Short Story // Close-Up
Susan is a narcissist. I’m mad about her too, but once I dared to say ‘you’re only in love with yourself.’ She replied ‘wouldn’t you be, if you looked like me?’ I said ‘that would mean we looked like each other.’ She didn’t get it but after I’d explained it to her, she laughed a little. ‘Chris, you’re such a fool,’ she said, but later she burst into tears and asked me if I really loved her. ‘Of course I do,’ I said. ‘Well, say it then. Say that you love me.’ And I did: ‘I love you’ repeated like a catechism hundreds of times until she stopped crying, and took off her clothes. That had been the deal when we were at university: however bad she felt inside, I’d be patient and make her feel good enough about herself so we could fuck.
When university finished, my parents arranged for me to flat-sit for some of their wealthy holidaying friends. Kensington, Battersea and now, Highgate, a penthouse flat with a view of the wood and the city below.
Susan’s been away In Goa. A few days after getting back she arrives at the Highgate flat for the weekend. She’s still in hippy holiday honeymoon mode, wearing flowing, subtly dyed silks, bangles, henna on her hands, her skin brown and glowing. I can’t wait, but when we fuck something has changed. It‘s as if I’m just there for the ride, my body, my cock, handy for her to make love to herself. She’s always been prescriptive when we make love – ‘start by touching me, there, no slower, that’s it but slower; not that slow, duh. Yes, yes, good, that’s better, don’t stop, thank-you’ – but the script has developed whist she’s been away: ‘Say I’m beautiful and I want to fuck you. Then order me to take off all my clothes, tell me to get on all fours and say you’re going to fuck me hard. But you have to say hard with an emphasis on the ‘d’; hard! And then when you’re fucking me, tell me how you love me and how you’re going to come all over me.’
‘Susan, can you shut up, I can’t visualize all this at once: all fours, hard, coming all over you, too much information, too many orders – what’s got into you?’
‘Clearly not you,’ she says, rolling away from me and getting out of bed. She slips on one of her new Indian dresses and walks out of the room.
‘Coming?’ she asks.
The Huntleys’ are very rich, he some kind of aristocrat with mysterious money all over the place: homes in Mauritius, New York and Helsinki, a country house in the Cotswolds and their London pad in Highgate. Una, the wife, is blonde and Norwegian, in her early forties, a good twenty years younger than him. She exudes a kind of Scandinavian nobility, wealth and class. She always smells amazing, clean and subtly exotic, and wears simple silver jewelry, expensive cashmere sweaters, white linen shirts and sublimely cut trousers that all look just right, and probably cost a thousand apiece. She’s tall, coltish, handsome rather than beautiful. I’ve always fancied her, fantasised about her, and she knows it, frisky and whimsically flirtatious when she sees me, amused kinks to the corners of her mouth, eyebrows playfully arched.
At a recent party she’d said, ‘Oh, Chris, my darling boy, go and open a bottle of wine from the fridge. Help yourself to it, or take a beer or whatever young people drink these days. Then come and sit down and tell us
about your love life at university. We’re so intrigued, aren’t we?’ She was addressing me, as well as my parents who laughed nervously.
Susan makes her way into the bedroom Una shares with the aristocrat husband. She lets her dress fall from her. Her skin is nut brown. I feel that dull pang in my groin again.
‘We can’t, not in here!’
‘Don’t worry,’ Susan says, sliding open a giant wardrobe. ‘I just want to see what I look like in her clothes.’ She yanks out a stack of dresses, shirts and trousers, some falling from their hangers, and piles them on the bed. She takes more, and more. ‘This could take some time, ‘ she says.
‘Stop being a tight arse, it’ll be fun.’
I find myself staying to watch. A long black evening dress with gold trim first – ‘Galliano’ she declares – but way too long for Susan, who is, if anything, on the short side and so it looks ridiculous. She chucks it on the floor.
She tries on another dress – ‘Nicole Farhi!” – too long again. ‘Is this stupid beanpole of a woman in the
‘She’s just tall.’
‘Said with feeling. Didn’t know all woman had to be tall in your eyes.’
‘I suppose you think I’m short.’
‘You are short, but who cares?’
‘Get out!!’ and suddenly I’m being pushed out of the door, which slams behind me.
I don’t wait to listen to check if she starts crying, and I go and get myself a beer – ‘darling boy’s’ – from the fridge. I lie in the lounge on one of their giant leather sofas and look out at the city. It’s dusk, lights in the streets, shops and homes starting to come on. It’s catching and soon thousands of bulbs in a complex interlinking necklace glimmer through the emerging darkness. I feel drowsy and close my eyes.
I come to with the sound of Abba blaring from the Huntleys’ bedroom. I open the door. Susan is in reverie, wearing one of Una’s white linen shirts, now improvised as a dress, stroking her thighs and whirling in a circle in front of a full length mirror. There are clothes strewn across the floor. I see the jagged edges of cut material thrown in a bin and a selection of Una’s dresses, roughly shortened for the night, laid out on the bed. A small pile of different coloured sweaters are folded neatly by the door, probably positioned to take with her when she leaves.
She turns round to face me; eyes sprung wide open and sparkling with energy. ‘Da Da!’ she exclaims. ‘Like the dress, Chris? Your fantasy old bag has great taste!’
‘You’ve cut her clothes!’
‘They’re not yours.’
‘Don’t be a killjoy. They suit me, and you should be happy, busy videoing me or something.’
It’s like she’s swallowed a bottle of Prozac, not listening, gliding somewhere in between space and reality. I must look angry or a least look like I’m not enjoying the spectacle enough because she gives me the middle finger before carrying on dancing. I lurch at her and pull at the shirt, buttons flying off as I try to wrench it off her. She screams, a piercing scream like I’ve never heard before. I let go and fall back on the bed. She throws the shirt off and dances again to ‘Dancing Queen’, naked, jerking her hips in front of the mirror, pouting her lips and pushing her hands back through her hair to shape different styles.
I get out, and go for a walk through Highgate Wood, with its dark trees, sharp and tall like monolithic towers, the moon creeping over the high branches. I think about Susan. None of my friends or family has actually said they like her. Last Christmas, she stayed with me at my parents’ house. Mum took me aside after she’d left. ‘Damaged goods,’ she said. ‘Nothing good will come of it.’ I try to keep focusing on Susan’s downsides but find myself thinking about a film I watched on television last night.
In Sunset Boulevard, set in the heyday of early talking films, Gloria Swanson is Norma Desmond, a delusional and reclusive old silent movie star. When the police come to arrest her after the shot body of her gigolo companion, played by William Holden, is found floating in her swimming pool, they coax her out of her mansion by pretending that the waiting news cameramen are there to film her in Salome, a film she’s been desperate to star in. As Norma walks down her staircase, everyone is in on the charade and wait silently, respectfully. The dead narrator of Sunset Boulevard, William Holden, observes ‘that life can be strangely merciful at times.’ The lights go on, the cameras turn and Norma moves into her spot and declares, ‘All right, Mister De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.’
When I get back to the flat and open the bedroom door, Susan is still there, as if frozen in time, wrapped in a makeshift dress and veil made from Una’s silk scarves. She looks exhausted in the murky light as she sways to the music, scarves slowly swirling, eyes pleading as she moves towards me.
I switch on all the lights in the room, find my phone and start filming.
Alan McCormick lives with his family by the sea in Dorset. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including in Salt’s Best British Short Stories, Confingo and The Bridport Prize Anthology. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. He also writes flash shorts in response to drawings by Jonny Voss.
See more at: www.dogsbodiesandscumsters.wordpress.com