Unsettled
by Sarah Evans

 

You gather up your shimmying skirt and scattered thoughts as you step out of the cab and onto the crimson carpet. The velvet cushions the points of your heels as you sway your hips up the shallow steps.

Breathe in and catch your own perfume: Pure Poison. Feel the slide of silk-soft layers. Swing fake Fendi. Check your satin sheen in the glass revolving doors.

Think your way into this.

*

The hotel was one that I used regularly and I clipped across the marbled foyer, heading directly towards the bar. Blue lights lit up the sloped panels behind the barman, casting him into cool shadow. He nodded. He could be trusted for politeness, though he must by then have guessed my trade. The line-up of high, steel stools was broken by the form of a man, leaning forward over the black, sparkled granite. I picked out the red carnation in his lapel. A cliché. Old fashioned. It fitted with the ambience of the agency.

‘Simon?’ I said. Unlikely to be his real name. He swivelled his head and his eyes met mine. Recognition hit. My eyes flicked down, demur, as I tried to figure out who he was.

‘Chantrelle.’ He applied a French rolling to the r, so it sounded seductive, which was, of course, the point in choosing it.

He gestured to the stool beside him. ‘Can I get you a drink?’

‘Sure. Margarita.’

I stared at his profile as he twisted round to seek the barman’s attention. His dark hair and prominent brow were familiar, but trawl as I might, no name or context came to mind. Perhaps he simply reminded me of someone on TV.

He turned back to me while the barman mixed the cocktail, and commented on how the evening felt quite Autumnal, didn’t I think? He gave no indication, none whatsoever, that he recognised me. It had never happened. I never operated too close to home. It was unlikely that my clients would. Anonymity was a key part of the arrangement.

He smiled as his eyes moved slowly down then up in appraisal. Only once had an evening ended at this stage. Too old, had been the feedback, though I had matched the man’s stated preferences. It was part of the small print. The client had fifteen minutes no obligation time during which he could bail out and opt either for a seventy five percent refund or the opportunity to arrange a different date. The rules were all set out. How far the contract would hold in court was unclear. But the legalese conferred an air of sanitation.

Usually I blanked out the return appraisal – attraction was hardly relevant – but that night the jolt of familiarity blurred the boundaries. I observed that he was pleasant looking, just a little older than me, hair barely starting to recede, body kept trim, from what I could see beyond the sharp lines of his designer suit.

‘So,’ I said, pausing to let the tang of lime wet my lips through the edge of salt. ‘What brings you here?’

He started to talk about his work. Unlikely to be real when he could construct any persona that he wanted. My ears strained out the key words – restructuring, mergers, acquisitions – that all spoke money. I returned them accompanied by my own words – really, fascinating, how interesting. Act as if he’s the most amazing person you have ever met. It was easier sometimes than others. That night was going smoothly. He spoke fluently. His job meant he travelled a lot, was often away from home.

‘Lucky for me,’ I said, a well practised line.

His smile played along.

‘I thought we could eat here?’ He offered it as a question, though we both knew that this was prearranged. Never stray from the prescribed locations. It was rare that I felt unsafe. But the rules were set for a reason. I never strayed from them.

I studied the menu that I knew by heart. What did he feel about oysters? Did he like steak rare? Better to avoid anything laced with garlic, didn’t he think?

I ordered expensively – don’t think I come cheap – though I’d do no more than push the food around. Chewing mixes badly with seduction. Debris might stick between my gleaming teeth. Don’t risk any kind of digestive disturbance. I had eaten lightly earlier to ensure I wouldn’t be hungry now.

He chose a good bottle of wine, pricey, adding a further layer of reassurance. This was all going to plan.

Conversation flows like an oiled river. You provide the prompts and leads. Choose the faultless width of smile. Finely tune the laughter. Parry flirt with flirt. Slowly ease in a little closer. Pick the perfect moment to drop your napkin and choreograph the two-fold bending down to pick it up, so your shoulders gently bump and the silk separates from your skin, revealing a tease of Janet Reger carmine. Allow his leg to press the length yours and count – one, two, three – before shifting it away.

The evening was as easy as it could be, the product of hard-earned experience. Except the earlier disquiet persisted. Curiosity chafed. Just why was he here?

The usual answers bored me. It was always a bad sign when, red-faced with alcohol, a client pitched towards me in confession. I don’t usually do this sort of thing. It’s just my girlfriend died. My wife left me for a woman. I’m between relationships right now. Don’t think I usually have to pay. Pay. Acknowledging it, unsettled the whole balance of the evening.

‘Coffee?’ Simon asked, when my exotic-fruit spumoni had melted to a puddle. He glanced at his Cartier watch.

‘Coffee would be lovely.’ Delaying gratification was supposed to be part of the pleasure.

*

He settled the bill by signing it up to his room. One of the advantages of hotel restaurants: no cash on view. Just the thought of being handed greasy piles of folded notes made me shrivel. He would already have electronically transferred money to the agency. After I’d checked in with them tomorrow, they would forward my share. Their mark-up was on a need-to-know basis, and probably outrageous. The more he paid, the more I was a thing to value. Except it risked a flip-side. The more he paid, the more he owned me. The list of what he could demand was set out in the agreement, though not in sufficient detail that it didn’t leave room for interpretation. Nothing that would visibly bruise, or cut. Pretty much anything oral. Anal only by pre-arrangement and for an extra fee. The whole rigmarole was geared to setting an expectation: a civilised evening of food and wine and company, as a prelude to civilised sex. Escort not hooker. Distinctions were important.

‘My room? For a digestif?’ His smile mocked the question. I inclined my head for yes.

The mirrors lining the lift showed a smart, well-matched couple, my hand small and white where he had hooked it over the black wool of his jacket. My heart jolted. In dimmed reflection he seemed familiar again.

‘What would you like?’ In his room, he gestured the mini bar, maintaining the fiction of seduction, the possibility that I might, on a whim, say no. By this stage in the evening, nerve ends blossomed into edginess, and all I wanted was for this to be over with and to be on my way. I didn’t work this more than once a week. The agency preferred it that way too. They wanted their Ladies of the Evening to maintain a certain unsullied-ness.

I let the thick, smooth Tia Maria touch my lips, allowing a taste of sweetness. I shifted to cat-sprung alertness. I had an emergency number for the agency programmed into my mobile on a one push button. My evening bag contained sharp manicure scissors and I’d attended self-defence classes, where I’d learned to scream full-lunged.

I didn’t expect that I would need to scream tonight.

First rule: never let your defences down, always expect the unexpected.

Second rule: never forget the rules.

Because at some point in the proceedings, no matter how carefully you construct it, the whole façade dissolves into layers of smoke. He figures that he’s paying for this and that you’re going to give him what he wants. And because he’s paying, he wants something beyond the humdrum give and take and compromise negotiated wordlessly with a wife or girlfriend or even just a pick-up. He wants to go the extra distance, do the things he wouldn’t normally – though he’s always wanted to. His electronic transfer buys him freedom from constraint. Freedom from asking: does this work for you? When it comes down to it, desire is never civilised, and money buys.

And as for you? All you want is for it to be over with as quickly and with as little discomfort as possible.

That’s the deal.

*

Expect the unexpected. Just how pleasant it remained, came as a surprise. Not pleasurable. This was never about pleasure. But from the moment he took my glass and clicked it down on the glass-topped table and tilted back my head so that he could kiss me, to the point some time later when he rolled off, his arm still weighing heavily across my ribs, he was considerate. He followed a straightforward path, going through the motions of what might be expected to please, while not demanding more than I considered necessary to offer as a first line of tricks.

Lying under the weight of his arm, I started counting. It was hard to judge exactly what hour it was, but his time must have been pretty much up. I’d give him a count to a hundred before I shifted and broke the linking suction of sweat, and made my way to the bathroom.

…98, 99, 100.

‘Mmmm,’ I said, conveying satisfaction. Satisfaction at the successful conclusion of a contract. I started to move. ‘I need to go,’ I said.

Staying the night cost extra and had to have been negotiated in advance. I was set to remind him of this.

‘OK,’ was all he said.

I emerged from the bathroom, as sleek and fresh as a three minute fix up would allow.

‘Thank-you for a lovely evening,’ I said. Whatever truth could not be evaded in the sweated rawness of skin of skin, we were back now into fiction. It was important for the experience to end well, I had been instructed. The agency prided itself on follow up work. That could work in my favour too.

‘See you around,’ he said.

My heart thudded uncomfortably as I recalled that first moment of seeing him.

But it was just a form of words.

*

I thought no more about him as the week progressed. The money appeared in my bank account three days later. It was a simple enough equation. For four hours’ work I earned as much as I would earn from forty hours of backache, skin-callous cleaning. Of the four hours, only a fraction could be said to be distasteful. The job came with risks, but they were contained. Add what I made in one night to other bits and pieces and my daughter and I could live quite comfortably.

It was a calculated choice.

That Friday the school was putting on one of those drama cum music type things. Maddie had been practising her fairy dance for weeks, so I would, of course, be there.

Great rafts of parents crushed along the corridor towards the hall, two women for every man. I jostled. Nearly lost my footing. Looking back up, my heart stopped.

It was him. The man from the hotel was ten feet ahead.

Blood drained from my face and weighed my feet to the floor. The woman behind careered into me and then apologised accusingly. When I looked again, he wasn’t there.

All through the performance, my eyes refused to settle on the stage. My gaze flicked along the rows in front. My head twisted to one side then the other. I cast quick looks behind.

Nothing.

I relived the glimpse from earlier. I’d only caught his profile, only caught it for a second. Probably nothing more than my imagination.

The incident lingered in a low feeling of dread, and walking home I jumped and screamed when a cat brushed against me in the dark.

‘Mum!’ Maddie said. And I laughed too loudly at my foolishness.

*

I checked in with the agency on Monday to hear my assignment for the week. The same man had asked to see me again. I should have felt pleased. Knowing what to expect was good. At the school, it had been nothing more than a play of mind. But as the evening approached, I felt uneasy, as if I was doing this for the first time.

It was the same red carpet, same barman. Same man huddled over the bar. His eyes widened in recognition, and after all, he had specifically requested me. As for what I saw, I no longer knew. My brain scrambled vague familiarity with images from a week ago and a barely glimpsed glance at the school.

Second evenings. Easier in many ways. Except sometimes the slights of

conversation could begin to strain, the fiction would show through the threadbare fabric. But that evening, as before, Simon responded readily to my questions. His teasing allowed me to parry no-information responses. At one point I had a stupid urge to ask if he had children. I stopped myself in time.

Everything passed off velvet-smooth.

Just one thing unsettled me. In the bedroom, as we progressed through those primitive rituals, I found myself wanting: wanting to give in to wanting. And as I counted to hundred, I felt needy.

*

The next week, two things happened.

First, the agency called. The man wanted to see me again. He wanted to make the arrangement regular. He might not be able to enjoy my company every week; I was simply to make myself available.

As arrangements went, this one could not be bettered.

The second thing came straight after.

Maddie had a new best friend at school: Amy. Maddie was always making new best friends. She was a pretty child; it wasn’t just the haze of mother love that made me think that. And she had charm: she attracted people.

Amy’s mother invited the two of us round after school. I didn’t readily make friends. It was only one night a week, but my occupation, and the silence surrounding it, set me apart. In any case, it was simpler to let Maddie’s preferences dictate who I had after-school coffee with.

Amy and Maddie dashed up to Amy’s room and we soon heard high pitched giggles descending down the stairs. I was happy when she was, and settled into the sofa and polite conversation with Shell. The skills were not dissimilar to those I practised with the agency. Get the other person talking. Act interested. Give away as little as possible.

‘My job?’ I gestured vaguely, as if wafting away cigarette smoke. ‘Freelance stuff. Avon sales. Tupperware parties. You know the sort of thing. Easy to fit in with school hours. Just one night a week I have to do an evening and get a babysitter.’

The front door opened.

‘That will be my husband,’ Shell said. ‘I never quite know when he’s going to be back.’ She grimaced. She had not said much about him, other than that his job took him away from home at least one or two nights a week.

She rose and I heard murmuring at the door, his voice nothing more than a deep hum. So I had no warning of what came next.

Shell returned and picked up her mug of coffee and continued talking about options for secondary schools in the area. Two minutes later her husband opened the door and lingered there in the doorway.

‘My jeans,’ he said. ‘Did you wash them? I can’t seem to find…’ He stopped. His eyes met mine.

Simon!

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, looking directly at me. ‘You must think me very rude, barging in like this.’ He walked towards me, his gaze intense, a hand held out in front of him. ‘I’m Simon.’

But you can’t be, I wanted to say. You can’t have used your real name.

How my legs supported me to standing I shall never know, because my muscles had turned to the sugar jellied eels Maddie loved so much and which I strictly rationed. My smile was faker than anything I had ever forced upon my lips.

‘Hello,’ I croaked. I felt a huge resistance to giving my true name. It was not for him to know. Shell intervened.

‘This is Amanda. Maddie’s Mum. You know, Amy’s new friend.’

‘How could I forget?’ He maintained his gaze on me. ‘Amy talks about nothing else.’

I allowed myself to slump back down, and blood flooded my face.

‘Actually I think I recognise you,’ he said. ‘Must have seen you around at school events.’

‘Your jeans,’ Shell said. ‘They’ll be in the airing cupboard. Making sure they’re fully dry.’

‘I did look.’ His eyes glanced from me to her and back again.

She sighed. ‘I’ll get them.’ I watched her as she got up. I hadn’t properly scaled her for attractiveness before. Now I assessed how cotton bagged around an over filled-out body. Make-up free skin looked worn. Her hair could do with styling.

Of course, I was ungroomed too.

Simon occupied the armchair as the two of us were left together. It was unreal, a nightmare mix up of different worlds. My seven year old daughter is playing upstairs, I wanted to say. You can’t be here.

His eyes bored into mine.

‘So what is it you do?’ he asked. ‘I mean jobwise?’

I fumed at his game. But perhaps he was just smoothing over a situation that was as uncomfortable for him as me. Shell would think it odd if we didn’t attempt conversation.

I repeated my earlier spiel.

‘Tupperware?’ he said, amusement dancing around his eyes. ‘And what do you do for pleasure?’

I caught the eye narrowing.

‘When I’m not working,’ I clarified. ‘Well of course Maddie takes up most of my time, her and running the house. But I go out with friends. I visit family.’

I felt the rush of air from the opening door.

‘Underneath the towels,’ Shell said as she threw the jeans at her husband. She looked at me. ‘What is it about men and blindness?’

I smiled my blandest smile.

‘We really should be going,’ I said.

‘Not on my account I hope,’ said Simon.

‘Are you sure? So soon?’ Shell said.

My legs were a little firmer now. I knew Maddie would be mad at me, but what choice did I have?

*

I rang the agency as soon as I was able to. I would have to cancel.

They wanted to know why. What had happened?

‘Just incompatible,’ I said.

I listened to the silence. Incompatible?

I could have lied, described something untoward and unsavoury. My word against his. Except Simon had done nothing worse than recognise me. His behaviour at his house, while disconcerting, could be explained simply as an errant husband trying to cover up. It was impossible to explain just how disquieted I felt.

‘I’m sure he’ll understand,’ I said. ‘He’s probably been meaning to get in touch to cancel.’

‘I’ll check,’ Arlene said.

But when she rang back a few hours later it was to affirm that he wanted our arrangement to go ahead. He had already paid. He was expecting me the following night.

It should have been easy to say no. Only the agency wasn’t short of new recruits and a steady turnover of staff helped with those regulars for whom variety was part of the thrill. No reason to offend a lucrative client.

It wasn’t as if an alternative would be easily come by. I’d happenstanced into this, following up a chance remark floated by a friend of a friend’s. No job listings for this line of work. And I knew the agency rules, knew they worked. When you play a game like this, it helps to understand the risks.

I agreed to see him once more.

*

‘Chantrelle!’ His smile teased as he greeted me the usual way, rising to his feet, placing a kiss fleetingly on my lips. ‘How nice to see you.’ He showed no sign, no sign at all, of discomfort.

I found myself not knowing who I was.

I stuttered responses to his questions, as every word felt exposed as false. Silences bloomed between us as my fabrication faltered. I felt like a teenager on a first date with an older man and no idea how to play it.

‘Shall we skip dinner?’ he asked.

It was the first boundary to be breached.

In his room I turned down a drink and approached him, wanting just to get it over with. I felt like I had done my first time at this: bought, used, unclean. It was Amanda, not Chantrelle, having paid-for sex. He might as well have handed over fists of well worn notes.

Afterwards he wanted to talk.

He’d only expected to try this as a one off. Simple curiosity. Simple need. Things hadn’t been great between him and Shell for some time. They hadn’t had sex for months. They’d only married really because she was pregnant. They only stayed together because of Amy. Using the agency seemed one step removed from being unfaithful.

‘I think we should stop doing this,’ I said. ‘I want you to tell them that you want to stop.’

It was disconcerting to have him say, ‘Well of course. If that’s what you want. Is it really so bad?’ Compared to the alternative, he didn’t quite spell it out. ‘Why don’t you think it over?’

*

My client was difficult the following week.

‘How badly bruised?’ Arlene asked. ‘You’re not just being over sensitive? Of course older skin bruises more easily.’

And the week after I had to cancel; I was ill with flu.

‘OK,’ Arlene said. ‘Don’t take too long to get better.’ I heard the threat. The truth was, only a minority of men accepted the upper boundaries of the agency’s age-range. The recession had increased supply. Clients could be more exacting in their demands.

*

A week later, my limbs were still weakened from a week in bed. My nose was still rubbed sore; my skin stretched over my ribcage.

‘Nothing really suitable for you this week,’ Arlene said. ‘Nothing matches.

Unless. Simon. He said to get in touch if you wanted to resume your arrangement.’

The gas and electricity bills had come in that morning and Maddie had some trip with school that didn’t come cheap. There’d be no instant cash from Tupperware.

‘OK,’ I said.

*

Shell dropped Maddie off that evening. She’d been indispensable while I’d been ill: happily having Maddie back for tea; picking her up for school; dropping her back home. It would have been rude not to ask her to stay for coffee now I was feeling so much better.

‘Yeeees!’ the two girls yelled, as I told them they could go and play upstairs and that I’d bring them juice and biscuits.

‘How have you been?’ I asked, after responding to Shell’s kind concerns about my flu.

‘Me? I’m fine.’ Her voice was too bright, like her lipstick that was the wrong shade for her pale skin. ‘Actually, not fine.’ Her whole body sagged, the folds of excess flesh cushioning one on top of the other. ‘I think Si and I are splitting up. He won’t admit it, but I think he’s seeing someone.’

‘Oh. Really?’ I said, aiming for just the right sympathetic tone, not pushing her, but providing the opening for her to speak if she wanted to. Just as I did with clients.

‘But the thing is,’ she said, her eyes staring beyond me. ‘I can’t bring myself to care. Shag someone else if you want to. That’s what I feel like saying. It’s not as if I want to anymore. And if that’s what I feel, then what does that say about the two of us?’

I murmured soft platitudes. Everyone sometimes feels…all marriages have difficult patches. As if I would know. Then we were interrupted by shouting from upstairs and when we went to investigate the girls were sulking, and, anyway, Shell said, she had to go. Si had promised to be back early tonight, to make up for the fact he was away from home tomorrow.

*

The next evening, I performed my rituals. I bathed in scented water and dressed carefully. But no amount of pampering and cream could smooth over the toll of illness.

Simon greeted me with his usual smile.

‘You look pale,’ he said.

‘Just over the flu.’ It was another boundary breached. Chantrelle was never ill.

‘Shall we skip dinner?’ Break a rule once and it’s hard to re-impose it.

Back in his room, he undressed me wordlessly. His hands were warm, firm, attentive.

In the after-flu weakness, I felt myself weaken, weaken and give in.

Of course it didn’t just happen. We reached that stage where if he continued touching me and kissing me just the way he was doing, just a little longer, then I would move beyond control. And instead of moving away, turning the attention purely to him, I let him carry on, let the quickening of my breath tell him that I wanted him.

Then, when it was his turn, at the point of his capitulation, he used my name. ‘Amanda,’ he groaned.

‘Stay,’ he said afterwards. ‘Stay the night.’

‘I can’t.’ And I should have referred to agreements and prior arrangements. Instead I gave the truth. ‘I have to be back for the babysitter.’

Not just my name, but Maddie was in the room with us now.

*

It wasn’t that I didn’t think of ending it. But something in me had shifted. I’d lost the habit of strangers, felt thrown back to those early days of fear and swallowed back revulsion.

It was easier to carry on.

We broke each and every rule.

In his hotel room, we created our own tightly bounded world. We touched and kissed and ordered room service. We watched films on pay-per-view and emptied the contents of the mini-bar. At some point in the evening we had sex, naturally. But that was it: it felt natural, mutual, just one more of the things a couple do together. We took a shared bath afterwards. And we talked, about ourselves, our daughters, his marriage.

‘I think we’re going to separate,’ he said.

*

I was seeing more of Shell. Maddie showed no sign of tiring of Amy, so it was hard not to.

My conversations with her echoed those I had with Simon. They were heading for a split. She wasn’t that upset. It was Amy they were worried for. She didn’t even care that he’d now confessed that there was someone else. My heart skipped half a beat.

*

Two days later I lay with Simon, warm and sleepy with after-sex contentment.

‘Look, it’s been difficult, these last months,’ Simon said. ‘Still being married. Not wanting to be. But Shell and I have agreed a way forward now. We’re going to talk to Amy this weekend. She’s probably already guessed. I’ve found a rental flat and I’m going to move out Sunday. I’ll still see Amy of course. Alternate weekends. Holidays. I want to make other changes too.’

My heart was beating faster and I knew he’d feel it as his arms curved round my rib-cage, holding me tight, our skin sticking, sweat mingled with sweat. We were heading for the cusp, the point we’d been toboggan-running towards ever since that first evening with its spike of recognition and neither of us walking away. The point of moving forwards.

‘We don’t have to do this anymore,’ he said. ‘Not in this way. I’d like to see you properly.’

‘Yes,’ I said and I snuggled ever tighter, as if I could burrow inside him. ‘I’d like that.’

It would be awkward with Shell and Amy. Perhaps Maddie would have to find a new best friend. But we’d get round it. We could be discreet, especially for the first few months. Discretion, I was good at.

‘Of course I understand what you’ll be giving up,’ he said. ‘I mean it’ll be tough for me what with the new flat and paying maintenance. But I’ll still find a way. To help out, I mean.’ The room was quiet and still. A radiator clanked. Somewhere, someone laughed. ‘I can still pay something.’

I breathed in. I counted. One to a hundred. Holding onto time, letting it go. Then I shifted. ‘Oh God, is that the time?’ I said. ‘I need to get moving.’ And carefully I gathered my thoughts and scattered clothes around me.

The stupidest thing was, he probably thought that he was helping.

*

Then everything blurs in layers of smoke.

You ring the agency and hand in your notice, if it can be called that, and you say that the last transaction didn’t go ahead and they should refund the client’s money. You ring the Tupperware people to see how you can step up sales. You apply for cleaning jobs. And finally, after not answering Simon’s calls for several days, you prepare yourself a last time: scented water, silk-soft clothes.

Think your way into this.

You dial in the middle of the night, when you can be sure to get voicemail, and you leave a message.

‘Simon,’ you say. ‘It’s Chantrelle. The arrangement isn’t going to work. I’m calling it off.’

And you know he isn’t going to understand, but you do: some balances cannot be settled.

 

###

 

Sarah Evans has had numerous stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize 2008, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press and Tonto Press. Several of her stories have been top contenders for The Glass Woman Prize. She lives in Welwyn Garden City, UK with her husband, and is part of a small writers’ circle who meet regularly in London.