by Brian Kirk
They found the shawl on the back of a chair in a bar, forgotten or discarded by its owner. It was beautiful, golden, with many coloured threads woven into it. Robert saw it first, and showed it to Helen. He imagined an elegant older woman with pale complexion and red lips wearing it, loosely thrown around her shoulders against the chill of a late summer evening. They were about to leave and, rather than hand it in to the barman as she would normally have done, Robert watched as Helen simply folded it neatly and placed it in her bag.
It was a Friday night, and this was the manner in which their working week routinely ended: a few drinks with their colleagues and friends in a crowded, fashionable bar under the arches near one of the main railway stations in the city. That evening they left a little earlier than usual, and walked home, rather than taking a taxi as they would normally have done. Their route took them away from the modern glass and steel buildings of the business district, through the older, Georgian, part of the city and out along the canal towards their bland but functional apartment block.
Helen took the shawl from her bag, and Robert pulled it tightly around her shoulders as they walked. They were in their late twenties and had been living together for two years. They were still young enough to be concerned only about the present, content to let the future emerge as it would.
That night they did not turn on the TV or make coffee or tea, or even open a bottle of wine, when they got in. They went straight to the bedroom and Robert softly tugged the shawl from Helen’s body, spinning her gently onto the bed. He quickly undressed while she lay back watching him. When he was naked he started to undress her slowly, removing each garment methodically, not kissing or even touching her flesh yet. When she was completely naked he reached down to the floor and took up the shawl from where it lay. He coiled it like a rope and bound her two hands loosely to the wrought iron headboard.
Helen’s eyes opened in surprise as he did this, but she did not attempt to stop him. He felt a rush of excitement, a throb like a dull ache at the back of his skull, and he noticed how she smiled as she lay back on the covers, apparently surrendering herself to the exquisite otherness of restraint. Robert wasn’t sure why he had done it. There was something about the shawl, and the way Helen was attracted to it, that told him it was okay.
When he woke the next morning the shawl was still draped on the headboard, snaked around the curves of the wrought iron, while Helen slept on beneath it. Robert went to the kitchen and made breakfast, taking it to her in the bedroom on a tray. He woke her gently with a kiss on the cheek and she smiled at him crookedly in the way that he loved. First thing in the morning she looked like a young girl, trapped in those furtive waking moments before the adult Helen emerged. He kissed her again and straightened her pillows. He fingered the smooth silk of the shawl above her head as he did so, marvelling at how it felt somehow warm and cold, wet and dry, simultaneously. Neither one mentioned the use they had put it to the night before.
Most weekdays Robert met James for a game of squash before work. James was due to be married that autumn to Helen’s friend Sandra, and he confided in Robert a great deal. Robert was not really interested in James’ plans, but he was always polite, offering what little advice he was able to honestly give when he could. Robert understood that James considered they had plenty in common because of Robert’s long term relationship with Helen who was his fiance’s closest friend. But he resisted James’ attempts to pigeonhole him or speak on his behalf, particularly when there were others around. People like Maxwell and Harris, who they often had lunch or coffee with. Maxwell particularly enjoyed ribbing James about his forthcoming wedding, and Robert often wondered how James was stupid enough to continue sharing his plans with them.
‘I just can’t believe it James – you’re actually going to go through with this... this... wedding?’ Maxwell asked one day, as they sat over lattes.
‘It’s going to be the best day of my life guys!’
‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ Maxwell looked from Harris to Robert in a theatrical manner. He shook his head. ‘No he couldn’t have.’
James just laughed, as he always did. Robert was sure that James actually enjoyed the attention – Sandra was in grave danger of playing second fiddle when the big day finally came around.
‘Look. It’s simple James. You know that thing? Eh? That special thing you like that Sandra does for you now and again, when you’ve been civil with her mother, or when she’s had a few shots? Yea? You know what I’m talking about?’
Robert watched James redden while Maxwell nodded and Harris sniggered like a schoolboy.
‘I know you know! Well that’s all ancient history the day you take those vows my friend. Comprendez? Never again! Sayonara, so long, arrivederci!’
‘You just don’t understand?’ James pleaded. ‘Tell them Robert.’
Robert looked at James and then at Maxwell and Harris.
‘Yea, tell us Robert!’ Maxwell urged. ‘Don’t tell me you’re getting married too?’
Robert simply shook his head. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ he said.
‘Thank God for that! I thought the whole world was going crazy there for a minute. You see James, Robert knows what side his bread is buttered on, eh? Don’t you?’ He threw his arm loosely around Robert’s shoulder, causing him to shift involuntarily in his seat. ‘Doesn’t want to lose his... er... privileges, isn’t that right Rob?’
‘Yea. Right. Whatever.’
‘I know you’re just taking the piss Maxwell. But one day you’ll meet a girl you want to spend the rest of your life with.’
Robert wished James would just shut up.
‘James, I’m beginning to think this wedding of yours is just an elaborate smokescreen. I mean, that is just about the gayest thing I have ever heard a supposedly straight man say!’
Robert made his excuses and left.
One night later that week while Helen was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, Robert quickly looked through her drawers for the shawl. He was disappointed, but told himself that it was too late for sex anyway, that they both had an early start the next morning. He undressed, putting on the shorts and t-shirt he normally slept in, and went to the laundry basket with his old clothes. When he lifted the lid he immediately saw the shawl, half-hidden beneath his shirt from the previous day. He extracted it and held it to his face, breathing in its foreign odour, now infused with the scent of his and Helen’s stale bodily secretions.
When Helen returned from the bathroom he was naked on the bed, the shawl beside him.
‘It’s your turn tonight,’ he said, and handed it to her.
He crossed his wrists and held them up against the headboard. He watched her take the shawl and coil it, just as he had done the other night, tying him loosely to the wrought ironwork. Then she undressed for him, slowly, without making eye contact. Robert never knew such intense anticipation. As she climbed onto him she reached and switched off the bedside light. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see the outline of her form moving above him in the stray moonlight that filtered through the gap in the curtains, and he could feel her weight on him and the gentle pull of the golden rope that bound his wrists and tied him to this pleasure.
Now every night when they went upstairs to bed Robert took the shawl from its place in the laundry basket and held it to his face for a moment, inhaling deeply, caressing his skin with it, before taking it to the bedroom. When Helen came out of the bathroom, he would already be naked, the shawl coiled in his hands like a luxurious rope and he would pin her to the bed quickly and tie her up. Sometimes he undressed her first, sometimes not, he was so eager to have her helpless. Only when she was fastened to the bars was he happy to take his time, to extend his and her pleasure for as long as he could stand it.
But after some weeks Robert began to grow dissatisfied with the new routine of their lovemaking. At his desk at work he fell to imagining other ways in which he might restrain Helen. Over lunch he continued to sit with James and Maxwell and Harris, but he hardly listened to their talk at all. The conversation usually ran from sex to football to golf and back to sex, but lately a serious element had intruded; occasional snippets of information filtered down to them about possible cutbacks and the uncertainty of the firm’s future. Robert ignored it and them, bored now as much by his friends as by the work.
Helen’s birthday was two weeks before James and Sandra were due to marry, and every year Robert tried to buy her something expensive but also meaningful. In the jeweller’s shop he found himself looking at engagement rings, but smiled and shook his head when the assistant asked if he needed any help. They had never seriously discussed it, but he believed there was a tacit understanding between them that one day they would marry.
The morning of her birthday was like every other work day morning. They barely had time to sip a mug of coffee or take a bite or two of toast before they left. After she rose he left a card and two wrapped boxes on her pillow. He had also reserved a table at an expensive restaurant for that evening. Helen opened the card quickly and kissed him on the lips. The presents would have to keep until later; there was no time to dawdle.
That night over dinner they talked about Sandra and James and the wedding.
‘She is so excited Rob – I don’t think she can wait another two weeks.’
‘Well, she’s positively sober compared to James. He’s ridiculous the way he goes on. You know what Maxwell is like; James just feeds him ammunition all day.’
‘I think it’s sweet, you know, the way he’s as excited as Sandra. That’s the way it should be. I mean, nobody’s forcing them to get married, so they should be equally happy.’
‘I know. It’s just rare, I suppose, to come across a guy who actually displays his excitement about something like that.’
‘Would you rather he pretended it was a chore?’
‘No, no. It’s not that. I’m sure almost all blokes who get married are happy about it, it’s just that they don’t go on about it the way James does.’
‘It’s a girl thing, you mean?’
‘Kinda, I suppose.’
‘That’s a stereotype thing Rob – kinda.’ She grimaced. It was plain that she was cross.
‘Ah, I know. I can’t explain it. James is just over the top, that’s all.’
He felt guilty, but also distracted by the prospect of the sex they would have later, and continued to talk and smile at her although he could plainly see she was not impressed by what he’d said. He tried to maintain a pretence of celebration, but the good had gone out of the evening. He ate his food without appetite and sipped the expensive wine, but both were tasteless and did not fill him up. As they left he felt hollow, fragile, as though he might break if he fell over.
That night when they got home, they sat on the bed side by side while Helen opened her presents. The first was a bracelet, antique silver inset with delicate amber gem stones, expensive, one she had admired in a jeweller’s shop window months before. She smiled and kissed him, and he tried to shake off the lethargy that had overtaken him in the restaurant, telling himself that he had bought her the present with his customary loving care. Nothing had changed; nothing was wrong. The second box was also luxuriously wrapped. It almost seemed wrong to tear the paper, but when Helen finally lifted the lid Robert saw over her shoulder an explosion of bright and dark colours, and for a moment he forgot what he had given her. It appeared to be a box of coloured lights. Then he watched her hand disappear inside and he remembered how it would feel cool and smooth like cream. Not lights, no, but scarves of many colours, made of Indian silk.
Then Robert was kissing her, lifting her up on to the bed. He used the shawl to tie her hands together to the headboard, before he started taking off her clothes. He slowly opened the buttons of her blouse but he could not remove it completely because of the way she was restrained. He then pulled off her skirt and tights and pants, and when he had done this he took two of the silk scarves from the gift box and, spreading her legs wide, he fastened each of Helen’s feet to the bottom bed posts. He looked at her, but she had turned her head away towards the door.
‘Robert,’ she said quietly, her face still averted.
‘Sssh, love, don’t say anything.’
He started to get undressed, standing some feet away from the bottom of the bed, greedily examining every inch of her helpless, naked body as he let his clothes fall one by one to the floor. Before he even touched her he took the remaining scarf from the box and tied it firmly around her eyes, blocking out the light. Then he waited. He could hear his heart beat against the wall of his chest; he could feel the blood surge through his veins. He would have liked to remain there just watching her bound body spread out before him. The open bedroom window behind the drawn shade welcomed a cool breeze, and Robert could see goose bumps appearing on Helen’s pale exposed flesh. Finally he touched her, making her flinch, which only added to his excitement. He quickly pushed inside her, and came with a stifled grunt within a few moments. He cursed silently and went to the bathroom to wash himself.
‘Robert! Robert! Where are you?’
‘It’s okay, I’m here, I’m here.’
He undid her feet first and then her hands, and she lifted the scarf from her eyes while he stood with his back to her, swiftly pulling on his shorts and t-shirt. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and was startled to find that he did not look like himself, or as he thought himself to be, with his back rounded, hunched over, hurriedly dressing. Helen went to the bathroom to pee and when she returned moments later he was already under the covers with his back to her, his face to the wall, emitting the regular breaths of one who is sleeping. She climbed into bed beside him, switched off the side light, and lay down.
‘Happy birthday Helen,’ he said, and he turned and kissed her softly on the forehead.
On the day of the wedding all the talk was about the restructuring. After all the elaborate plans they had made no one seemed to pay much attention to James and Sandra. The guests at each table in the dining room carried on hoarse whispered conversations while the speeches droned on from the top table.
‘What about Gordon? Is he gone too?’
‘Yes, and Nicholls on the fifth floor, and that girl who works with them, Stephanie, I think her name is.’
‘Jesus! That must be almost half the brokers and more.’
The Friday before an impromptu meeting had been called by the management in the afternoon and Robert had been among those who were let go. He was still in shock now, sitting beside Helen at a table full of ex-colleagues, listening to them talk about him as if he was not there, as if he was invisible. He could feel Helen’s eyes on him, saw her concern in how she tried to ration his drinks. He had bottled beer in the bar earlier and wine with the meal, and now the waitresses were filling glasses with champagne for the toasts. It felt wrong, all this celebration and raising of glasses when his future was so uncertain.
‘Try to enjoy the day Rob. It’s James and Sandra’s day – don’t spoil it. There are other jobs out there for you. You have contacts, you’ll be okay,’ Helen whispered to him, putting her hand on his. He left his hand where it was until she took her own away.
They retired to their room that night as soon as politeness allowed. The hotel was plush, the room large, the bed substantial. They undressed silently by the light from the open en suite bathroom door. Robert climbed hastily into bed while Helen searched in her overnight bag for her cleansing and moisturising creams. He pretended to sleep when she lay down beside him. Neither one moved. He listened to his own even breathing, dismayed by its tired regularity.
In the first few weeks Robert tried hard. He devoured the job vacancy pages of the newspapers each day and emailed the agencies regularly. He called all his contacts and tried to sound off-hand but confident when he spoke of his future. He kept the apartment clean and tidy, and he cooked dinner for Helen every evening when she came home. It soon became apparent that there were no jobs out there in his field; all of the other firms had downsized too. There were probably hundreds of replicas of him all over the city looking at the same papers and websites every day.
He no longer instigated sex at night; in fact they only ever made love now when Helen took the lead, which was not often. He no longer looked for the shawl at bed time and most nights retired long before her.
In idle moments he began to imagine an alternative life; perhaps he would do some travelling, experience new things. He had a friend in Berlin who had promised a place for him to stay if he ever wanted it. At night when he couldn’t sleep, while he listened to Helen’s shallow breathing, he imagined the new life he might enjoy there in the coffee shops and bars. But in his heart he knew that he would never do it.
He spent more and more time on the laptop during the day, surfing the web. He read news stories, sports reports and celebrity gossip, all without any great interest. He visited porn sites and idly scrolled through pages and pages of images of naked women. Some days he did not even get hard. The apartment became untidy; dust settled on the mantle and the window sills and the tops of cupboards in the kitchen. The sink was always full of unwashed dishes, the laundry basket full of unwashed clothes. Often when Helen came home he would be watching TV, so she would phone for pizza.
They argued all the time. About the dirt and the mess, and the fact that he had stopped looking for work, but Robert knew it was all about her really. She was changing, and it frightened him. He met James for lunch one day, for the first time since he was let go, hoping to find out something about what Helen was thinking through his friend’s wife.
‘Jesus you look like shit Robert.’
They were having coffee in a cafe far away from the firm to ensure that Maxwell or Harris would not be around.
‘No luck on the job front then?’
‘Are you looking?’
‘Of course I’m looking! Do you think I want to hang around all day doing nothing?’
James laughed. ‘Watching internet porn all day – that’s what Maxwell says you’re doing.’
‘He’s just jealous! How did he avoid the chop anyway?’
‘Who knows! Hey, we should play squash some morning again. It’s been ages.’
‘My gym membership went with the job – remember?’
James looked embarrassed. ‘Sorry. But you can be my guest.’
‘Okay, we’ll do it. So how is married life?’
‘Robert, you have no idea. Best thing we ever did!’
‘Maybe I should propose to Helen – what do you think?’
James laughed. ‘Yea, why not.’
So Robert and James started playing squash again, and Robert phoned his contacts again and started reading the job vacancy columns and emailing the agencies. He began to cook meals every evening and he set about tidying the apartment. He found the shawl in a bag that Helen had packed for the charity shop hidden away in a closet. He took it out and held it to his face. Its distinctive smell was almost gone, but the feel of the silk on his fingers and face brought him back to months before when he and Helen had been close. He clung to that. He hid it discreetly in a drawer in the bedroom beneath his socks and underwear.
That night when Helen came home there were candles on the table and red wine in large glasses. There was bread and olives on a plate, and the rustic smell of tomatoes and garlic filled the air. Helen looked tired. He tried to be attentive, but natural. He had showered and shaved, and dressed smartly for a change. While she waited for her meal he smiled at her and made small talk.
‘I made some calls today. There’s a chance they might want someone over at Brown’s by the end of the month. I’m just waiting on a call back.’
In his heart he knew it was bullshit – Brown’s weren’t hiring, everyone knew that; in fact they were almost at the wall.
He spent the whole evening following her around the small apartment, filling her glass, getting the paper, her book, changing the channel for her.
‘I’m tired, I’m going to bed,’ she said after a while. It was still very early.
He stayed on the sofa watching the TV while she went to the bathroom to scrub her make-up and the day’s grime from her face.
When she emerged Robert was lying on the bed, naked, the shawl twisted in his white-knuckled hands like a venomous snake.
‘Lie down Helen,’ he said. ‘It’s been too long.’
He felt powerful again, aware of his lean, strong, hairless body under Helen’s gaze. His genitals, half-aroused, moved into life.
‘No Rob,’ she said. ‘I’m tired.’
‘But Helen, the shawl,’ he said, and he stood up and thrust it out to her as if it was a living thing, as if he was some kind of savage without words to explain his meaning, as if the shawl itself held all the meaning there could be.
‘No Robert. That’s not going to happen. I’m not in the mood.’ He felt himself go flaccid now, and he continued to shrink as he stood there before her. His face reddened a little; it made him feel young, foolish, almost childish. She turned her back on him and began to get undressed, speaking calmly over her shoulder.
‘I’ve been thinking anyway Robert. I’m taking a break from work – I’m going away for a while. This thing with us, I think it’s over. It’s not going anywhere. You know I’m right. It’s for the best if we just stop right now.’
He heard himself make a peculiar noise, more animal than human, but she ignored it or pretended not to hear. She must have known that he was crying. All he wanted was for her to look at him.
Brian Kirk was shortlisted for Hennessy Awards for fiction in 2008 and 2011. He won the inaugural Writing Spirit Award in 2009 with his story Perpetuity. In 2010 and 2011 he was a featured reader at The Lonely Voice platform for new short story writers at the Irish Writers’ Centre. He is currently seeking a publisher for his first novel and is completing work on debut poetry and short story collections. He was chosen to be part of the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series 2013. His poems and stories have appeared in Sharp Stick, Driven Nails published by The Stinging Fly Press, the Sunday Tribune, Crannóg, The Stony Thursday Book, Revival, Abridged, Southword, Boyne Berries, Wordlegs, Burning Bush 2, WortMosaik, Can Can, Shot Glass Journal, Bare Hands Poetry, The First Cut and various anthologies. He blogs at: http://briankirkwriter.com/.
Photographer's credit: Jenna Weaver is a self taught jack of all artistic trades, interested mainly in surreal/abstract photography and ink drawings. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She enjoys gleaning inspiration from everyday life and experimenting with new perspectives for her art. You can view a gallery of her artwork at http://laece.deviantart.com/gallery/