What were my feelings that first evening? Cruel, I suppose. First of all I wanted to see if she actually would wait for me. Rather relishing the idea of her standing there in the cold, hesitating to solicit others on the half-chance that I might come back again and that my intentions might be … what? Hardly honourable. Profitable enough to her to make it worth her while to stay.
Dinner, I guess, was at the forefront of her mind – the fact that she waited a sign of the difficulty she was finding even in getting enough to eat ...
Did I want sex from her? Not especially, I don’t think. She was so scrawny and thin that it was hard to anticipate any pleasure from it, but again – I don’t deny it – the fact (I was sure) that she was fearing and anticipating it gave me a little flush of satisfaction.
The pleasure I anticipated was in treating her well enough to keep my conscience smug and beaming, whilst secretly enjoying her fear of the moment when I would force her to strip and prostrate herself for me.
But it didn’t go like that. It didn’t work out like that at all. In retrospect, I suppose my mistake was in thinking that I could control the situation in any way: control myself, for one thing; but most of all, control her, preprogram the actions of another human being: a good human being – kind and gentle and full of sympathy for others – almost an empathic genius, I’d say now.
I didn’t even look round until I reached the sealed hatch of my coffin apartment.
“You’ll have to climb in first,” I said. "The mechanism is keyed to my wristchip, and it won’t stay open after I’ve gone through."
She nodded, wary now, scenting a trap.
I opened the hatch and in she crawled.
You know what men are. You above all people -- maybe that’s not something I can call you, really – not a person, but not a thing exactly, either – you of all creatures can understand what men are. I checked her out as she crawled under my nose – checked to see if she was wearing underwear, eyeing up her thin legs and her little bony behind.
She didn’t try to conceal them at all, coyly gather her rags around her. How could she, really? She crawled in as if it hadn’t occurred to her to do otherwise, as if a simple action could be performed simply in this world we’ve made for ourselves.
“Food’s in the cupboard,” I grunted, falling forwards on the mattress, as the hatch swung shut behind me.
I’d intended something more ceremonious, no doubt – some showing off of the glories of my boxed-in manor – but I was far too drunk. Let her deal with the intricacies of the situation, I thought. I’m a kind man, I thought, I won’t make her fuck me before I sleep.
I woke up, once, to see a tiny light off in the corner. I could hear a scrunching sound coming from there, as if a little mouse were gnawing at some crumbs. To be honest, I doubt if there’d been much more in the house for her to scavenge.
There was a bucket by the mattress, and I was naked. She must have undressed and washed me (so far as she could), and – from the reek of it – cleaned up some vomit, too.
Then she’d left me to it. My head was whirling still, in that way that tells you that you’ll regret the waking up tomorrow morning. That whatever has gone down will soon be coming up again, and that any attempts not to mix your drinks and to balance them with copious draughts of water have been in vain. The throbbing head you’ll soon be feeling is already shaping up for you, but hasn’t hit you yet.
And when I woke next morning she was gone.
It was late, it must have been almost midday. My head (as I’d predicted) was throbbing like an open wound, and my whole body felt convulsed with illness and nausea. "Never again," I resolved -- as if I didn't say the same thing every week, relapsing again as the days unfolded their manifold boredoms and indignities – "Never again am I going to put myself through this. It isn’t worth it!"
And yet – this time, though I was drenched in sweat, sweat that had soaked right through the mattress – I wasn’t festooned in puke. My clothes weren’t swaddled around me like ineffectual towels. I was (comparatively) clean and fresh. There was a glass of water by my elbow which I proceeded to knock over before I could sip on it – but still … This was undoubtedly an improvement.
“Fuck! The girl!”
I remembered her then. Made a brief sweep with my eyes to see what she had taken. Fair rent for a night spent nursing the dead-drunk, one might have thought. Even I scarcely grudged her some kind of toll. The only question was what? The printed books?
No, they all looked undisturbed in their little fileboxes.
The clothes were worth practically nothing, but at least they lacked very obvious rips and holes. I thought at first she’d contented herself with them, till I discovered they’d been put away – folded - in the chest-of-drawers.
That folding was almost too much. Had I really entertained an angel unawares? An angel who’d taken the time to sweep and tidy, an angel who didn’t want payment? Of any kind? Or was it my soul she’d stolen?
There was nothing else to steal! That was the point. To be sure, she’d eaten some of my food, but there was so pitifully little that the wonder was she could have taken any of it – there was still some left for me: enough and more than enough for all the breakfast I’d be eating, at any rate.
I began to feel more curious about her. Perhaps I should have brought her back here at once last night, I thought. Before the long hours of drinking had turned me speechless and retching. Who was she? Where did she live? Would I ever see her again?
Her actions had succeeded in arousing my curiosity (I won’t say my compassion, as I’m not sure I possess such a thing – certainly didn’t then, at any rate). I felt a strange desire to see her again: a strong desire.
Not that I was going to search. Oh no, bad enough that I’d started taking an interest in another human being – especially a beggar girl whom my friends would laugh at and whom everyone would assume I’d taken home for sex. Any attempts to look for her, ask after her, would be fatal – alerting her and everyone else to my deviancy.
I would have to search by affecting not to search. Wander as if at random through such streets as she might frequent – speak to her (if I deigned to speak at all) in as offhand a manner as I could manage.
And yet I did strongly desire to see her. That was the fact of the matter. And who in the whole wide world would have cared if I’d gone after her to my heart’s content? The burning searchlight of my egotism persuaded me that my doings were at least worthy of gossip (possibly they were), but how I could have managed to conclude that I must avoid all occasions for malicious inference is beyond me.
I’ve ended up a worse pariah than if I’d set out from the first to make myself a moral leper: an outcast shunned by everyone – everyone human that is – that knows him.