I posted the original version of this in September 2015. It was then one of two stories I showed to a colleague who teaches creative writing, and I revised the story slightly in light of her comments. I’m posting the revised version in honour of the seventh anniversary of the song it’s based on.
One of the first pieces of advice I got given when I started living in shared houses was “never go out with your housemate”. This was when I was still a student, and the shared houses tended to have six or seven people in them and a lot of arguments over selfish refrigerator use and failure to take washing out of the machine; a recently split couple could be worse than a strong cheese for the atmosphere of such a place. Now I’m in a house of only three, but I’m remembering that advice. The other girl, Julie, is hardly ever around. She has a severe gym habit and a boyfriend on the other side of town. Most of the time it’s just me and Fergus.
Fergus is a quiet guy. Big, thoughtful, reliable. Has an office job, a civil service type thing, forms and databases. Spends his evenings tackling guitar solos in his room with the amp turned right down. That’s when he doesn’t come and sit in the kitchen and talk with me. Admittedly it’s mostly me doing the talking: he’s a good listener and I feel I can tell him things. He never needs anything explained, he always gets it. Or sometimes we’ll set up one of the laptops on the table, bring cushions, and watch a silly film together. We seem to have the same sense of humour.
And yes, I did sleep with him once. A bit over a month ago at the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure we simply went to the same room instead of different ones, and frankly it was rather a nice experience. But neither of us has mentioned it since and I’m not going to. I like our relationship how it is.
The thing is, my life can be weird, and Fergus is so beautifully normal. I’m an actress – well, actually I earn virtually all my money by working in a bookshop, but I’m in a theatre company and we do shows that are in theory professional – so when I am, for example, rehearsing a play based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I’m spending all week getting into the head of a girl who commits incest with her father before turning into a tree, it’s nice to come home and find him cooking pasta and listening to the news. Of all my friends he’s the only one who’s organised enough and has a sufficiently good job to run a car; he uses it for going hill-walking at the weekends with his friends Ryan and Ed. I’m glad of his steadiness, and not just because he sometimes gives me lifts; right now my life seems to be getting a whole lot weirder.
It started a week or so after that Bill and Ted viewing, at the end-of-run party for Metamorphoses. A man was there, a friend of a friend, who seemed to be something or know someone in films. Of course we all wanted to talk to him, but what was odd was that he wanted to talk to us. After all, we’re not really much more than a bunch of drama students; eight of us set up the company almost straight out of our degrees, when it didn’t look as though anyone else was going to give us work. Anyway, this guy – Richard, his name is Richard – encouraged us to talk about our process, the way we’d workshopped our ideas on sexuality and identity; he listened to us with a wry kind of smile and then treated us to some name-dropping anecdotes. A few nights later he invited the whole lot of us out to a wine-bar considerably posher than we usually frequented and stood us a few rounds. Cash seemed not to worry him. He had a stylish and yet slightly battered air; his eyes were heavy-lidded and there were lines around them and at the corners of his mouth; he wore waistcoats. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who has a silver monogrammed cigarette case.
For whatever reason, Richard took a shine to me. He got my number and started texting me strange things – not invitations to meet, not most of the time, but lines of poetry, and names of places in the Aegean, and photographs of curious objects such as an anatomical model in ivory. It wasn’t clear how he wanted me to respond to this so I tried to find ways to be enigmatic, taking shots of things glimpsed in mirrors and shop-window reflections, choosing lines from books by closing my eyes and pointing. When we did meet for an elegant tea one day, with my fellow-actress Lisa along for moral support, he seemed to be viewing me half as an anthropological specimen and half as a joke that only he was hearing. But he mentioned the magical word “screen-test”.
“There are a few possibilities,” said Fergus when I told him about it. “I suppose he could be the real deal. But, more likely, he’s a bullshit artist who just wants a pretty young girlfriend. Or he’s in porn.” This was uncharacteristically acerbic of Fergus.
I wondered if he was right on that last count when Richard sent me a photo of a naked woman sprawled with one leg over the arm of a chair, but it was the first of a series apparently designed to shock me: an eye in a dish, a rotting crow, a man with elephantiasis. I sent him flowers and bunny rabbits until he stopped. My heart started to pound every time I heard the text alert. Fergus caught me practising my cool, unflappable Hollywood diva face in the mirror on the landing and gave me a funny look.
Richard took Lisa and me to a party. It was in a huge Georgian house with wood panelling and honest-to-God chandeliers. The film connection seemed to be genuine; we could hear people talking about “the London premiere” and “rushes” and who they could get for the next project but at what a hideous price, would the backers stand for it. Lisa and I, who’d temporarily lost Richard at this point, found ourselves near one gaggle of people who were especially talkative and boastful. They fidgeted in and out of the room rather often and they all had terrible sniffs.
“My God,” said Lisa, “you know what, they’re all going off to the toilet to snort cocaine. Probably through fifty pound notes.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever even held a fifty pound note,” I said. “We’re in over our heads, aren’t we?”
“Over our heads?” said Lisa. “My darling, we are ACTORS. We are two incognito duchesses. This crowd is terribly vulgar by our standards. I’ve been having dreadful trouble maintaining the grouse stocks on my Scottish estate.”
We enjoyed ourselves elaborating these characters until Richard found us again and wanted to introduce us to someone.
And now Richard is taking me out to dinner. It’s just me and him this time, and the restaurant has a Michelin star. I feel fluttery, sexy and unsafe. He’s picking me up in twenty minutes. I’ve washed my little black dress, and up in my room, for confidence, I put on my only matching bra and knicker set, a black lacy number. Then I realise the dress is still draped crumpled over the clothes-horse in the kitchen, so I run downstairs, rapidly set up the ironing board and start ironing. A few minutes later Fergus walks in, already in his pyjamas, prepared for a slobby night in. He looks horrified.
“Jesus, can’t you manage to wear clothes when you’re walking around the house,” he says, covering his eyes with one hand and squinting at me from under it.
“Sorry, I just needed to iron my dress ready for my date.” I’ve finished, more-or-less; I fling the dress over my head and wriggle into it, wincing as the hot zip touches the small of my back. “The zip’s a bastard. Please can you do it up for me?”
He comes over and carefully pulls up the zip without touching me, then walks abruptly to the counter and stands with his back turned, fiddling with something in one of the cupboards.
“You know, I’m nervous,” I tell him. “It’s an expensive restaurant and I still find Richard a little frightening. Fascinating, but frightening. Can I have a hug for luck?”
“Um, not right now,” he answers, in a slightly strained voice.
Oh dear. I realise I’ve got this very wrong. Knowing that it may possibly make it worse, but wanting to make a gesture, I go up to him and cautiously hug his tense back.
“Sorry,” I say again, before running upstairs to get my tights and shoes on.
In the restaurant, Richard is talking about exotic places he’s been to; about Ovid; about French films I pretend I’ve seen. The food is exquisite but I hardly know because the waiter keeps refilling my wine glass and the room is starting to go blaring and blunt around me. I’m trying to project a worldly and sparkling persona while not dropping bits of fish on my chest. From a slight distance, with dismay, I hear myself tell Richard about the time my university boyfriend and I assented to a foursome with another couple. What actually happened was that we sat around awkwardly contemplating the remarkably variable configurations of male body hair (my boyfriend’s chest almost as hairless as mine, the other man pretty much a walking rug), the other girl kissed me, and then we all admitted that this was the most unerotic thing in the history of unerotic things and gratefully got dressed again. However, that’s not how I present it to Richard. He tells me of a similar incident in his own experience which probably took place exactly as he describes it. When we stand up to leave I focus very hard on walking straight and wish I hadn’t worn heels.
There’s a taxi and then his flat; it has glass-topped tables, a leather sofa and a lot of books in piles. The colours in his bedroom are dark and there’s a smell of cigarette smoke and cologne. That zip again. My head is spinning.
He spreads me out and goes down on me. I register that he’s good at this, he must have had plenty of practice, but I’m not properly connected to my body; the sensation is muffled and annoying. I tell him to come in, thinking it will be quicker that way, but he wants to try different positions. I feel cold and slightly sick. After a bit it’s over.
Another taxi; the driver looks suspiciously at me as Richard pays him in advance. Going into the house I try to close the door quietly but it crashes anyway. Then I’m sick. I find a bucket and clear it up because I don’t want Fergus or – if she’s here – Julie to have to deal with it. And finally into bed, with the black dress still on.
I creep downstairs at 11 the next morning to find Fergus tidying the kitchen.
“Did you have a good evening?” he asks.
“I have a hangover,” I reply.
“You sent me a text at 10.45pm. It said ‘I’m ok’.”
“Did I? I don’t remember.”
Considerately, he makes me some toast and I nibble it slowly. I feel horrible in every way. Fergus doesn’t say anything more and I want to mend, somehow, the way I’ve let things go off course between us.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“I finished learning Sultans of Swing.”
“I like it when you play guitar,” I say. There’s a pause. “It’s nice sharing with you,” I continue. “We get on and we don’t bother each other. I like the way we relate. There’s an element of trust, you’re not going to get me drunk -” but I don’t want to finish this; I don’t want to tell him about how last night turned out. “You’re like a brother to me,” I say at last.
Fergus just smiles. I can see there’s something he’s about to say, but he doesn’t. He leaves the room. I continue to feel utterly horrible.
Richard doesn’t contact me for a day but then he sends me chocolates, a huge box of them delivered to the door; plus, to my phone, a photograph of a castle, followed by Vivien Leigh, a Mitford sister (I think), and a Noh mask. This is explained the following morning: he wants me to come away with him this weekend. There’s a house party in a castle (a castle!), a party for some of the crowd Lisa and I met before. Plans are afoot for a new film, possibly there’ll be some informal filming while we’re there, sketches and concept-development. I might be considered for something; but anyway, he’d like me to come along.
I wonder who or what he thinks I am; surely he can see through me. How am I going to fit in with that cocaine crowd? Maybe they’ll give me some to try – I feel the pull of danger at the thought. Perhaps if I go and pretend hard enough a new me will emerge out of the old one, a me who’s fast-living and irresistible, who can talk casually about Louis Malle or the best places to shop in Milan, who makes witty remarks and takes her drink like a man and her men masterfully. Perhaps Richard has sensual abandon and stardom waiting for me, if I can just stay off the wine. I visualise the smirched handsomeness of his face.
I wish I could talk this over with Fergus, but I obviously can’t, and anyway I suspect he’s avoiding me. At home in the evening he constantly seems to be just leaving a room as I enter it. I decide to do some cleaning to help my jitters; as I’m on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor I hear him come through the door behind me and immediately go out again. So instead I have coffee and a chat with Lisa, though without giving too much detail on that restaurant date. In my mind the edges of it have already softened and I remember more the sense of something powerful and unfamiliar.
“Definitely go,” says Lisa. “Ok, you’re not sure long-term about Richard, but think about the experience – it’s all material for your art, my love, even if you don’t get a part out of it. Then come back and tell me every juicy detail. You’d be mad not to. Actually, can you smuggle me along in your handbag? And I’ll find some glamorous silver fox of a producer to seduce before I go through all their wallets.”
Material – that’s one way to look at it. I feel irritated at my cowardice; I should embrace an opportunity to push beyond my comfort zone, go somewhere new. Anyway, it’s difficult at home with Fergus and me tiptoeing around each other like this. I text Richard to say yes. Then I corner Fergus and tell him I’ll be away at the weekend.
“Ok, fine, I’ll keep the home fires burning,” he says.
“You’re not off hill-walking?”
“No, I haven’t got any plans.”
“Well, have a nice weekend.”
Richard is driving a convertible, very fast. We’ve left the town behind and we’re on a straight single-carriageway road rising in a series of climbs and slight descents towards the hills. I’m glad my skirt isn’t any shorter as the car is low-slung and my knees are tilted upwards, the seat tipped back further than I find ideal. He changes gear rapidly like a racing driver. I stare out of the window at the drizzly landscape, my attention drifting in and out from what he’s saying.
“…belongs to Carrie, whom I met through the English School. She hires it out for weddings and runs cookery courses, but Palmer is subsidising her this time so we’ve got it to ourselves…share in a stables. Do you ride?”
“I’ve ridden a little.” I went pony-trekking on a school trip. The field we’re passing is full of damp cows gazing in different directions, as though they’ve had a family quarrel and are ignoring each other.
“…some great locations, especially in the gardens and in the orangery. Fantastic shapes and light. Marshall wants to try some test shots there, and it would suit Carrie perfectly if they do decide to use it…nude scene. You would be alright with that, I expect?”
“Marshall is thinking of the orangery for his nude scene, and you can be the talent. Your company has done plays with nudity before.”
“We’ve been interested in themes of self-discovery; you could say they’ve been central to the last three shows.” There’s a purpose and formality to on-stage nudity that makes you feel protected. I hope the same is true of Marshall in the orangery.
“He’s bringing an old friend of mine – Céline Duprés – have I mentioned her before? She’s a designer, based in Paris; I think he’s trying to get her involved in the scenes and costume side. I knew her extremely well at one point – intimately, indeed” – he gives a half-laugh. I’m feeling a little sick again, car-sick this time. “She’s an older version of you, really, pure and filthy at the same time. I think you’ll like each other – she doesn’t speak much English, but that won’t be a problem for you with your good French. I would like to see the two of you together.” For a moment he looks straight at me with his horribly experienced eyes.
And it starts to rise up in my throat, all the bullshitting, the arty photos, the horses, the films, the sex, the French, and I realise I’m desperate, I’m lost, there’s only so much I can fake. I’m a little inflatable dinghy going hopelessly out to sea as the waves get bigger and bigger, further and further from the land.
“Stop. I have to get out.” I have to get away from him.
“What’s the matter? Are you feeling queasy?”
“Stop the car. I can’t come with you.”
“What?” He screeches to a halt. We’re just coming into a tiny little town of grey stone houses.
“I can’t do it. I just can’t. This isn’t me. I need to go back home.”
“What’s got into you? Take a deep breath and count to ten and you’ll feel better in a minute. We’ve come almost half way and I’m not driving back now.”
“No, I have to go back. I don’t like you and I don’t want to come with you.” And I scramble out of the car, swinging the door shut behind me.
He stares at me for a moment in confusion and anger; then with a jerky crunch of gears he drives off. I’ve got my handbag but my overnight bag is still in the boot. I’m wearing a waist-length leather jacket and there’s a soft mist of rain.
I realise I’m shaking.
What can I do? Well, I only have one friend with a car, and that’s Fergus. I get out my phone and call him.
It goes to voicemail.
I wait a few minutes and try again.
This time the call doesn’t get to voicemail; it’s rejected.
I start to compose a text: Am stranded in – where am I anyway? I look around for a helpful name-sign – please come on white horse and rescue me. Then I delete it.
I don’t have much money on me and there’s probably no cash machine here. It looks like the sort of town where the bus comes once a week. But perhaps I can hitch-hike, or I can knock on a door and ask for information. I wish I hadn’t gone out with Richard that evening; I wish I hadn’t had a play starting right after the night we watched Bill and Ted; I wish we’d never watched it in the first place; I wish Fergus weren’t such a fucking idiot and had told me how he felt; I wish I were in his bed, in his arms right now. But I’m a big girl. I can sort this out for myself.