by Barrie Darke
Didn’t a wise person once say, “You know not what you ask?”
Mr. Maitland was looking at his reflection in a small hand mirror he kept in his desk drawer. It was his wife’s, he supposed, though how it came to be there he couldn’t remember now. He hadn’t taken it all the way out of the drawer, and was leaning over slightly to see, because he knew it was probably a misstep to be doing this.
As for his reflection, it was what it was, as he heard some of the younger people around the place say.
The best could be made of it: he was 58, and if he was hollow-cheeked, that was preferable to being plump. His hair was beginning to thin, and that was annoying because he’d gone grey in his late twenties and had thought that was the trade-off. Teeth okay, when he practised a quick smile. The eyes couldn’t really be judged properly, not at that angle, not in that light.
He put the mirror back, closed the drawer, went to the drinks cabinet. Just a quick splash of whisky, not even a full measure, and then he sat back down. His desktop was absolutely void of everything save for the latest necessary communications devices; he had stopped learning the names of them years ago. He used it now, telling Milly she could send her in, thank you very much.
The woman, girl, came in without any kind of affect, which was unnerving. The other rooms she’d seen couldn’t be as well-appointed as this one, but she took no notice of any of it. Mr Maitland came round and offered his hand. She shook it as though she’d only just remembered how.
“Hello there,” he said. “I’m Mr Maitland. What is it they’re calling you? They did say, but my memory isn’t what it was.”
“June,” she said, in a slightly more resonant voice than could’ve been expected from such a small frame.
She was well below the average height, slender, with long dark hair. Her chin and ears came to a point, her eyes were blue-purple, very bright, and she had a dimple in her right cheek. “Cute,” he supposed, rather than the glamorous knock-out he’d been expecting, though the glamorous knock-out had just been his “type” back in his feebly-marauding youth, it was all different these days, and it had now been a few too many seconds that he’d been taking all this in.
“Have a seat, June,” he said, taking his own.
She sat on the edge of hers, leaning slightly forward, hands clasped in her lap, though again, it was hard to say what attitude she was throwing off by this.
“June,” he repeated, “yes, that was it. I take it Mr. Casey came up with that?” He was also fond of April and May, Mr. Casey was.
“I don’t know. Sorry,” she said.
“Can I get you a drink?”
She shook her head, as he’d been led to believe she would. He decided to pursue it anyway.
“Is that because it’s too early, or because you don’t drink?”
“I don’t drink that,” she said, with an incline of the head towards the cabinet.
“Mmm…they aren’t poison, but they’re not pleasant either. Nightmares for a week, that sort of thing. And skin trouble, which would be…” She shrugged.
“Yes,” Mr. Maitland said. Her voice was deep but it had its music all right. Not exactly smoky, but something like that.
He made some small talk about food, the TV. None of it was quite to her taste. When the topics petered out he allowed a silence to drop and deepen.
She soon filled it, with no sense that she was joining him in any kind of social game. “Am I the first to be here?” she asked.
He nodded with mock-solemnity, though he didn’t know if that would be lost on her. “A privilege, no?”
She nodded, non-committal.
“They tell me you spent an evening with Mr. Bentley recently?”
“I did,” she said, not blankly but still communicating little.
“He’ll recover eventually, won’t he?”
She considered it, breathing in through her nose and sighing it out mellifluously. “He’s very young. And the amount of romance he had in him probably surprised him.”
“They should be able to test for that,” Mr. Maitland said, only half-joking once he thought about it.
“So it might take a while for him,” she said. “Sorry.” She couldn’t keep the pride out of her voice there.
Mr. Maitland chuckled. “He keeps asking to be let into your compound. He has all these touching little notes for you. Pouring his heart out in rhyming couplets and so forth.” This was a careful lie – all Bentley was doing was pleasuring himself to the point of no return – but it brought a small jolt from her.
“Can I see them? The rhymes?”
“Well…he won’t let them out of his sight, you see. He won’t trust us with them, wants to hand them to you himself. And that wouldn’t be good for his recovery, we don’t think. Plus, he needs to improve his poetic skills somewhat. Perhaps when he gets to the sonnet stage. Is that what they’re called, sonnets? Anyway,” he nodded, tapping his desk in a prattish gesture that was unexpected and alien to him. Lacing his fingers together and resting them on the desk was a better course. “So – yourself. Are you in love with anyone…over there, through there, whichever’s the best way of putting it?”
She shook her head resolutely. “Not at the present time. I only allow myself to fall in love in the spring and the summer. The rest of the year demands no distractions.”
Mr. Maitland was nodding. “If it works, it works.”
There was another silence.
“I better tell you why we need you,” Mr. Maitland said.
He opened a drawer, not the one with the mirror in it, and took out a black and white photograph. It was of a young man unaware it was being taken. He slid it along the desk to her. She looked at it without picking it up or even adjusting the angle of it.
“It’s a very basic job,” he said. “What you did to Mr. Bentley we want you to do to this man, only more so. Reduce him to a non-eating, non-sleeping daydreamer. There’s a heart in there somewhere – if you could find it and break it, all to the good. I apologise, he’s not much to look at, but I doubt that matters much, does it?”
“Not much.” She kept looking at the photo, still without touching it. Perhaps she was allergic to that kind of paper.
“We could get you to a place where he’ll be. We could do that tomorrow night at the earliest, a day or two later if you need time. You’d meet him in a bar, where they sell drinks. Not just alcoholic drinks, of course.” He smiled.
She nodded slowly, and he knew that was the best he was going to get at this stage.
“We need him distracted, that’s all. A few months of obsession. The world, this world anyway, will be a better place for it. He’ll have some regrets, but also some fantastic memories, I should think. A grand passion. No one would avoid such a thing, even if it leaves him…” Mr. Maitland shrugged. “Shipwrecked, I don’t know.”
“Is he married?” June asked.
It was as though there wasn’t time to lie. “Yes he is,” he said, and immediately he knew there was trouble here.
She looked suddenly vulnerable, worried. There wasn’t an expression she could show, he realised, that wouldn’t be endearing.
“We have an incentive for you,” he said.
She barely registered that.
He opened the third drawer of his desk and took out the book; he’d hoped to get through without it, but never mind. It had been ordered specially, as no one in the building had such a thing. It was second hand and had cost them no more than three pounds.
He slid it along the desk to her. Her eyes went to it slowly, but then they widened and he could almost see the worry falling away from her thoughts like rocks from a cliff. She picked it up with sheer disbelief and it was as though she couldn’t bear to open it at first, in case it failed to match her dreams. Then the light from the yellowing pages bloomed on her face. Her eyes may have changed colour, or that could’ve been a trick of the light.
“Never got on with the stuff myself,” Mr. Maitland said.
She had to swallow before she could speak. “Oh it’s…it’s beautiful. Listen:
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day…”
“Isn’t that…? Oh, I wish we could do this. No one has this attitude of mind.”
“I’m pleased you like it,” Mr. Maitland said. He had drifted out of it somewhere along the third line.
“I can copy some of these pages?”
He laughed. “You can keep the whole book, June.”
It took a while for her to absorb that. “The whole book?”
“Every last bit.”
She kept forgetting to close her mouth. She flicked through the pages, stopping occasionally to read a few lines. She didn’t read them aloud, but small sounds came out anyway. He thought there could’ve been a glisten in her eyes. He was touched, and tried to snap out of it.
“I can only read so much,” she said, closing it. “I’ll be like a volcano otherwise.”
“Of course, we’ll keep it safe for you,” he said, as gently as he could.
Her shoulders, which had been ecstatically tight, dropped a little. There should’ve been no difference in that glisten in her eyes, but there was.
“We’ll even see what others we can hunt out for you,” he said. He didn’t think there was any desperation in his voice when he said it.
She looked again at the picture.
“His marriage is unhappy,” Mr. Maitland insisted. “He is prone to wandering. She probably knows this already. She can’t be happy. It’s not a partnership worth propping up.”
“Still, it is love. It started with love. There are still traces of love, perhaps.”
“And perhaps not. Listen – meet him. Gain a sense of that, and proceed from there, if you like.”
“It would be a desecration,” she said, looking directly at him. Perhaps not every expression was endearing after all.
“An extreme word, surely.” His hands wanted to prove his agitation again. He thought he might have to slip them under his thighs like a schoolboy.
“Love in my world is a far harsher idea than love here,” she said. “We are brutal with it, sometimes. But even I can’t treat love like this.”
She pushed the book across the table back to him. It stopped in front of him, one corner overhanging the edge of the desk.
“There’s no need for that,” he said.
“I’d like to return to my room now, and then my home.”
“Consider it further.”
“There’s no need. I can’t do it. I choose not to do it.”
“This man, in our world…he has plans, awful plans. Do it for our world. The love that might not happen because of this man.”
“Find some other way,” she said.
“We found you.”
“None of us will do this.”
“I’m not sure that’s true, given time.”
She shook her head, and her smile was slightly cruel. “Are you married?”
He nodded. “Over twenty-five years now, Gawd ’elp her.”
She nodded slowly, sat back and stared at him. He felt something trickle in his chest, coal dust.
“My room, then home,” she said.
Mr. Maitland nodded. He allowed her to leave, and didn’t watch her go, though the sudden silence of the room was almost alarming. He got himself a drink – not just a full measure this time, a double measure – then made the phone call. He wasn’t sure which way it was going to go when he started it, and his decision-making was unclear to him at the end, but it came down on the side of merciful. That called for another drink.
He left the office early, and caught a pleasingly-empty train home. The crossword was forgotten; he looked out of the window all the way. Spring was still a way off, he reflected, trying to summon what could be called a rueful smile. He tested himself, and had no trouble turning his thoughts away from June.
It was a ten minute walk from the station. His wife would be happy to see him – it seemed sometimes that she spent her whole life waiting for him to be back from somewhere, and to be back early would be a rare pleasure. It was a Wednesday, but a Wednesday could become a Friday, sometimes. There was always a new restaurant. Always the Bells, at a push.
He waved to a neighbour, smiled. He opened the door, and when his wife came to greet him, she might as well have been a capering skeleton.
Original Fiction © 2011 Barrie Darke