"Now my arms were folded. Now my eyebrows were arched. Now I was looking down on him from the doorway and sitting up on my toes a little. My nose was angled towards him. My nipple guns pushed up by the corset. Had I remembered to load them? I couldn’t quite remember"
I anticipated what his first words would be: I’m really, really sorry. I’ve been away for a few weeks. I’ve been longing to come and see you. I hope you’re not angry. I’ve never met a woman so generous before. I really couldn’t believe you would knit something so perfect. Can I come in? I’d love to apologise properly.
“With his love sausage?”
Hush, Kidman, not now! Of all times, not now! Go on, James. Say them. Say those words ...
“Is that a gas mask?” he asked.
Shit-bugger-fanny! I thought. It hadn't registered with me that I still had the shit-bugger-fanny gas mask on! No wonder James looked so far away. No wonder he looked as if he had a scratch right from his forehead down to the belt on his trousers. No wonder his nose blurred into his eye.
I moved with lightning-speed to remove it, forgetting about the hat on top of my head, which proceeded to get tangled-up with the gas mask straps. I started to get a bit anxious that I couldn’t remove it with ease. My heart was racing and my mouth was dry. Eventually I left the mask dangling round the front of my neck with the big straw hat tangled at the back of my head. In a feeble attempt to portray comfort and poise I leaned against the door-frame, but as I did so the strap burrowed into my throat and I gagged slightly. To ease the tight pressure on my oesophagus I yanked the strap hard and coughed a couple of times.
“Are you all right?” he said with a mixture of concern and incredulity.
“All right? She nearly freakin’ died there!”
I ignored the voice of Kidman as best I could and found my hand was up at my hair trying to flatten it. “Oh, yes,” I said. “I’m quite at ease, thank you.”
“Quite at ease! What the hell century are you in all of a sudden?”
I still ignored her. I looked at James and waited for his apology to come – at worst, a heartfelt expression of gratitude. I was ready for it. My throat was ready for it. I was quite at ease.
"In a feeble attempt to portray comfort and poise I leaned against the door-frame, but as I did so the strap burrowed into my throat and I gagged slightly"
I noticed that James looked puzzled, lost for words. “Uh. My aunt,” he started. “She got it into her head that you’re a … detective. Some kind of spy, as she put it. From MI5 or something. That’s why she was looking at your … chest.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, softly and in a highly understanding tone of voice. "That was when I went to see her at the library. Yes, I remember that. I did think it ... unusual."
I was saying: Oh, I see. But I was actually thinking: Chest? She couldn’t see my chest, James! My tits were in the way!
“Oh, good thought, Steph. You can be proud of that thought. It’s just your words that are humiliating you!”
She was right. Kidman was absolutely right. I’d sat up all night knitting a shit-bugger-fanny scarf for his tit-loving aunt, he fails to even acknowledge the work I put in, comes nowhere near me for ages, then turns up, still says nothing about the hard work and the scarf, instead says some total claptrap about his aunt and shit-bugger-fanny MI5!
So I said: “Well, actually that just seems a bit plain silly. Of course, I never keep my nipple guns loaded when I’m off duty. And I always close one eye and cup a boob when I shoot, so that would have given her plenty of time to skedaddle.”
He blinked hard but then stared hard, slightly open-mouthed. He looked a little like a zombie staring into a shop window trying to decipher if a showroom dummy is a zombie too. All of a sudden I could see that he was taller but at the same time scrawnier than I remembered. Also, I was convinced that his teeth were less white and his feet were smaller than they had first struck me in the library that day.
He swallowed. It was a small sign of life. “She never thought you were a down-and-out,” he continued. “It was just that she couldn’t figure you out. She thought if she annoyed you enough that you would come clean about what you’re doing here. Then she started to think that you were a government agent. And, for some reason, she thought – that day in the library – that you had a microphone concealed …”
“In between my nipple guns?”
“I’m loving it, Steph! Loving it! This is pure Kidman! Kidman all the way up, Kidman all the way down!”
"He blinked hard but then stared hard, slightly open-mouthed. He looked a little like a zombie staring into a shop window trying to decipher if a showroom dummy is a zombie too"
“And why would a secret agent be in your town? Or even in this dilapidated old dump, for that matter?” I asked.
Now my arms were folded. Now my eyebrows were arched. Now I was looking down on him from the doorway and sitting up on my toes a little. My nose was angled towards him. My nipple guns pushed up by the corset. Had I remembered to load them? I couldn’t quite remember. I was dramatic. In control. I was myself. My own agenda. Putting my self and my thoughts first.
“Well, on account of Josh,” he said diffidently.
There was that name again. That blasted Josh.
“Josh tosh!” I exclaimed and pulled my folded arms up a little higher and felt myself lean back on the doorframe. The gas mask strap tightened again and I emitted a small splutter.
Kidman would be loving this, I knew. She’d be cheering me on. Punching the air. Doing karate chops along the hallway.
James turned to walk back to his car. His hands dug deeply into his pockets and his head fell. “Josh was loved by everyone in our town. It destroyed the heart of the place when he disappeared.”
His words were forlorn and destitute. Grieving and lost. I wasn’t sure what to think. As he got back to his car, he called back to me, his tone still sad and quiet: “Thank you for the scarf. I’ve been out of the country. I’ve wanted to come and see you for so long. It was beautiful and very generous of you.”
Then he drove away and I eventually – eventually – closed the door. I walked down the hall and saw Kidman in a light that had at some point turned in on itself, as if hiding some part of its nature, shame-faced, under a cloak.
"His words were forlorn and destitute. Grieving and lost. I wasn’t sure what to think. As he got back to his car, he called back to me, his tone still sad and quiet"
Kidman was looking at me with a scowl on her face. “Screwed up there, Steph! Should have asked about Josh. Don’t forget that this is still an on-going investigation into the ghosts of dead astronauts.”
I knew she was right. I knew also that I’d been hard and unkind. “Shit-bugger-fanny,” I mumbled.
“Quite! Well, no point going to visit him now! He’ll tell you nothing after that display! Hell, you might as well take your love and ram it up your shit-bugger-fanny! That's all the action you'll be seeing!”
I didn’t want to listen to her anymore. I looked away and walked passed her with a shrug and a grunt.
I went straight back into my rooms and my brain immediately started to piece together all the components of how James had looked. All the while there was a knot of nauseating anxiety in my stomach. He was taller than I remembered. He was thinner than I remembered too. His eyes were darker. His hair was browner. His fingers a little longer. His dress-sense a little less considered than I thought it would be. His chin was more pronounced and his cheekbones less pronounced. His neck moved more fluidly. He was more uncertain in his movements. He was more steely-gazed. His feet were smaller than I recalled. His teeth less white. His nose shorter. His eyebrows thicker. Was that a mole? And what did he think that shirt colour would do for him?
I lay down on my bed and held a pillow tightly to me and I thought about it all, and concluded that he was, in short, more perfect than I remembered.
But when I thought of his words about Josh, I felt more anxious and more sick, and all I could say over and over again was: “Shit-bugger-fanny, shit-bugger-fanny, shit-bugger-fanny ...”
Next instalment: 50. Kidman's Gift – Part One