gone mad, mad!”
“I did,” John told him. “I went crazy, Davey. I thought God had put his finger on my heart!”
“Jesus Christ,” Davey said, sounding as if he was on the verge of tears. “Jesus, Johnny, you broke my heart! You broke it!”
“I’ll see you in the morning, Davey, I’m sorry!”
John couldn’t stand the sight of him any longer. He turned on his heels and started up the stairs. When he reached the top of the stairs he heard Davey calling loudly after him,
“Johnny, Johnny, let’s go on the tear! For old times’ sake! Let’s chase women, Johnny, let’s chase them into the ground!”
John pretended not to hear but hurried to his bedroom. Shutting the door firmly behind him he breathed a deep sigh of relief. He threw himself heavily on the bed beside the discarded bible. He hoped he hadn’t spoiled things with Davey, he needed the order for the hoists. He wasn’t going to worry about it all the same. He wanted to forget about it now. He really wasn’t feeling well. He wanted to sleep. He closed his eyes. He wanted to think of something pleasant. He let his mind drift through its own darkness. The darkness was good, it soothed him, relaxed him. Then he saw the woman with black hair stepping towards him. He wanted to nuzzle his nose in between her breasts and inhale the deep, warm scent of her rose perfume. She was lovely, lovely! Her white teeth glistened. Her smile embraced him. He could feel her arms twining round his shoulders and the firm strength of her body pressing into his. Before falling asleep, he regretted briefly that he had not run after her and made some attempt, no matter how feeble, to seduce her. It seemed a shame to let her go like that, without a word, without even knowing her name. What way was that to treat a beautiful woman?
When he woke the cloud had broken and the room was suffused with a crimson, sunset glow. Across the flowing river the colour of the dying sun opened and spread like a bloody wound. Below him the river ran ominously red. John had a sudden impulse to ring Anna. He didn’t want to but couldn’t fight his impulse. He sat on the edge of the bed and dialled down to reception. In a moment he heard the ringing tone, like a blunt drill, grate in his ear. Seconds later Anna picked the phone up and said, “hello?” He had nothing to say to her. She said “hello” again, “who’s there?” He heard her voice echo through his own silence. He felt powerless to speak.
“Is that you, John?” she asked. “I can’t hear, there must be a problem with the line.”
Why had she said that? What made her think that it was him? He felt a brief surge of panic and realised he was sweating profusely. He put the phone down. He breathed a sigh of relief. He relaxed. Thank God it was over. When he got back at the end of the week she would say innocently,
“I had another of those strange phone calls! Who do you think it could be? It frightens me, you know…”
Later, he showered and changed into fresh clothes. He cheered himself up by singing snatches from Madamina. His favourite lines in the whole opera were those which ended with Leperello’s long – winded insinuation, “Purche porti la gonnella, Voi sapete quel che fa.”
He sang them with gusto, his spirit soaring over them.
He dressed meticulously, making sure his suit sat perfectly on him. He adorned himself with ivory cufflinks and a gold tie – pin that was an anniversary present from Anna. He removed his wedding ring. He slipped it randomly between the pages of the bible. It opened on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Out of sudden curiosity he read,
“The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of dust…” He glanced ahead impatiently,”…I tell you this, flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”
It made him laugh.
“I am the man of dust,” he intoned bitterly. “I am Dusty the Dust Man! ”
And to think that St. Paul had been one of his favourites.
Before he left the room he studied himself closely in the mirror. He was looking good. He looked sharp, ready to impress. Downstairs, floating out over the river, he heard the first, muffled, thumping sounds of the hotel disco. He smiled conspiratorially at himself in the mirror.
“Now, Giovanni,” he said,”tonight will be a night of seductions! You will have your conquests!”
He ran light – heartedly down the steps leading to the foyer. The blonde – haired receptionist smiled broadly at him. With her practised eye she noticed immediately that he was not wearing his wedding ring.
There was little activity in the downstairs bar. With a sinking heart he remembered that it was Monday evening and that most people stayed at home on Monday evenings. He grew morose, thinking that he was wasting his time there. He drank one consoling whisky after another to stave off the tedium of waiting. They didn’t help. He was at the end of his tether, getting ready to leave and return to his empty bedroom when she walked in. She was tall and ungainly, plain, not pretty, with long, mousy brown hair straggling over her shoulders; yet there was something about her that attracted him. Availability, maybe? He thought he knew the type, around forty, worried about ageing, single, lonely; and so, so, vulnerable. She was his type, the type that responded eagerly to aggressive male charm. Without hesitation, having waited long enough, he approached her,
“May I join you?”
The disarming innocence of his smile seduced her.
“Yes, please do!”
They talked. They drank. They got comfortable together. When the bar closed he invited her into the hotel disco. She accepted. It was Monday night with only a handful of dancers and isolated couples turning and swaying in the coloured lighting. With ready, subtle grace, he rubbed his body lightly against hers. Yielding to the darkness and helped by the alcohol that clouded, warmly, sweetly, her mind, she clutched him, held him tightly to her. Their breaths and mouths mingled, soft words; then kisses. In less than an hour, he had drawn her by the hand past the vacant porter’s desk, up the flights of stairs to his room, undressed her, and made love to her, with all the passionate abandon he could muster, sufficient to make her cry out; her voice trembling over the flowing river outside into the starless night.
Later she lit a cigarette, and laughed quietly to herself as she smoked. They made love once more and then they slept.
In the morning the sunlight intruded shyly into the room. As he washed she talked to him lazily from the bed, the corner of the sheet drawn up protectively around her breasts.
“Have you had many women?”
“One thousand and three,” he answered flamboyantly. “And that’s just Spain!”
“But,” she hesitated, ” you’re married!”
“That’s not a problem for you then?”
He looked round at her stretched out on his bed.
“No, obviously not,” he answered wryly.
He sat on the bed beside her.
“How can you tell I’m married?”
“Oh, it’s just a feeling. You’re either married or a priest….”
He didn’t like that.
“To be either married or a priest,” he said, with sudden determination, “you have to be faithful to someone or something. I hate the idea of being faithful. I prefer being a Dust Man!”
He jumped up suddenly and danced naked before her, singing happily,
“My old man’s a dustman,
He wears a dustman’s hat…”,
He sat down out of breath beside her. She put her arms around him.
“I liked it,” she said. “I hope I’ll see you again sometime!”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, half – heartedly. “I’ll look you up next time I’m in town.”
She looked unhappily at him.
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “That’s not it at all!”
Later, alone, he leaned out above the flowing river. At least there is movement somewhere and towards something, he thought, no matter how stale and unrewarding the world sometimes seems. Like in the act of sex, he found some solace in the thought. And some sadness too that his life could not flow away and abandon itself like a river beneath a rising sun.
Davey gave him the order for the five hoists. John was pleased. It was a considerable sale. He was happy enough to sit and talk with Davey for an hour because of it. Davey was delighted to have someone to talk to. He probed John about the night before. He said he could smell sex off him. Then he returned to his own problems.
“It’s all a myth about nurses,” he protested. “Not one of them will have anything to do with me! They all dislike me! They make fun of me behind my back! Why do women hate me, Johnny? Christ, Selina cries if I so much as lay a finger on her! It’s like I’m a slug or something! Why am I not liked, Johnny, tell me? ”
John shook his head hopelessly.
“I never thought it would be like this, the future,” Davey said sadly. “We had better times, Johnny, didn’t we? We had our Golden Youth! Women found us irresistible then! I loved you, Johnny, and you loved me! I know you loved me! I was someone to be reckoned with then! Now look at us, the hospital administrator and the bed salesman! Oh, how are the mighty fallen! ”
“Things might improve,” John offered.
“Yeah, they might,” Davey concurred uncertainly. ” I might meet a woman who wants sex three times a day! She might even like me!”
“Be careful,” Johnny cautioned him. “She might even fall in love with you!”
“It could never happen, never happen!”
Davey accompanied him to his car, past the somnolent receptionist who smiled wanly and then went back to the study of her fingernails. Davey didn’t want him to go, he held onto his hand tenaciously.
“You don’t know how lonely it is,” he said. “You’re the lucky one!”
Eventually, John got himself free.
“Life was sweet, wasn’t it?” Davey called after him.
“It sure as hell was,” John shouted back. “It sure as hell was!”
He listened to his beloved Mozart. Two voices, male and female, twined sweetly, “Andiam, andiam, mio bene, Per ristorar le pene, D’un innocente amor!” He felt his heart lift up with the beauty of the words.
” To ease the pain of innocent love,” he sang out to himself, leaving the sleepy town behind.
The countryside opened for him, brown – leaved trees on either side of the road swayed gently under grey skies, the river flowed with him. He felt good. Things might improve! Why not? Why should they always stay the same and life continue on in the same monotonous current always? Why not simply forget the past and make a new start? Why not simply forget everything, every damn thing that trapped and held him back? Not to care about anything, not to remember anything! Nothing! He could make a new life for himself! Why not? If he just followed the example of the river and went on forever, flowing, flowing, flowing, to the sea! God knows where he would end up… It was an intoxicating and shattering thought! He liked it and wanted so much to speed the car into this new, undreamed of, unimagined world. He couldn’t wait. He pressed down hard on the accelerator. Fast, he encouraged himself, faster!
Then, turning away from the river, as the road turned away, he remembered, with a sudden, awful sinking of his heart, the shock of it bringing the car to a complete standstill in the middle of the road, his wedding ring. He had forgotten it. He had to go back for it. Anna would never forgive him if he lost it. She’d never accept that he had taken it off, even for a moment. He turned the car around and headed back towards the town. He saw the low roofs again and the spire of the church above them. He hoped the ring would be where he had left it. For a moment he felt a slight, rising panic and then he relaxed. After all, he told himself, what better safe – keeping could it have! Remembering where it was! Remembering that he had left it in the Bible, where it nestled in the pages of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and rested on the finger of the Man of Dust.