She saw him across the room almost at once. He stood apart from the rest of them, looking slightly bored and at the same time slightly amused, as though their gay chatter was beneath him, like the games of children.
For a moment, the rest of the room seemed to blur into a smear of light and noise, unnecessary and distracting. She shook her head slightly, and the illusion vanished. But there he was, next to the window, still with that slight aloof smile just touching his lips.
“You all right?” her cousin asked, her cousin, who had forced her to come along for this, to “draw her out of her shell” as she’d put it. “You seem kind of out of it.”
“I’m all right,” she said, shaking off the hand on her sleeve. Her cousin was tall and pretty and had nice long fingers with narrow manicured nails, not like her thick hands with their five stubby digits, like lumpy sweet potatoes. Come to that, she herself looked like a sack of potatoes, she’d thought, with her broad face and dumpy figure. She knew her cousin was doing her a favour by bringing her along to this party, and for a moment she keenly hated the older girl for that.
“I’m all right,” she repeated tightly. “It’s fine.”
Her cousin shrugged her elegant shoulders slightly and walked away to where some of her friends waited. She looked around the room – there was nothing there of the slightest interest there, nothing she would want to see a second time. Except for him, of course.
She glanced quickly at the window, almost convinced he’d be gone already, but he was still there, still leaning against the wall, watching. He saw her looking, and turned his head towards her, so that she turned quickly away, embarrassed. But when she looked again, from the corner of her eye, he was still watching her. Their eyes met. He nodded, slightly but unmistakably.
Something possessed her then, to walk up to him. It wasn’t the kind of thing she normally did, because if there was one thing she’d learnt during her life it was to efface herself as much as possible.
“Hi,” she said, her mouth dry with tension, and then found she had nothing more to say.
He nodded, again, and smiled, closed-lipped. “Hello. You’re new here?”
“Does it show that much?” she asked.
He shook his head ever so slightly, and his smile broadened. “No, I just saw that you didn’t seem to know anybody – except the young lady who you came with. A relation?”
“My cousin.” She started saying something more, about how she hadn’t wanted to come, but how her cousin had forced her, but bit the words back with effort. “She has her friends,” she finished, lamely.
“And you are not from hereabouts?” He had an accent, slight but distinct. “Not from this town?”
“No, I’m visiting.” She wanted to tell him about how her parents had died in the car smash-up, both of them, and how the house had gone, and that her cousin had taken her almost like a charity case, a bit of do-gooding, though the older girl would never admit it. After all, she was eighteen, and too old to whine to strangers, even if they were fascinating. “I won’t be staying too long,” she said, almost defiantly.
His eyes twinkled. They were rather nice eyes, set in his face which was regularly formed and symmetrical rather than attractive. She tried to guess how old he was. Twenty-five? Older than the rest in the room, certainly. “I’m a stranger myself,” he said. “You could keep me company for a little bit so it doesn’t get too lonely for us.”
She glanced over her shoulder at her cousin, but she couldn’t see her through the knot of her friends. A couple of them glanced over their shoulders, though, and there was a sudden shout of laughter. She wondered what they were saying. Her nostrils twitched at an unfamiliar odour drifting through the air on a trail of smoke. Marijuana, perhaps.
“I wish I hadn’t come to this,” she muttered.
“I can see that,” he replied. “Do you want to take a walk outside?”
“All right,” she said. It would be better than having to be here wondering what snide remarks were being made about her behind her back. “Where shall we go?”
“Just around,” he said. “If you don’t mind being out with me, that is.”
“No, why should I mind?” she asked, already feeling the familiar sensation of tension twisting at her gut. She’d been rejected and laughed at often enough. And, as she knew – as she’d been told many times – she wasn’t an oil painting. But the only alternative was to stand here and be laughed at, and she didn’t want that. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to be with him. At least he wasn’t laughing at her.
“Do you want to tell your, er, cousin, that you’re leaving?” he asked.
“No,” she told him. “Why should I? She isn’t concerned about me.” It sounded petulant and whining, and she instantly regretted it, but he didn’t react. Placing his hand on her elbow, quite gently, he steered her towards the door.
“It’s a nice night,” he murmured. A large moon, almost full, hung in the sky, and turned the scraps of cloud into glowing luminous haloes. It was cool, though, and she shivered slightly.
“Are you cold?” he asked solicitously. “Would you like to go back inside?”
“No,” she said, panicked suddenly at the thought that he’d think she was too delicate to be worth bothering with. “No, I’m fine.”
They walked together down the street. Though it was still relatively early in the evening, it was almost deserted. An occasional car drove by, its headlights sweeping the buildings. It seemed to grow colder, and instinctively she took his arm, and then flinched, waiting for it to go stiff with disgust or, even worse, to pull away. Instead, he simply let her hold it, and moved closer so she could feel the warmth of his body.
“I’m glad you decided to come out with me,” he said. “I was getting tired of those people there.”
“Then why did you go?” she wanted to ask, but didn’t, in case asking put him off. But he seemed to catch her thought, because he answered her anyway.
“Someone asked me,” he said. “When I went I found he hadn’t come, and I was thinking of leaving when you turned up. And then I saw you and decided to stay.”
The matter-of-fact way he said this sent a thrill down her spine. There wasn’t the slightest artificiality in his tone. “Why?” she asked. “I’m nothing special.”
“You think so?” He peered at her. “I don’t. You might not be all dressed and made up like all of them in there, but you’re nice. I saw that in you.”
She felt herself blushing furiously, and then the words poured out; she told him about her parents and how they had died, and then she’d found that they’d been up to their ears in debt, and the house had gone and all hope of an education, and her cousin had taken her in but she knew it wouldn’t be for long, and she had no idea what to do and where to go. To her horror the tears began to flow, and she thought that now for sure he’d pull away. But all he did was put an arm around her shoulder and pull her close.
“It’s all right,” he murmured, his voice in her hair. “Don’t worry.”
After a while she stopped crying, and they walked on together. She was very conscious of the nearness of him and the warmth of his body.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Old enough,” he laughed lightly. “Do years matter?”
The moon was high in the sky and her feet were aching in the narrow shoes she’d borrowed from her cousin. They’d walked a long way, and she’d no idea where she was. This part of town, with its narrow lanes and high old houses, was unknown to her. “Where are we?” she asked.
“It’s not far from where I live,” he said. “I mean, from where I’m staying.” She could sense him looking at her. “Do you want to go back now?”
She hesitated a moment. “No,” she said suddenly. “I don’t want to go back. They’ll still be smoking and laughing and drinking too, and I don’t know when they’ll finish.”
“Well...” he said. “You could come in with me, if you want. I mean, it’s not as though I’m forcing you, you understand.”
“No, of course you aren’t,” she said. “I’ll be glad to come.” Something inside her clenched again, the tension flooding back, and she wondered what would happen when they were inside. Perhaps he’d want to sleep with her? She wouldn’t say no, she decided. After all, she wasn’t a virgin, though she found no particular pleasure in sex. At least it would mean she could be with him a little longer. “It’s strange, isn’t it? You’re a stranger, but I don’t feel as though you are a stranger. You feel les like a stranger to me than my cousin does.”
“Careful what you think,” he said mildly. “Your cousin can’t be all that bad if she gave you a home, for whatever reason.”
“Well,” she said mutinously, “I know her, and you don’t.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But here we are.” They walked up a narrow alley to a smaller house, set back under some trees. The shadows were thick, crowding around the door, and she felt a chill and clutched his arm tighter. She felt his muscles move as he unlocked the door, smoothly despite the darkness, without a single fumble.
Inside, he asked her to wait a moment as he crossed to the far side of the room and turned on a light. It was a low amber lamp, and the room was thick with dark velvet drapes, which seemed to suck up the light there was.
“Thanks for coming back here,” he said, coming back across the room to her. “It’s not my choice of decor, of course, but I’m not going to be here long, either. I might even leave tomorrow night.”
“You travel a lot?” she asked. Now that it was it, that the time had come when he might put the move on her, she was suddenly shy, and trying to put the moment off as much as possible when she’d have to choose either way. “You’ve been all over, I suppose.”
“Yes, all over the world. But travel gets boring soon enough.”
“I can’t imagine it getting boring.” So she could have a few moments more, she bent to fumble off her shoes. “But then I’ve never been anywhere really.” When she straightened up, he was standing before her, silhouetted against the light. He held out her hands to her, and his fingertips sent shivers down her nerves.
“What do you do for a living?” she asked, as he held her hands and drew her gently to him.
“I don’t,” he said.
“You don’t?” she repeated, looking up at him, confused. “Don’t do anything for a living?”
“That’s right,” he said. “I don’t.” For the first time, he smiled open mouthed. The smile widened into a grin.
“I don’t have a living to make,” he said. “I’m not alive.”
And as he pulled her to him, even in the dim light of the lamp, she saw the teeth, and the red velvet like blood reflected in his eyes.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013