UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
On the bed, sloughed off like an unwanted snakeskin, lie crumpled linen trousers, a shapeless t-shirt stained with gravy and the cardigan with the tattered collar that Kevin loves to chew while he teethes. These garments are a far cry from the sleek business suits I used to wear, but they are the only uniform I have these days.
Mary is my alibi for tonight. We are supposed to be going to a women-only night to see a hypnotist. I bought two tickets for the show and pinned them to the notice board last week, beside John’s golf club schedule. Mary knows where I’m going, although she won’t come with me anymore. Even though she won’t admit it, I know she finds my behaviour embarrassing. However, she doesn’t mind lying to cover my tracks.
I suppose I should feel ashamed. John still loves me, even after eight years of marriage and the inevitable fading of desire, but I do have a slender justification: his extensive collection of hardcore porn links, tucked away in an obscure sub-folder on his laptop.
The girls on the websites are all young and improbably large-breasted. They open yawning crevices between their thighs, the slabs of raw flesh and the tufts of hair making it look like they have strapped on a flattened hedgehog. Their faces are contorted into what I imagine are supposed to be expressions of lust. I fail to see any passion in these images, yet they must give John the burn in the loins that our rare and predictable lovemaking does not. But then, he wouldn’t understand what I do.
A horn beeps outside the window. I scoop up my bag and hurry into the living room. John and Beth, our three-year old daughter, form a giggling tangle of arms and legs in front of the television. Kevin is staring at the mayhem from behind the plastic bars of his play area. The fake gas fire gives off a cosy glow. The professional portraits we had done after Kevin’s birth smile down on this scene of family unity.
“I’m off now,” I say. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
I plant one foot near my husband’s head and rest a hand on my cocked hip. “How do I look?”
If he wants, he can look up my black dress to the thighs exposed at the top of my stockings. If Beth were absent, maybe I would roll off my underwear and part myself wide open, but I doubt it would have the same energising effect on him as www.fuckmyhairysnatch.com does. He has experienced what I have to offer too many times and from too many different angles. My snatch is as familiar to him as the dents in his armchair. Only the thought of unexplored tunnels excites him. Even though the web girls do their best to shine light upon every dark recess of their cervixes, they are still mysterious places he will never visit, Kathmandu to my Blackpool.
His arm bangs against my shin, but he doesn’t even look up, concentrating instead on bypassing Beth’s defences to tickle her stomach.
“You look nice, love,” he says above Beth’s squeals.
I step back to avoid receiving another blow to the leg. My high heel has left a tiny indentation in the carpet. Their squirming bodies pass over the hole and obliterate it. I hurry out to the waiting taxi.
Cigarette smoke tickles my nostrils as I enter the club. The clerk smiles knowingly at me. “Hello, Jenny. We’ve got a good one for you tonight. I saw the rehearsals,” she says.
I hand over my ticket with a tight smile and click to my reserved table in the front row. I order a vodka and coke, which I sip while the basement fills. A woman nudges her husband and nods in my direction. I hold his gaze until he looks away. The mirror on the far wall displays my pale figure, motionless amidst the bustle of chatting people. As the rising temperature fogs up the glass, my image fades amongst the shapes that writhe and gesticulate in the murk. I stare at the place where my reflection should be.
By now, John will be busy indulging his fantasies. The tickle fight was to tire Beth out. As soon as the last grumble of the taxi engine faded, he would have put the kids to bed and delved into the golf bag. He will be hunched over on the couch, fist pumping and gaze feverishly crawling over the array of silicone tits so easily summoned with a simple click.
Music pounds through the loudspeakers as the compère stomps onto the stage, flesh rampaging over her leopard-skin bra top and hot pants. The stage-lights shine on the flabby skin that hangs from her arms like layers of congealed milk. Compared to her, I’m a supermodel, yet she commands the attention of the whole room.
When she speaks, it sounds like her voice box has been sandblasted. “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to The Stand’s beginner night. We’ve got a good line-up for you tonight, so could the gentlemen please form an orderly queue and we’ll get started.”
She scoops up her enormous breasts and waggles them suggestively at the group of young men at the table in the first row, the nipple tassels revolving in opposite directions. They guffaw. One stands up and pretends to unzip his trousers.
“Don’t bother, son. It would be like throwing a sausage up an alleyway,” she shouts.
The boy sits down again, his face reddening around his wispy goatee beard. His friends throw beer mats at him.
“Unfortunately for you boys, I’m not talking about that kind of line-up. I’m talking about our comedy line-up, so without further ado, let me introduce the first act of the night, Greasy Bob from Edinburgh.”
She clomps off, the microphone stand wobbling every time one of her feet slams down. The crowd begin to applaud the empty stage, but I keep my clammy hands curled around my glass. A delicious tension prickles my skin as I wonder if he will be the one. I squeeze my thighs together in anticipation. My heartbeat picks up a notch as the spotlight falls on the side entrance and a sleazy middle-aged man in grubby jeans and a t-shirt spotted with holes bounds out.
He looks promising, yet within seconds of his act beginning he has the crowd roaring with laughter. The prickling recedes. He capers around the stage, performing contortions and borrowing objects from people in the crowd to use as props. He takes my lipstick, barely glancing at me as he snatches it from my hand and sticks it up his nose. To him, I’m just another face in the crowd. I laugh along with the others, but I’m counting the minutes until he is gone.
Even though the audience is enjoying the show, many of them still cast glances in my direction. The club has other regulars than me, yet we have never spoken. What I do is abnormal – something I have come to terms with – and in their shoes I doubt I would talk to myself. But I don’t come here to make friends.
Mercifully, the contortionist runs out of steam quickly and has the good sense to finish before the crowd tires of him. He exits to loud hoots and cheers, and the compère introduces the next act. Once again my body keens with anticipation. A young man, no older than twenty, sidles out to take her place, the red suit that hangs from his skinny frame making him look even more apprehensive than his halting approach to the microphone suggests. He is wearing large pink spectacles that turn his eyes into giant blue marbles. He licks his lips and attempts to wrestle the microphone from the stand. When he finally pulls it out, it slips from his hands and feedback whines through the speakers.
He scrabbles on the floor for the mike and flashes the audience a sickly grin. Already, people are shuffling their feet and nervous tension crackles in the air. There is a palpable sense of doom. A smile spreads across my lips.
“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. I'm Johnny Swift,” he chokes out in a cracked voice that scales two octaves. He takes a deep breath and begins, “So, there are two fish in a tank. One says to the other. ‘Do you know how to drive this thing?’"
The audience makes no sound. Johnny Swift giggles and clutches the microphone stand to his chest. It fails to hide him from the forest of eyes. The atmosphere in the room has completely changed. The tension the audience feels is nothing compared to that building up inside me, but the character of this pressure could not be more different. Everyone in the audience would love to slink off to the bar to escape the impending humiliation, but nobody is prepared to be the first to stand up. I would only leave if somebody were to drag me out.
“What's had more balls than Ian Botham's cricket bat? Elton John's chin,” the comedian says.
This joke solidifies the absence of laughter and sends him careering to the next gag with increasing anxiety. The pauses between jokes evaporate as he attempts to fill the hideous silence. He bumbles on through a few more jokes, engaging members of the audience with eye contact, trying to shame them into laughter, but nobody obliges.
“Get off,” shouts the barely-goateed youth.
Johnny Swift ‘s hand is shaking so much that the microphone bumps off his teeth. Now he is ready for me. I take a swig of vodka and bang the glass down. The comedian looks in my direction. All around me heads drop, but I meet his desperate gaze.
“A duck walks into a chemist’s and says, ‘I'd like a box of condoms please.’ So, the chemist says, ‘Would you like me to put that on your bill?’ and the duck says, ‘I'm not that kind of duck!’”
He pauses. His face carries a shameless plea that sets my stomach churning. I give him a chuckle. The wave of gratitude that washes over his face is almost pitiful. I know I have him.
He focuses on my lips and stumbles into a long joke, greedy for any twitch or tremor that could be construed as a sign of approval. Coughs splutter around me, but he doesn’t look away. He gazes at me with unbridled longing, as though nobody else in the room, in the world, exists.
The joke is so bad that I don’t realise when he has finished. He glances away, and a terrible panic comes over me. I laugh, and as fake as it sounds it brings the comedian back to me. Bathing in his aching need, I know I can laugh at anything he says, as long as he keeps looking at me that way.
I glance at the faces around me, but they seem out of focus compared to the man on the stage, as though the two of us have shifted onto a plane of existence where only we can see each other fully. I can see every vein on his face, each hair on the knuckles clasped around the mike, even the sliver of saliva that clings to his lips.
Equally, I am hyper-aware of my own body. I feel every fibre of the dress where it contacts my body, the soft click and separation of my blinking eyelids, and the sweet friction of the bra against my hardened nipples.
I exhort the comedian to greater effort by laughing as hard as I can; I slow him down by delaying my reaction to each joke, waiting until my silence makes his face fall before tossing him a giggle. My breathing quickens as the pace of his jokes reaching a fever pitch. Now I bellow with laughter, even though I am no longer making sense of his words, catching only fragments of his jokes. There is no more heckling, and the silence of the crowd becomes nothing but an empty canvas upon which our intimacy splashes brilliant colours.
Time loses all relevance, and the appalling jokes keep coming. Each laugh that shakes my body brings us closer together. The table creaks beneath my weight as I lean toward him. He edges to the brink of the stage so that his toes overhang the drop. Our bodies are only yards apart, and the proximity brings with it complete tunnel vision.
My head swims and I feel like passing out. I want to stretch out this moment until the audience has tiptoed out and the cleaner has swept around our feet, leaving us in darkness. I want to stay here until spiders spin webs between us and he has become a petrified skeleton in an oversized red-suit. I want to stay here until the sun dies and Earth becomes a frigid lump of rock. But I know the moment must end.
He stops speaking, and we stay locked in each other’s gaze. He stumbles backward and slides the mike back into its holder, all the while staring at me, and then stands with his hands by his side. We don’t move until the compère appears and nudges him. When the eye contact breaks, I feel the brutal jerk that a newborn baby must feel when bloody scissors sever the umbilical cord. Thunderous applause, more fervent than the act alone deserves, fills my ears. The room clicks back into focus.
The bond is gone now, and I stumble to the toilet on weak legs. I splash water on my red cheeks as my breathing slows. Even in the bright neon glare of the white-tiled toilet, there is no sign of advancing years in the woman who looks back at me from the mirror. But even as I stare at my reflection, the blood begins to leach from my cheeks and I know the unforgiving neon light will soon pick up the network of wrinkles around my eyes. I turn away and push back through the door.
The comedian is leaning on the bar with a beer clutched in one hand. Our gazes meet briefly, but then move on: his back to his drink, mine to the path I must take through the whispers and nudges of the crowd.
My head stays high as I walk to the table and pick up my bag. When I first started doing this, I would remain until the last act had finished, trying to blend in again, but now I know it is pointless. I have exposed myself to the scrutiny of strangers and I can never disappear back into the crowd. It doesn’t matter; they will never recognise the dowdy woman trailing her kids behind her in the supermarket.
Cool air washes over me as I step outside, the change in temperature hitting so hard I expect to see steam rise from my skin. Muffled applause seeps through the door behind me, swiftly followed by laughter. I flag down a taxi and travel home in a daze, not bothering to check if the driver is looking at my legs in his rear-view mirror.
When I get home, the house is dark. I go into the kids’ bedroom and kiss them both. They don’t stir from their contented sleep, and soft warmth seeps through my lower stomach. In the bathroom, the crows’ feet and broken veins reveal themselves as I set to work with a cotton wool swab.
I undress and climb into bed. John rolls over and I snuggle into his arms.
“Was he any good?” he murmurs.
“Yes. He was fantastic,” I reply.
“That’s nice,” he says, and then drifts off.
His chest rises and falls against my face. I squeeze against him, and his flaccid penis nuzzles my stomach. I close my eyes and wait for sleep to claim me.
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