The thinning edges of the suburbs, far north of the border. John stepped from the doorstep and closed it swiftly behind. It took a final tug but the latch clicked into place. The wind whipped his face until it stung, and he turned up the lapels of his old leather turncoat like a barbican raised. He backed into the wall beside Russ, his friend’s sharp nose lit by the streetlights, pock marked by the fleeting snow.
“Found one?” Russ asked.
John delved into his coat pockets like digging through gravel and emerged with a small metal lighter, already soaked as he presented his flat palm. Russ pulled out his pack of cigarettes, and flipped the lid. The one he dragged from the cardboard was already transparent by the time it reached his lips. He grunted a “thanks” through the tobacco and raised the lighter to his mouth. A small flame was batted back into the fuel by the wind. “Can’t believe Lucy won’t let me smoke in the damn house.” He grunted.
John smiled beneath his shirt buttons, reaching for a cigarette of his own so Russ could put his packet away. “You’ve got to think of the resale value Russ-” he teased, “those draperies are a sponge for your filth…”
“I own the place!” Russ said, waving the lighter. “A lifetime of working class aspiration, denied to my father, denied to my mother, twenty nine years old and I’m here already – just the small matter of a mortgage to pay and wham! But can I smoke in it? No. The next fucker up might just take a whiff of the bed sheets in a decade’s time-“
“And they’re in for a surprise far worse than that, if they get that far.” He wiped his fringe back across his forehead, smearing it like butter. “I’m surprised Lucy even has me or Nico over if she’s that embarrassed by it…”
As Russ squeezed the cigarette the paper disintegrated between his fingertips and stained his hand with tobacco leaves. Tutting, he turned to John. “Are you kidding? She’s on my back to get you back over the minute you’re out the door.”
“Seriously?” He half laughed. “I just assumed she was doing that because I was single, thought I could do with the company. Wasn’t half wrong.”
“No apparently not – she was moping at me last month when you were around the estate doing that tiling job, down Rushbrook Way. She asked if I fancied getting a coffee with you; when I couldn’t go she even petitioned to give you a bell herself.” Every word was marked with a spray of rainwater. “I said to her; ‘you can’t be serious, we barely go out ourselves but you wanna go grab a bite with my best friend?’”
“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s why she needs to resort to Nico for lunch plans. You should treat her more often.”
“Nico’s her best friend; it’s her job when I’m busy.” Russ coughed. “I’ve treated her! God knows I have, in the early days at least. Alright money’s gotten a bit tight, writing work dried up… but it was there, this grand romance she’s after.”
He flicked the ignition on the lighter, but again the flame only reached for the filter. John shot out his hand like a viper and snatched it from his hold. “Let me try.” He said, in response to Russ’ incredulity.
He pulled out the cigarette from the dry spot beneath his coat where he’d hidden it, and kept it shielded from the storm by a cupped hand. The flame kindled the leaves and alight John’s cigarette stayed, despite the rain.
Nico took the towel from John as he handed it her, his hair stuck up and face flushed red. Russ continued to scrub his, the heat of the bristling fire almost as harsh on their skin as the rain had been.
“There you go babe-” Nico said as she tossed the towel across the room to Lucy, stood by the drying rack waiting for her husband to hand her his also. She held the towel to her face and took a deep breath in, then hung it by the fire. Russ then gave her his and she did the same.
“Phew!” Russ proclaimed as he adjusted his sodden leather jacket on his seat and placed himself behind the table. ‘Can’t go outside without goggles these days!’
“I know it’s been awful this past year!” Nico said, leaning back on her chair, hand clasped onto the small wooden table around which they were sat. It was a sanctuary in the cluttered abode, where sofas were packed high with books and shelves with vintage wine. The only other clean surface was the desk, upon which just a typewriter sat, as if it were on a plinth. It was the only uncontaminated pock in the room. Even their table was stacked with glasses.
Lucy returned to her seat and sat opposite John. “What’s been awful?”
“Rain.” Russ replied, pouring himself another; crimson bubbles rising.
“Oh I thought you might have been talking about the fighting.” Lucy said, placing a cursory hand over the brim of hers.
“Although that has been awful.” John offered.
“God yes!” Nico nodded. “I can’t believe what I’ve been seeing some of these days, and the papers; they barely even give it a by-line.”
“The fighting or the protests?” Lucy asked.
“Well, as a writer-” Russ began “who’s dabbled in journalism; I can sort of see why that might be the case…”
“Why?” Lucy asked. “This war is horrific; those marches in London were remarkable, they deserve wider coverage-“
Russ tutted. “I don’t know about that. Some people, I see them on the streets and they have their little peace circles, just like dog tags, and they’re out there saying war is evil, soldiers are evil, peace and love can solve everything-“
“Well sometimes they can-” John said.
Russ sipped his wine then sloshed it down before him. “Peace and love? Peace is always the aim of course but I’m sorry, on occasion war just has to be the means. Those are the unfortunate facts of this world-“
“You’re a realist then?” Lucy asked.
“I’m a realist.”
“And peace isn’t something to march in the streets for?”
“Well, a) that gay rights parade: whole lot of trumpets… did you hear those guys-?”
Nico laughed and John looked at her knowingly.
“-but, in all seriousness – sometimes it’s not. Violence shouldn’t beget violence and all that, but what if it’s necessary? Surely Hitler was a problem unresolvable without bloodshed?”
“I knew Hitler was going to come into this!” Nico laughed. ‘You’re like a god damn internet chatroom Russ!”
“Was he not!?” Russ placed his palm flat on a red pool on the tablecloth. “John, was he not?”
His friend twisted in his seat. “Perhaps not. But when I said ‘they can do’ I was mostly talking about love I think, not peace.”
“Peace, love: they’re the same concepts, the same idealism-“
“Absolutely not.John sniffed. ‘They’re the opposite in some ways. Peace after all is a state of being; love is energy, an emotional active-“
“So love is the answer to everything?” Russ frowned.
“Yes, in a roundabout way. Love couldn’t stop Hitler’s tanks but with love and compassion before his rise he may never have found power, people just wouldn’t have resorted to his brand of ideological extremism.”
Lucy stared at John. With wide eyes she spoke. “I agree. Love is an amazing thing. It’s a reason for living.”
“A reason for living?” Russ spluttered. “The evolution of the notion of love has been the greatest killer in human history!”
John flung his hand over his shoulder in despair, turning his head away. Nico laughed and put a sympathetic hand on his thigh. “Alright go on Russ how so?”
“What, you’ve never heard of a passion killing? You don’t think love can kill…?”
“Love doesn’t do those things though.” John sighed. “Love can get tangled in other things yeah; passion and hate and jealousy-“
“No-” Russ placed both hands on the table and leant off his seat, “love is a hearse, my friends. Love is a coffin waiting to be filled.”
Lucy laughed ironically, surrendering both hands to the air; “Well hold on a minute, what with me being your wife and all…”
Russ laughed and placed a hand on her thigh. “Honey no – yeah of course, I love you, we’re in love – but it’s not like a cure, we fight and we argue still, every couple does ; that’s testament to love’s inadequacies-“
Lucy frowned, stern. “That’s dumb Russ. Really. The reason we last through those fights is that we love each other!”
“But at the end of the day, that might not be enough. Humans are born with an insatiable appetite for more. What’s it called…? Transcendental tendencies. Our strongest love is for dissatisfaction. In our status, in our careers… love is no different. When we get the room in the office with the glass walls, when we fall in love: we write poems, we tell everyone we know, and then five years down the line you’re eying up the room upstairs.” He lowered his voice. “The inadequacies of reality set in. The love was never fake but it’s tainted by every argument you have until it’s a shadow of what it once was. Love isn’t some immovable object, it’s fallible.”
“But that doesn’t mean love, pure love, isn’t a majestic thing.” John urged. “Love is the best feeling anybody can have: sex without it isn’t worth the back ache and a life without love…”
“Yes!” Lucy nodded. “Life without love is nothing, I agree.”
“There we go!” He turned to Nico, who titled her head in agreement. “Right okay we’re decided; so how is love this monstrous killer?”
“Because it takes over your mind body and soul, like a virus-” Russ said.
“Fine, but why is that a bad thing?” John readjusted again to face Lucy. “Take your wife for example. A fine woman, you’re a lucky man-“
“-but I don’t love her right-“
Russ coughed “I should hope not no…”
“No. But what would be different between us if I did? What if you hadn’t met Lucy in, where was it? The garage on St Marys. What if I’d bust a tyre that morning earlier than when you went to meet Mark and I spoke to her first and fell in love with her?” He smiled at Lucy. “It’s not impossible. Would I feel the same way towards her as I do now, without that love? Or would it be that I’d jump in front of a car to save her, would I dedicate my life to her service if she needed it, drop my dreams if she got sick-?”
“Or what if we both loved her at once? There’s a pretty good chance I’d come round to yours with a pistol and tell you to get out of town.”
Nico laughed. “To be honest Russ I could imagine you doing that-“
Russ extended his hand. “There you go! Love can be cruel. Just because it’s a strong emotion and just because it feels lovely for a time; it doesn’t last forever, and it hurts. We’ve all had our heart broken, each one of us, and if life without love isn’t worth living then what if you are without it?”
“Then you’re not in love!” John proclaimed. “Love has harmed nobody in that situation!”
“It’s the motive; it’s the reason for being. You can’t study love and just cast aside things like obsession and possession because they define love; they’re its lifeblood-“
“I think John was right’ Lucy said. ‘I love you sweetheart, and that’s brought us together. We’re married; we’ve talked about starting a family one day-“
Russ turned to her. “And darling, how many families’ love has been torn apart because the couple at its root doesn’t feel it anymore? Love is deceptive, it’s not thorough: it’s an instinct, it’s primeval. It survives in us because the savages who were convinced they were in love shagged the most and here we are! There’s no room for romance in that; it doesn’t check to make sure that five years down the line they won’t have grown bored of your passions and infatuated with their own, or let you know that they’re a god-awful snorer; and if you lack love, or you see somebody else with what you don’t…?! Hearts turn from Valentine’s Day clichés towards hatred and towards murder. Love is the facilitator for those things. Perhaps once upon a time there was such a thing as pure love but now it’s a marketing tool, it’s a shortcut to the gibbering hearts of sentimental wrecks. I used to love my father or my child – now I love this ‘fabulous new brand of detergent,’ or a toaster-“
“But you’re talking about semantics.” John said. “I’m talking about raw untamed emotion, all these things you’re referring to are mud in the water – perhaps I shouldn’t even keep calling it love, but it’s a feeling that rises when laying in the arms of the person you devote yourself to, which persists no matter how many ad men cannibalise the word we’ve chosen for it! I’m talking about pure love, true love…”
“Ha!” Russ snorted. “I think you’ve got reality confused with a Disney cartoon-“
“No: it does exist. If the love you have is that real, true love then I honestly believe it cannot hurt a human life, it can only triple its value.” He paused, searching for traction, knowing he had but one weapon left in his arsenal.
“Alright-” He sighed and turned to Nico. She smiled patiently, for a moment failing to understand his proposition.
When the penny dropped she frowned. “Oh…” She drawled, squirming a little. “Are you sure…?”
John’s tone was more hushed. “It’s as good a time as any…”
She paused, then relaxed into herself and waved a flippant hand. “Fine, go ahead…”
He smiled; Lucy watched as he picked up Nico’s curled first and placed it on the table.
“Well, since the topic was in the air…” John turned to Russ. “And if it helps me win an argument… It hasn’t been easy finding the right moment to tell you two this so I’ll just come out and say it: me and Nico are seeing each other.”
Lucy’s face grew cold “Oh wow-” she said.
Russ nearly leapt up from the table. “Seriously?! Why didn’t you tell me outside? Or anytime actually?!”
“Well we’ve both had issues with being so public about things in the past so we wanted to be sure before we said anything, and yes at first it was just a physical thing but now we can honestly say that we are deeply, deeply in love-” He turned to Nico. “Can’t we-?”
Her lips widened over a toothy grin. “We can.”
John gave a warm nod, barely containing a smile. “We can. And we’ve talked about a time to tell you two for a while-” He turned to Lucy, “what with her being your best friend and you sort of introducing the two, which I’m forever thankful to you for by the way so thank you Lucy because… you introduced me to my soulmate I swear it-“
Russ pressed his hand on his forehead. “Spare me.”
“No seriously!” John said. “And I couldn’t sit in silence as you talked about love being some double edged sword when I am in love right now with this woman, like I never have been before; and my heart grows twice in size when I see her I swear it, and when you love someone you are closer to that one person than to anything else and you see the world through their eyes and look at everything through a whole new light, the light of their soul, and that can only make everyone’s lives better. Because everyone in my life is impacted by my singular love for her.”
John turned back to Nico and she simply stared at him for a moment, before shaking her head gently and taking his cheeks in her hands for a kiss. “I love you.” She breathed into his right ear.
“Well I’m very happy for the two of you,” Russ said, placing a hand on John’s back, “despite what I’ve been saying. That’s amazing news.”
Nico looked to Lucy. “You okay babe?”
Lucy shook her head “Yes, yeah of course – I just didn’t see this coming-” she corrected to a smile “but I’m very happy for you two.”
“Good – we’re very happy too” Nico beamed.
Russ stood from the table, raising his empty glass of wine. “To love then!” He pointed the base at them, “But when you two fling yourselves into the North Sea as a sign of your undying love on some Japanese Kabuki hippy type shit be sure to send me a fax first, because you’ll have helped me prove a point.”
John and Nico laughed, “We’ll ensure that you’re notified, should that happen yes-” John said.
“Good. Now our dirty laundry’s aired, let’s get this wine drunk.”
John slid the latch on his and Nico’s room. It was a nice offering he thought, an acceptance of their burgeoning romance. It was a little squalid and a little dimly lit, hardly befitting symbolically, but as a room for the night it would suffice.
“What do you think they’re saying?” Nico asked, perched on the edge of the bed, unbuttoning her scarlet shirt.
“Down the corridor?” John traipsed over to the window and drew curtains on the rain. “You know, I don’t think they’re talking about us at all.”
He went about unbuckling his own belt, kicking off his trousers.
“You don’t think Lucy was upset do you? She seemed a little quiet earlier.”
“Well I’m sure she was shocked; we can’t expect her to be delighted that we kept it a secret from her for a time can we-” He threw his shirt aside and approached her. He lifted up the hands she’d pressed between her thighs and held them. “But I think they’re both fine with it. And Russ said she loves having us over and really it makes no difference to the two of them does it; what we get up to when they’re not there, we’ve come as a pair for the past twelve months anyway really…”
“He’s probably just in there philosophising-” She muttered. “About the futility of life itself.”
He smiled. “And she’s probably sniffing the curtains for tobacco residue-“
“-and me and you: it won’t matter one bit.”
“Not a bit.”
Her shoulders dropped back from round her ears. She smiled softly and released her hands, placing her right fingertips on the crotch of his pants. “So… you don’t think they’d mind even if I do this…?”
He waited for the rush of heat in him to pass.
“Not a bit.” He purred, leaning forward and kissing her jawbone. Then another down her neck, and another. And he dragged his teeth down her collarbone and the top of her rib. “Or this.”
Her head fell back and her lips flattened to a smile. “Not even this!?” She teased.
His lips cusped her left nipple and he gently bit the hardened nib. “Not even…”
He returned to her for a kiss, brushing his chin against her before their lips took hold of each other. She let out a low moan and he pushed her back onto the bed, the cherry duvet turning a still deeper red as her body sunk into it.
But as John’s head returned to her chest her writhing stopped suddenly.
“What was that?” She asked, neck strained as she looked up.
He raised his head, his stomach clinging to the edge of the mattress. He hadn’t heard. “What was what?” He asked.
She paused, reassured by the silence. She quietly shook her head. “Sorry, I thought I heard something.”
Russ smiled then returned to his work, breathing hot breath onto the soft skin of her stomach. A thin layer of fine hair stood to attention.
The slamming of the door broke like thunder claps.
A startling rhythm. Three harsh drumbeats. A decade of dust held by the doorframe dislodged itself in a second.
Nico leapt up, reaching for her shirt to cover her chest.
“Jesus!” John stood to his feet, a little breathless. “Who is it?!”
Russ’ voice came like a whisper. “John.’ He said. “Can you come out please?”
“What, why? What’s going on?”
“John.” Russ repeated, his voice cracked. “Please-“
John looked with great concern to his lover and Nico, trembling, gestured for him to go. John approached the door with caution and slid the latch back into its holster, leaving a smear of rust on the metal. He took the doorknob in his hand and turned it open.
Russ stood in only his boxers in the hallway. His skin was drenched in sweat, and pale as ash. His digits were shaking; his flesh stretched into the craters of his eye sockets. He looked ghoulish.
“Christ man-” John stammered. “What is it?”
Russ reached out and took John’s hand. “I have to show you….”
John looked back to Nico, who’d put back on her shirt and was stood pensively by the bed. He knew she wasn’t coming so he turned back to Russ and allowed himself to be dragged, leaving his lover behind in the room. Sweat squeezed out of the cracks between their palms. The worn carpet was at once soft and brittle on the heels of their feet. Past three white doors they walked, as Russ took them into an open room at the corridors end.
Their bedroom. Rain lashed hard on the window panes.
Russ stopped by the bed and John looked to him expectantly. His friend just pointed at the en-suite, finger trembling.
John, his heart beating out his chest, eyes blinking like rapid gunfire, turned and headed towards it. He placed a foot tentatively on the bathroom tiles, his metatarsals protruding out of the smooth canvas of his skin. He noted that the floor was wet, with a marmalade tinged water.
He turned round the cubicle, white walls scored by bold brushstrokes of crimson. Droplets conjoined from the smears and like teardrops made a trip down the wall across the tiles and towards the bitter lake resting in the bathtub where, laid like an island, was the sunken body of Lucy.
“Fuck.” John gasped, slamming like a fist into the mirror behind him. “Oh. Fuck.”
Russ joined him in on the tiles, showing to him a quivering nail file crystallised with a moist sheath of skin. Both his hands glistened rosy from its retrieval.
“This.” He said. “This is how she did it.”
And with the file between his finger and thumb Russ pointed towards the sink. John looked to him for direction but his friend’s face remained pale and unmoving. He turned towards the furnishing and unsurely placed a foot in its direction. After a few dizzy steps he was able to lean over it, the furred bathmat squelching as he applied pressure.
The peach ceramic bowl was lined by streaks of the tainted water, and strewn at its centre was a sealed sandwich bag, the sort one might use to take cosmetics through airport security. In it was a note.
Russ stammered. “She told me she was writing in her diary. That’s why she said she was taking so long.”
John picked up the bag with his thumb and forefinger, a deep sickness in the pit of his stomach. The blood from which the note had been protected by the bag dripped off the glistening plastic, and it floated to the floor as John drew the paper from its inside.
He unfolded it with trembling hands.
I’m sorry you had to see me this way. I’m sorry because I love you. And have for years loved you, and longed every day to be with you. The events of this evening have shown to me all at once both that this love was unrequited, and that you had taken another, my best friend. I am left heartbroken, irreparably. I love you eternally John, and I know that in my heart I could never love another in the same way. My only want in this life has been denied me, and in the knowledge it will forever remain this way I can bear to live it no longer. Thank you for letting me experience true love while it lasted. Now all hope of reciprocation is gone my life is no longer of import to me. I know that now you know the truth I cannot hope that you will accept my well wishes for your future but I offer them regardless. I wish you and my dear friend Nico all the happiness in the world, and hope that you cherish what you have. I hope that you, Nico and Russ have the very best of lives, for mine I can no longer continue living.
Love, in life and in death, Lucy.
John looked up to Russ, with eyes bloodshot and glistening. He dropped the note to the floor. Lucy’s lifeless hands shed droplets in sequence upon the leaf. And both men wondered who was right.
Theodore J. Inscoe.