Some Moments Of Pleasure
'And many fancied that they were in love when in truth they were only idle.' Samuel Johnson.
She was beautiful.
Anna was standing at the bar, scrabbling three fifty pence pieces out of the pool of stale Foster's into which she had fumbled them in that first moment of fascinated inattention, and meanwhile trying to preserve her pint of cider, Magda's bottle of pils and Ariadne's Tia Maria and lemonade from the over-expansive denim elbows of the man next to her.
There were flashes of her in the glassware that kept leading Anna's eyes back to her; she was standing at the other end of the bar, where it curved round to the area where food was served, tall and skinny, with red hair cropped rather arbitrarily. She sucked her lower lip in under her slight overbite too readily to avoid having the lines of her face often go softer than quite suited them. She looks intense, thought Anna; she also looked the sort of person that did not drop her change into puddles of beer.
"Who is that ?",she asked Magda, once she had struggled through the press back to their table with the drinks.
"Who?" said Magda, not looking around or showing any huge eagerness to find out.
"I do wish you would concentrate on getting our drinks back unspilled", said Ariadne," instead of cruising."
"The tall one, over there, in the motorcycle jacket, and the studded belt."
"Oh, her", said Magda, "That really is typical of you, Anna."
"What's typical of me ?"
"Entirely at random",said Magda, in a slightly theatrical rise to crescendo," Just looking around a perfectly average bar, your eye falls on that. She, Anna my dear, is one of the most sinister and uncontrolled women in this city. See where mindless and incorrect lust leads you."
"Well, what's so awful about her? She looks quite interesting. And she has a soppy smile."
"Trap for the unwary", Ariadne murmured over the top of her glass. "Nothing soppy about what that lot get up to.You can't see it with her facing in our direction, but she wears several handkerchieves in the back pocket of her jeans. On the left side, naturally, Several, at once,all of them different colours."
Anna did not follow this.
"We let you go to the bar, trusting you to manage something that simple just for once", said Magda," and you come back mooning over Miss Wrong. Oh well, thank the Goddess for small mercies that you didn't ask her if she felt like a drink. Give that lot an inch, and they'll walk all over you."
"All of them, at once. In shiny black leather boots, probably with oddly meaningful black phallic heels", said Ariadne, who was big on semiology that year.
"Oh", said Anna. "You mean... All that stuff. I didn't know it happened, not really."
"Innocent", said Magda, and kissed Ariadne in a gesture of loving solidarity among the sophisticated.
"She's looking at us", said Ariadne in sudden fluster. She pulled a volume of Lacan out of her shoulder bag and showed Magda a footnote.
There really was nothing for Anna to do on her side of the table, except look back. She was being stared at, with distant amusement and large dark eyes. She had some pride after all, and stared straight back, not breaking eye contact even when two clones passed through the line of fire unknowing. The woman at the bar winked,gave the smile on her lips a wry twist, then downed the rest of her drink, nodded , and left the bar.
" Sometimes", said Ariadne,"you are very embarrassing to be with."
Anna realised that something had happened of importance, but she had no idea at all of what it might be. Nor was she especially interested in asking the other two precisely what they were trying to imply was going on; the trouble with the compulsively sharp-tongued is that you can get too bored with being their butt even to ask them things you need to know.She changed the subject, and they mocked her slightly for doing anything as obviously a diversion from the point as that, but did not push the point any further. After all, she really was much too busy with her thesis to get emotionally involved, and there was little chance she would see the woman again. Given that, there really was not much point in setting herself up for even such amiable mockery as she hoped it was that she got from her two best friends. The trouble with having best friends who were a couple is that you seemed to be in on things most of the time, and then suddenly everything seemed to be being translated out of a foreign language which you were vaguely uncivilized for not being able to speak or quite comprehend You were happy that they were happy, because they were,after all, your friends, but were they to accuse you of a destructive hostile jealousy, it would not be a charge of which you could easily acquit yourself.
It was dark in there.The music was too loud, and a slight muzziness in her head, a slight pressure in her stomach, told Anna that she had had too much to drink. She was not really a dancing sort of person; she had only gone there because Magda wanted to whine at her, in private, and it was a place in which Ariadne would not interrupt, or, indeed, be seen dead. Magda had gone home, several drinks ago, and Anna supposed that she should have left too, should leave now. There was no especial point in staying. And there was no especial point in leaving either, only the prospect of a slightly earlier night and a slight chance of feeling less wretched next day. Perhaps just finish this drink, and not too fast, and I'll still be up to catching a bus without falling under it.
The tall redhead from The Fallen Angel was here, over there in a corner. Anna had noticed her already, in spite of trying quite hard not to. Magda had observed this, and smiled with a sardonicism that showed her new caps to best advantage. She was never so miserable that she would not put a friend at slight unease.
"Sorry", she said,"I forgot that Your Lady of Pain came here. Thoughtless of me, I suppose. We should always avoid the occasions of sin."
"Gosh", said Anna," You're making far too much of all this you know. I just asked you who she was, one time. That didn't mean anything; just that I thought she looked rather gorgeous, and wanted to know who she was. And you never actually got round to telling me, come to that. Just dropped some vague hints about what she likes to do. And implied that noticing her meant that I was liable to be interested in all that. Which I don't think it does, not really."
"Sorry", said Magda."She's called Bella. Now go over and talk to her, or play with her, if you really want to. I'm sure that you'd find that a lot more fun than listening to my problems."
"Surely not" said Anna."You are my friend. I don't even know her, and I probably would not like her at all if I did."
And so Magda had told her in remorseless detail, with all sorts of moments of hyper- photographic close-ups, about how she had found Ariadne entwined with a visiting German deconstructionist in the duplicator room of the Fawcett library, and why she had been upset , even though she knew monogamy was not important. Anna had listened, and then run through all the reasons why it was OK for Magda to be upset, and inadvisable that she do anything about it. After all, it was hardly the first time, and was not going to be the last. And they had a lifelong shared political commitment, and a mortgage to think about. And Magda had agreed not to do anything rash.And had gone.
Bella was in a little knot, over in a darker corner, with three other women all dressed more or less the same, in black leather and in jeans. It was a bit like a uniform, Anna supposed, a way of knowing who your friends were, of announcing whom you might find sexually interesting. She had done just a little bit of reading about it all, since The Fallen Angel, and she sort of understood about the handkerchieves now, even if she could not remember the details. Left meant you did it, and right the opposite.
There was nothing much else of interest to look at, and they could not be doing that, could they ? Surely not, in public ? But the blonde was wearing a short leather skirt, and seemed to be wearing stockings. Anna's imagination was getting out of hand, she decided, and she found herself blushing. It was a difficulty of her life that she blushed, and it often got her into trouble; blushing was more embarrassing, often as not, as the things she found herself blushing over in the first place.
She tried looking away at the video screen, and then at the bar, and then at the mirror behind her seat, where she caught sight of herself, an overweight brunette with a Sara Bernhardt perm and a black velvet coat, trying to look insouciant. None of it was very interesting, and the act of moving her focus of attention kept meaning that her eyes would, in passing, stray back to Bella and her group. One of Bella's other friends, one with a sort of military cap on, was slapping the blonde, slowly and rhythmically and softly across the face, and the woman who was being hit was swaying gently, riding into the blows and not away from them, and smiling the same sort of infuriatingly knowing smile that was on Bella's face as she sauntered over to where Anna was sitting. She took a large mouthful of lager from Anna's glass, and stood, her legs apart, and looked at her.
"I've noticed", she said,"that all you vanilla dykes really like to watch."
"That is not wholly true", said Anna," but I'll grant that there are sights that are sufficiently bizarre to be briefly compelling."
"So, if it's just tourism", said Bella,"why are you blushing ?"
"That", said Anna,"I didn't know. I didn't know I was.I guess I'll have to take your word, though, that I am, but I really don't know why. Call it a tribute to your charisma. That, I'll admit, you and your friends have. And if you really were doing what it looked like you were, a certain quantity of bloody cheek as well."
"Bloody cheek", said Bella, taking another sip of Anna's lager,"seems to be something of a specialty round here."
"Indeed", said Anna,"And are you going to drink my beer all night ?"
"Possibly", said Bella, and lit a cigarette, a manoeuvre she performed with a precision that indicated that she meant it to have significance. She had a very shiny stainless steel lighter that smelled faintly of petrol. "Do you smoke?"
"Not usually", said Anna, for whom the struggle to give cigarettes up had been one of the major triumphs of an otherwise uneventful life.
"But you'll make an exception ?" Bella said, taking the lighted cigarette from her own lips and holding it to Anna's mouth without even particularly looking for the response. Anna's lips opened to it, and she tasted the other woman's lipstick on her own unpainted mouth. She reached up, and took the cigarette from her betraying lips, but held it, between two coquetting fingers, rather than, as she had intended, stubbing it out. Bella had made some sort of point; she had also, with the same irritatingly careless precision, lit herself another cigarette.
"Would you like me to buy you a drink ?"said Anna.
"That seems like a good idea."
Anna slid a pound coin across the table towards her.
"No " said Bella. "The idea is that you go and buy me a drink, not that you just give me the money. If I did not know that you are a complete innocent, I would suspect you of being deliberately aggravating in order to stack up demerits. However, my dear Anna, here is the money for my drink. And for your next one. A half, I think."
Her tone was that one would use to a very small and not very gifted child.
"Oh" said Anna, but could not, at the moment, think of any very convincing reason for not doing as she was told. Halfway to the bar, she turned on her sneakered heel and stalked back to the table."How do you know my name ?"
"The Shadow knows", said Bella, lowered her eyelids and blew a smoke-ring. She really was irritatingly, theatrically, competent at all those things.
At the bar, Anna found herself standing next to a couple of Bella's friends, who were looking at her with undisguised and amused interest. She tried to ignore this, even when one of them said to the other,"Fastest on record."
She and Bella sat quietly drinking for a minute or so. Anna was not quite sure whether the etiquette allowed her to start talking about the weather or how much hide food you put on a jacket like that, and how you kept the studs from tarnishing. Bella was obviously in no hurry to make conversation; her ability to make everything significant seemed to extend to her silences as well.
Then she stood up. "Oh", thought Anna with alarm, "she's going,"and then wondered with even more alarm why she should be worried. She realised that Bella was expecting her to come and dance.
Bella moved well; she was at home in her body and she made you at home in yours even if you were normally as unhappy on the floor as Anna was. If dancing had ever been for Bella some sort of social grace or art, it was so no more. It was a reason for holding people close and hard in public. She had a way of moving her upper thigh against Anna's that gradually had Anna blushing all over again. Bella seemed hardly to notice, even when Anna started to hold her tightly in response, and to fold into little creases of pleasure.
Her head pulsed from the music and the lights and a couple too many lagers; she no longer had, was not sure she had ever had, much sense of what move came next, or even of what the game was. As if of its own will, her hand moved up and the nail of her index finger drew a sharp line down the side of Bella's neck. Without missing a beat, Bella slapped her across the lower cheek, just enough that she found herself putting her head back and sighing gently before drawing her nail down the other side of Bella's neck, and taking a second slap. Anna looked at her, unabashed. There was a deal less of mockery in the lascivious dark brown eyes.
"I think", said Bella, leaning forward so that Anna could hear her above the music," I think that we shall find that you're really not as vanilla as all that."
Anna was not blushing any more. She was confused and she had a headache and she was feeling very sick indeed. She turned and forced her way through the crowds around the dance floor, and forced her way through the women packed tightly in the toilet to a sink where she vomited noisily and seemingly endlessly. Lager really had disagreed with her, though not as much as the tofu kebab had. In one of those unscripted acts of kindness that people you don't know do, a punkette with spiked hair and runny mascara wiped her forehead with a dampened handkerchief.By the time she had run water and soap into the sink, and wiped it round, and made it back into the body of the pub, Bella was gone. One of her friends was still there, a small spiky blonde with a sort of chrysanthemum hairdo, and an air of deep hostility. Anna explained that she'd been sick.
"She knows that, and she said she could not be bothered coping with people who cannot hold their drink. But if you're very lucky, I imagine you'll see her around."
Anna wandered into the street, and briefly checked out the night bus stops in the hope that Bella might still be around. And then she got annoyed with herself for acting as if she were infatuated, and worried that she might be. Suddenly her night bus came, and she got on it, knowing that a long walk from the stop at the other end awaited her, and a night of not much sleep and rather disturbing dreams.
The knocking at her door was harsh and peremptory, but even as she rushed to open it, her guess as to who it might be outside was making Anna feel it in some corner of herself as a caress.
Outside the door, there indeed stood Bella, dressed as she had been the previous night and with a certain world-weary quality that possibly indicated she had not been to sleep or even had the clothes off her back. And the same smile of smug knowledge was playing across her features.
"I thought", she said," that it would be interesting to see how what I may as well for now call the other half lives."
"Oh", said Anna," It's you. I had no idea who it could be. With its being Sunday, I thought it might be the Jehovah's Witnesses or something."
"Now that is amusing. I do not think hat any of the people on whom I have called suddenly for a little chat after Saturday night encounters have ever seen me quite in the light of a missionary."
"I suppose not"said Anna, showing Bella through to her less than entirely tidy living room.
"But I do have a certain record for conversions."
"Do you prefer tea or coffee ? And do you like it with milk?" Anna busied herself in the kitchen and presently came out with a couple of large mugs and a plate of biscuits."They're plain chocolate; I hope that will do."
"You know perfectly well that I have no rules about flavour save one." Bella had taken off her boots, commandeered the comfortable armchair, and was warming her feet at the gas fire.
"Gosh, you have complicated laces" said Anna.
"Yes. It means that it is always preferable not to have to take my boots off, or to put them on again, without a volunteer assistant, from the audience."
"Well, I suppose I could always have come back in and helped while the kettle was boiling. If you'd asked."
"If you understand anything", said Bella,"which I fear you do not, you would know that I do not, not ever, ask people to do things like that.People do them without having to be told. It's their point and their purpose."
Anna held out the sugar bowl, and when Bella held up one finger, Anna put a spoon of sugar in her coffee and stirred it for her. Bella sipped meditatively and shifted her feet. A vague look of what might have been pain passed momentarily across her face. Anna reflected that the boots must be really quite tight and that taking them off was liable to bring on cramps and pins- and-needles, and that it was probably worth the discomfort to get the effect, it you really wanted to. "People tell me that I am quite good at foot massage. Do you mind people touching your feet ?"
"Yes, I do mind people touching my feet. But it is thoughtful of you to offer and shows a proper spirit of willingness and respect. You may massage my feet, and later I may decide to reward you for it."
Anna bit back the "Thanks a lot" that sprang almost to her lips; this conversation would only work if she played it by the other's rules whenever she could work out what those were, and it seemed worthwhile not to offend her by being too aggressive. After all, she was rather gorgeous, and the mere facts that she had bothered to find out Anna's name, had come over last night and called round this afternoon seemed to indicate that she was, from her point of view, meeting Anna somewhere like halfway.
Anna was not in the habit of talking while she worked on people's feet, so there was silence for a while. The growing look of comfort on Bella's face made Anna feel worthwhile. It is always nice doing something to someone if it gives them pleasure, in working hard for the sake of their ease. Anna fell into a dreamy rhythm as she moved up from the feet to the cramped muscles in the calves; though she was the one kneeling at Bella's feet, she was the one who was in control, enjoying being of use. I suppose all this gets quite complex, when you balance it out.
When the foot massage was over, Anna sat on the sofa and they had the polite conversation about hide food and metal polish that they had not had the night before. Nothing was being said that seemed to have any sexual content. Anna felt relieved and disappointed. Perhaps this strange intense woman is really only interested in me for my mind; they usually are.
They moved gradually from contemporary photography to how Bella was working out a lot."It feels good, having my muscles develop."
She flexed her biceps and seemed to be calling for some sort of response, since she had shifted so that her chair was nearer to Anna than before. Actually, Anna realised, this had been a gradual process, which she had not noticed in spite of the way Bella had managed to bunch up the carpet on her way. Anna reached out a tentative finger, and prodded.
"You can touch it harder than that.It's not going to break."
Anna grasped the muscle firmly.
"You should see my shoulder muscles." Bella turned her back and pulled her cut-off over her head. Her back was covered in old scars, and in new deep scratches, some of them four inches long. Anna drew back.
Bella looked round at her, half-revealing a breast. "And what, my dear, is wrong with you ?"
"Your back. It's all covered with marks."
"Ah yes. Serena was round on Thursday, and the girl will insist on playing with knives. I'm afraid, Anna, that much of what you have probably been told about us by your so fearfully correct friends is but a shadow of the truth, a pale and a bloodless shadow. We really do do such dreadful things to each other, and we do enjoy it so much."
She continued to stand like that, with her head half-turned and her scarred shoulder thrust at Anna. Anna stared at the scars and the scratches and the glistening healthy skin between them. She reached out a much less tentative finger and ran it slowly down one scar and than another and then a third. She reached over and touched the first mark delicately with her lips. It came as no surprise when Bella sighed deeply and then slapped her. This was getting to be a habit, not an unpleasant one; Anna waited undismayed for a second slap and a third.
"What am I to do with you ? It is, of course, pleasant to be touched, but there must be order in these things; there must be permission given first. Or it is all without structure or meaning."
"I am sorry. I should have waited for you to say I could. Is there anything I can do to show I'm sorry ?" Anna found herself watching herself saying and doing these things; she did not think she was really all that interested in playing these games. But it seemed to be the terms on which it was possible to deal with Bella. And, granted that she was not especially interested in all this stuff, she had to admit that it came moderately easily. She would rather be submitting to Bella than have her leave; she had the option of refusing to play the game and she was choosing not to make that choice.
Bella looked at her watch, significantly.
Anna knew that she had messed it up, perhaps by being such a pushover. But it was too late to change that now.She knelt swiftly and passed Bella one of her boots, and then the other. She stayed at Bella's feet, trying to work out how this was done.
"You'll take a lot of training. That one straight up from top to bottom, and the other over and under all the way up. It's really very simple."
It was very simple. It was very easy. In a few seconds, Anna was doing it almost without thought, and was feeling a vague warmth that she was being put in a relation of intimacy with this woman, a considerable surprise that she was doing this and enjoying it. But eventually the job was done and Bella was fastening the belt of her leather jacket.
In the hall, she turned and spoke.
"I have not told you about the time I took a switchblade to Serena's back. She bled like a pig, even though I was quite gentle, and after I had looked at it for a while, I poured a carton of cream all over her. It's a strange taste, blood and cream mixed, but I licked her quite clean."
Suddenly, Anna had Bella pinned up against the wall, was banging her head against it, and was crushing her with all of her body. "Please ,oh please, don't do that, don't do that", she was moaning, and Bella was laughing at her.
"You see", she said,"you are capable, Anna my dear, of absolutely spontaneous acts of passion and arousal. I had been beginning to doubt it. Everything you do has so much dithering and thought to it. Relax; just do stuff when it comes.I shall probably see you again, quite soon. Sweet dreams."
Anna closed the door behind her with a curt nod, and then felt like melting into the carpet. Did this woman go around London disturbing people's inner calm all the time ? Did any of this mean anything, or did she just want to tighten knots of erotic tension in Anna's stomach for the sake of the game ?
Anna knew she would just have to wait, wait for another few moments of ambiguous pleasure to be doled out to her. Even if bella came around again soon, she would hardly be able to ask what was going on. It would be presumptuous, would it not, the sort of thing for which one was liable to get slapped again. And she was already enjoying that far too much, coming to take it for granted, letting Bella's assumption that it was what she really wanted become her own.
There was no very immediate sequel; Anna took to chewing the end of a pencil with a particularly determined air, and worked very hard in the British Library, getting there as early in the morning as was consistent with missing the Rush Hour, and staying right up to the moment when attendants wander up and stand behind you coughing meaningfully. She comfort ate tortilla chips in the evening, and spent hours with the blender, making bean dip and guacamole so she could kid herself she was doing something nutritious. She played Sibelius symphonies on her headphones, too loud to be entirely good for her ears, and when she was too mentally exhausted for anything else, she played complicated patiences without cheating. She did think about trying to afford an answer-phone, just in case Bella was ringing when she was out. But she also supposed that it was unlikely that she was anywhere near being in the other's thoughts; the whole thing had been something that had just happened, and was now entirely over.
If it had taught her anything, it was that in the heat of a moment of lust, she was quite prepared to compromise her dignity and play around with the fringes of things she was a long way from understanding. If it had seemed quite easy and natural at the time, that did not necessarily mean anything very much, except about a particular couple of days. Was there any point, she thought, in letting herself get dragged under for the sake of someone who clearly was only interested enough to tease.
That was what she said to herself; her dreams were embarrassingly full of Bella, or at least of tall sneering presences in leather and in underwear. Anna was quite shocked at the conventional trashiness of what erotic fantasies she could remember in the morning. It was bad enough being infatuated; worse when there was so much about the vocabulary of the infatuation that was so vulgar.
Eventually, she got shit-faced on Magda's Southern Comfort and made a rather embarrassing series of confessions about what had happened, and about what had not. Magda and Ariadne affected to find it slightly amusing that she had got so worked up about so little in terms of physical contact.
"Well, I know that there is a whole subset of psychological games involved in the business" said Magda, with the air of having kept ahead of Anna on reading on the subject. "Perhaps she thinks she is doing you some sort of immense gratificatory favour by hardly laying a finger on you, and not making any contact for weeks. I suppose you could see it as a sexual way of defining a presence by an absence, and sort of post-modernist stuff like that.Some of Bella's circle are quite smart in their way; and I'm sure they can think up some quite ingenious explanations of how good old fashioned clit-teasing is a really trendy way of getting someone complicatedly off, or not."
"Well", said Ariadne, "it all sounds a lot too sophisticated for us. Didn't it hurt when she slapped you, Anna darling ? And are you really sure you would want her to come near you again. It sounds to me awfully like getting addicted. And someone with your bad habits in the matter of cocktail snacks cannot afford to acquire another vice."
"I do hope", said Magda," that you are not going to go on mooning for very long, or get bitter about all of this. It would be too boring for you to go around calling yourself a victim or a survivor of all this stuff, and building a politics around it."
"We would not like that at all",said Ariadne," and we would probably like it even less if it had come to anything, come to something depraved and involving whips and chains. Both sides in all that are a bit tedious, and your friend Bella sounds as if she is exhaustingly hip and cool as well. I would imagine she gets seriously annoying in company; that sort of person always copes with larger numbers by turning up the volume control and doing everything several times as fast. There is a point of diminishing returns with smoke rings."
"We're not saying we'd have dropped you", added Magda anxiously. "We'd never do that, certainly not just if you started hanging upside-down from ceilings wearing underwear."
"Just that it would have been embarrassing, if it had gone any further."
"Well", said Anna, "I really don't know what to say to all of that, except that there is something a tad more honest about theatricality when it is an unsupported solo performance. At least, when Bella tries to mess up my mind, she does it without a pole or a safety net."
"Ingrate" cooed Ariadne.
"We're just trying to save you from yourself", said Magda.
"Perhaps I don't want saving after all" said Anna," but thanks for the Southern Comfort. I could have done with other kinds, but at least it's something."
"Well," said Magda, " in the end, the whole thing is pretty theoretical. I mean, nothing is going to happen if she doesn't ring you, is it ? From what you've said, it sounds as if it would be impossibly pushy for you to do the ordinary thing and ring her, or drop her a line, or walk up the road to Senate House, which is where, I am told, she does her studying. Looking ever so slightly different from the way she cruises, from the one time I noticed her."
Anna decided to ignore that last bit, and considered the option Magda had just offered her. Perhaps she had been left to stew in the hope that she would get up off her arse and do something. Bella was after all rather concerned that she lacked spontaneity.
"But I really hate being given flowers" said Bella. "And I don't especially like being haunted when I am working."
"But I've been trying to work for weeks," said Anna, making a serious throw of the dice,"and you've been haunting me all the time."
"Have I ?", asked Bella."Well, I have to admit that that is at least flattering.And it is nice to see you taking an initiative, even if it has taken you several weeks. There's the stuff I do in the way of doing a scene, you know, and there is also wanting to know that I'm not making a complete wally of myself."
"Um", said Anna."Well, actually, it didn't occur to me that you needed reassurance. I thought you'd realise that I was interested. I mean, I don't let just anyone slap my face on the first date."
"Well, I was worried that you were just leading me on, and going to lower the boom the moment I did anything terribly overt. People do say no to me, quite often, even about just sex, let alone anything more elaborate."
"The thing about flowers, and waiting outside libraries with them", said Anna, "is that even if you are not a semiologist it is reasonably easy to get the message. It may be blush-making, but at least it's unequivocal."
" I hope you don't mind my not doing the whole bit at you right now; I mean, if you've been waiting for weeks for another instalment of serious dominance, I'm sorry but right now I'm much too tired."
"Actually, so am I. I was thinking more along the lines of finding somewhere to have a quiet drink, or a meal, and having a civilised conversation, and then making a date for some other time."
"I suspect I'm going to find you duller than Serena, but it is quite nice to have exhaustion respected."
"Gosh", said Anna,"I am presuming again. Are you and she um, an item or something."
"Not right now", said Bella, "not that you need worry about. And perhaps you are being presumptuous if you are this sure you need to know. And then again, perhaps, it will turn out that you're not. "
"So you're putting me back on 'Wait and see'?"
"More or less", said Bella,"But if you've liked waiting, you're just going to love seeing."
It was drizzling outside in the early autumn sun, and they ran through the rain to Tottenham Court Road, and found a pub and sat and drank, and found, not that they did not have anything to say to each other, but rather that they did not have to say anything very much to make each other laugh, or at least smile so that the jaws hurt. It never means all that much about a new friendship or new relationship that you sit around and have a good time and find having a good time easy; it does not mean that there will not be problems and that the good times past will not make any eventual anger between you far more vindictive and nagging than it would otherwise have been. But at least for a couple of hours, it was easy on the mental faculties, a pleasure to the heart.
And, it didn't, it didn't really make any difference that the Bella that worked in libraries was a lot less dramatic in style than the Bella who cruised in bars and postured in your front room. . She was not as sexy, not so much an object of fantasy, when she was wearing her rather thick glasses and a rather silly rain hat and a more or less sensible raincoat.
"I make a bit of a thing about exits, I suppose, and I was really annoyed when you suddenly stopped dancing and turned white. But actually, and you must never tell Serena if you ever talk to her, not that you ever will, one of the reasons why I favour dramatic exits is that sometimes I really need to get my contacts out in a hurry. "
"Well, I think you look nice wearing glasses, sort of more soulful, and less like someone from a movie about being tough in the 50s " said Anna, who from time to time had been told that the sort of flattery she found easy was male-identified behaviour, but did not especially think that Bella would notice or especially mind.
"You are sweet", said Bella, " but that's just it. I am on the block when I am down at the Bell; I am trying to score. It is important to me that I can have people when I feel like it. And life is hard, and I have learned from it that 'nice' as you put it ain't worth shit for getting laid of a Saturday night, not by comparison with a tight pair of pants and a serious sneer anyway."
"All depends whom you want to score, sweetheart. Some of us quite like the mean, moody and thingy look, but also quite like it sugar and spice when we see it. Sometimes you might be missing out."
"I do not wish to pull rank round here", said Bella," but it is not me that ends up waiting outside libraries with flowers."
"Nor", said Anna,"is it me that comes round to people's flats on wet Sundays and gets something started I don't finish because my eyes are itching."And kissed her, and stayed unslapped.
There are times when you realise that living in London is living in a very small village indeed; when you hear about someone being kicked to death on Bedford Hill in an argument about drugs from a friend in Crown Prosecution, and realise that they are the person who used to sit at the next table reading Socialist Worker in the days when you ate regularly in a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Shepherds Bush because it was near the television studios. People are free with information, in the delusion that no one ever follows anything up much, or cares much, and so passing on information does not really mater, until you do it one time too many and half the city is no longer speaking to you. It had surprised Anna that people she hardly knew knew her name and her address, but at that point she was thinking in terms of its being Bella and of Bella as being at least slightly interested in her, and troubling to find out, like she would have done if she had the sort of nerve, the sort of bloody cheek. What one person can find out, she failed to reflect, so can another.
A couple of evenings later, she walked down her road and discovered a Kawasaki parked outside her flat, and the woman who had been scathing about her being sick in the Bell leaning up against the wall, smoking a cigarette in the way Anna thought you weren't supposed to within a hundred yards or something of a motorbike. As Anna walked up to her door, the spiky blonde walked over to her and as she stuck her key in the lock ground the cigarette out on her hand.
"Gosh", said Anna," I would have thought by now that you would have learned to do that more effectively than that, Serena." Actually, it stung like Hell and was clearly going to do so for some considerable time; but there are times when it is important to run a burn under the cold tap and rub some Aloe Vera on it, and times when the issue is not losing face.
"I don't think I like you", said the spiky blonde.
"Well," said Anna, " I am often quite unperceptive in these areas, but I had sort of gathered that. Even in your circles, I gather, lighted cigarettes are not a usual mode of social introduction."
"Circles you seem keen enough on getting into the pants of."
"No, not circles, just, just possibly, individuals. Am I to gather that you regard yourself as having some rights in the matter? Am I to take it that I am being given the gipsy's warning or something ?"
"She said you were a bit of a smartass" said the woman whom Anna assumed probably was Serena, mostly because she had not positively stated that she wasn't on being called it.
"Nice to know that, if people discuss me behind my back, they at least get some of it right some of the time" said Anna.
"I really would like you to stay away from Bella" said Serena.
"I shall take note of that preference, and do whatever I damn well please. But thanks for demonstrating why I might not care to let anything that happens become a reason for changing the rhythm of my social life" said Anna, who really was starting to feel the need to do something about the cold tap and the cactus cream.
"You do want to take her away. I thought so."
"For God's sake, I hardly know the woman. I don't plan on doing anything with her except maybe have dinner some time soon. But whatever I do, I will do without reference to you or anyone else whose business it isn't."
"She's been rabbiting on about you for ages" said Serena, not bothering to look nearly so tough by now and actually looking sufficiently upset that Anna was almost inclined, but not quite, to ask her in for tea and say comforting things.
"But I only caught sight of her a couple of months ago. I've met her this huge total of three times."
"That's not what she says. She says she used to see you around years ago, and that you have improved with age, the way most people don't. She says. I don't see how you can have been less good-looking."
Anna reflected that she was one of the few people she knew who never changed her hair colour and who had not especially changed her style of dress since she went to University, having started then to dress like Sara Bernhardt playing Hamlet, except for the wooden leg, and to see no especial reason to change anything save individual items of clothing since. She supposed that she might have managed not to notice Bella in some earlier incarnation, though she found the idea surprising. Maybe the leather and studs actually mattered more than she thought. And there had been this woman that used to come into the bookshop when Anna was working there on a Saturday, a woman who always wore mirror-shades and Brylcreem and high school turquoise tuxedos and looked like a cyberpunk Valentino, and thinking about ti they had never spoken, but she was the right size and how do you tell if someone is thinking about cruising you if you have no possible opportunity of seeing their eyes. The course of true love never did run smooth, Anna reflected. "Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that I asked whether there was anything going on between you two still that I ought to know about and she said that there wasn't, that I ought to know about that is. So what's your story, and whence do you think you derive the right to demonstrate territorial claims with lighted cigarettes ?"
"Bella always says you should do what you feel you have to do", said Serena, with that aggressive tone in her voice which usually means that people are about to defend to someone else's death their right to be seriously out of order and know it.
"Well, precisely" said Anna," and I am sure that whatever Bella decides to do will be done in accordance with that doctrine. I don't hold to that which is why there was no blood spurting from your nose thirty seconds after you burned me. But I am not about to jump to any sort of conclusions about where whatever mild flirtation exists between Bella and me might take us. I have been getting lectures about jumping to conclusions and being presumptuous and now I know why Bella is so obsessed with the idea that they might be necessary. Unless you are prepared to swear to me that you and she are bound together with hoops of steel, which might make me disinclined to get further involved with anyone who would make a serious commitment to a loony with a large bike and dangerous hands, I suggest, I seriously suggest, that you let events take their course. And piss off, now. I have better things to do than stand here arguing on my doorstep with a throbbing hand."
"You needn't think you're going to get away with this."
"Oh, perlease," said Anna, "what bad movies have you been watching ? No one ever gets away with anything round here, except a few moments of pleasure. But what ensures that is the nature of the cosmos, and not some silly little girl who thinks she's the Sapphic equivalent of Clint Eastwood."
"You'd better not tell her I was here."
"My lips are sealed, unless she asks me why I have a plaster on my hand. You should never mark them, sweetie."
"You just better hadn't, that's all."
"Actually," said Anna," I don't imagine that I will. I find the whole thing impossibly embarrassing. I mean, this is London in the 80s. Next you'll be challenging me to a duel or something. I wouldn't dream of insulting Bella by referring to the fact that she plays silly games with children. "
"You're keen enough on playing them."
"Serena, my dear, you have to learn about context. I am not the sort of silly person who lurks round people's front doors making silly threats. And so anything which I might eventually choose to do, or have done to me, in the bed of your ex, or anyone else, would be done in the context of my not being a bloody-minded little twerp, and therefore be quite different, from the same thing done by someone who was one."
"So you reckon you're better than me."
"Yes", said Anna.
"You're a bitch, Anna Jones."
"True", said Anna.
"You're just slags, the pair of you !" Serena yelled.
Very suddenly, Anna had enough of all this, and swung a shopping bag full of tins of cat food very firmly into the other's shins, then put the bags down and pushed Serena very hard down the four steps to the street. Serena lost her balance, and landed quite hard on the pavement. Anna finally managed to turn the key in the lock, and picked up her bags, just in time to hit Serena in the shins again when she came charging back up the steps. This could go on all night, she reflected, and shut the door hard behind her. The doorbell to her flat rang a few times over the next quarter of an hour, but eventually their was a burst of static on her headphones which indicated that the bike had driven off. Oh dear, said Anna to herself, I'm sure this is going to have consequences.
When, next evening, there came a knocking on her door, Anna reflected that she should probably have told Ciana down stairs that until further notice she should always check before letting people in that Anna actually wanted to see them. But it was too late for that now, and she let Bella in.
"You really should not have done that" said Bella, and swung at her. Anna caught her arm in mid air, and twisted it slightly.
"Sit there", she said," on that sofa. And do not fucking move. Or I'll hurt you. You have five minutes to explain this, and then I'll throw you out, as hard as I have to. This is all getting ridiculous."
"You shouldn't have hurt her."
"And why on earth not ?"
"She was upset. She didn't know what she was doing. And some of the things you said were really a bit much. You shouldn't have told her we'd had sex; how could you drop me in it like that when it is completely untrue ?"
"Well, of course, the answer is that I never said anything of the kind. And it will most certainly remain untrue as long as you are prepared to threaten mayhem on the say so of some idiot child. I really like you, Bella, and I would not be especially averse to making it into your bed, but not at the cost of having to deal with Serena, and have you come round here trying to hit me just because she slagged me for five minutes and I threw her off my steps."
"But she can hardly walk, she says."
"If she fell hard, and hurt her shins, that is no especial concern of mine. She burned my hand, and I'm afraid that I have no particular feeling of a need to be restrained when people pick fights with me, and start calling me names. And, come to that, I am not best pleased with you. You implied when we talked that you were a free woman, rather than someone with a lover who feels entitled to come round and yell at people, and about whose pains you come round and yell too."
"Yes, and you shouldn't repeat private conversations to her. She was very hurt about what you said about my saying it's not her business what happens between us."
"Oh come on,"said Anna,"I asked you whether you two were an item, and you said something like that it didn't affect me. Now it may be that it does not affect me because you are actually just wasting my time as far as sex goes, or it may be that it does not affect me because you assume that you can have some sort of flingette with me and go on making beef tartare of her without ever needing to tell anyone the truth about anything. But when someone comes round and warns me off their turf, as far as I'm concerned, I'm at least entitled to say that the turf has told me it is not their turf to warn me off. But obviously if you are so concerned with her battle scars, she is something important to you, and I will stay well away. I tend to find adultery a bit of a bore, these days; I don't have the right sort of high-grade adrenaline that all my friends seem to run their affairs on."
"When I said that to you, I meant it; it's just that she came round when I got home, and I had a scene with her, and I changed my mind again. I don't especially want to make choices, but it is easier to choose someone you've just been to bed with over someone you haven't ever done anything much with. You've got to understand; I really like you, and I want you to be a really special friend."
"This is not the first time I have heard those lines" said Anna," and I find it entirely objectionable that people should feel able to tell me that everything they have said which implied that they were hot for me is a complete delusion on my part, a delusion about which they are being jolly sporting and tolerant, and then propose to toss me the crumb of some sort of fucking special friendship. I have special friends already, ones that I happen to trust a lot more than I feel interested in trusting you any more. I quite understand that you want to hang on to what you've got; I'm sure I'm not even slightly as exciting as Serena or as inventive with odd bits of heavy machinery. But you do not, you really do not, raise the issue of having sex with someone and talk them into it, and then suddenly change your mind, and offer them friendship instead, and expect them to be all nice and kind and civilised about it. It takes a certain amount before I am even prepared to think about having sex with anyone, and the fact that having sex with you would involve me in all sorts of doubtless utterly sensual but entirely deranged experiences of the pain- pleasure complex makes me thoroughly disinclined to be fucking nice about it. "
"You're shouting," said Bella, who had stopped looking angry and had that smug expression on her face which denoted that she had , not aces, but the entire playing card factory, up her sleeve.
"Yes," said Anna," I am shouting. And I shall continue to shout whenever you act like such an asshole. And I shall now, I think, ask you to vacate the premises. I really can't stand all this, and I have work to do."
"You are actually quite sexy when you're being a bully."
"That's as may be; it is also the sort of idiot tired cliché I'd expect from Serena rather than from you. Inasmuch as I find you attractive, it is for a certain farouche quality of mind rather than for coming out with the sort of compliments that they put out in Christmas crackers."
"Look, Anna, the truth is that I don't know what I want; I think I want you, and I certainly want Serena, because she is so hot in bed and I really do like the things I do with her. And even from what you say, it's clear that you're never going to be all that into it, even if we do make it. And you seem fun to be with without its being terribly necessary. And Serena is a bit of a liar, and I should have asked your side of things. But she came round and demanded that I do something about you, and she said that you had said all sorts of things which aren't true. I may be a bit wimpy about it, but I have to show some sort of loyalty to her, even though she does tell lies."
Anna said,"The real issue seems to be that we have not actually done anything more than flirt, isn't it ? I was waiting for you to ask me, but that seems a rather bad idea now. So are we going to or are we not ? "
"I don't like being given ultimata."
"Even though I'm hot when I'm a bully."
"That simplifies it, doesn't it ? If you're saying no, then you've made a choice. Enjoy Serena, and really don't do this to anyone else. It really is such bad manners."
"I don't mean 'no ,I'm not going to bed with you'. I just mean that I do not like getting ultimata."
"I'm not giving you an ultimatum. I'm just saying that 'Yes, I do want to go to bed with you' and my guess is that it is better happening sooner rather than later, because, if it's later, it is never actually going to happen at all, because you are going to go on dithering, and Serena is going to go on yelling at you, in bad, and I am going to suffer from ever increasingly defunct self- esteem. It's not a matter of 'Or else'; it's a clear statement that I am up for it, and up for whatever you want it to be, unless I really can't cope with it in the crunch. But I want to find out, and you are not going to get a better offer than that from me."
Bella did not answer that, but as Anna finished speaking, and realised that she was crying and that she had been sobbing for much of the last sentence, Bella got up off the sofa, and walked across and took her by the hand, and led her back to the sofa, and sat her down, and held her, while Anna cried. And Bella did not so much kiss her as lick the tears off her cheeks.
After a bit, Bella stood up and took off her jackets and her boots, and walked over and poured Anna a drink, and asked if she could have one, rather unnecessarily. They sat quietly; Anna was far from sure she knew what to do or say next, and Bella clearly was not in any sort of control of the situation either.
"About Serena.....It's a sort of on and off thing, and I don't really know whether I want it to go on or not, but I really do not want to hurt her. And you play vulnerable a lot, but you aren't really all that thin-skinned, not like she is."
"How the fuck do you know how thin- or thick-skinned I am? Just because I manage to keep going on half an engine does not mean that I actually like it. I get by, and I'll get by without you, and I'll get by with being relegated to the status of your friend by that jealous little maniac. But don't ever think that because I can cope with things, I want to have to." Anna was dry-eyed again by now, but was feeling a lot worse than when she had been crying, and she was aware that, if this went on much longer, her voice was going to give out completely.
"I'd like to sleep here tonight", said Bella."I can't offer you anything more than that; but I really would like to do that, and I don't think that anything more would be appropriate."
"I suppose you can sleep on the sofa."
"I don't mean on the sofa."
"I suppose not."
"We're both upset. But it would be nice. And it would establish something. I do care what you feel, and I don't want to be a shit to you. And I think I want to be your lover, at least some of the time. And right now you need a good cuddle and so do I. I'm not Serena, and I do think that some of the time, just cuddling is more or less what is called for."
They went to bed. Bella did not make all that many comments about the way that Anna did not make her bed, and they found that they sort of fitted round each other in a comfortable way. Anna did think from time to time in the course of that night that perhaps this was going to be all she really wanted from Bella, who was quite good at running her finger along the side of your jaw and making you feel that doing so was something she had only just thought of as a good idea. They kissed a bit, though never all that passionately; there seemed to be some sort of sense that that would not be an especially good idea, would commit them to moving too fast in some further direction.
Bella was being most terribly sweet. Anna found herself dropping off to sleep and was really very embarrassed next morning when she remembered that Bella had started talking to her about her sexual fantasies about what sex with Anna might be like at almost precisely that time. Whatever happened, it was stuff it would have been useful to know, and she could hardly ask her to run through it all over again over breakfast in the local cafe, where Bella ate an awful lot of bacon sandwiches and the waiter acted with a slightly satirical gallantry that made Anna realise that she had never managed to be as discreet as she thought in her neighbourhood.
She walked Bella to the Underground, and it seemed impossible to say anything. Neither of them did say anything until Bella was just about to get in the lift, and then it was only a sort of tentative note in her throat, about which she clearly decided to have thought better.
"It turns out that you are not the only one who moons around outside libraries,"said Bella later that afternoon,"but I bring bottles of champagne, so much more useful than flowers, and I take people back to my flat in a taxi."
Anna had been assuming she would go and buy typewriter ribbon, Costa Rican Extra Dark coffee beans and some fresh pasta; but she decided to defer these errands to some time with less potential. She assumed that something was finally and unequivocally going to get round to happening; she thought that she was on balance rather pleased; and she could tell that whatever prudence might have dictated, lust was shouting louder.
Bella paid the taxi at her flat in Kennington, and hustled Anna up the stairs. She took her coat and bags and put them on the floor of the walk-in closet. Anna found herself slightly dithering between the large tubular steel bed, some director's chairs with torn canvas and a sofa that looked comfortable , but to sit on which, she would have had to remove a variety of handcuffs, riding-crops and obscure small bits of metal with screws in them. It was with an altogether unhostessly vehemence that Bella told her to sit on the bed and shut up while she got some glasses. The champagne was not especially good, or especially cold, and rather too much of it spilled even though Bella was careful with the cork, but it was the potency of cliché that got Anna mildly tipsy very fast, rather than the drink or any other immediate aspect of the situation.
It was a large attic room with sloping high ceilings and a couple of beams that seemed not to support anything, but what did Anna know about structures. The photographs which covered the walls were for the most part the sort of thing Anna would have expected and a short while ago considered rather unsubtle; many of them were obviously snapshots rather than professional jobs- this was obvious both from their quality and from the omnipresence in them of Serena and various other of the women Anna had seen with Bella hanging upside down or chained to motorbikes. The large structure involving pulleys and chains and wristbands, that was one of the things that Anna found a bit obvious in the photographs, was attached to the one of the beams; Anna got up and as she wandered round the room, one of the cuffs clipped her round the ear when she wasn't quite looking.
"I did say sit down," said Bella,"but I suppose that you might as well warm yourself up by looking at my photograph collection while I change."
Just slipping into something more uncomfortable, an unregenerate side of Anna chortled to herself, before being bitten back in the interests of the serious business of animal lust. She wanted Bella; she wanted her enough to be here; and she supposed that everything else that was going to surround getting her was going to be at least instructive, and possibly fun, and not the subject for any sense of humour whatever, not at the time anyway. She was going to be the one any joke was on, after all, especially if the joke involved the sort of thing that was going on in the photographs, those of those things that were plausible to begin with that was.
Bella reappeared wearing an extravagantly tight pair of high-waisted leather trousers, a jacket even more glossy and heavily shouldered than the one she ordinarily wore, a cut-off, a peaked leather cap and her boots. Anna was impressed by the speed with which Bella could get those boots off and on again and undo the laces and do them up again; all this stuff takes so much practice.
"Any last moment desire to pull out," said Bella. "Of course, you are quite free to do so."
You have the right to remain silent, thought Anna; this woman has an altogether unamusing, though quite cute, tendency to come on like a motorcycle cop. "Well, I suppose we may as well see how it goes; I really don't know though that I'm going to enjoy the sort of thing you have in mind. I really am very naive about all this, Bella, my love."
"Oh," said Bella, relaxing her neck muscles for a second and dropping the sneer for the soppy smile,"You'll see. I'm very good at all of this, and, judging from the way you react to really quite mild stimuli, you'll find it pretty much like falling off a log. Anyway, get your clothes off. No, I'll take them off for you; it 'will be more fun that way. For me, anyway."
Bella undressed Anna with clinical slowness and occasional sudden pinches of parts of her body Anna had not known were that sensitive; or maybe they weren't normally. Did the pinches hurt, and did it matter, she reflected, and decided without much real surprise that it seemed not to. This was partly a matter of being turned on; and partly relief that things had got, finally, to the point. As soon as Bella had got Anna's sweater over her head, she knotted a piece of black silk around her eyes. Anna supposed that this meant Bella could relax some of the time from this point on and not have to pull dominant faces for Anna's benefit. From Anna's point of view, at least it meant that she did not have to look at all the photos of Serena and the rest, and try and live up to them, and that she did not have to feel so much like a trophy that was liable to end up there with them, stuffed and mounted and displayed. Not being able to see how they had performed would at least mean that she had only instinct to go on, which would probably be her strongest suit.
Not being able to see Bella meant that it was the dream of her behind Anna's eyes that was making love to her, as well as the actual person. This was not unwelcome, since the real Bella had aspects to her personality and appearance which one less infatuated than Anna might have called faults or flaws; the fantasy none. Anna got to be made love to by both- the passionate joy of the ideal without any guilt about objectifying the real person whose hands she could feel moving around her body.
A not altogether becoming rustle,creak and clatter indicated that Bella had dropped her jacket to the ground, an auditory impression almost immediately vindicated by the bare and salt- tasting shoulder Anna found presented to her mouth. She licked it a bit, and then nibbled on it gently as she would a canapé.
"You are being bad again", said Bella. The thought did cross Anna's mind that of course she was being bad, that seemed to be the only way this was going to move forward."I think we had better give you a little less freedom to abuse."
Anna was shoved forwards and there were Igory squeaks from the chains and the pulleys. Bella fitted straps around her wrists; there were more squeaks and moans from the equipment, and Anna found her arms pulled tightly above her head. Belle kneaded the crease of Anna's back with her knuckles with a forcefulness that skirted the painful but never came near to it than delight; in her sensible voice, not her masterful one, she said,"If you find yourself getting cramp, do let me know, but most people don't, not for ages, and I can usually tell from watching your muscles anyway. But do say."
Anna heard a match strike and sizzle, and smelt smoke and candles. "Um", she tentatively protested.
"Trust me," said Bella."This may sound a little frightening, but I think you'll get into it." The thing about hot wax on the skin, is that by the time it has dripped on to your shoulders from the candle, it has only a second or so left of being hot,and so doesn't burn you. It really hurts, but not for long enough to be a pain, and the fourth or fifth time Anna found herself curling her shoulders as much to catch it as to avoid it; it hurt like pulling off a very minor scab, or cold rain on a hot day. Anna had never been other than careless with candles during a Catholic childhood of holding them in a white First Communion dress and looking appealing; it came to her that she knew the feeling well. A relaxed smile came across her lips.
"I didn't say you could smile", said Bella, but Anna's smile only got broader. Bella bit the side of her chin, in one of the fleshy bits, and Anna realised in a part of herself that was lumbered with remaining objective that this was quite pleasing too. All of this went on for some unspecified time; Anna was drowsy with pleasure and champagne and actual quantities of time became largely irrelevant to her.
This reverie did not especially change even when Bella announced, "Time for the whips." Anna reflected that this might be unpleasant, but that it might be a surprise after all. The first stroke of a riding crop across her buttocks made her gasp, and the thought that this might not work after all did a tad more than knock on the door of the fringes of her mind. And it persisted through the first few strokes. But in for a penny, in for a pound, replied the part of Anna that was doing the job of being in lust, and after a bit the skin that was being hit started tingling between blows. It's not being whipped that's good, perhaps; it's more the bits between when you're not, or maybe you just get into it.It's like your throat feels after you've had a whisky if you don't like whisky; there's that nasty taste and that burning, but after a bit all you notice is the warmth.
Interesting physiological things are happening to me, thought the remorselessly uninvolved Anna; you really can get pain and pleasure all mixed up just like the books say you can, and I'd never quite believed it before. Part of Anna was thinking all sorts of Romantic things about the omnipresence of Bella as in impersonal force embodied in cuffs and whip and floor; and part of her was taking notes on how this was a really good example of the way cultural forces dictate that we think about love and sex. Some people have a bad case of sex in the head, she thought, and some of us go on watching all the time, even when our mouths are making delicious little whimpering noises and a casual observer might be entitled to assume that they were all that was going on inside. I can't even have an orgasm and just have it, thought Anna, just before having one, and having to collect her thoughts for a second to remember where she had been before.
"Lucky bitch" said Bella, and a key clicked in the lock Anna had not even known was on the wristbands. Somewhat to her surprise, she could not entirely easily stand up, but it did not really matter as there seemed to be plenty to do on the floor. There was a rug ; Anna got momentarily interested in the effect of its scratchiness of her somewhat sensitive back, before Bella dropped the rather large hint of placing her foot firmly between Anna's breasts.
"May I ?" asked Anna, knowing that by this point it was probably no longer appropriate to wait for or defer to an answer, and applying her tongue to the hard places of the heel, and the tender intricate corners between the toes, before exploring with her teeth the complexity of bone that lies beneath the skin of the ankles' base. She could tell as she moved slowly and delicately up Bella's legs that Bella was starting to find it a strain to continue to stand up straight, legs apart and back probably stiff.Poor darling, she thought, she works so hard , as she fondled the swell of Bella's calves and the small curved lines ingrained in the back of the knee.
"I can always welcome gentle delicate services", gasped Bella, trying quite hard to keep cool going at a stage when Anna really found it impatient-making that she should still feel it necessary. And lines like that just have to have been said before to rather too many people. The progress of Anna's tongue and fingers had reached a point where wisps of hair were starting to interest her with their wiry gentleness and the smell of some lost sea, and Bella was starting, not quite to whimper, but to make the sort of half-noises that probably indicated that she would quite like to feel able to. Fuck acting- let's fuck, Anna thought as she stood up, stretched, took the bandage of her eyes and lay down on the bed, relying confidently that Bella would follow rather than get all piqued that she had not been left to drag Anna there by the hair.
She started to mutter something petulant about this, as she lay down, but Anna pre-empted her by sticking her tongue firmly through her open lips and down her throat. When she came up for air, Bella seized the initiative back and held her down by the shoulders, biting at her earlobes and her nipples. I could probably flip her over on her back like a turtle, thought Anna, but she probably wouldn't like me too, not this time anyway, and I'm doing a reasonable if minor part of the work anyway. I bet she'll like it if I do what my cats do when I stroke their stomachs, sort of arch my back and roll my eyes a lot and make small ecstatic mewing sounds; yes, that did work, and the darling surely thinks it was all her idea and my reaction. This is all a matter of both of us doing stuff; but I have to be sneakier about it is all.
Bless her, she does keep her nails short.Thank the lord I've been being a wise virgin and doing the same. She is really being a bit forceful and that could almost hurt, but it doesn't. Gosh, she's nice and easy; it is like putting on a glove that kisses your hand all over, nice sloppy kisses. I suppose that this almost brutal stretching I feel is what all this gentle exploration of softnesses of flesh feels like inside her. There's no telepathy, but you can extrapolate sympathy. So gentle, so violent; every gentleness is also a violence and no gentleness can be a violation. The second time, it's almost like yawning, but it isn't, oh no, it's not like being tired at all; it's like stretching, like being stretched, in a sun warm as hot chocolate, bright as flash bulbs.
"Well," said Bella, rolling over on to her side some time later," that really was all very nice." And pecked at her cheek, thought about it, then kissed her very firmly on the lips."Very nice indeed. Do you have sugar in your coffee ? I really can't remember."
"That was all a bit excessive," said Anna, as they helped each other down the rain-slick steps of the Scala, and looked for a taxi, Bella hovering in some sort of vague shelter and proving that a leather jacket will protect most things but not your hair gel.
"I like slasher movies", said Bella. "They are a clinical look into the cancerous heart of US society and stuff like that. I also quite like to watch people screaming, as you well know."
"But it all gets so repetitious; once you've seen one set of wobbling tonsils, you really do tend to have seen them all. And while there is doubtless no limit to the range of things people can be shown doing to the human body, there is a limit, a really rather early limit, to the extent to which I can remain interested after the second chain-saw, the third sawn-off shotgun and the seventh cement-mixer."
"But if you're so blasé and disapproving, why were you screaming 'Get him, kill him, use the cleaver,he's behind you' when I came back with your second flapjack and coffee ?"
"It's important to get into the spirit of the thing and try and involve yourself with the cultural experience", said Anna, who had hoped that Bella had not noticed. She had tried to judge so carefully when to shut up so as not to get caught enjoying herself in a way she found more than a bit dodgy.
"I knew there was something about our relationship that you hadn't told me", said Bella."Here I was, thinking you were passionately hot for my body, and actually you were involving yourself in a cultural experience."
"Well, in this particular case, the cultural experience automatically involves being passionately hot for your body. It comes with the territory. You can't separate chicken and egg."
"Sort of like Foo Yung."
But at that moment a cab came. Bella insisted that they go to her place, even though Anna had got croissants in specially, because she had an overwhelming desire to read The Observer in bed, and she had it delivered and Anna didn't, and they were the sort of croissants that kept in the freezer, and she preferred bacon sarnies anyway. Anna would quite have liked to argue the point, but more because she felt that she should some of the time argue with bella about things than because actually it was all that much of an issue; she quite liked to read The Observer in bed too, and she and Bella were at least compatible to the extent that they liked to start with different sections.
The cab-driver was clearly unhappy at the way they were snuggled up to each other in the back seat, and, when Bella remarked on the rather complicated route he seemed to be taking, in her politest possible way, which was, Anna reflected, a lot more polite than you might expect from her appearance, muttered something about bloody yuppy lesbian bitches under his breath. Anna had been here before, with various lovers, and really did not feel like having principles dictate a long walk from Blackfriars to Kennington in the rain; but Bella clearly felt the same and contented herself with murmuring that that was his tip fucked, and curling back into a sort of doze.
But she woke up when it was a matter of bounding up the stairs in a dramatic way and turning on the light and throwing back the covers; even when sex was not in the offing, she preferred to at least preserve the appearance of things being fearfully athletic. Except that when she threw back the covers, there was Serena, bunched around a teddy-bear that was one of Bella's few refusals to make concession to her image.
"I see," said Anna."I suppose you two set this up in one of those long passionate phone- calls I am supposed not to hear because of gargling and brushing my teeth."
Bella looked abashed. "This is all very embarrassing. But this time there was no arrangement at all, of any sort; she's just here. I didn't ask her, but she has a key, and she thinks she has some sort of rights."
"And I don't want to alarm you" said Anna, on the point of panicking herself," but what was in that pill bottle she is holding ?"
For a couple of seconds, Bella looked deeply worried and sucked her lip all the way under her teeth, but on looking at the bottle she cheered up amazingly."Well", she said,"there's the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that it has a label on it saying temazepam and that it used to contain sleeping tablets, and the good news is that I've been using it for keeping vitamin C tablets in. The bad news is"- and she placed a booted foot rather firmly into Serena's ribs-" is that this one will be around to plague me for many years to come; and the good news is that she at least won't have a cold while she does it."
Serena was making peculiar little go-away-I'm-sleeping noises, and creasing her feet in a way that indicated that when she actually woke up, she would probably have cramp.
"Actually" said Anna," in lots of ways, I think I'd rather sleep on the sofa."
"I don't think" said Bella," that when this one stops pretending to be asleep,it is necessarily going to be allowed to stay where it is. I think it may find itself having a minicab called and being decanted into it to sort out its problems for itself."
"I can see the advantages of that", said Anna."But I would not want it to be done to me, however badly I had behaved, so I imagine that on the whole I would disapprove of your doing it to her. Sorry."
"Oh god,I am still alive", said Serena.
"You took vitamin C", said Bella.
"Are you all right ?", said Anna.
"It's all your fault, you bitch" said Serena.
"Stop fighting, you two", said Bella.
Anna decided to decline to get further involved in this, quietly sat down and took off her shoes, and snuck her bra out from under her T-shirt and wrapped her coat and a couple of blankets around her, and lay down on the sofa.
"You can't just go to sleep", said Serena."The three of us have serious matters to discuss."
"The two of you may have serious matters to discuss" said Anna. "The only thing I regard as serious is who gets stuck with the business and sports section of The Observer in the morning, and whether Bella has enough food for three of us to have breakfast. Other matters may be of compelling interest to the pair of you; but I don't think that anything that can possibly happen for the rest of the night could be termed serious."
"I'm quite tired, too", said Bella. "You may as well sleep in the bed. There's plenty of room, particularly since none of us is going to be doing anything except sleep, are we ?"
"What, except sleep, could possibly be crossing any of our minds ?" said Anna.
"I thought I was going to be dead, so at the very least I ought to get fucked", said Serena, in a wheedling sort of way. "Even if she has to be in on it."
"Kid, I don't even believe you took the vitamin C tablets," said Anna. "I'm sure they just went down the lavvy." It was consoling to know that she was not the only woman in London who blushed at the worst possible moments.
So the three of them bedded down. Anna managed almost entirely to ignore the odd little yearning whispers coming from the far side of the bed, and went to sleep, to be woken in the morning by Bella, with sarnies and fresh coffee, and the information that Serena had woken her up at eight, and announced a pressing engagement, and left.Anna's relief was discreet.
Caution in approaching her flat was one of the side-effects, one of the not wholly welcome lessons that Anna had learned from the last few weeks. Two nights later, she did her cursory peer around the corner of the street- there was a conveniently high privet hedge, badly enough trimmed to provide cover- and noticed the Kawasaki was back; but there seemed no sign of Serena herself.
When Anna got closer to her front door, there was one strong visual cue; that child has been going to the movies, she thought. In one of the not especially clean milk bottles that Anna had put on the doorstep on her way to the Library that morning and which the milkman had understandably neglected to take away, there was a single red rose, glistening damp from the shower that had caught Anna on her way from the tube. She had taken her umbrella with her to Kennington two days before, and left it behind in a mad scramble for the bus in the morning; she had asked Bella to bring it over and bella had declined on the grounds that even when she was wearing her museum drag, carrying an umbrella was something to which she would not sink.
Suddenly there was a significant cough behind her.
"I went down to the corner for some cigarettes", said Serena with a Gauloise dangling from her lip. If she doesn't go to the movies, Anna thought, maybe she just has a high level of natural talent. Or maybe she is just a child of the culture. A noble savage, innocent child of the culture.
"Thanks for the rose", said Anna.
"Bella says you have a thing about flowers, and saying it with them" said Serena. " And it is probably time we talked, properly, without her around. I thought I'd better make it clear somehow that I'm not going to do anything like the cigarette or the pill-bottle again."
"Glad to hear it," said Anna.
"She also said you serve good coffee."
"Yes", said Anna. "I was going to ask you in. I think we probably need to talk. Though I am not sure that coffee is what we need. Large gins, more like. Given what we've got to get through."
Anna lead her upstairs and dumped a stack of books off the larger and more comfortable armchair. She preferred normally to influence people in the direction of the sofa, unless he wanted them to go as quickly as possible, in which case they got the piece of leatherette junk she had stolen from a skip, which stuck to their elbows and periodically dumped them on the floor."Have a chair", she said.
"Actually," said Serena."I think we'd both be more comfortable if I sat on the sofa."
Anna went to the kitchen, made herself a very strong gin and tonic and Serena a much weaker one - no point in encouraging her too far- came back, handed Serena the wrong drink and sat in the armchair.
"You don't have to sit over there", said Serena. "I don't bite."
"That", said Anna, "going from the state of Bella's neck some days, really is quite the most transparent of falsehoods."
"See what you mean", said Serena."You're like her, a bit; I'm always having to watch what I say round her. I just say things, and suddenly she is on me like a lead weight, telling me what I'm really saying, and what it proves about why I'm a manipulative little shit, or really wimpy, or whatever it happens to be that day. What I meant to say is that you might as well come over here, because I don't think I'm going to pounce on you or anything, and I'd feel more at ease talking to you if you were close enough that I can read comforting body language and stuff."
"All right," said Anna, and moved over to the sofa, managing to switch drinks unobtrusively as she did so.
"I know what you're trying to do," said Serena, picking up the strong gin. "You're trying to get me drunk so you can seduce me. I've been around, Anna, and you can't fool me. I can see which glass is the one with a lot of gin in it and which is the one that is mostly tonic. There's sort of a bluish tinge to the light through them, if you look carefully; there's not many people know that, but when I was straight I went out with this guy who worked in a cocktail lounge, and he told me, so I'd trust him. Not that I did. And I think I am going to have the weak one. I need to know what I am doing, and you don't."
She took a very large swig of what she thought was mostly tonic, and choked gently. Anna reached over and thumped her on the back, in as purely curative way as she could manage.
"But if this is the strong one, and it's the one you were trying to not give me, either you're being really sneaky, or you aren't going to make a pass", said Serene in hurt tones.
"I'm not being sneaky, and I'm not going to make a pass," said Anna, and went through to the kitchen and got the bottle and topped up both glasses. "I just needed a strong drink myself, and was not sure how tipsy how fast I wanted you to get. Rightly, probably. And there is no blue light."
"You must think I'm really gullible," said Serena.
"I know you're really gullible", said Anna." So am I. If we were not gullible, we would not both be sleeping with bloody Bella, would we ?"
"I don't think you ought to talk about her like that" said Serena. "I thought you were supposed to be in love with her, or something, and that was why you were cutting in on me."
"Oh, I suppose I'm in love with her, and I suppose you are too. And what has that got to do with anything ? The question is, is she in love with me, and is she in love with you ? Both, or one, or the other, or neither ? She's not saying anything to me, and I don't think she has said all that much to you, ever. Or you wouldn't need to be here. That's why I say bloody Bella. Because you and I could like each other, and somehow it's us that are fighting, and neither of us is fighting her; and it's become a question of territory between us, and we both act as if she were squeaky clean. And obviously she's not. "
"Oh," said Serena. "You really do care about her. I thought you were really cold, and that you were sort of heartless; when she talks about you, she says you put on this big act of being vulnerable, but that actually you're really tough underneath. And I've been really scared both times we've talked, because you do this whole control number, do you know that? And you put me down, you put me down really hard. I can't do that to people; I couldn't, not ever."
"Oh,god ", said Anna, "is that how I come across ? Bella keeps telling me I'm hard underneath it all, but I don't really see it. Do I really come across as a sarcastic bully ?"
"Yes", said Serena,"You do. I'm scared of you. Bella's scared of you too. She's afraid of what you might say, if she ever really pissed you off. You seem to think that Bella is as hard as you are, and she's just this girl, you know."
"But I'm not hard ", said Anna.
"Anyway", said Serena, pouring herself another drink, and not bothering with the tonic Anna had left in the kitchen. "What are we going to do about her ?"
"I'd rather we didn't spin a coin", said Anna. "It seems to me that one person round here doing George Raft impressions is going to be quite enough."
"I would find you less scary", said Serena," if you did not continually make jokes I don't understand. I wasn't talking about making her choose; I don't want to do that, I don't think. What I was talking about was more practical. Can we fix alternate weekends, and can we sort out the weekday nights so that I don't have to miss Eastenders to see her ? If we are going to be cool, I'd rather we sorted things out to be convenient as well."
She is a generous child according to her lights, thought Anna. "Yes, of course. It does seem fair that way."
"I'm not talking about fair," said Serena."I'm talking about realistic."
"Do we shake on it," said Anna, " Or is our word our bond ?"
"You must be out of your fucking mind, if you think my word is my bond" said Serena."She did say that you were not safe out on the streets. No, what we need to keep us both honest is something we can blackmail each other with, I thought. It's not that I fancy you or anything; you're much too fat for that. But she'd be so pissed off if she found out; and you're probably quite OK in bed if you're good enough for her."
"That really is not a good idea ", said Anna. "I couldn't, I just couldn't, ever go to bed with someone just to put someone else down or to make some kind of sordid bloody bargain."
"Well, I brought you a flower. It's not as if I did the whole thing without at least wooing you a bit. And you can't get many offers as good as me."
This, if arrogant, was true.
"No", said Anna.
"Oh well", said Serena, "fair enough. Where's your toilet ? I seem to have had too much gin". And went very pale, and had to be helped, and mopped up, and wiped down, and given a clean T-shirt, and have her address taken so that Anna could bring the other one down when it was through the laundry. And she looked so frail afterwards, that Anna said she could sleep on the sofa. Anna tucked her up with the spare duvet, and a glass or water, and a basin conveniently to hand, and then went to bed herself. An early night never does anyone any harm.
Some hours later, she awoke to find Serena sucking her left breast. It was all rather pleasant, though she wished it were not happening.
"You do blush easily" said Serena, being quite entirely accurate, even though it was hard to know how she could have been sure in only the streetlight and moonlight through Anna's bedroom window.
"What are you doing ?", said Anna.
"If you're so clever, sweetheart, why do you ask such stupid questions," said Serena before returning to grazing gently.
"I said before that we can't do this."
"Mmmm. But we are doing it. And you might as well enjoy it," said Serena, biting Anna's neck deliciously hard."Because you may as well be hung for a sheep as for an innocent little lamb, and actually you're cuter than I thought without your clothes on."
"Well", said Anna, "thanks a lot, but I don't think I want to."
"That isn't what you seem to be saying when you aren't talking. You can lie to my ears, but not to my fingers."
This is a lot closer to rape than to seduction, thought Anna, but never mind.
"I'm sure" she said," that you are going to find this a bit of a bore. But I haven't got into the whole thing of equipment, yet."
"Oh" said Serena," I'm sure we'll be able to make our own entertainment in old and traditional ways. Besides, I couldn't have anything but vanilla sex with you anyway. This way it's just screwing around: but if we did anything serious, that, Anna, would be infidelity."
And you do have some standards, thought Anna, and you're not that kind of girl, before relaxing into a caress, and then replying in kind, and letting the whole thing just happen and be damned to the consequences, which were, in the immediate term, sweet.
Serena was one of those women who have a really good time and then have a dark night of the soul five minutes later when you are finally ready to get to sleep.
"There,there", said Anna, on automatic pilot, partly too tired to listen properly or care, partly aware that some of what was being said was stuff she really was better off not knowing. She could not afford, probably, to let herself care too much about this child, because they only turn around and bite you in the end. Or in the neck.
"Bloody women," Serena sobbed herself to sleep,"bloody women. I wouldn't go out with them if they didn't have such nice tits, and men weren't such jerks."
Gosh, drowsed Anna, a decade of struggle between lust and political lesbianism, and Serena can reconcile it all in one politically dubious sentence, and stroked the back of the little blonde's neck, slowly and rhythmically, until she woke up and it was sunlight and she finally got round to making Serena the coffee that had been promised so many hours before, and which Serena acknowledged was almost as good as Bella had said it was.
"I can't, I really can't, make any promises," said Bella over coffee a couple of days later, digging her fork viciously into a coffee eclair. "The last couple of nights have been very nice as far as the conversation goes, and the sex has been pretty good. I don't want to sound as if I'm marking your performance or anything; but you really are quite good. I don't think you're necessarily all that submissive either; and there are things I'd like us to try sometime."
"But ?" said Anna, adjusting the discreet scarf round her neck. Serena really does know how to mark a girl up.
"But, well, I don't know that I want what you want from all this. It has all been pretty good, but you do seem to be taking it a bit more seriously than I think I want us to. I really like you-"
-"At precisely what stage in human history did 'I really like you' become words of such infinite dread ?"said Anna. With a brightness that mingled oddly with a feeling of tin in the back of her throat.
"I don't want this to get to be too big a thing", said Bella."Serena has gone to Paris to see this woman she knows there and I have to work out what I am going to tell her, when she comes back. And though I really like you, and though it is good in bed with you. I'm sorry, but actually, if I've were ever to have to make a choice, which things like the whole pill bottle thing start to make it look as if I might, I like sex with her better, and when she is not being crazy, I like her company as much. She's cooler about slasher movies, and she makes better toasted tea- cakes."
"So the issue is whether or not you get to have your cake and eat it too," said Anna, the effect of this being somewhat spoiled by the fact that her rum baba was at that point delivered by a Spanish waitress, who got confused by the metaphor and had to be brought back.
"It's certainly a matter of whether I get what I want", said Bella," and of my not especially wanting to be forced to make choices, and of my advising you that if you try to force a choice upon me, it would not be the most sensible thing you ever did. Because you'd lose."
""And if Serena decides she wants you to make a choice?"
"Oh, you probably lose then as well."
"And if she doesn't take the risk of shouting at you, but gets a lot of her little friends to circle round on their bikes and yell at you that you're letting her down ?"
"You probably lose then, too, though I don't like being bullied, not by groups of people. That is never sexy. I do enjoy you, but there is a limit to how much hassle you'd be worth. I never promised you anything more than what you've had; I never even really promised you that, and you got it anyway."
"Not in terms of hands placed on skulls and bibles, or in so many words?"
"If not in so many words, then not, is the way I work. And I'm not Little Miss Ethical Contract at keeping promises even when I make them. You mustn't go thinking that just because you have managed to afford or keep through folly some sort of elaborate set of checks and balances and lists of what the moral little girl does that the rest of us can be bothered to run our accounts in the same way. In the end, it's just a way of making yourself look good and you're just out for what you can get, like me. Except that you think you can get to look good at the same time. You're not nearly as perfect as you think. And some people can have their arms twisted up behind their backs by all those ethical noises, but I am not one of them. No one twists my arm unless I let them." Bella had all the vehemence of someone who has been practicing, in front of a mirror, something that she hopes she will get away with but which might earn her a punch on the nose.
"After all," said Anna, trying to give the impression of seeking consolation for the inevitable,and conscious of the extent to which duplicity multiplies itself,"It's not as if I'm madly in love with you or anything. I might have been soon, if you'd let me, and I'm not promising that I won't slip into being on rainy evenings when I've nothing better to think about. But I'm not going to wander around being a lost dog with your name on my studded collar if you never call round again."
"I'm glad to hear that" said Bella," A few minutes ago it looked as if you were going to do those great beagle eyes that may wash with a lot of people but will not, my dear, do anything much except irritate me."
"I don't handle rejection all that well", said Anna.
"For someone who can be so rude about the obsessional use of clichés' said Bella,"you have a real ability to stray into the area of pots and kettles. And who said I was rejecting you? I'm just talking about practicalities, is all."
"How thoughtful" muttered Anna into a spoonful of rum-soaked sponge, knowing that to relieve her feelings aloud would probably be entirely counterproductive."We must always strive to be realistic about things."
"I'm not about seriously to rearrange my life for you. I did think about ditching her for you, and you should be flattered about that, but I decided not to. And if you're going to stick around, which I'd like you to do, because we can be good friends if you don't get too horribly drippy about it, you'll just have to cope with the fact that Serena is not going to be especially nice when she sees you. She'll probably not be all that nice to me either, you know."
"I'm sure I can handle her dislike, " said Anna, reflecting that actually, and to her surprise, Serena really had played fair, and had spilled no mutually embarrassing beans. "But her not being nice to you is something that has become part of the games you play with each other; it is allowed for in the rules that you go off and hurt her a bit by sleeping with someone, and that then she makes an issue of it, and you do a lot of serious emotional stuff to each other, and then you sit down with each other and make all sorts of promises about fidelity that you don't intend to keep. And none of it means very much more than snakes and ladders to either of you. And whoever it is is left feeling they have been through a dry-cleaning machine and not knowing quite why or what to do about the wire hangers that are sticking out of awkward bits of them. It seems to me that you use people to keep your relationship with her breathtakingly exciting, and I resent being a sex toy or a marriage counsellor.And at least when you got pensioned off by some Victorian rake you got a villa in St. John's Wood and your picture in Holman Hunt. Occasional teas and the odd discreet fuck don't really cut it, by comparison. You can ditch me, or fuck me, but don't assume I'm a doormat."
"You do have a knack of assuming that people plan more than they actually do; things happen. And I suppose that she and I have patterns. And this is not one of them, not really, because normally if one of us thinks someone looks cute they ask the other if they mind, and normally we hunt as a pair. But Serena really never took to you."
"And I am pretty sure that I would have said no to any such proposition," Anna said, disingenuously. "Bloody Hell."
She had thought of Bella as totally all-seeing, and not someone over whose eyes wool could be pulled save literally and during foreplay. Gosh, what a wicked world it is.
"And I came after you anyway. And I don't regret that."
"When I was very young" said Anna, "and people at school said it didn't really matter about being second in Latin or the egg and spoon race, because it meant you had tried very hard, but were, in the end, just that little bit less good, but only that time, I used to believe it. But it hurts, Bella."
"Not my fault", said Bella. " I'm not responsible for you. And if you're not my marriage counsellor,I'm surely not your fucking shrink. People come to me for a good whipping and for sex, not to have their infant school insecurities massaged."
"Well" said Anna," so I have to steel myself to put up while still putting out,to hang around and mind my manners and hope that I don't find myself shoved entirely from your life at a moment's notice the moment Serena feels like playing games with pill bottles to resolve the issue. Tell me, if I am a good little person, and do what I'm told, do I ever get to sleep with you again or is that subject to future high-level negotiations and decisions by the pair of you too ?"
" Oh sure. Probably. I'd like to go on with it. But no promises. And , look, I've sort of given Serena the right to mind about my sleeping with other people, and I'm not giving you that right. OK ? That's something you'll just have to deal with. And of course you can sleep with anyone you want to."
"I'm sure I shall," said Anna, thinking about roses in milk bottles with a certain bitchy amusement. Anna knew that she should probably walk out, that her self-respect going to get compromised if she didn't, that to stay and play games was to just accept the right of Bella and Serena to impose terms on her that would change all the time, and mostly change for the worse. But it beat going round to Ariadne and Magda and playing Mah Jong every Saturday night. And she was not very good at Mah Jong, in spite of years of practice, even though it was the one game they didn't gang up on her in. And sometimes you just have to find a new game, whose rules might suit you.
"I'll see," she said."But it's all a bit much."
"I don't want to play Mah Jong," she said, when she saw they had already got the board out.
"Of course not." said Ariadne." These days you prefer other ways of being beaten all the time."
"So at the end of the day" said Magda, pouring a glass of sherry for her, while Ariadne busied herself in the kitchen putting olives and sliced chorizo into more or less clean saucers," you've ended up with the sticky end of it again. You've acquired a taste for dangerous living, and slept with her, and, oh yes, pardon me, got to keep this straight, and with the other one as well, as some sort of Faustinian pact, and done all sorts of things with them I probably don't want at all to know about."-
-"But about which she's bound to tell us sooner or later anyway"said Ariadne, putting the saucers on the table.
-"And you don't even get to get the girl in the end.Just on alternate weekends, and whenever soap operas are not on. Just become one of what is doubtless a string, if perhaps the only one of that unsavory bunch she can talk about her thesis to."
"What are you going to do about it?" said Ariadne,"Hang out with her little gang of barbarians, and start trying to look like them, and end up sleeping with the whole bunch so that you don't look like you're chasing her too hard, and have a thoroughly lousy time simply because they'll always be able to say that you're an outsider. If you go on being interested in her, it's not fair to anyone else you sleep with. If you don't sleep with anyone else, it's probably not fair to you, and certainly something she will see, or affect to see, or be told by Serena to see,as some sort of moral blackmail. And if she ever finds out about you and Serena, you can bet it will be you that she takes it out on."
"I don't know what to do."
"In which case," said Magda, "you'll probably just drift into bad habits, and get yourself hurt, and bore us silly with it. And of course we have been known to involve you in our relationship a bit from time to time, and you have been quite helpful on the whole. But at least we are not clearly a non-starter; the energy you put into us is not a waste."
"No indeed" said Ariadne, being loving in a way that made Anna feel vaguely ill.
A long time ago, she had been in love with one or other or both of them, and it had ended up like this, which was not much fun, particularly when they rewrote the past so that she was always only peripheral to it. But she had stuck it out, because it was better than nothing, and better than nothing was probably what she was going to get from Bella too. And the occasional quick night when she wasn't going to get caught whether it was with Bella or perhaps with Serena, was probably no more good for Anna than all the drink that Ariadne and Magda habitually poured down her as some sort of token of their affection. But even if you deserve better, there is no US Cavalry out there to ensure you get it.
And she knew how most of the rest of the script went. Bella would say one thing one day, and deny it with real fervour the next. And Serena would be really nice some of the time and fiercely jealous especially at those points when there was absolutely no reason for her to be. And she would come round and crawl into Anna's bed, and be all vulnerable, and Bella would be under the delusion that this major infidelity had at least had the effect of stopping Serena whingeing at her, and never know the truth, hopefully. Anna would get jealous over other lovers, and on occasions when she seemed to be about to get other lovers Bella would move in on them. Ariadne and Magda would sit around being amused and disapproving, and Anna would continue to give them the right to both, because they were still a large bit of her past and one of the more reliable bits of her present. They fed her, and she listened to them, and she fed them, and they listened to her. She would hang around Bella, and Bella would hang around Serena, and Serena would hang around her own mirror; and from time to time they would all change places and announce they were hurting. And there are versions of all of this where I'm the one who is behaving really badly. You don't get anything here without paying for it, and no one wants to be the one who opens her purse first.