He intends to stay for a week. Who else would do that? Just a bottle’s throw from the beach, he takes an out-of-season let, expecting the app images are liars. And that will be fine, that will give him something to marinade in… a good bet is on chipped gloss paint and an organic smell to make you gag while shouty sex comes through the ceiling. For his own use a bed that’s seen more action than Kabul and a shower with mould edging someone once told him fed on dead skin cells. So unbearable. So helpful. A suicide venue.
Not going to be: the address the taxi drops him at turns out period (he guesses 1920’s from ornamentation) and spruce and respectable. In the Gothic porch as promised his key’s in a brand new key safe with the combination 1066… to a lower flat that’s been ‘boutique-ed’. Baby’s Breath on the walls, Quartz for the dado rail and heather linen cushions balanced everywhere they’ll balance. Taps are moderne hence virtually unfathomable when it comes to temperature and flow. OK, a blob of birdshit the shape of an erection embosses the central pane of the bay but otherwise it’s spotless and he’s too wired to be held inside anyway.
RE’s birthplace is top of the list…the actual house, though standing, is pre-known to be inaccessible. Yet ten minutes after he drops his bag on the white bed he’s out and – just looking! – at her front door. Also shockingly presentable. Of course he knocks and gets Fuck off from the guy. Just checking. But it’s no slum, not squalid, RE’s origin is part of a high terrace of cream and red brick that faces the sea… which is incoming and calm, feeling its way across the dry sands with the delicacy of a masseur. An unimpeachable view – except they shut the curtains – a million pound view, he stows away to tell Naim when he calls him, which of course he will. But can’t wait and click-click-send, he should have it now. He’s not expecting beauty to share…. nor a response from Naim come to that after the last word they’d had. He stamps off to find a place to eat because the January days are short and rumour is there are unsafe areas after dark. Rumour is. How to believe it, what with the innocent seasidey colours along the front and the eastern sky a shiny shade of the cushions back at the flat? Hardly anyone is on the streets and those in cars are tired homing-workers. Tall, fair, groomed, all vintage D & G in solid navy worth more than some of their vehicles, by the looks of it, it’s like he’s invisible.
Where he gets his pizza and salad is called Noshers.
What’s in a name? As well as multiple names, RE will have been labelled murderess in those days which were the nineteen fifties. Here she is: a dyed-platinum babe, a touch of hardness, a touch of that ice queen movie star from the black and white era. In the 21th century they’d have given her a nose job before she got onto set, though. That nose was her least good feature. Everything else is right; when the executioner weighed and measured her, she came out as 5’ 2” and under 7 stone… of course. Before the decline into nightclub hostess she’d worked at modelling and who’d doubt it seeing her boy-slim at way shy of thirty? That’s as far as she got, way shy of thirty. They hung her while the most famous American writer of his day fulminated to the Evening Standard that the thought of her ritual slaughter ‘disgusts me as something obscene.’ (He’ll be using that.) And ordinary people clamoured for her reprieve. He read out extracts of some of the letters he’d copied: ‘I understand her desperation to do this act… punched into miscarriage… crushed as one would crush a rose.’ They both drank too much Ocho over them, did a little of this and a lot of that, as a tearful, weirdly puritanical Naim calls it. Made the weekend a wreck.
He sits in his room later, feet up on the white quilt. The pic he’s examining, the portrait he finds he’s labelled it, is one of many – there’s bathing suit RE, black girdle and suspenders RE, leopard skin strapless RE – and it shows her as a mannequin. Held too long for the camera. Her plunging neckline falls away from collar bones thin as reeds. She’s holding her wine to parted lips. Just about to take a sip, goes the narrative, but stalled out of politeness which she would do, an abused child, abused woman, eager to please. Unusually, no man’s included. So forget the technical faults, it’s his favourite: enjoyable without a barb of shame. Men killed her. Starting with Father’s beatings then a probable rape. First Husband- a violent loser- deserted with a bunch of flowers, but left the kids. Number Two gave her the Welsh name she’d die under though he wasn’t Welsh, just an alcoholic wife-whacker of a dentist. ‘A fucking dentist!’ he says out loud. Dentists! he types into the file. All that revving up at work for a spot of home sadism, how come more of them don’t go off the rails? That’s the real fucking- he deletes fucking- mystery. He flick ahead. In this picture of the ‘happy couple’ for instance she demonstrates by body-language alone…what does she demonstrate? An acquaintance with grief. His phone- Naim. ‘Is it sad?’ Naim jumps in with. He’s meaning be sweet, you can tell.
‘No. Not sad. More like…disturbing. Really normal sort of place. Sadly normal, then.’
‘Because I’m not there, so -’ the sound of thunder intervenes. He’s on the Tube, Naim is on the Tube going where exactly? ‘- of course disturbed.’
‘I asked – never mind. Anyway I said disturbing not disturbed. ’ He rolled onto his stomach and let the laptop close. ‘There’s this purple bedroom carpet I’m looking at, for example – Where’re you off?’
‘Where are you going?’
‘NFT. Remember? I think – after you go, actually, I think -’ (he lets Naim chatter on, broadcast mode, not minding because still trapped in she demonstrates…what does she really demonstrate?) ‘-and still not working! I get somebody to fix. Yeah? OK? – or I…(he missed the next whole sentence) ‘- don’t want to, actually and…purple carpet? Could be worse. Red towels. Pubes in bath or-’
‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen,’ he cut across Naim. ‘I forgot I bought tickets. Barbara Stanwyck. You’ll love it.’
‘You want me get off?’ Naim offered. ‘I’ll bail. You want maybe go me and you?’ Naim’s puppy-brown eyes would be focused on dark-light, darkdarkdark-light outside in the tunnel, an intimacy of nothingness but flush with strangers’ reflections. ‘I’ll bail at Cannon Street -’ but there was a note of self-pity. Not a genuine offer.
‘For the last showing? Enjoy!’ he said, not meaning it, hating every clustered ghost looking over the shoulder of Naim’s own ravishing, limber little ghost.
Twenty-four hours and the climate turned bright if vicious on him, promising more of the same right up till Saturday’s release. Beyond the cafe window, the sea throbbed with pigments like the Aegean, the sort of blues offering relief – from heat. Step out and his face turned to glass. He decided to stop shaving. And was on nodding terms with Des Workingoffshore, Irish, the upstairs tenant, by Day Second.
‘Artie,’ he answered. Not sure why. Shook hands and embellished it. ‘Artie Player.’ Her father had been called Arthur. Good old Artie…great guy Artie…Arthur the Cello- this was Wales after all. Artie the Incest.
‘Artie?’ Naim whinged and, ‘Horrible name! Now…now I have call you Artie sometime,’ as though it were a new hold over him.
‘Did you love General Yen?’
‘Love? No. Like-’
‘But did love Barbara? How could you not love Barbara?’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Naim said but went quiet as though the Artie alias remained on the books, misbehaviour-wise.
He just couldn’t back down, could he? ‘And that moonlit set with the soldiers and their girls. Those black blacks and the Capra glow…does anybody do a better glow than that?’
‘Yeah, I say. I like lots. You got for me much yet?’
He knew in a flash wherever Naim had spent his hours it hadn’t been at the very last showing of the Frank Capra season. He carried on but it was like reading from a script. ‘I found extra images. They had them at the bottom of a drawer in the library here! Loads of stuff. End of the pier show. Along the Prom. Good enough quality for…. anything you want, you know. Female archetypes- authentic backdrops for the montage, say? But the women in hats. Incredible faces…’ he tailed off.
‘Aw- you don’t do the eye-blink with woman in hat. You don’t go Ken Burns on me. Not the eye-blink!’
The eye-blink in Seeing Sister. He hadn’t been able to resist it on the final Etta James still, and that eye-blink is what Naim means. Cheap. Yes. You win. My big flub. He’d taken a slapping over it already from Naim: ‘I Rather Go Blind, OK? I think I rather go blind before see that crap again. What we now? We the fucking Farrelly Brothers?’ He could retaliate on Naim using, ‘Tender, sassy and no slack!’ – their best ever unpaid-for review. And anyhow the soul singer should be elbowed out by their new murderess. Should be. Who was Naim re-editing Etta with? Laughing over her with. Denying her with. ‘Naim, RE was beat up, brutalised, got a home abortion for free from a fist… and when she fired a few bullets into that last fucker for screwing around, they hung her. She was jealous for punishment if you ask me – and they obliged. You really think I’m going to make a mistake on her? You really think that, Naim?’
Their trademark, his and Naim’s, the five second interval timelapse sequence, he did next day. Under strong ambient light, the beach stayed empty as the tide retreated for the full 25 minutes his old Nikon would give him to expose gleaming sand the colour of pigskin. RE as a child had danced across here before she became a creature of indoors, and dressed sets and kitsch accessories. Good stuff for Naim... Even so he thought, Make the upward break, dummy! Hire something better than this Nikon shit. It was a hangover of their recent skirmish… Naim was restless. Naim was impatient and cruel. Naim’s perfect pointed chin pointed away too often these days. Naim acted like he’d been promised a gift still undelivered and maybe he had. But not by alias Artie with scratchy cheeks. Now he appalled himself by considering a quick bolt from the town, no calls, no texts. This moment. London before bedtime. Surprise, surprise! Gotcha! Just like RE.
‘Hey Artie, you busyin’?’ Des wanted to know. Day Fourth and Des seemed to think he had a bead on him. ‘Ah, you’re a blow in like meself. I thought you’d have reason.’ To be here was in brackets.
‘Always busying, Des,’ he tried. Easing the padded Cotton Carrier Vest higher up his shoulder. Edging past. This doorway won’t take both of us, Des.
‘Boss,’ Des said cryptically and heaved himself aside.
‘The upstairs man, Des Workingoffshore called me boss, today,’ he told Naim. Naim who hadn’t been answering since sometime early Day Third.
‘You wish,’ Naim said.
Emptiness gaped inside him. He feels Naim’s self-admiring primp and preen routine and the graceful near shrug’s. It’s the marker for this tone, this mood. And he knows what he’s going to do. Weak. Doesn’t stop. He means to give give give. A silent day and Naim’s ‘You wish,’ were all the sauce he needed. ‘I’ve got a handle on her, OK, hear me out, I’ve got what’s driving her. It’s the camera. Clues are those photographs – look at them again! Her whole pathetic life she’s ready with her pose, ready for capture. And she’s waiting for the jerk- she doesn’t think he’s a jerk, obviously – she waiting for the one jerk that can do that thing. It’s not attention- Daddy gives her attention, the dentist gives her attention till she can’t stand up. Na, na… she wanted that one pic that could freeze her- all happy and… desired. Make her blond head forever blond, like she did for her trial. Because when she was a kid the bad changes kept on coming and coming, one after another and what she needed was somebody to hold her in the frame and just make it stop. Trust me. It’s the handle.’
‘We all want to be safe.’
‘You say it.’
‘And as for the lover… Shit! I didn’t need be here this long – how big an idiot am I? The lover! She shot him when he turned away. That’s the heart if it. Let’s go back to Hampstead, back to the actual street where… I read it you! In the street. He turned away.’
‘So… yeah?’ Music blared and got cut off (but not before he recognised the great Etta singing At Last). ‘Sorry.’ Naim never said sorry. ‘I do something… here. What?’ Who was meant to answer? ‘I… maybe not getting, actually.’
‘You will. I promise. Also, also I’ve found our title,’ he wheedled, loathing himself. ‘We just call it RE. About. You get that?’ – titles were another source of their epic disagreements- ‘Naim… Naim?’
Born and brought up in Flintshire. Twice shortlisted for Wales
Book of the Year. Gee Williams’ first novel Salvage won the Aur Pur Award and was
shortlisted for The James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Forthcoming
literary thriller Desire Lines out from Parthian early next year.
Banner image: ‘The Brouhers’ by Ric Bower