Storyglossia Issue 21, July 2007.

Fish, Chips, and Whips

by Emily M. Z. Carlyle

 

She had found the ad in the classifieds, cut it out and put it in her wallet. The personal ads that caught her attention turned her off quickly with their promises of leather- and chain mail-clad kinkiness, but the large ad with the tastefully blurred image of two human silhouettes, one tied up, the other not, looked promising. Her first reaction upon seeing it was mild shock that such a dating agency should be advertising in a regular newspaper instead of a specialized magazine. But the people who read specialized magazines were past the stage where they would need the services of such an agency, unlike shy bodies such as herself.

She carried the ad in her wallet for nearly two weeks. Toying with the idea of setting up an appointment gave her a pleasant thrill, but she lacked the incentive. Then came the day when all the major pieces of her life shifted, and wobbled, and threatened to come apart.

First Helena called her at work to ask for money. When she refused, Helena screamed and pleaded as she always did, calling her names and cajoling by turns, hanging up when she made her usual ultimatum: get treatment or stop calling.

She knew Helena wouldn't stop calling.

Then her boss stopped her in the corridor to congratulate her on the success of the latest book launch, only to drop a remark about the tackiness of the flower arrangements that left her smarting.

Then she met Jimmy and his girlfriend Trisha for lunch, knowing she would have to endure their public displays of affection, followed by the usual remarks about her workaholism and singleness. Which didn't stop Jimmy asking her for a loan while Trisha was in the bathroom.

To top it all off, she had a dinner date with Andrew. They went back to her place afterwards, where he proceeded to make love to her as he always did, paying special attention to what he coyly referred to as her needs.

Usually she would close her eyes and pray he would forget himself and get just a little rough, by accident if not by design. This time she jumped off the bed, snatched up his pale lilac shirt from where he'd folded it carefully, flung it at Andrew's head wishing it were a brick or a very heavy piece of crockery, called him a eunuch, an ox, a sensitive idiot while he got dressed and left, shaking his head in gentle puzzlement like a benevolent shrink.

She knew most women would have slapped her silly. It was her own fault. Sometimes she wondered if dating an old-fashioned macho would make her happier, but she suspected it wouldn't. There had to be a third way.

The first thing she did when she arrived at the office the following morning was to fix herself a cup of tea. Then she pulled the ad out of her wallet and called.

The woman who interviewed her during her lunch break was middle aged, nicely groomed, well-manicured. She looked like the principal of an elite finishing school for girls, minus the air of moral opprobrium. Her nametag said Sandra.

"I donít want anyone who's into elaborate games. Five-inch heels, whips, Harnesses—I just can't take that stuff seriously. And it can't be good if I get the giggles while we're in the middle of, you know."

Sandra smiled. "I understand. A more down-to-earth type of dominant, then?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Do you have any other preferences? Age, race, sex, body type—?"

"I want a man. Other than that— You know what, surprise me. I want to be surprised."

Sandra explained that most of the agency's clients used email and fake names, at least in the beginning, for their protection. She picked a name, but gave her home phone number as a contact for prospective candidates. Everyone called her on her cell or wrote emails anyway, and she didn't trust emails. Anybody could write well. She needed to at least hear a voice to form a first impression.

"One last thing," Sandra said. "How would you frame your reason for coming to us?"

"Is that going to be part of my profile?"

"In a manner of speaking. We'll use your definition of your submissive self to match you up with someone, but what you tell us remains strictly confidential, unless otherwise specified."

"Oh. All right, I suppose. I just don't want to say something really stupid and have it go down in your files for ever and ever—"

Sandra gave her a professional smile. "There are no stupid reasons. There are good ones and bad ones, but not stupid ones."

"Well, uh, I guess you could say that— I, uh, most of the time I have to take responsibility for everything that happens in my life, you know, take care of things. Most of the time, it's all right, but sometimes I hate it so much I could scream. I want someone to do it for me occasionally: for good or bad, I don't want to be responsible. — Did that come out very poorly?"

"No, dear. In fact, I dare say it came out just right."

 

 

Several days later there was a message on her answering machine, delivered in a broad East London accent. She listened to it three times before she decided she liked how it sounded: deep but not affected, naturally hoarse, a little gruff. Not a young man's voice, either. That was vaguely reassuring.

She called back. The conversation was awkward and strained, as first conversations usually are. He said his name was David; he suggested they meet for a drink. The pub he named was on neutral territory, off Tottenham Court Road, far from both their neighborhoods.

Her palms were sweating so badly on the way to the pub she prayed he didn't offer to shake her hand. She reflected for the umpteenth time in her life that being outwardly attractive had fuck-all to do with self-confidence.

He sat in a booth at the back nursing a half-empty pint of stout, dressed in a green shirt, as he'd promised. She came directly from work, intentionally wearing a business suit, having only refreshed her makeup and fixed her hair before leaving the office. Most men would be intimidated, but she needed to convey that she took everything very seriously, and would not settle for anything less from whoever David turned out to be.

"David?"

She saw his expression change as he rose to greet her. His hands remained by his sides, thankfully. They stared at each other intently after he placed her gin and tonic on the table and sat back down across from her.

"So, Lisa," he said, testing the name, seeing how it fit on his tongue. "I Didn't expect you to be so—"

"Formally dressed?"

"Good-looking." He shrugged, smiled a sort of lopsided half-smile. "I really Didn't. Hey, you're blushing! Haven't seen a woman blush in ages."

She sipped her drink. Compliments always made her uneasy, because she Couldn't help wondering at the motivation behind them. Especially at times like these, when she really wanted to take them at face value.

Physically, they could not have been more different. He was a good four inches shorter than her 5'10" plus heels. Where she was lithe and graceful, he was stocky, with thick, square fingers. He had a nondescript, coarse face to go with his accent, a face that brought to mind mug shots and pub brawls. And, as was the case with some rough-featured people, when he smiled he looked as harmless and adorable as an infant. She watched his thick forearms, the crude tattoo on the left one (prison?), the shock of ginger hair and multiple burn marks on both.

"Did you do those yourself?" she asked.

"What?"

"The burns."

He looked down at his arms as though they belonged to someone else, laughed. "No, love. Hot grease spurts. I'm a short-order cook."

"Oh."

"What d'you do?"

Her momentary impulse was to lie, to make up some story. Actress. Model. Killer for hire. The agency had made it clear that she could hide as much of her identity as she wanted. Yet they had to establish a level of trust somehow.

She was never very good at lying anyway.

"I work for a publishing company. I'm in charge of book launches, arranging for authors' plane tickets and hotel rooms, catering, flowers, inviting the press. It's not very exciting, but it takes quite a bit of organizational skill."

"Lots of people doing what you want them to do when you want them to do it."

"Yes."

"Doesn't sound easy."

"Let's say it's less hard than it sounds and harder than most people assume."

She took the next round, ordering food while she was at it. She hadn't had any dinner, and the gin was going to her head just when she needed to keep it clear. Waiting at the bar, she noticed people passing puzzled looks between her and David. They certainly didn't make an obvious couple, or even a likely one. If those people only knew— She felt like she'd just got away with shoplifting.

"Books, huh?" he said when she laid out the stout, gin and tonic, and fish and chips. "I don't read much, meself."

She wondered if he was fishing for a reason not to like her, which she could tell he did. He might turn out to be just another intimidated man, a dominant wannabe, a waste of time.

She shrugged noncommittally.

"Sports pages and a little sci-fi here and there are about all I can manage," he said self-deprecatingly, rubbing the stubble on his chin with his blunt-fingered paw.

"I love science fiction."

He didn't believe her; he thought she was humoring him. She named some of her favorite authors and books. She mentioned meeting Colin Greenland one time. His expression lightened by degrees.

Half an hour later, he was telling her a genuinely funny nun joke she'd never heard before, and she was laughing so hard she was literally slapping her knee.

"The agency bird said you're a virgin," he said abruptly when the joke was over.

She choked on a mouthful of gin and tonic.

"It means that this is yer first time in the wonderful world of S/M."

She guessed from his tone that he'd had some less than palatable experiences, wondered briefly if any of them had involved spiky heels and leather harnesses. She nodded self-consciously.

"Look, if you're interested, we'll take it slow—"

"I'm interested."

He exhaled slowly, nodded. "You need a safety word."

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, didn't they tell you anything at the agency?" She shook her head, feeling stupid. "A safety word's what you say when you want to stop. No doesn't count. Stop doesn't count. You're hurting me Doesn't count. You need another word."

"Oh. All right. What should it be?"

"Something you don't use often, but you can easily remember, like—" He looked around the pub. His gaze fell on the table between them, specifically on the nearly empty plate. He grinned. "How 'bout fish?"

"Fish?"

"Yeah, fish. You don't usually shout fish in bed, d'you?"

She giggled. "No."

"All right, then, fish it is. You also need a slow word. That's for when you can take it, but you want me to slow down or go easier on you."

"I see. I think it's quite obvious, really." She held up a shriveled, blackened potato chip.

"All right," he said. "Fish for stop, chips for slow down. All right."

The agency had recommended several decent hotels that did not mind noisy patrons. He locked the door behind them, pocketed the key card. She stood in the middle of the room, feeling vaguely lost, like a passenger at an unfamiliar train station. The room was dark: only the reflected light from a street lamp cast everything in a pleasantly ambiguous dimness.

She was just taking a deep breath to ask what she should do when he spoke. "From now on until we're done, you don't speak unless I ask you a question. Understood? Nod once for yes."

She nodded, wondering how she would know when they were done.

"Take off everything you're wearing."

Rebelliousness swirled through her. She wanted to tell him to go to hell, ask who he thought he was to talk to her like that, slap him, shout, scream. But if she said fish now, she wouldn't be able to look at herself tomorrow knowing she'd quit so easily. For good or bad, she reminded herself.

He pulled a can of lager from his jacket pocket while she stepped out of her shoes and slipped her jacket off her shoulders. He must have brought the can with him, planning this whole setup. Again she felt rebellious, but she kept unbuttoning her blouse. Much as she hated phrasing it that way, she needed to be broken into this. Just like a shying colt, she thought wryly while she took off her skirt, pantyhose, bra and underwear, unclasped her watch from her wrist and removed her earrings, not wiggling like an amateur stripper, undressing normally, as though she were at home getting ready to go to bed on her own. He drank his beer and watched her.

He didn't speak for what seemed like a very long time after she was done. She stood there, hands limp by her sides.

"Put yer arms out at right angles with yer body and turn around slowly."

His voice when he commanded her lost its warm gruffness, becoming flat and uninflected, emotionless. She did as she was told, wondering why until she realized that holding her arms away from her body did marvelous things for her breasts. He told her she had nice tits. With pleased sarcasm, she thanked him in her head.

"Lie down on yer back, bend yer legs at the knees and lift them. Keep them parted."

She did. Hardly two minutes had elapsed before her thighs began to ache. She contemplated using her hands to support them, knowing that would incur punishment, and she wasn't ready for that.

The sudden light blinded her, set dizzying supernovas exploding behind her tightly clenched eyelids. I'm seeing stars and nobody's even touching me, she thought sadly.

He had taken the lampshade off a hotel desk lamp and now held it near her parted legs, directing the light at her crotch. She heard rather than saw him crouch down by the foot of the bed. His fingers were warm and dry when they exposed her moist innards to the unexpectedly cool air in the room. For the longest time he didn't speak. She was sweating with the strain of holding her legs up unsupported, repeating over and over in her head that she couldn't last much longer. Finally, the light went out.

"You need to shave," he said from somewhere in the dark. "Keep it nice and smooth from now on. D'you understand? Answer yes or no."

"Yes," she managed.

"Get up."

Her legs dropped like lead weights. She lay panting a moment before she could heave herself up clumsily. Her eyes had just adjusted to the darkness sufficiently to see him standing by the door when he flipped the light switch. She covered her eyes with her hands, cursing silently. He was still fully dressed.

Slowly he smiled that lopsided smile of his. Suddenly two of his short, thick fingers were circling her right nipple. He tugged sharply. It was very painful, nothing playful about it.

She buckled. Her mouth fell open, air rushed in. She looked at him accusingly and saw the expectant look on his face.

She forced her mouth shut and didn't say anything.

He nodded, let go of her nipple and moved away from her. Involuntarily, she covered her aching breast with a trembling hand.

"Good," he said. His tone had changed, become warmer. Some of his drawl returned, it was almost the voice of the man she had met in the pub earlier. He was smiling encouragingly when she looked up at him, clutching her breast. "You're taking to it like a fish to water. Get dressed. I'll wait for you downstairs."

Her breast still pulsed unpleasantly when she came down ten minutes later. She had to remind herself to stop rubbing it. He had a taxi waiting for her and a piece of hotel notepaper in his hand. He put the note in her hand as he held the car door open for her.

"If you want to meet, call me," he said. "I've got yer number."

 

 

The following two days she spent agonizing over whether she should call him and when, or if she should wait for him to call. Finally she got angry with herself and dialed the number she'd copied from hotel stationery into her address book in bright red pen.

A young, testosterone-laden voice with a Greek accent answered. She heard hissing, dishes clattering, voices and cars in the background, and realized it was the number of the restaurant where David worked. Not knowing his real name, she asked to speak to the cook. She was quite ridiculously relieved when David came to the phone. He sounded happy to hear her voice.

They went on meeting once or twice a week in various hotels until they decided on the one they liked best. They usually had dinner or drinks first. They told each other about work, swapped jokes, mimicked colleagues. They talked current politics and science fiction. They never talked about friends, family or what they did in their spare time.

She was curious about David's past experiences with S/M. He told her that he had made forays into the scene for about five years, but had only started actively seeking out women through the agency about one year earlier, after his divorce. He clammed up after divulging that last bit of information. Her curiosity was piqued, but she chose not to pry.

She shaved the emerging stubble of her pubic and body hair every day at first, but when the skin on her labia became inflamed she started shaving only the day before she was due to meet David. He was as good as his word and took things slowly. They tried different things out for size, as it were. Everything they did made her feel light, purged, empty as a balloon.

She laughed in Andrew's handsome face when he wanted to know if she was seeing someone else. She found herself whiling away bad days at work or stressful moments after one of Helena's phone calls looking forward to her next meeting with David. Her awkwardness and shame at being naked around a fully dressed man had melted away without her noticing. Now she even walked around her apartment naked in the evenings, dusting bookshelves or washing the dishes.

It was turning out to be a good arrangement.

 

 

Everything was going wrong. The flower shop had delivered the wrong arrangements: they looked all right, but they were not what she had ordered. The hired waiters were sullen. The journalists gathered in the promotion hall were getting louder and louder, and the self-help guru whose book was being promoted was stuck in a traffic jam outside Heathrow. She cursed his stubbornness at refusing to fly in a day earlier.

To top it all off, her boss was in the car with the author, motionless in a river of steel and rubber on the M-6, and had just hung up on her after threatening to fire her without reference unless she took control of the situation. Andrew and a bunch of her colleagues stood in a knot in the corner, whispering and throwing unhelpful glances her way. She knew at least two of them would be up for promotion if she got fired.

Through the heavy velvet curtains separating the backstage area from the promotion hall she could see the first restive journalists accepting glasses of scotch and champagne from the waiters. The drinks were not usually served until the post-launch reception, but she figured tipsy journalists would be preferable to angry ones ill-disposed to giving them and their client a good review.

A security guard informed her that there was a man asking for her at the service entrance. Short, stocky, old leather jacket—

With a yelp of relief, she ran down the back corridor, past the kitchen and toilets, to the heavy iron doors of the unloading bay.

"Thank you so much for coming, I didn't know what to do, I was panicking, none of them would help me—"

She was blubbering incoherently and she knew it, but David listened to her as though everything she said made perfect sense. Finally he took her elbow and stirred her into the empty ladies' room.

He took one of the small cotton towels provided for the ladies to dry their hands. She thought he would wipe her eyes with it, but he used it to slap her smartly across the face instead. She gasped in shock even as the thought went through her head that he was doing this so as not to leave a slap mark on her skin.

"Get into that stall," he commanded in his other voice, pointing. He got in behind her, shot the bolt. In the cramped space, she felt ridiculously tall. He hardly reached up to her shoulder.

"Kneel."

She obeyed awkwardly in her high heels.

"In yer mouth."

He hit her nose with his pelvic bone, pulled her hair. She pictured herself standing in the impossibly small space behind the toilet bowl, watching. It was brutal and not very comfortable, and she wondered idly at her silent prayer that he wouldn't stop.

When she got up, holding onto the edge of the toilet bowl, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, her panic and hysteria were things of the past. She fixed her hair, touched up her makeup, and went in to find the self-help guru arriving like a tardy monarch and a crowd of journalists rendered malleable by the pre-dinner drinks greeting him with as much enthusiasm as professional nitpickers could muster.

Her boss approached her at the reception just as she was about to tuck into her plate of hors d'oeuvres, congratulated her on a crisis well handled. He wasn't even pissed about the additional cost of the alcohol she'd had served. She smiled politely without showing her teeth, fearful that he'd catch a whiff of sperm on her breath.

Walking to the tube afterwards, she hastened when she heard a footfall behind her. It was a nice neighborhood, but even so, she was a woman in a short skirt out past her bedtime. Cursing her stupidity, she heard her pursuer pick up speed and call out: "Hey, love, spare some change?"

David grinned when she turned, equal parts pissed and relieved.

"Where did you spring from?"

"Went for a pint, came back, smoked in someone's gate till you came out. Wanted to make sure it went all right."

"That's— very nice of you. Yes, it went fine. They were all just drunk enough to be kind."

He fell into step beside her. "Walk you to the tube?"

She had to change trains at Picadilly. He persuaded her to join him for a Styrofoam cup of tea from a street vendor. They did not fit in with the young, trying-too-hard-to-be-tough crowd gathered around the statue of Cupid, she tall and statuesque with her Oxbridge pronunciation, he a former amateur boxer from Hackney.

She spotted his picture ID when he opened his wallet to pay for their tea.

"You really are called David!" she exclaimed.

He shrugged. "Figured who the hell would give me grief, I might as well. Most people call me Dave."

"Then I have a confession to make. My real name's Liz, nor Lisa."

"Liz, eh?"

"I wanted to keep it close to reality. If I were just about to have a monstrous orgasm, and you asked me 'How'd you like that, Amber, you filthy bitch?' I'd be too busy wondering who Amber was to actually have it."

He laughed raucously. The stall salesman stared at her as though she were sprouting horns as he handed Dave his change. Neither of them had bothered to keep their tone down.

Dave opened a different compartment of his wallet, revealing the snapshot of a girl with dyed blonde hair and small, sullen eyes.

"Is that your daughter?" she asked, heart pounding at her audacity.

He glanced at the picture in that way he had, as though checking that the thing referred to was really there. "Yeah."

They took their tea to an empty spot on the stairs surrounding Cupid. She sat down on her coat to protect her ovaries from the cold.

She gave it one last shot. "She looks like you."

After a pause, he relented. "Yeah, that's what she says whenever she gets pissed with me. Which is often."

"Does she live with your ex?"

He glanced at her sideways. "When she remembers she's still sixteen and not fit to have a place of her own."

"Sounds like my sister. She's sixteen as well."

"We should get them together some time. What's yer sister like?"

"Drugs. And boys. At least, she used to like boys. Now I think she only likes boys who can give her drugs."

She stared into her cooling cup of tea, wondering why she'd started this conversation in the first place. His tone, when he spoke after a brief pause, was soft as down.

"Must be hard, having a sister that much younger than you. What d'yer parents do about her?"

"Nothing. They're dead. My sister hates having to live with our Nana." She wiped away a tear, furious with herself. "Do you have any more kids?"

"Nah, just Amy. What's yer sister's name?"

"Helena. There's also Jimmy, my twin. I'm five minutes older."

"Oh, yeah? What's he like?"

"He has a wide range of interests, including sex, booze, drugs, music and tax evasion. Not necessarily in that order. I can just imagine what he'd say about you. Probably something along the lines that you're so ugly he'd like to take you someplace and shag you senseless."

He smiled his disarming infant smile. The kids sitting near them giggled, possibly at the two of them. She fought down the desire to tell them what the two of them had done earlier that evening, just to see if that would shut them up.

 

 

She lay on her back, wrists and ankles tied to the bed posts. He had brought the rope in a blue sports bag, a strong, coarse, serviceable rope that looked as if it had been used to tie up boats. Her hairless skin tingled. Sweat poured down her temples, between her breasts. She wanted to savor the fact that he was naked in front of her for the first time, but she couldn't because he'd started off by caressing her everywhere with a goose feather that had probably once resided in his pillow. Now he was down between her legs, biting her whenever her pants and moans came too close to words. He'd forbidden her to speak.

Finally he sat up and put on a condom.

"D'you want it?" he asked in his cold voice.

She was practically crying with anger and frustration. She wouldn't have minded if he did it with a beer bottle just then.

He wrapped one arm around her waist to steady her, then pounded into her. The flab on his stomach and sides and his fat man's tits danced in rhythm. She closed her eyes, willing herself to come, but it was no use.

He came with a thunderous groan and tore himself from her so abruptly she almost whimpered. "I'm too bloody old for this," she heard him mutter before he rose and went into the bathroom, leaving her tied up in the dark. The streetlight fell on her sweaty stomach and aching breasts.

She had no idea how long he spent in the bathroom, but he paused in the doorway when he came out as though he'd forgotten she was there.

"D'you want me to untie you?"

His voice startled her, soft, concerned. For a second she almost said no, that she wanted to come, but then she realized she was tired and couldn't feel her fingers and toes. She nodded.

He switched on the light and untied her in a few seconds. She wondered if he'd ever been in the navy while he rummaged in his bag and produced some sort of ointment in a yellow tube. He spread some on her rope burns. It was pleasantly cool and smelled of mint.

"Soft skin," he murmured. "Too thin." His stubby fingers felt wonderful as he rubbed in the soothing cream. Then he did something unexpected: he bent down and quickly kissed her left breast. He didn't bite or pinch it, just snatched a kiss as if it were forbidden. Before she could say anything, his back was to her and he was tending to her ankles.

They walked in silence. They were already in sight of the tube when she stopped.

"Fish," she said.

"What is it?"

"I, uh—" She stared at her shoes. She'd never been very good at phrasing her wishes. "I, um, I'm not done."

"Ah. D'you want to go back to the hotel?"

"No." She looked around, down an empty side street. "Here."

He ordered her to face a blank brick wall and put her hands on it in a voice that was only beginning to take on his usual bedroom tones. Then he was behind her, one hand on her waist, the other under her skirt, pushing roughly past pantyhose and underwear. Her pelvis moved of its own accord, meeting the intrusion, before she stilled it by force of will.

"Move," he growled below her left ear. "Tell me how good it feels."

And so she did, forgetting to wonder at the silliness of some of the oaths she uttered, when she felt him, hard against her buttocks. She moved her hips as though dancing while he pushed against her, grunting into her shoulder blade, until he came as well, a pale gush hitting the pavement.

They sat on the edge of the sidewalk before going down the steps to the tube.

"Christ almighty," he muttered. "I haven't come twice in so little time in ages."

She rubbed her cheek against the cracked old leather of his jacket. "How old are you?"

"Forty-five next month."

"If I forget, happy birthday."

He grinned. "Ta."

She felt as though she were about to fall asleep, feet on the road, bum on the cold curb, cum drying on her thighs.

"I'm thirty-two. And I really like it when you do it— like this."

"Ta again."

 

 

Dave got a small raise. Andrew was fired, but Liz's salary remained the same. She used the money her parents had left for Helena to go to college to send her sister to rehab in Yorkshire. Jimmy broke up with Trish and went to Amsterdam for a bout of healing through pot and casual sex with strangers. He never called.

Dave and Liz kept meeting once or twice a week. She took to wearing long sleeves and non-transparent pantyhose to cover up traces of their sex. When he lashed her with the same rope he used to tie her up, she was covered in angry red welts. They reminded her of a tiger's stripes. She liked to inspect herself in the bathroom mirror, watch them fade to brown, then to a pale, sickly yellow. Dave's cigarette burns left small, dark, round marks on her thighs and lower back, like a pox that never went away. She started wearing low-cut panties and loose clothes to give the scars room to breathe and prevent chaffing.

She suffered very few panic attacks. There was a bounce in her step. Colleagues teased her about being in love. She would review her rope burns, bruises, cuts and other assorted sore spots smarting under her clothes, and smile.

She had just made supper when her phone rang. Her home phone. Dave was trying very hard to hide his distress. A babble of voices could be heard in the background.

He was standing in the vaulted entrance to the pub when she got out of the taxi, a half-empty pint in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

"Why are you freezing your nuts out here?" she called as she ran up to him through the drizzle.

"Didn't want me mates to ask where the hell I'd found you," he replied with a forced grin. The hand holding the glass trembled as he gulped his stout.

"Didn't want to tell them. Didn't want to listen to them arsing around. Me daughter's up the duff. Some idiot merchant sailor. Gone to Iceland, she says." He started to take another gulp, realized his glass was empty, took a drag on his almost burned-out cigarette instead. "Me ex says it's all me fault. Says I've been a bad example."

The empty glass and smoldering butt dropped like stones as he covered his face with his laborer's hands. The glass shattered on the pub doorstep.

"Christ almighty, I'm gonna be a grandfather."

Stepping carefully on the glass shards in her high heels, she laid a hand on his trembling shoulder, squeezed it as hard as she could. She leaned her forehead against the back of his broad, thick neck.

"Come on," she said as she straightened up, smoothed down her skirt and pulled out her cell phone, taking one of his tear-soaked hands in her free hand, pulling it away from his face. "I can offer you red wine, wilted salad and a narrow bed. Offer you can't refuse."

She looked out at the rain-slick street as she talked to the taxi dispatcher. His hand didn't move in hers. He had pulled himself together sufficiently by the time she hung up to offer her a smile, a bit frayed around the edges, but a smile nonetheless.

"You're not exactly what I had in mind for me old age," he said. "I was hoping for an older bird, more meat on her bones—"

"Oh, do shut up, for once in your life."

He let go of her hand to light a fresh cigarette. A young man pushed past them on his way out of the pub, ran down the street, cussing the rain.

"Bastard taxi taking its bloody time," Dave muttered.

"Patience. Some people consider it a virtue."

He grinned around his cigarette and twined his fingers in her damp hair, stroking her jaw with his thumb.

"This won't work, love," he said softly.

"I know. It'll end in tears. But then, what bloody doesn't?"

He was silent a moment, nodding to himself as though it amused him to reconsider his bet after the race had already started.

"Chips?" he asked.

"Chips," Liz replied.

She put one hand in his jacket pocket for warmth, wrapped her fingers around the lighter she found there. She was tired and hungry, and her feet hurt. She would have gladly stepped out of her shoes but for the broken glass. As it was, she closed her eyes and waited for the taxi to come, breathing in the mingled scents of wet asphalt, burning tobacco and old leather.

Copyright©2007 Emily M. Z. Carlyle