‘No, tell me’ says Raz ‘I’m genuinely interested.’
We’re in the sauna again, the four of us, inseparable. It’s the middle of the night, no one else is about and anyway, since the weather has improved outside it’s been quiet down here and we feel like it’s our space again. I don’t know why it feels so comfortable for me to be here, in a dark little wooden room, naked, with three naked women, dozing, sweating, dissolving, melting. It sounds like it ought to be very erotic but it isn’t. It’s just warm. We’re very close. I don’t know what that says about me.
The other day, in passing, Ruth had asked, without expecting an answer, what my suggestions for improvements were, since I apparently hated the world the way it was so much. I said I didn’t hate it. I just thought it had its priorities wrong. I knew she wasn’t really wanting to talk. She merely stopped by to show off her new cooler social life to us and to point out to them what losers we all were. Lisa all but snarled at her and asked if she didn’t have somewhere smarter to be. Ruth smiled superciliously and swanned off.
‘I really hate her’ said Lisa. ‘And it’s not a word I use often.’
Going back to Raz’s question, ‘I don’t know’ I begin wearily ‘I just have this very strong sense that the world could be a lot better, I mean we could change it to something radically and significantly better, if we chose to.’ I sit forward and dribble some more aromatic water onto the burner making it hiss and froth. We all slump a little further into the benches. ‘People always say that’s how the it is – just violence and inequality and exploitation, as if nothing else is possible, but I just don’t think that’s true.’
‘I admire your optimism, really I do, but I think I’ve seen too much’
‘You seem to be assuming I haven’t. I know what goes on Raz. I’m not under any illusions.’
We sit quietly for a while and I assume she’s dropped the subject but then she says ‘When I was in Burma we had this anti-venom kit we were pushing.’ I look over at her. She’s not talked about her work much before. Wen opens one eye to look at her, then closes it and goes back to her torpor. I look at Wen’s body again, fascinated by the proportions of it. She doesn’t need to wear anything to cover her private parts once she’s sat down – they’re completely obscured by her belly and thighs. Interesting...
‘I was in marketing’ continues Raz, ‘and they had this new product - Venone, they wanted to shift. It was like a simple kit anyone could take with them if they were out trekking or what have you, and we were promoting it to the tour companies, developers, scientists, that sort of thing. Anyway...’ She leans over and asks Lisa for some of her water. Lisa jumps a little when Raz touches her leg, shakes her head a little as if waking up and reaches over for the bottle. Then she smiles at me lazily through her hair. She knows I’ve been watching her. I don’t care. It’s just lust after all.
‘Anyway, we were visiting this little clinic up in the hills on one of the main trekking routes, chatting up the doctors, checking out the potential demand, enjoying a little sight-seeing in the process, and one of the surgeons is showing me around and she says that about five percent of the locals she treats have snake-bites and she shows me a room with three children and their mother and she’s been bitten and probably not going to make it without treatment and I ask her, the doctor, what they’ve got for her and she says nothing because it has to be brought in from the city and it’ll arrive too late to save her and I say what about this Venone stuff and she says she can’t afford it, none of them can and I go to Tim, he’s our manager and I ask if we can use one of the demo packs on this woman and he says yes it’ll be good PR.’
Raz is sitting bowed forward, staring at the stove, her hands clasped between her knees, her small breasts hanging, her thin belly creased, her black hair straggling around her face. She looks old.
I look at Lisa, who looks confused. ‘What happened?’ she says.
‘Oh she was fine. The treatment works almost instantaneously. There was a big party. They really laid on a big spread for us and everything.’
‘So that was a good thing then. You cured her.’
‘Yes.’ Still Raz looks on but not at the fire, nor beyond the fire at the door. She’s looking on into the blackness. Lisa and I watch. We’re all leaning forward, waiting.
‘What happened next?’ says Wen from behind me, but her tone of voice tells me she’s already guessed.
‘Next day, another victim, a little girl this time and everyone looks at us expectantly, and Tim says – I’ll always remember this – he said “Show’s over ladies and gentlemen. No more. Sorry” like it’s just been a circus stunt. And we move on to the next village.’
‘And the little girl?’
Raz shrugs. Wen leans back. She knew this was coming. Of course she does, she was working in places like that too.
‘Didn’t you have any more of the treatment?’ asks Lisa.
‘We had a crate full. Tim said we needed it for the other settlements and we couldn’t afford to just give it away.’
‘How much was it, to buy I mean?’ asks Lisa.
‘About fifty dollars a pack, three treatments per pack. Not that much...’
‘Not for a westerner’ says Wen.
‘No. We developed it for the westerners. Like I said, the locals couldn’t afford it.’
I say ‘Hang on, I don’t get it. Surely the locals got bitten more than the tourists?’
‘Much more’ says Raz, ‘but like Ruth said we weren’t a charity. We were there to make money and the locals didn’t have any.’
Silence. Somehow if she’d told us she’d stood by and let Tim rape a child we wouldn’t have felt very differently.
‘Did that sort of thing happen a lot?’ asks Wen after a while.
‘Well, lets just say it wasn’t an isolated incident’ says Raz, leaning forward, staring into the dark. ‘I’m not proud of it’ she says quietly.
‘How could you do that?’ says Lisa, moving down to face Raz. Raz turns and looks into Lisa’s angry face. She looks like she thinks Lisa might hit her and actually, Lisa looks like she might. Quite suddenly Lisa turns and leaves, letting the door slam behind her. I look around at Wen. She’s frowning hard at the ceiling. I’m going to have to go after her again I know. I get up and look down at Raz who looks up at me pathetically. ‘I really want to know’ she says, loosely taking my hand, then dropping it when I don’t respond. I’m not being deliberately hurtful. I know she wants absolution or something but I just don’t know what to say to her. Then Lisa reappears and Raz looks up at her hopefully but Lisa just strides past and goes out the other door to the pool. We hear her drop into the water as the door closes.
I find Lisa later in the library, looking at the music section. It’s almost light out and the thin mauve morning is illuminating the shelves around her. She says nothing but comes and sits close to me on the fat leather bench with a book on her knees. Then she throws her arms around my neck and sobs. I hold her close and wait. After a few minutes she leans back, still with her arms around me and looks into my face, searching my eyes. She runs a hand through my hair and looks at me some more then moves forward and kisses me powerfully almost as if she’s trying to consume me from the inside out and I can’t help but feed on her in return. It’s desperate. We stay like that for what seems like an hour or more, pressed against each other, struggling to get as close as we need to be.
Finally we were exhausted and knelt back, face to face and looked at each other. I felt sick and horrified and at the same time just wanted more – so much more. I curled down and closed my eyes and looked for my girl’s face but I couldn’t concentrate. I felt Lisa’s hand on my neck and grabbed it, not wanting her to take it away but unable to stand her tenderness. I suppose I squeezed it too tight because she flinched and pulled away. That made me just want to hold her more. I turned and sat, looking away from her, away from temptation. I suddenly realised I was truly dead and gone and I would never see my girl ever again.
Lisa sat with me in my room until I had finished crying. Then, as the ache subsided and I lay back across the bed exhausted, staring into space she asked me to tell her about my girl.
‘You never told me her name’
‘What was she like?’
‘I’m sorry, I just can’t’ I say.
‘Tell me about the other girls then’
‘I don’t know. I’m interested. I want to know.’ She stops and thinks about it a bit more. ‘Maybe because I missed out on all that. Do you know, when I was alive I just used to read romance novels all the time? And films, like The English Patient, and The Bridges of Madison County? All hopeless love and wasted passion? I don’t know why.’
‘You’re a romantic.’
‘I am. Is that a bad thing?’
‘No. I am too.’
‘I know’ and she leans in on me, her head on my shoulder, hugging my arm. I kiss the top of her head again and stroke her back.
‘What do you want to know?’ I say.
‘How many girlfriends did you have?’ she says, briskly sitting back, kneeling on my bed, drying her eyes and being cheerful.
‘I’m not sure’ I say. I’m glad she didn’t ask how many women I had sex with because I do actually know the exact score. It’s a bloke thing – sad but true. ‘My first real girlfriend was at college. Her name was Yvonne, Yve. I’ve been telling my guide about her.’ And I go on to tell her a bit about her – her going to university and us drifting apart as a result, and that I lost my virginity with her – an 'older woman', and Lisa is gratifyingly impressed. She wants to know about the sex and I tell her I liked going down on her. That makes her squirm nicely. She tells me she never met a man who really enjoyed it. I give her an evil smile and the image of Lisa’s tender fair-haired vagina at the pool comes to mind. I shake my head and she laughs.
‘Who was next?’
‘Oh, there were a few at Art College, obviously.’
‘What were they like?’
‘Oh you know, arty types.’
‘Just one night stands and things?’
‘I suppose. I don’t know if I’m a one night stand sort of a guy to be honest. Usually I wanted to see more of them. Anyway, after I finished college there was Andrea. That was weird.’
‘She was always insisting we’d met in a previous life. It was the sort of hippy shit people came out with at those sorts of gatherings – I met her at a festival, but I’m actually fairly sure she was right.’
‘What was the festival? Was it like Glastonbury?’
‘Something like that – the Wood Spirit festival. She was training to be a doctor but she used to go round the festies in the summer and do reiki and deep tissue massages – stuff like that. I met her when I went for a massage.’
‘Did you go to a lot of festies? I always wanted to do that.’
‘You’d have liked the saunas.’
‘Was everyone wandering around naked all the time?’ she asks with a cheeky grin on her face.
‘Around the saunas yes. Not so much elsewhere.’
‘God I’d have liked to have done all that.’
‘Maybe you will, next time.’
‘Oh I’m not going back.’ She gets up and begins to pace about in the tiny area of floor, ending up slowly twirling on the spot.
‘No? Maybe it won’t happen again, the ME I mean.’
‘I couldn’t take the risk. It’s not like I’ll know what to avoid. No, I’ve thought about it and I really don’t want to. It’s ok.’
‘No, fair enough. Fair enough.’
‘Tell me about Andrea. What did she look like?’
‘Oh she was amazing – she had really pale white skin – she had to be really careful in the sun, and she had really bright blue green eyes and rich red hair. I think she used to henna it but it was naturally very red, and really thick. You could take great handfuls of it and...’ I have this memory of taking her from behind, holding her hair wound around my fist, pulling her head back, making her gasp, then turning her head and eating ravenously at her lips and tongue, her broad white back arched, her heavy breasts hanging below and her chunky white arse spread out in front of me – a winged tattoo across the small of her back.
‘What are you thinking?’
‘You’re thinking about her aren’t you’ she says gleefully, leaning forward and poking me in the ribs. I nod my head, smiling guiltily.
‘You dirty old sod. Tell me about it’ she says and after a little prodding I begin to talk about how we were together, Andrea and I, and I am aware that Lisa is sliding onto my bed and getting comfortable facing me, her pale cotton trousers stretched tight between her legs. The small smile on her lips tells me what she is thinking. I am caught between the delicious feeling of anticipation – that I’m quite certain I could take her, and the certainty that I can’t let it happen. Is she doing this to me on purpose? Probably, but I don’t want it to stop. I tell her about Andrea’s fat white breasts and her big pink nipples with their silver rings, and the nicely rounded rolls of belly and the ginger fuzz below. I tell her how I loved to get down and bury my face between her legs and breath her body’s perfume in. I look at Lisa and her eyes are wide and fixed on mine.
‘Oh God...’ she breathes and closes her legs. ‘I never...’ she says flapping her hands in the air, as if scattering the image as it flutters about her head. ‘My ex... wasn’t into it, didn’t want to. Was it good, for her I mean?’
‘It got results, if that’s what you mean.’ I observe her dishevelment candidly, and she giggles girlishly and holds her hair across her face, hiding from me. Then she straightens up and looks away, thinking about something. ‘Did she, you know, to you too?’
I pretend I don’t know what she means and she goes ‘Oh you know what I’m talking about don’t you. You’re doing it on purpose...’
‘Why don’t you just say it? Go on. Say the word...’ and I mouth the B at her and she giggles and squirms some more and hides her face behind a cushion as if I’m flinging stuff at her. I look at her feet, long and narrow and perfect and take one of them in my hands and suddenly have the memory of doing this to Yve all those years ago. Lisa stops to look at what I’m doing and quietens down. ‘Ok’ she says ‘Did Andrea ever give you a BJ?’
‘A BJ?’ I say, laughing, and tickle her feet and she squirms around giggling some more.
‘Actually’ I say, deliberately breaking the mood ‘Andrea was not all that good at “BJs” as you call them.’
‘Oh. That’s disappointing’ she says, drawing her knees up and peering at me over them.
‘Well, actually, to be honest, not that many women are, in my experience. I mean, it’s easy to get a man to come, in a run of the mill way, obviously, but...’
‘But it’s not always that great, as orgasms go. I think a lot of men like the idea of a blow job...’
She sits back, giggling again ‘Sorry sorry’ she says, ‘but it’s just such a silly name. I mean, I don’t mind saying wank or tits or whatever, it’s just Blow Job. It’s so stupid. There must be a better thing to call it.’
‘Fellatio?’ I suggest.
‘What? No.’ she shrieks. ‘Yuk! Why does that always make me think of men in periwigs and breeches?’
‘Whatever turns you on I suppose.’
‘That’s not what I meant and you know it. Anyway, you were saying, erm... something... men like blow jobs because...’
‘Ah yes. I think it’s all about humiliation and domination, having a woman on her knees and so on. There’s all those porn sites about facials. I don’t really get it myself.’
‘I think Mick, my ex... God, I haven’t said his name for ages... Anyway, I think Mick thought giving a woman... whatever the equivalent of a blow job is, was demeaning.’
Her voice trails off and she sits quietly again, thinking, playing with her hair. I rub her feet some more and try not to think about her vagina.
‘So you really liked it, going down on her’ she says, trying to be cool, still looking at her hair. I nod, waiting, not knowing what to do. ‘But you didn’t really like having it done to you...’
‘I liked it, don’t get me wrong. It’s just... it’s not my favourite part. There’s the actual, you know... fucking... for example...’
‘Maybe you just never had a really good one’ she says, suddenly grinning at me, rolling her tongue lewdly around in her cheek.
‘Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong.’
‘So go on, tell me. Who was it? Was it your wife?’
I give her a cryptic grin. ‘Later’ I say. ‘After breakfast maybe.’
‘Aw’ she says but I can tell she needs a distraction as much as I do. I wonder on the way, how this particular type of intercourse we’ve been indulging in stands on the scale of infidelity. I fear we may have entered the realm of loopholes and that thought doesn’t make me happy. I just want her so much and the idea of her going off with someone else out of sheer frustration is actually painful. I don’t know what to do. I can feel myself failing.