It was Caroline who told me
that once past thirty-five, there's no way you will meet any more people who could come to
mean something to you. Thirty-five is arbitrary, of course: just because it was
thirty-five for Caroline, doesn't mean it'll be thirty-five for you or me. It might be
thirty- six or forty, but it's around that age. The reason Caroline formulated this theory
was she'd just (barely) survived a run of disastrous relationships and really thought
she'd found the right guy in Graham whom she met at a dinner party in the week following
her thirty-sixth birthday. Pleasant, considerate, he was even talented and apparently
trustworthy, but he turned out to be worse for her than any of them and she ditched him.
The mutual friend who had invited them both to his dinner party forwarded an e-mail which
allowed Caroline to discover that Graham had done a bulk mailing to all his friends saying
that Caroline had got rid of him because 'he didn't go with her furniture'. Underneath
which he'd added: 'Fuck the middle classes.'
'He's more middle-class than I am,' Caroline said to
me. 'And to think I trusted him.'
Just before Christmas, something happened that made
me wonder about Caroline's theory.
Since I only work part-time, I have plenty of spare
time to myself When it comes round to Christmas and I have a sack load of cards to post,
rather than spend a small fortune on stamps, I hand-deliver any that are within reach of
my Tube pass. Being a part-time worker, I welcome the saving this represents.
Judging by some of the cards I receive year after year
from names that become increasingly hard to decipher (or do they just mean less to me with
the passing of time?), everyone operates the same rules as I do with regard to Christmas
cards. Which is this: I continue to send cards to certain people year in year out, whether
or not I've heard from them in the intervening twelve months. They may not have sent me a
card in recent memory. They may never have sent me a card. But it becomes a point of
honour. I imagine them opening their card from me and smiling a sly little smile, thinking
to themselves: So he's still out there, still sending cards.
One of the people I always send a card to is ChloŽ.
I make a point of including the umlaut on her card because I remember how she was always a
stickler for it. ChloŽ lives in an art deco block of flats on a busy road in WC1. I
arrived there on a chill, bright afternoon in the first week of December. I looked down
the ranks of names by the bell-pushes and found ChloŽ's. I pressed the buzzer and waited
for a reply, but none came. I pressed again, then waited a couple of minutes before trying
a third time. There was still no answer. This was not especially surprising; no doubt she
was at work.
There was no general letter box for the building, and
the glass doors could not be opened from the outside. Nor could a card be slipped between
the gap between the doors, as a brass plate covered the join from the top to the bottom. I
stepped back on to the pavement, the traffic roaring by just inches behind me. I wondered
how agreeable it might be to live so close to such a large volume of cars, buses, lorries
and motorcycle couriers. This is the price you pay for living in town.
Possibly at this point I should have withdrawn and
added ChloŽ's card to the pile that required posting, but it seemed silly to be this
close and not be able to find a way to gain entrance. I noticed an elderly man in a thick
overcoat and knotted scarf approaching the doors from the inside. I quickly ran up the
steps and smiled at the man as he crossed the threshold. He didn't return the smile but he
did hold the door open for me. Once inside, I pulled back the concertina doors to the
lift. I rode the antique lift to the top floor and walked down the shiny linoleumed
corridor to the door to ChloŽ's flat.
I hesitated, unsure whether to knock or simply slip
the card through the letter box. Affixed to the door there was a small brass plaque
bearing Chioe's name, which I found quite charming. An indication of a strong personality.
ChloŽ Thomson lives here, whether you like it or not. She's even got her name on her
I first got to know ChloŽ when we were students
living in the same halls of residence. Most of the male students considered her
unapproachable simply because she was so beautiful. There was something about her manner
as well that discouraged close contact. But that was fine with me, since I wasn't
immediately sexually attracted to her and the slight distance allowed us to get on as
Instead of either knocking or posting the card, I
squatted, bending my legs at the knees, and gently pushed open the flap. I was suddenly
glad I had neither knocked nor roughly pushed the card through.
ChloŽ was trussed up in a sheet or a straitjacket
and was hanging upside down from the ceiling by a rope attached to a substantial-looking
hook. She was in the main room which was located at the end of a narrow hallway. Other
doors stood half open off the hallway. ChloŽ's body swung lightly from side to side. All
I could hear was the faint creaking of the rope as it swung against the hook. I laid
ChloŽ's card on the mat for a moment as I contorted my body to try to read the expression
on her face.
I heard a sound from behind me. With care I swiftly
reinverted my body so that I was crouching on my toes on the doormat.
One of the doors behind me, on the opposite side of
the corridor, was being unlocked from the inside. Tumblers retracting, bolts rumbling
through their housings, chain rattling back. I didn't wait. Only at the end of the
corridor did I remember, flushed with adrenalin and feelings of guilt, the card which I
had left lying on the mat. It was too late now. I saw a figure emerge from the flat
opposite ChloŽ's and turn to lock the door. I could have hidden and waited, then gone
back to have another look, but I don't mind admitting the whole episode had spooked me. I
didn't know whether what I had witnessed was sex or torture or both, whether ChloŽ was
alone or accompanied by someone I had not been able to see, and until I knew that, I
didn't know how to feel about it.
That evening the telephone rang.
'Hello. Guess who this is.' It was ChloŽ, sounding
eerily bright and cheerful.
'Well, well,' I stalled. 'Long time no hear. How are
'Great.' I remembered then, she always said things
were 'great' when I'd first known her. She said they were 'great' when they clearly
weren't. When they were anything but. And she always said it in that automatic, falsely
cheerful manner. 'Great.'
'Good,' I said.
'Thank you for your card.'
'You got it then?'
'Of course.' She didn't make any reference to where
she had presumably found it, though I'd worked out what I would say if necessary: that I
had given the card to someone who was entering the building, asking them if they wouldn't
mind delivering it. 'Of course I got it,' she added. There was a moment's silence and
suddenly I felt certain she knew I had been there and had seen her. I didn't know what to
'So how's life?' ChloŽ asked, which I hadn't been
'Fine. OK. How about yourself?' I added.
'Oh, this and that.'
I sensed another pause. Pauses in conversations with
women like ChloŽ worry me. I sought to head the pause off at the pass by babbling. 'You
must be terribly busy. We all are, these days, aren't we? Seems impossible ever to stop
for breath, never mind find the time to get together, have a drink, talk about old times.
I was appalled at myself.
'I'll get my diary,' ChloŽ said.
What had I done? Before my visit to ChloŽ's
building, I might have quite fancied meeting up for a drink. Now, I felt anxious. I didn't
want to get mixed up in anything unpleasant.
We agreed a lunchtime the following week.
I got to wondering why I had continued to send ChloŽ
a card, and was forced to admit the possibility that it was because I saw her as a
potential partner, as long as she and I both remained single. There was nothing to be
gained by jumping to conclusions: either ChloŽ was a would-be Houdini getting in some
training, or I could be about to find myself needing an escape route of my own.
I suppose I should have known better than to accept an invitation to go out for a drink
with a man who downloads pictures from alt.sex.fetish.amputee. And who admits it to a
female colleague just as he's opening the refrigerator to get the milk to make her a cup
Patrick opened the giant fridge door and took out a
TetraPak pint of milk that had already been opened. I tried not to think about the other
contents of the fridge, though I had presumably seen some of them on previous visits to
the mortuary. He poured the milk into the china mug his concession to delicacy and because
of the inexpertly opened carton, a trickle of milk ran down the outside of the mug on to
the stainless steel table. It was funny that Patrick spent his working hours cutting open
bodies, yet was no more skilled than the rest of us when it came to opening a pint of
milk. I watched him squeeze the teabag with an unidentified instrument, then remove it and
pass me the mug with the handle pointing towards me. He was polite: I'd give him that.
Some men didn't even get above zero on politeness. In which case, they would never get
above zero with me.
Of course, I was assuming Patrick was interested in
me. That he fancied me. I never make such assumptions rashly. The cups of tea, the shy
little smiles, the bouquets he gave me to take home on the Tube. The looks other people
gave me when they saw the purple ribbon. Flowers were flowers to me then: my flat needed
brightening up. I'm on the top floor of an art deco block facing front, with the gardens
at the rear, so if I want flowers I have to fetch them myself.
To be honest, I could have done without the trips to
the morgue, but the ash cash came in handy. Some doctors choose not to do it. Others, in
the case of our hospital, lack enthusiasm for the subterranean corridors, the dripping
pipes, the condensation on the distempered walls. You just have to check the body, make
sure there's nothing suspicious and sign a form. There's not much to it. But on my first
visit the combined effects of the hike through the sweaty underground corridors and the
sudden chill in the morgue itself made me feel slightly faint. Plus the sight of Patrick
surrounded by several gurneyed bodies and one lying right there on the table, chest
He offered me a hot drink and suggested I sit down.
It became a feature of subsequent visits: we'd sit and chat while the body I'd come down
to check lay waiting. Patrick seemed completely unaffected by the banal juxtaposition of
life and death and I contrived to appear blase' in order not to give offence. He asked me
about life on the wards, questioned me about internal affairs, so that I formed an
impression of him leading a hermetic existence down here in the bowels of the hospital. I
wondered if he were frightened to come up and mingle with the rest of the staff and the
patients. Did he worry that he would somehow taint them by his mere presence? I doubt it.
In his late thirties or early forties with thin sandy
hair and somewhat old-fashioned imitation horn-rims, Patrick wore a grey coat not unlike a
village grocer's. There were unpleasant stains on it. I tried not to think of Patrick as a
lower form of life just because he worked in the morgue; there is a tendency among doctors
to think like this. The mortuary attendants are rarely great socializers, not known for
their interpersonal skills, and you can understand why. Patrick was also an only child.
Our conversations covered some diverse areas after a while. I examined my motives for
continuing to go down there after it became clear that Patrick was attracted to me.
I was not short of the attentions of men. There were
one or two half-hearted suitors stumbling about the foothills of possible courtships. Had
I been especially interested in either of them, I would have given some encouragement
where appropriate. At the hospital there was another doctor, a senior registrar like me
although in a completely different department, who had asked me out a couple of times. Had
he pressed just a little harder, showed a tiny bit more resolve, we could have been a few
months into some kind of relationship. But he, like the fellow outside work, seemed weak.
Possibly they were even a little frightened of me, which is silly really, when you know
me. I'm a pussy cat. I rather like to be dominated.
Patrick, too, was shy. Some of his shyness I put down
to the difference in our status and Patrick's acute sense of that. Some of it was natural
reserve, not unexpected in a man with his social contacts. He wasn't the sort of man who
needed an address book. Lots of name-tags, not many telephone numbers. But his very
persistence in the face of such odds charmed me. I could see him trying to reach me,
slowly over a period of months. The sound of his voice on the phone - 'Would you like to
come down and do a part two?' - brightened up the odd afternoon. As I said, I could use
the ash cash, and at £33 for a once-over and a signature, it was easy money.
Even his gaffe, when he boasted about downloading
pictures of double amputees, failed to put me off Mainly because it came only a couple of
minutes after I saw his eyes blaze with life for the first time since I had been going
down there. Just as I was preparing to sit down, my heel slipped in something wet on the
floor, causing me to teeter spectacularly for a moment, bent double in front of Patrick. I
know from seeing myself in the mirror how much of my cleavage would have been revealed to
Patrick at that moment. In fact, I knew from the look on his face just how much was
revealed. Pretty much everything. My life used to be punctuated with promises to myself
that I would visit Rigby & Peller and get measured up for a fitted bra, but I never
quite got round to it, and most of my bras had been ill-fitting since I put on a bit of
weight after giving up smoking to celebrate getting my first house job.
Patrick looked away, but I had seen the flare of
excitement in his eyes, confirming my suspicions. The body I had gone down to check was
that of an amputee and I think Patrick was only searching for a way out of his
embarrassment when he joked about my balance being worse than hers, and then sought to
make amends by talking about the pictures you could download from the Internet.
It was just a couple of days later, when I was next
down in the morgue doing a part two, that Patrick asked me if I would go for a drink with
him after work a real drink out in the real world. Yes, I said, why not.
In the pub we sat in a far corner, away from other
drinkers. Patrick had never told me anything about his domestic situation, past or
present, and I never asked. Looking down at my hands, which were folded on the table in
front of me, he told me I was a beautiful woman. A very beautiful woman. In an attempt to
cover his nerves, he immediately raised his pint glass. I took his other hand in mine and
squeezed it. Awkwardly he swallowed a mouthful of beer, spilling a thin trickle out of the
corner of his mouth, and set his glass down. I caught his left knee between my two legs
beneath the table and pressed them together. Then I released his leg, swept a beer mat on
to the floor and bent down to pick it up. I did this as slowly as I could, even checking
for myself that he had a good view, and when I returned to an upright position he was
flushed and smiling.
We took a cab to my flat and, for the next seven
hours, had sex, made love, whatever - virtually non-stop. In the early hours of the
morning, returning from a visit to the kitchen for more orange juice, I teased him about
his references to the amputee pictures and clasped my hands behind my back, dropping to my
knees on the bedside rug. He leapt out of bed, his engorged cock bouncing comically, and
fucked me right there on the rug. I played along by not using my hands. My faked
helplessness clearly excited him more than anything.
It was not long before we were experimenting with
bondage - ties and dressing-gown cords and leather belts. Patrick was curious about the
hook in the living-room ceiling. The flat's previous owner had had it inserted into the
steel joist when he needed to get his piano in through the window, so the estate agent had
told me. For the next three weeks we slept together four or five nights a week, invariably
at my flat. We were always either having sex or going to work shortly after having had
sex; half the time I was light-headed and completely scatty. I wasn't in love, I knew
that, but I was in lust. I caught myself wondering once or twice if what we were doing was
wise, given... well, everything. But I swept these thoughts aside. Looking back now, I
realize there was an undercurrent of anxiety which I wouldn't acknowledge at the time. I
gently resisted Patrick's moves to tie me more and more tightly each time, but I never
resisted them firmly enough. I gave off all the wrong signals and he perceived nothing but
When he produced a length of sturdy rope I grew
'I don't think so,' I said when he pointed to the
hook in the ceiling.
He dropped the rope and unzipped his fly, taking out
his cock, and began to masturbate. I could never watch him doing this without wanting to
do it for him, so I knelt down in front of him and took him in my mouth. He bent down and
pulled my top up over my head then slipped the straps of my bra off my shoulders. I
reached back and undid the catch. He placed his warm palm over my left breast and gently
squeezed the nipple. I continued with long strokes up and down, up and down. Reaching
round with one arm - Patrick had developed some muscles down in the morgue - he picked me
up and laid me on the bed.
After we had both come, we lay side by side, looking
out of the bedroom, across the landing, at the hook in the living- room ceiling.
'Please,' he urged one final time and I just
The boyish excitement he displayed as he trussed me
up was endearing.
'Trust me,' he said.
He was careful tying the rope to the hook and only
let go of me once he was sure it was going to take my weight.
Maybe it was being upside down that completed the
change in the way I saw things. Patrick sat in the corner of the room masturbating while I
swung gently from side to side unable to move my arms or legs, a double amputee. He just
watched and wanked, which I decided was not on. I wasn't happy. I no longer did trust him.
So later, after Patrick had let me down and I had
said I wanted to spend the night alone, and I found the Christmas card on the mat in the
corridor, I called Ben and we chatted. He asked me out for a drink and I thought I could
probably do with a reality check, so I accepted.
The incident with the hook changed everything. ChloŽ told me she didn't want me to come
to the flat any more. She sounded as if she meant it. I thought she might cry, but she
didn't. At least, not on the phone.
Nor did she want to do any more part twos, she said.
I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't discuss it.
Most of the ash cash now went to a senior reg in
A&E, a rosy-cheeked rugger type called Bryan Demeter. I didn't offer to make him any
tea and the part twos were ticked off and signed for as fast as the undertakers could
wheel them away.
I took up smoking. I heard that ChloŽ applied for a
consultant's job in Aberdeen. I tried to contact her but she was always in a meeting. I
could have gone upstairs to look for her myself, but I didn't. The nearest I got was the
first staircase. There was a door at the foot of the stairs to which I had a key. It led
out to the bottom of an interior well in the great old building, with blue sky at the top.
I went there for a cigarette, as smoking was forbidden in the mortuary. I craned my neck
and stared at the upper floors. Somewhere up there was ChloŽ. I wondered sometimes if I
would ever see her again.
About sixty feet up was a swathe of safety netting
stretching right across the well. I noticed a bird that had got its feet entangled in the
netting and been unable to escape. It had died there, starved of food and water, hanging
upside down by its feet.
I dropped my cigarette on the ground and extinguished
it with my toe, then locked the door behind me and went back down to my bodies. Among them
was the body of a young woman who had been brought down from A&E that morning. Bryan
Demeter had done the part one and told me about her; I don't know what made him think I
would be interested. Her name was Caroline and she had been viciously beaten about the
head with one of her own Philippe Starck dining-chairs. Scrawled across her dressing-
table mirror in red lipstick were the words 'Fuck the middle classes'. Detectives found
the lipstick at the rented flat of her boyfriend, Graham. He went quietly, apparently.