Nick Clifford watches the fan sweep a white ceiling, looks down into the vortex of white sheets, and smiles at his Mabius strip of a milk white girl. An undersea swirl of straight black hair. A light, mouth-breathing sleep. Gaud' seashell feet, the heels round, unflattened, no evidence of weight bearing because she skips, she floats, she glides. Nearest to him is the right little toe, curved slightly toward the others. Nick imagines running a fingernail down the sole, imagines the foot curling in response, the unconscious grasp, the pinks pinker, a reef alive with baby suction. A waking stretch, the foot touches Nick on the side of his head, and Trish is up, laughing.
"Oh, it's you!" And she's gone, skimming the cool floor to the bathroom. Yes, him, betrothed a fortnight ago, wed three nights since, honeymooned with Trish's free miles on this island, sunny and unexplored. Done it over and over, as his seed seized each chance to make the connection between them be forever.
This afternoon they fly home. Tomorrow morning Nick will go back on the trading floor to get his back slapped and drinks bought. Why did she marry him, he wonders, as her shower covers the cicadas with white noise. Because for once God smiled his way. Once, and that's good enough. Tomorrow morning the wife will be stepping out of a black cab at Heathrow for her five days to Dubai and back, pointing her Eurobusiness prospects around the tax-advantaged paradise. They must go for the whole slim deal of herfaun legs, tight waist, brave little bosomand fall into those kind blue eyes. The white noise stops. She showers quickly, a habit from her boarding school days.
Bouncing back into the room, smiling like a kid. As she passes, Trish gives an angled tap to the stalks of velvety seaweed, already losing their submarine orange, that she has rescued and stuck in a milk bottle washed ashore. Nick smiles too, reminded of how his father could focus the telly with one flick on the rabbit ears. She will bring clarity and beauty to his life.
Trish flops on the bed, rooting for him, giggling and gobbling. Yes, it's God he must thank, to grant him even a taste of this. Gin and spare time helped: but how could it have become four weeks from just four hours? She saw his good heart. Finally someone did, and valued it. Which is what got her to the Chelsea Town Hall? That's a lot of credit on a good heart. The dick fattens in her mouth. Must let the wife do the work this time, she's the boss. Still, he can say I love you as much as he wants now, and he wants to.
But it's Trish who sighs, "Oh Nick. I'm so happy." And then, "No messing about! We've got a plane to catch!"
She works her filthy ingenuities. Pop pop pop. The stopper bounces inside his soul and the empty ache empties again.
IT IS NICE TO BE OFF TO WORK on a drizzling February Monday, nice to resent the cold and damp, nice to fight the stuffed and soggy smells of the Northern Line, and that familiar eerie one of burning. Up the long moving staircase and out into the gray squalor of the City. The Exchange isn't inherently beautiful. It's neither old nor elegant, charming nor charmless. It is a monument to the sensible working out of competing desires. Here the humors are veined, the passions brokered, rationalized in the fast congress of seller and buyer. The coveted thing, and the quantity of it, and the long or short of it, exist on both sides of the trade, as either possession or desire. Until the contract struck by these men fixes meaning to all the words: a price. Offered, accepted: a hypothesis until set, the price is reality, as real as and equal to and defining the thing itself. In life-giving thunderclap, the entire packagethe thing, its worth, to whom and whenbecomes true. And true again, a newer truth, a moment later, and many times over, before lunch. Only the traders understand this power of theirs, to make truth. Perhaps others, grief-stricken men, look for a lasting kind.
At dinner the boys stand him, insist on Dom, hollering and clapping. Those who have met Trish leer in flattery. Most offer platitudes. These men find nasty stuff to say about almost everyone, but with Nick they don't try. Nick is liked here, not for wit or wealth or any exceptionality, but simply because he is so cheerful and sharp, a pillar of this society, always ready to promote a piss-up, just as prepared to get down to work again when it comes time.
The way home is lighter, drier, and not as acrid as the way down. Nick lets himself into his flat, now their flat. Many kinds of married homecomingarriving with her from their honeymoon yesterday, arriving to find her there, or outare already familiar. Trish is drinking vodka and cranberry with some Midlands managing director high above a featureless desert. With her away, Nick feels more than ever married, more than ever that her essence has saturated his rooms, his things, his sleep.
The flat in West Hampstead is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But by being where Trish's sweaters fill a bureau drawer, Trish's cotton puffs from Boots sit on a ledge by the sink, Trish's family pictures now rule the parlor from a small table, Nick's flat has become his home through the force of its becoming hers. The arrival of Trish's bottle of Vichy Milk Moisturiser has changed reality in a way beyond what they do at the Exchange. Like incense swaying down the aisle in church, unlocking centuries of memory, the smell of her sanctifies the place. Suddenly many things are true. And though the details will change, the truth of these moments remains true, forever. Whatever happens, wherever they may go, this will have been their home, and they are husband and wife here, at this time for all time.
How good is his memory? Suppose the L-1011 Allah Cruiser plunges into the Red Sea? For how long could he retain her essence? The smell would still be here, but it's mostly Diorella. Yes, he will always associate it with her, and granted it isn't Diorella neat, rather Diorella plus Trish. Could he remember her breath, deliciously boozy, molasses and juniper? Could he remember her ears? He walks to the ashtray atop the bureau: little pearl earrings with a tiny diamond each. Presents from a spurned lover? He pulls the stem from the back of one and draws it through his thumb and forefinger. He puts his fingers to his nose. Girl sweat, and a memory of figs. But other girls' earrings are just as sweetin fact, the same.
OK, go to work. Into the hamper, and out comes the white cotton shirt from last Thursday's wedding party. Perfume again, but now the Diorella and the girl are each more distinct. She must have put some on, then put the shirt on, then sprayed more on the inside, below the collar probably. There are two Trish smells: the frank faint traces of proper sweat under the armsrighteously girly, but not exclusively Trishand then another one, around the trunk; subtler, more entwined with the Diorella, and more essential. Smelling it makes him think powerfully of her. And though it won't stay just as it is now, this will be the smell that he and their children and their grandchildren will think of when they think of what it's like to be hugged by Trish.
Next item: the black hair tie, a stretchy woven ring. Past the cigarette smoke, the Diorella, the shampoo, he thinks he can detect something fundamental; he's not sure. Back to the hamper and out comes a pair of white ankle socks: nice but again not sui generis. And the knickers. The back, the front: strong generic flavors, still, like any girl's.
So what has he got, and what would he have in two weeks if she died tonight, past a few loads of laundry? He'd have Diorella, he'd have the DNA to reconstruct anyone he's ever fucked, a white girl between sixteen and forty, but not Trish. By nose alone he sees he can't hold her.
NICK GOES TO THE COOPER'S ARMS, his local, for a supper of sausage and chips. Trish would tease him, but Trish isn't here. So neither does it matter that Trish gets up the noses of Gorman and Tate, his pub mates. Gorman is older and married, a tired good sport whose wife never shows up, even to fish him out. Tate is younger than Nick, and flashnot in fact as flash as Nick, but at the Cooper's Tate's reputation for superior flashness is a cornerstone of the social organization.
"How's Mrs. C?"
"Madame is away, boys."
"So soon? Recuperating, I'll wager."
"I'm recuperating. She goes from strength to strength."
"On the job?"
Gorman glares at Tate, holding to form.
"Do you mean, in the air?"
"Tate, you're pathological."
"Which reminds me: what ever happened to your posh one?"
"Johnny Colson. A friend, as you know."
"Then bring her round sometime. I'm sure the wife would get a kick out of that."
"Yes, by all means. You do that."
"She's in Canada at the moment, with her dad."
"Let it drift. Trust a married friend. The more they say they don't mind, the worse they feel. I'll lay odds that Trish lives in dread of your giraffe."
This thought is not new, but it pleases him. "Why do I . . . Someone get me another g&t."
THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A WOMAN, often unattained, holding his life in her hands. He is used to loving someone out of his league, mostly Johnnytoo tall, too barmy, just beyond. Nick was always one of the hard lads at Spencer, the London school where his parents scrimped to keep him and his little brother William. But Nick's awe of skirt made him less hard than he looked.
With Trish you could take a leak without closing the door. He's never seen anyone as beautiful, including Johnny. He's never been with anyone as perfect, including the professionals. And she loves him totally, better or worse, marryingly. Even in the private moments, when he finds he can't breathe in her presence and blusters for fear of looking ridiculous, even then he can handle himself, because although she has the beauty she doesn't have the other thing, the beyond.
Johnny has treasured him like a good luck charm, a broken lighter she refuses to chuck from her purse. Trish doesn't operate in a world of symbols. If she's too drunk to fuck, you can fuck her. She likes you to get it in. She likes the taste of come. She likes to taste herself on your dick, and she wants you to kiss her, to taste it too.
She smiles at him in the morning as she's rolling the deodorant under her arms. It isn't even conscious. She likes Queen and Roxette as much as the good stuff. She's up for anything on the radio she can sing along to. When Trish gets old will she have dry skin and sore subjects? He can't imagine. And of course he will never give her reasons: he saw that show, growing up.
Trish has girlfriends, but not close friends. Nick isn't sure how he feels about that. Men, after all, are considered bad with secrets, but they're only bad with other people's secrets. Men don't tell revealing things to anyone, and usually dislike having to hear them. If a woman has a close friend she will tell her everything, with no conception of danger. The entrusting of secrets is what defines a close friendship between women.
Nick thinks about Trish this way: he wonders if her lack of confessors means she won't ever open up to him either. Or will that trust be theirs to learn together over time? It's reassuring, because women who are big on intimacy, and that's most of them, always drill for more of it. But Trish won't try to barge into him. When his door is closed, she won't knock, she'll wait. Still, the enchanting ways in which she seeks contactthe smacks and bites, conspiratorial giggles, private groomingtestify to what's important: that she is present, has committed, and will let her own door swing as wide as the hinges allow. Nick may not open her essence the way he opens her legs, but at least he knows that if it ever happens for her, it will happen with him.
TRISH HAS BOUGHT NICK a box of Havana cigars at the Duty Free and here in the taxi home she is deciding between the two cards she wrote on the plane. On one she's tried to be witty, but when she reads it back it doesn't seem to work. On the other, which she doodled for about an hour, she's written his name over and over, garlanded and wreathed in the pretty unoriginal style of teenage crushes, interposed with hearts bearing words like "forever," and "fuck me." This is way over the top. But it's how he makes her feel, so why shouldn't she show it?
Who am I kidding? He'll notice the cigars, not the girly note. No, really who am I kidding? He'll notice my bum. Like they always do.
NICK HAS STOPPED BY HARRODS after work to pick up smoked Scottish salmon, lemons, capers, brown bread, sweet butter and a bottle of Bollinger. He's cleaned the flat, had a bath and then cleaned that, put on fresh sheets and a Bryan Ferry CD. He hears the buzzer and opens the door. In a minute she's there, smiling but looking nervous.
"Must have a wee, must have a wash."
"How was it?"
"Oh, fine. I'm just tired, they were a lousy lot this time."
"I've organized a treat."
"Oh dear, really? I hate to disappoint. Do you mind if I just take a bowl of cereal and get in bed?"
"Of course not."
She watches a bad comedy on Channel Four with her knees pulled up under the covers, but she doesn't look as if she feels at home. Nick isn't sure what to do but he can sense not to offer a shoulder rub or anything. He lies on his side next to her with his head propped up on one arm, watching the show. She feels lonely so he's lonely too.
"It doesn't seem real yet, does it?" Nick ventures.
She looks into his face, turning her head to align it with his.
"I guess not. Give it time, right?"
She reaches over, smiling, and knocks his propped arm out from under him. She pulls him near. They kiss, quick closed kisses on the lips. He waits for her to open her mouth but it doesn't happen. She slides under him and guides him in. He holds her waist, her calves, verifying rights. And now she kisses him, a proper hungry one. The fuck doesn't go on for long but it's good, and she doesn't let go after but rolls on top and grinds all of her onto him, gripping his thighs with her legs and ankles.