© Lexi Revellian
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If you would like to read the poem the title came from, press 'I would like to read a one-page synopsis' - but read the story first!
It is set before July 1st, 2007.
COMFORTED BY DARKNESS (a short story)
Joss noticed the man at once as, smiling and weak with relief, she closed the waiting room door behind her and emerged into the wintry night. He was sitting on the wall in the yellow glare of the street light, his feet on the steel bench, dreary municipal shrubs threadbare behind him, and he met her glance and smiled back at her.
In the brief embarrassed moment as she realised she was smiling at a total stranger, she saw he was lean, tall, and dark of hair and eye, with interesting lines of thought and experience on his face. Joss turned away to her bike, tethered to a lamppost, and began the tedious task of releasing it from its various necessary chains and locks. She had a feeling the man was watching her, and it made her clumsy. She removed the plastic bag from the saddle, rolled it and tucked it away, put her handbag into the box on the back of the bike, attached her bike lights, clipped on her reflective belt and fished in her pockets for her cycle clips. After putting them on, she realised her gloves were at the bottom of the box. As she opened the lid again, it spun out of her hands to the stranger’s feet.
He picked it up and handed it to her.
‘Oh, thank you.’
She dropped her gloves. He retrieved them.
She smiled. ‘Thanks.’
‘Don’t you have a helmet? You seem to have everything else.’
‘No, they squash your hair.’ He raised his eyebrows. Every non-cyclist she’d discussed the matter with had disapproved of her not wearing a helmet, and it never failed to irritate her. ‘I’ve been biking in London for twenty years without a problem,’ Joss said with asperity, skipping several stages of the argument. ‘They’d make death safe if they could.’ She wheeled her bike to the kerb.
‘You misunderstand me. I believe in living dangerously. Come and have a drink with me.’
‘I asked if you would like to have a drink with me.’
Thoughts whizzed through Joss’s mind. He’s got a nice voice, I’ve given up on men, he doesn’t look like an axe murderer, I’d be crazy to let a man pick me up on the street, how long has it been since I’ve had a drink (let alone anything else) with a man, I’m wearing my jumper with the hole in the sleeve, after all I’ve got something to celebrate…
Joss had gone into the doctor’s that evening chilly with fear, certain that the results he had for her would be bad news. Terminal news, in fact. She felt as if she had been holding her breath for the past three weeks. She had not wanted to tell anyone, because that would have made it more real. If she had been going to tell anyone, now that her sister was dead it would have been Sophie, but just getting Sophie’s undivided attention was a problem these days since she and Pete had had their third child. They had left London for the country, so Joss would have had to ring her, and it was not possible to talk for more than thirty seconds at a time before one of the children needed her. If Joss said she was afraid she was dying Sophie might not even notice.
But she was not dying; it was official, her tests were clear. The man stood there, dark eyes on hers. What the hell.
‘Yes, okay. If you can bear to watch me locking the bike again and dropping things.’
He pushed her bicycle for her to a bar nearby that Joss had often passed but never been in. Its décor was dramatic; deep sofas upholstered in black velvet, intimate round tables lit by black glass and crystal chandeliers and wall lights. Each table held a candle and a few flowers in a glass. Not many people were in there – maybe it got busy later on. Joss took off her coat, grateful for the gloom that might conceal the rattiness of her jumper.
Her companion looked at her thoughtfully. ‘I see you as a wine drinker…white wine. Not Chardonnay, my guess is that’s what you were drinking a few years ago. How about a Cape Sauvignon? Or Sancerre?’
Joss laughed in surprise (how did he work that out? And get it right?)
‘Sancerre would be great.’
He effortlessly summoned a waitress, ordering her wine, and vodka for himself. He got a pack of Gauloises Disque Bleu out of his black leather jacket before taking it off and revealing further black clothes. If unexpectedly called on to play Hamlet, he wouldn’t have to change.
Slumped in the depths of the sofa, relaxed for the first time for weeks, Joss felt a wave of fatigue sweep over her and she yawned.
‘I’m so sorry, I woke early this morning. I can hardly keep my eyes open.’
‘Don’t worry about it. You needn’t talk if you don’t want to.’ He offered her a cigarette, and when she shook her head he lit one for himself, filling the air with rich fragrant smoke. She found she did want to talk; she wanted to tell him everything.
He listened to her as no one had ever listened to her before.
* * *
‘Joss, are you all right? You look exhausted.’
Joss was startled; did she look that bad? She had put concealer on the shadows under her eyes and some blusher she did not normally bother with.
‘Oh…I went out last night, that’s all. The Pale Horse, do you know it? Near the Angel.’
‘No. Anyone nice?’ Camilla knew Joss did not have much of a social life; of course it got more difficult as you got older. Funny really though, when she was quite good looking. Enviably slim. Camilla offered her a chocolate digestive.
‘Thanks. Yes, I met a man…’ Joss was not in the habit of confiding in Camilla; they shared an office amicably enough, but had little in common. And she did not know what to say about the evening anyway. She had never met anyone like him, and it had not been like any first date she had ever been on. He seemed very interested in her, but was not pushy at all; she knew nothing about him but felt as though they had been together for years. His eyes watched her with complete understanding and sympathy.
‘What does he look like?’
‘Tall, dark…and handsome.’ Joss laughed.
‘What does he do?’
‘He hasn’t said much about it. He’s some sort of actuary, I think.’
‘Will you be seeing him again?’
‘Yes, tonight as a matter of fact.’
* * *
After their second evening together, about to part on Joss’s doorstep he said,
‘I’ll see you tomorrow?’
‘Oh dear, I’d love to but I’m so tired. I think I ought to stay in and have an early night, recharge my batteries.’
‘Then let me come round and cook for you. I’ll wash up too, you won’t have to do a thing.’
‘You’ve just made me an offer I can’t refuse.’
‘Is there anything you don’t eat?’
‘Liver and kidney.’
‘Rats. I’d planned on making liver and kidney surprise, it’s my party piece.’
‘And I’m not keen on sprouts.’
He smiled. ‘Sprouts were the surprise.’
So Joss lay on the sofa while he cooked for her in the kitchen that ran along one wall of her living room, in her flat which had seemed shockingly expensive when she bought it, but a shrewd investment ten years on. She watched him concentrate on what he was doing, his face intent, his movements elegant but unshowy. The food smelled mouth-watering. He brought her over salted almonds and a glass of champagne, sitting on the edge of the sofa and clinking glasses.
As she had meant to, Joss went to bed early; he carried her there and she spent the night in his comforting arms, in the friendly darkness. With him she forgot everything she had wanted and not attained, or had once possessed and lost; the child it was probably now too late for, the bereavements, the past lovers, the career success she had never quite achieved; all the failures and disappointments that make up a life.
* * *
‘Hi, Sophie, it’s me.’
‘Joss! How are you? Hang on a mo, I’ll just put Freddie down.’
‘Is this a bad moment?’
‘No, it’s as good as it gets these days. The builders aren’t here and Jemima’s having tea with a friend. How are you doing, what’s happening?’
‘I’m great. Really good.’ Outraged yells from the baby came clearly down the phone to Joss’s ears. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Yes…(you’re a pest, you know that, you should be asleep. Oh all right then…) Sorry, he didn’t want his nap today, and he got us all up at five. Okay, I’m listening.’
‘I had to tell you, I’ve met this amazing man.’
‘Joss, I’m so pleased for you. Tell me everything. Where did you meet him?’
‘He picked me up in the street. No, I’m being sensational, we just got talking and we went for a drink together.’
‘Doesn’t sound like you at all. What came over you?’
‘I’m not sure. He looked all right, and he is, he’s really nice. Better than nice.’
Sophie seemed to have reservations. ‘And you’re sure he’s not married or anything, like that creep Richard?’
Joss laughed. ‘Definitely not. He’s not a married sort of type. He’s gorgeous. I feel so lucky.’
‘You must bring him for a weekend as soon as the extension’s finished. (What is it, Sam? Well, can it wait a minute? Mummy’s on the phone.) Sorry. Why didn’t you tell me about him before?’
‘I only met him Wednesday.’
There was a pause. ‘Do be careful, Joss, won’t you?’
* * *
Camilla was scandalised when it emerged that Joss’s new boyfriend had moved in with her. How long had that taken, ten days? She had always thought of Joss as being rather prim. She gazed at her over the top of her celebrity diet magazine.
‘Hasn’t he got a place of his own?’
‘You’ll have to bring him to the office party so we can all meet him.’
‘He doesn’t like parties. I’m going to skip it this year. I don’t feel up to it anyway, I’ve still got this bug hanging round making me feel lousy. I’m lucky to have someone to look after me at home.’
She’d lost weight, Camilla thought, and she was thin before. She might feel better for having a man in her life, but she didn’t look it. Her cheeks were quite hollow. He couldn’t be that good a cook with the weight visibly dropping off her.
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, poking my nose in, but he’s all right, is he? You hardly know him.’
‘I feel I’ve known him forever.’
* * *
Joss had some time owing to her, so she decided to take it, put her feet up at home, really rest and get back to normal. The past year had been a strain, one way and another. It was no wonder she felt ill. Once she got her strength back she would get a new haircut, spend some money on clothes, go on holiday.
‘I’ll take the week off too, if you like. I won’t bother you, I’ll just be there if you want me.’
‘Yes please. If it’s not too boring for you?’
‘I could never find you boring. I’d never tire of you, Joss. I’ll bring some work home with me for when you want peace and quiet.’
By day he waited on her, chatting, bringing her tempting snacks, and reading books aloud. She loved his voice. At night he lay close, holding her to him in the darkness.
As the short days and long nights passed Joss grew weaker and kept to her bed. Her energy seemed to be draining away. She began to suspect she was not going to get better, that whatever was wrong with her had the upper hand. She now doubted the doctor’s diagnosis. Tests could produce false negatives, doctors made mistakes. Day followed day as she put off making another appointment.
One morning, as the winter sun streamed through the window, thoughts that had been vague and unformed crystallized in her mind. He was sitting on the bed. She took his hand and stroked his fingers, turning the silver skull ring he always wore so its empty gaze faced her. At last she looked into his grave eyes.
‘I’ve worked out who you are,’ she said. ‘Not just my last lover…when you were outside the doctor’s, you were waiting for me, weren’t you?’
‘You came to get me. Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Most people don’t want to know.’
Joss smiled and put her arms round him. A tear rolled down her face.
‘Is this it, then?’
‘Yes. I’ll miss you, Joss.’
Their lips met for the last time. She clung to him and none of it mattered any more, everything faded to insignificance and was past and done with, life became as insubstantial as a sigh. He laid Joss back on to the pillow and gently closed her eyes, then collected his few belongings and let himself out of the flat.
* * *
It was a small gathering at Joss’s funeral; her immediate boss and some of the girls from work, a few of her friends and some family friends of an older generation. Joss had not been a churchgoer, and the service was a perfunctory one in an ugly crematorium in the middle of a large cemetery. Sophie had brought her baby as she was still breastfeeding, and his cries expressed the pain and outrage that Sophie felt. Eventually she took the baby outside and perched on a wall till the service should be over, sniffing and groping for tissues.
She could not believe poor Joss was dead. She wished she had seen more of her in the past year, but she’d been so busy with the children and the new extension. She’d planned to have her to stay when it was finished, had even decided (before hearing about the new man) who she would invite to dinner that Joss might fancy. Joss should have got married and had children, it was such a waste.
People trickled out into the thin sunshine.
‘I’m Camilla, I used to work with Joss. You must be Sophie. Joss used to talk about you sometimes, and the children. It’s terrible, isn’t it, first her sister dies then the same thing gets her?’
Sophie hesitated. There was no one else to ask. ‘Did Joss say anything to you about a new man in her life? I thought he would be here.’
Sophie had looked in vain among the other mourners for the gorgeous man Joss had described in her last phone call.
‘Yes. She sounded dead keen on him. He moved in with her really fast. But it was a bit funny, you know…did you know I found her?’ Their boss had sent her round on her way home to see why Joss hadn’t come back to work. When she got no answer, she’d tried a neighbour who had turned out to have a spare key to the flat.
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Yes…it was awful. She was in bed, quite peaceful, but there was no sign of anyone else. Nothing.’ Camilla wouldn’t say it, but she had wondered whether the man was a figment of Joss’s imagination.
Sophie shifted the baby to her other arm, and glancing up noticed near the cemetery gates a man in dark glasses and black leathers getting on to a big black motorbike. A subdued roar came from its engine as he accelerated into the distance. He wasn’t wearing a crash helmet on his dark hair.