Oscar Wilde said, "Consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative." While I adore the man (see post here), I must quibble with this supposition. After all, a New York Times best selling author possesses an imagination and is required to remain consistent in her craft to purvey thought to paper well and in a timely manner. In consistency lies results. In consistency lies strength. Constants are incredibly important. Even science and mathematics bear this out. Constants, ever-fixed marks, if you will, are necessary in the world in which we live. Bearing that in mind, I offer you my latest short story:
So I wait for you like a lonely house
Till you will see me again and live in me
Till then my windows ache.
~ Pablo Neruda
Wipers whomped the windscreen, washing the street in blurry whooshes of water. Rain beat a steady tattoo syncopating time with Winston’s own heart. For three long, deep breaths he stayed stopped at the intersection, as though the decision to proceed held more import than the roll of tires on the pavement. Seated sedately in tweed trousers and shirt and tie, the rumble of his Rover P6 2000’s 2 L engine carrying faintly over the prattle of rain on the roof, Winston felt as though he sat at a metaphorical crossroad, too, and his directional decision would forever change the course of his staid and ordered life.
Who was he kidding? He’d already made his decision. He’d made it long ago. Slowly raising his foot off the clutch, he engaged the gas and motored through the intersection, continuing on his way to Westminster.
Fog globed the lights across Westminster Bridge and shrouded the Mary-le-Bow tower, hiding her face from view. Squinting into the dark mist, Winston turned off the main road onto a side street and slowed. He wasn’t entirely certain where he was going; he had only a rough idea of the location.
In the end, after winding through roads he’d never known existed, he meandered his saloon car onto a long curving street with affluent looking row houses lining it. Here the fog and mist were not as thick, affording him a better view of his surroundings. He was closer to the border of Kensington rather than the heart of Westminster; worse, he was decidedly lost. He should have known better than to trust the direction imparted to him from Dottie, especially in her current emotional state.
“Damn,” he exclaimed under his breath, as though he needed to keep his voice hushed as to not wake the sleeping street. Other than the lampposts pouring wet yellow light over the puddled pavement, the row houses stood with darkened windows in hallowed stillness. Perhaps the hallowed bit was a trifle melodramatic, Winston mused, but he was feeling inordinately figurative tonight. It was all the poetry reading he’d done before bed; Dylan Thomas was entirely emblematical and his writing had a way of influencing Winston’s thinking, not always for the better.
Winston squinted through the rain. Light burst across the windscreen in blurring fireworks, hurting his eyes. His glasses were fogging. And he needed a shave. His chin felt all stubble.
I will not go gently into that dark night. Fight, fight against the dying of the night.
He had only just read those words, the slim volume of poetry now setting on his nightstand beside the phone. Tonight Thomas’ familiar lines had marshaled him to action, but he’d staunchly ignored them, putting the book aside and plunging his bedroom into darkness with a pull on the lamp chain. He’d just laid there in the dusky darkness, staring at the ceiling, floating in a fractious sleep that was more wakeful than slumber, until the shrill bleat of the telephone roused him fully.
Just as he approached the end of the block, shadows shifted under the white portico of the house second from the last. Winston slammed his foot on the brake, his leather sole slipping slightly as the car lurched to a halt.
Lingering beneath the shelter of the pediment, Peridot waited. His heart quickened at the sight of her. It always did, and, he had a glum suspicion that it always would. He could not see her features, only the outline of her figure, but he knew it was she. He’d know her anywhere.
Maneuvering out of the middle of the street, Winston brought the saloon car to a halt parallel to the curb. Pink light poured through the two narrow windows flanking the door at Dottie’s back, lining her silhouette with neon. Dottie shifted from her right foot to her left. Then she brought her hands up to rub her arms. Although it was purely imagination, Winston could almost see her shivering when a stiff wind flung a handful of hard droplets of water at the window of his Rover and pitching the automobile slightly to and fro on its wheels.
The rain fell harder and she stepped back, pressing herself to the doorway. Winston thought to get out of the car and escort her to the car under the protection of his jacket, but then remembered that in his haste, he’d neglected to grab it. He’d also forewent his suspenders. In truth, after he had heard her blubbering on the other side of the line imploring him to come and get her, he was amazed he’d made it out of his striped pajamas and into a shirt and trousers.
This whole thing was becoming rote. Dottie- Peridot Hermione Lloyds- called. She needed help. And Winston always gave in.
Why? Because he would do anything for Dottie.
Once she’d known that. Once she’d reciprocated. But life had unfolded to reveal a map with a wholly different route for her.
Once he’d thought it was all so easy. They’d finish Uni and then marry. She’d compose music; he’d cure a bevy of diseases. They’d be deliriously happy.
But then Edward had lost control his 500cc MV Augusta at the bottom of Bray Hill during the Isle of Man TT race. Peridot’s elder brother had died instantly upon impact, his motorcycle toppling end over end into the grandstand like a pebble skipping across the pavement. With his tragic death, Dottie had slipped.
From concert halls and symphonies to dim nightclubs and seedy lounges. From composing concertos to indolently singing the latest popular drivel. Her version of the new hit wonder, Yellow Submarine, was disturbingly haunting. From Saturday nights in his cottage with kisses and tea to Saturday nights in members-only discotheques with champagne and cocaine.
Winston was a staid chap- rather boring really. True, he could deliver a witty quip with that droll manner that elicited a laugh from mixed company, but his suede patched elbows were too stuffy to rub with Dottie’s Mod friends swathed in their Nefru jackets, mohair suits, M51 parkas, and other swish haberdashery complete with slim lapels and pants, argyle socks, penny loafers and a pinch of cannabis. All right, he rather liked the penny loafers, but the other duds were too Mod for his traditional tastes as were the drugs. And slowly, he’d watched his traditional tastes become a drag for Dottie. Yes, she’d implore him sweetly to join her whenever she went out on the town, but the longer he refused to kowtow to her new crowd, the more her inclusion of him felt like obligation, as though she were beholden to him.
He’d tried to jive with her new interests. For months. But, finally, he’d told her he couldn’t stomach it. Her continuous inebriation. Her insatiable need for the next hit. Her complete loss of control. Her unquenchable desire to muddle her present to forget her past. Watching her lose herself purposefully, piece by piece, until she resembled very little of the girl he’d known the whole of his life.
Broken, heartsick, he’d retreated. Coward! Until the first late night call. The first plea. Then he heard Dottie. Not Peri. Not Peridot. Not any of her new, chic sobriquets. Just Dottie.
Three years later, he lived for those nightly interruptions with his own asinine hope. Maybe the next call would be different. But, they were always the same.
Tonight she’d outdone herself, her words staccato, interrupted by deep breaths and sloppy, wet sobs. Not the delicate, feminine sniffle one would expect from a lady reared in a Baron’s home, but a messy, thoroughly middle class sob, like one he’d hear from his sister or mum, all sincerity without the strain of culture and refinement. Winston had almost heard her nose running. And even though he knew nothing had changed, he still came.
With the microburst finished, the rain slowed to a miserable mizzle and Dottie ventured down the four steps and to the car. Instead of opening the front passenger door, Dottie opened the rear and slipped onto the bench seat in the back. A band of shadow concealed her face, but Winston could see the expensive tailoring of her A-line mini-dress, the blocks of fuchsia and lime green almost glowing in the meager light. She placed her wide brimmed orange hat on the seat beside her then combed shaky hands through her disheveled long blonde hair. While all her friends were cutting their hair à la Twiggy, Dottie had kept her long locks. Winston was thankful for that. Perhaps she’d taken to heart all those foolish mutterings he’d made, declaiming Yeats, Never shall a young man, thrown into despair by those great honey-colored ramparts at your ear, love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair. Of course, he could, but he much preferred her yellow locks long and flowing a lá Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot.
Watching her in the rear view mirror, he saw her cross her legs, her white Courrèges boots catching the light. What was it she called them now? Go-go boots? He didn’t have the foggiest. All he knew was that between her boots and her mini skirt, her legs were shown off sensuously. Of all the changes Winston had been forced to witness, Dottie’s new penchant for mini skirts was one he admired. He thanked Mary Quant’s fashion influence every time he saw Dottie’s luxurious limbs extend from beneath one of her mini-skirt. Not all changes were bad.
She avoided his gaze. Winston watched her, head dipped, face hidden.
I will not go gently into that dark night. Fight, fight against the dying of the night.
“Poppet?” He never asked questions. Ever. But tonight Thomas’ words galvanized his spirit from defeated to defiant. He would not just let her slip away. He would fight to keep her, to remind her of who she was.
“Just take me home, Winnie.”
Her doleful request rendered him silent. He didn’t press. He couldn’t, not with her shrouded in mystery in the back seat. But tonight he shifted course. Rather than drive her to her posh flat in St. John’s Wood as he had for the last two years, he drove to his house on the outskirts of Hammersmith. To the cozy cottage orné she’d once called home more times than he could count. Tonight, he would take her where she belonged: home.
* * * * *
“Have a cuppa?” he asked, unlocking the door and letting her in. She brushed past him, her boots trudging from the brick steps to the wood floorboards at a listless pace. When he pressed on the light, he stopped. Bruises kissed the back of her slender thighs; the backs of her arms, too.
“Dottie, what in hell?” He traced his finger around the oblong contusion on her right forearm, trying to find the right words to ask her about it. No one in her blasé, befuddled crowd seemed capable of such violence, or, at least, no one had before. “Who did this to you?”
She turned and looked him square in the face. Blue and black darkened her right eye and her bottom lip was fat. It quivered before she burst into tears.
She threw herself at him and he caught her in his embrace. Holding her while she cried was rote, too.
But tonight was different. He was different. The intensity of his banked emotions had been kindling all night. Now fury flared in him at her battered state.
“Dot, what happened?” He did not ask in his customary conciliatory voice. Now he demanded.
She shook her head in his barrel chest.
“No. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Winston led her into the parlor and settled her in his favorite wingback chair, wrapping his family’s tartan around her delicate, emaciated frame.
“I’ll get tea,” he announced, needing distance from her bruised body. Distance to calm himself. Distance to think.
He lost himself in the methodology of fixing a pot of mint tea. Filling the kettle, warming the porcelain Dunoon teapot, spooning the leaves into it teaspoon by level teaspoon, pouring the boiled water over them, and replacing the lid to let the tea steep. He also took out a tin of plain sugar biscuits and placed them on the tray beside the teapot and two mugs.
When he returned to the parlor, Dottie was no longer in the chair. She lay curled up on his Persian rug, her head beside a puddle of vomit. At least she’d had the presence of mind to throw up on the wood floor. Although, if she had vomited on his carpet, his scholarly friends would think him a good deal more wild. From the stench, her vomit consisted mostly of gin with maybe an olive or two.
Winston set down the tea tray and helped her up, navigating her around the puddle of emesis and into his bedroom. He helped her out of her dress, ignoring the boniness of her body. It was painfully skinny, not unlike the androgynous figures that were now all the rage thanks to Twiggy and her svelte, adolescent body. He slipped one of his vests over her head and ushered her into his bed, tucking the covers around her.
“Rest, poppet. We can talk in the morning.”
He reached to turn out the light, but she caught at his arm.
“Winnie, I’m sorry.”
“Tonight. You had to see me. At John’s.”
Dottie looked away, rolling over, the covers traveling across the mattress with her.
He didn’t need to ask. He already knew. John was the man she’d been with tonight. And, judging from the bruises, John had been rough. Inordinately so. Infuriatingly so.
There was a list of men before this John. Winston could recall some of their names. Mostly he tried to forget them. But they were there. Countless attempts for her to find satisfaction, fulfillment, contentment; each one leaving her more empty and alone than the last.
And now bruises, roughness, fear.
“Do you want your cuppa? It’s peppermint.”
Dottie’s shoulder shuddered with a silent laugh.
“You hate peppermint. Why would you have any?”
“Because you love it, Dot. Why else?”
“I never come here,” she said, her voice muffled in his down pillow.
Winston settled into his armchair and turned on the floor lamp, bathing the corner in a halo of yellow light. It crept over the dark floor boards to the bed, revealing Dottie’s tear-stained face.
“Why would you keep peppermint tea if I never come here, Winnie?”
Sometimes she sounded like she did when they’d been children. He almost expected her to finish with his childhood nickname- Winnie-the-Pooh.
“Because I live in hope.”
She buried her head in his pillow. Mascara ran black onto his striped case.
Winston rose to retrieve his book from the nightstand and then thought better of it. Instead, he resettled himself in his armchair and picked up one of the books from the shelf under the window.
“Read to me.”
He couldn’t help but smile, delighting in the memories her request kindled to life. He adjusted his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, opened the book, cleared his throat, and read aloud.
“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
Dottie sat up, her hair wild, her eyes bright, her lips alluring. Smiling. He stopped, glancing over the soft pages, worn smooth with use.
“Neruda,” she said.
Slipping into a sad curve, her mouth opened. “By night, Love, tie your heart to mine, and the two together in their sleep will defeat the darkness.” She swiped at her right eye, smearing black across her cheek. “That was what you said to me the night Eddie died.”
Winston closed the book on his finger and studied the woman who haunted his dreams and framed his hopes. A single tear escaped the corner of her eye and slid down her nose.
“Just read, Winston.” She laid down again and rolled over, giving him her back. “Maybe not Neruda.”
He wanted to go to her. Stroke her hair. Kiss her.
Images- crinkled and sepia with time- flooded his mind. All her. Always her. He knew he was no prize. Lacking panache, typical good looks, even social graces at times, no one would consider him capable of the deep, consuming, fierce passion he had for her. But for a week- stolen only a month before her world shattered- he had been voracious, a lover like those immortalized in poetry. Her lover. She had made him feel desirable. Like tinder coaxed to a conflagration, he’d caught fire in the breath of her wanting, her love. Without her, he was an empty hearth.
“Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine.” He did not need to read Ben Jonson’s words. He recited them to her from heart, the same words he’d whispered to her the first night they’d consummated their love. “Or leave a kiss but in a cup, And I’ll not ask for wine.”
There was too much pain in her voice. Though only a small glimpse, he’d seen enough of the Dottie he loved to allow himself the luxury of hoping. But he stopped. Perhaps it was cowardly, but he didn’t want to be the cause of any more pain where she was concerned. At least, not tonight.
“You should sleep,” he said, turning off the standing lamp.
At the door, he paused. Just one more glance. That’s all he wanted.
He looked at her. Small. Fragile. Delicate. Wide, dark eyes looked back at him. Glistening.
“Where will you sleep?”
He glanced at his watch: 5:30 AM.
“I won’t,” he replied. “Rest, Dot. Just sleep. For as long as you need. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Yes, he would be here. He would always be here.
I hope you enjoyed that. Winston is a character who I truly love and hope to revisit again. If you want to see some more of my work, follow the link below. Have a happy Friday, y'all!