The Magnet and the Needle
She resented his apology for the display of power it was. The silence had been building for some miles, compressed by the confined space of the car, and it was clear the thin statement of contrition was on its way. He had the tilt to his head that signaled an imminent announcement on a difficult subject. Changing lanes to come off the main road, he began.
‘I have to say,’ he said in a tone that suggested the very opposite of obligation, and carried on to throw out a checklist of reasons for his behaviour, forming a trellis of self-supporting justifications to which his excellent opinion of himself would be able to cling. The apology came in the midst of this soliloquy. It slipped out sotto voce, as the slip road arced them away from the motorway, under the flyover, and onto the B-road that would lead them to the foothills and their destination.
Night came on quickly, as if it had been held up back east and was making time. The car’s headlights honourably dipped to oncoming traffic but the deeper into the hills they went, switchbacking the gradients, the more the full beam shone. Dashboard glow gave the interior a somber, submerged aspect. The radio, tuned to classical music and turned down low, did not have to compete with the engine, which handled the hairpin gear changes without complaint.
GPS confidently filled the gaps in his talking. It was a woman’s voice, polite but firm with her directions. About thirty miles from the motorway, the first glitch was noticed.
‘Is this still the same road?’ he asked, and she wondered if he was talking to her, or the machine.
They were put right in the next village, where, after a crawl of speed bumps, they saw for the first time their objective written on a sign. Sandra experienced a minor jolt of localisation. Some nights ago, she had found the place online, read all about it, looked at the gallery, and it was odd now to see its name in the real world. She was pleased by the thought that the signpost was still there, even though she could no longer see it.
‘Right,’ he said, and took one. The hills rose around them, great hulking shadow patches against the gleaming stars. There were few dwellings up here, the handful they passed were shut up and dark. He was talking again, something about work, and she looked for the pole star, but with every twist in the road the scene wheeled above her.
They arrived an hour late after two detours and sharp words. He parked in front of the inn and proceeded to jab the buttons of the GPS, accusing it of being deranged.
‘We’re here now,’ she said, looking at the building in front of them. It was early eighteenth century, squat and high roofed. Lantern-shaped lights adorned the entrance, a bright red door with a low beam and an actual bell on a cord.
In total contradiction to the climate of the car, the night air was crisp with a keen wind. Three other cars were in front of the inn, high-end sleek things. It was an expensive gesture, this night away from it all.
He gave up with the onboard computer and the boot was opened and bags recovered. As they walked towards the inn, she felt for her mobile, noticed it was missing and was about to stop when she remembered, no mobiles. It was one of the rules of the night.
The room was fine. The dinner was very nice, and the wine flowed but the air was still soured. She knew he could sense it in the way she used her fork, the way her eyes skimmed him.
‘Right,’ he said, and made a show of throwing his napkin on the table. ‘Are you still angry with me?’
She thought hard for a response but settled with, ‘I suppose so.’
It was enough for him. He picked up the napkin and returned it to his knee. He liked things to be said, problems aired – didn’t matter if they never got resolved, as long as an emotional standoff was acknowledged as such. He enjoyed his pork belly and applesauce and said so. Even his basic pleasures were said.
She wanted to say something but she didn’t know what to say. She wanted to step out of her mood, having decided she might as well enjoy the night for what it was. She cast around.
‘I like the windows in this place.’
‘Yes,’ he said, and looked at them for the first time.
They consisted of little diamonds of glass between diagonal lines of lead. She considered telling him the name of the style. She decided not to, it felt like showing off.
Back in their room she locked herself in the bathroom and took her time getting ready for bed. She rarely wore a watch these days and in a moment of foresight she had decided, in the absence of a phone, to wear one. It was a present from him. The white face and graceful hands were reminiscent of him. It told her the time in his voice. Another thing said.
She knew he was waiting in the bed. She wondered what he was imagining, with what mental images he was underclothing her: the mesh camisole in cream with lace at the bust, or white charmeuse slip with black suspenders. Perhaps the ever-popular corset, pearl blush pink with a scatter of tiny black hearts, breasts to the ceiling. Lips as red as they could be. Tonight she was in a shift. Her lips were naked.
She crept out of the bathroom and into the bed and into his arms. He was ready and didn’t notice what she wore. They had sex and she enjoyed some of it. A mental image had lodged itself soon after they started and wouldn’t be shaken. He was jabbing at her as he did the errant GPS. I’m deranged, she said to herself and wondered if she should begin issuing instructions to him in the machine’s voice.
Soon enough, he arrived at his destination. She lay awake for some time after, thinking about her own, knowing only she was many miles from home, yet feeling left behind.
(published in Litro Magazine – Feb 2013, Sex)