Craig Stemford was a solicitor. On the surface, his life seemed rosy. He lived in a smart house in Chepstow Villas, London W11, and was a partner in a successful law firm, Bright and Stemford Solicitors. But, for some reason, he was not happy.
His law firm practised from Golden Square, London W1, and being close to the red-light district, had developed a speciality in sex crimes. This work was largely carried out by Craig himself, since the other partner, Dicky Bright, mainly specialized in copyright and media-related law, which enabled Dicky to hobnob with celebrities while Craig kept company with punters of every sexual activity that Parliament had ever declared an offence to public morality. During his work, Craig would frequently have cause to count his own blessings, but whenever he tried to do this, his mathematical abilities escaped him. There seemed to be something missing in his life, though he was not sure what.
Several months ago, Craig’s unease persuaded him to take up internet dating. He became acquainted with a whole new world, almost an ideal world, an exciting garden of Eden that was divorced from reality. But for Craig Stemford, this divorce was soon due to end. In fact, it would end at one-fifteen that afternoon at Heathrow Airport. For two months, he had been chatting to a girl called Andrea Segovia who lived in Madrid. Craig was convinced she was perfect for him. In the first photo he saw of her, she had long, dark hair, and dark, Mediterranean looks. The photo reminded him of an episode from his childhood, some thirty years ago.
At the age of fourteen, Craig became infatuated with a boy he frequently saw in a television advert. The boy had these same dark, Mediterranean looks, the same long black hair, and in one scene he swam underwater, wearing nothing but a loincloth. Whenever Craig saw the boy, he felt a pang in his heart but would then dismiss the feeling—as a boy who glanced longingly at some expensive toy in a toyshop window but then walked on by, concealing his desire for a pleasure beyond his reach. Craig had long-since forgotten about the boy in the advert, until he saw that first photo of Andrea. Her image brought back his every recollection of the boy swimming underwater. He felt the same pang in his heart, only now he did not have to conceal it. He cherished it. He cherished her. And now there she was, walking towards him in the arrivals hall.
They went back to Craig’s house in Chepstow Villas. His front door was reached via a short flight of steps. The next-door house had the same arrangement and as they were climbing the steps to Craig’s front door, they noticed a large van parked in front of his neighbour’s house. Two men emerged from the back of the van, carrying a large wooden frame with various leather harnesses hanging from it, rather like a medieval torturer’s apparatus. The men were muscle-bound and one wore a tee-shirt, bulging jeans and an unnaturally dark tan, while the other wore a leather harness over his naked torso and a black leather cap. The capped man looked at Craig and Andrea and winked at them. The other man paused to rearranged his crotch and then they carried their burden towards his neighbour’s front door.
Craig told Andrea, “They must be setting up a new shoot.”
She said, “I will feel at home here. They are holding a Spanish Inquisition next door.”
Craig was not sure whether she was joking. He thought she probably was, but he found the subject of his neighbour too saddening to laugh about. They closed their front door behind them and he explained that the next-door house was now owned by a company called Triple Ex Productions, who produced sex videos.
When he bought his house, an old lady lived next door, called Mrs Gertzberg. She was a retired French horn player who had Alzheimer’s disease. At the end, her short-term memory had deteriorated to the extent where she could not recall whether she had already observed a musical repeat sign, so would repeat the same tune endlessly. Sometimes she would repeat the same short section for an entire afternoon. At weekends, Craig resorted to donning a tracksuit, venturing outside and attempting to outrun the range of a French horn. He began willing her Alzheimer’s to progress to the stage where she would forget where she left her French horn; or alternatively, to progress to the stage where they would all be released from her torment. But when his wish was finally granted and Mrs Gertzberg died, her house was bought by Triple Ex Productions. They filmed porn videos and hosted live, internet peep shows there. Craig bought his house at the peak of the previous property boom and its value had steadily decreased. But when Triple Ex Productions moved in, its value plummeted. His house was now worth around £200,000 less than the amount he owed on his mortgage and he was imprisoned there for the foreseeable future.
Craig showed Andrea into his living room. From next door, they could hear a thudding sound and various, animal-like groans. Craig nodded to indicate next-door’s and said, “I’m sorry about the noise. I hope you won’t mind it.”
Andrea said, “It is only sex. In my country we do not mind it like you.”
From next door, they distantly heard a man’s voice saying, “You like my big cock in you, don’t you,” and those animal-groans seemed to increase.
Andrea looked at Craig and said, “Sex is attracted to you. You have sex next door, and your work is all sex.”
“I suppose it is. I hadn’t thought about it before.”
She said, “It follows you around. It wants something from you.”
Craig realized she was right. Sex did seem to gravitate towards him; or was it just illicit sex that did this? He had not realized this before, and yet, having realized it now, it seemed so obvious. He wondered whether it was a coincidence, but on some level he realized it was not. And looking at Andrea, his mind connected all these things, including Andrea herself, with his desire for that boy in the television advert.
Andrea said, “Perhaps this is telling you something.”
He felt himself blushing, but blushing within his heart. He felt an uncomfortable heat swelling up within his chest.
She looked at him with her dark eyes and said, “Perhaps you should have more sex.”
He started to kiss her, and in his mind he felt he was floating underwater with the boy from the advert. She pulled away and said,
“This is too quick. You will need me to show you how.”
They heard a woman from next door shouting, “Yes! yes!”
Craig said, politely, “Would you like some tea?”
On the way to the kitchen, Andrea straightened two pictures on the walls, saying, about the second one, “This is in the wrong place.”
“Where shall I put it? I will do anything to please you.”
She told him, “In the bin.”
Later on, they moved some furniture around in his dining room, which she had also noticed was in the wrong place. In that room, they could clearly hear a man’s voice from next door saying, “You like my women’s underwear, don’t you? Can you see through my knickers?”
Andrea giggled. Craig could not see the funny side of it and instead recalled a snippet from one of Mrs Gertzberg’s French horn solos, which she played repeatedly one Sunday afternoon. At the time, he contemplated murder, but he now found himself longing to hear it again.
Later that evening they were in bed. While Craig held her naked body against him, he recalled the image of the boy’s sensuous body gliding through the water, which seemed to connect with the feel of Andrea’s warm, soft body against his skin. To Craig, it seemed he had finally been let into that illicit toy shop he had secretly coveted for thirty years. Andrea’s face moved over his while her lips caressed his cheek and her dark hair hung over them both like a veil and from next door they distantly heard a man’s voice instructing: “Now, take her from behind.”
They looked at each other. The adjoining wall started thudding again and a woman screamed, “Yes! do it to me.”
Andrea lay back on the pillow, closed her eyes and Craig noticed her nose. Looking at it from that angle, it suddenly seemed erotic to him. He wanted to suck it along its whole length; he wanted to eat it; there was something about its dimensions that excited him. He started stroking it adoringly and from next door, a man’s voice shouted, “Suck that big cock. You like that big cock, don’t you.”
Andrea opened her eyes and said, “This means something.”
Craig asked, hesitantly, “What does it mean?” and hoped she would not answer. He placed his hand on her cheek, turned her head towards him and started kissing her. They could hear the muffled activity from next door, then Andrea stopped him, held his cheek, looked into his eyes and said, “You are not using your mouth right. There is a better way to kiss.”
Craig said, “I’m trying. Perhaps we just need more practice—”
From next door, a man’s voice instructed: “Now, turn her over. That’s it.”
Craig started kissing Andrea again and just as he felt he were again floating underwater, they heard a deep, heavy banging against the adjoining wall, as if some large apparatus were being thrust against the wall like a battering ram, and between each thud, they heard a carnal moan: thud, “huh,” thud, “huh,” thud, “huh,” and then a man shouted more instructions: “Grab his balls,” thud, “huh,” thud, “huh,” “Yes, that’s it, take him in your mouth,” thud, thud.
Andrea pushed Craig away, “No, this is all wrong. You do not know how to kiss.”
Thud, thud, “Agh! I’m going to explode,” came from next door.
Craig said, “Well, I am a little distracted at the moment—”
A man’s voice instructed: “Take his cock again. Let’s do the spit roast.”
Another man’s voice shouted, “No, I’m losing it; it’s no good.”
The first man shouted, “Cut! Take a break. Selina, he needs you again.”
Andrea said, “No, that’s not it. You just cannot kiss. Don’t worry. I will teach you.”
The next morning, they both set out for work. Craig had arranged for Andrea to work part-time in his law firm as a secretarial assistant. In Spain she did similar work. Craig’s partner in the firm, Dicky Bright, agreed she could work for them on weekday mornings. They arrived at the office in Golden Square, and as they entered the building, Craig felt apprehensive about introducing her to Dicky.
When Craig first met Dicky, he merely disliked him, but over the following few years he gradually came to loathe him. He first noticed something was not quite right with Dicky when they attended a conference together. During the social portions of that weekend, he mingled enthusiastically. The problem was that Dicky’s only social skill seemed to be telling jokes, and most of his jokes involved him ridiculing himself due to his name. He would thrust himself into a group and say something like, “Dicky Bright is the name, but why do they call me Bright Dicky—eh?” and he would even nudge a few of the group, “Eh? eh?” nudging them, “—don’t know? Because that’s exactly what I’ve got—a glowing dick! In a power cut, it’s always me who leads the way—ha!”
He then walked off, leaving the group speechless. Then he spotted another opening and appeared amongst them, his hand thrust out before him, saying, “Richard Bright here, Dicky to my friends,” and he leant closer and said, “But only if they bend down—ha!” And he looked around the group, laughing as if machine-gunning them, passing from face to shell-shocked face.
This routine went on the whole evening. Dicky would thrust himself into a group, reveal the shocking details of his name’s derivation and when no-one responded he would machine gun them all and move on to another group. And in Craig’s eyes, Dicky seemed like a helpless passenger on a Ghost train, riding around the room while something he saw in Dicky’s face—perhaps desperation—seemed to be saying, “I’m sorry I’m like this but I don’t have any choice; I don’t know how else to behave. But I can see it’s not right, so I’m sorry to everyone but I still have to go on doing it,” and his eyes watched them with that helpless, embarrassed look as he machine-gunned the room with his raucous laugh.
Over the following months, Dicky behaved in this same way in the office. Whenever he saw a new client of Craig’s waiting for a consultation, he would enthusiastically appear before them, his hand thrust out, and introduce himself using one of his standard jokes. On several occasions Craig suggested it was perhaps not altogether appropriate to be making jokes about his glowing genitals when most of Craig’s clients were allegedly involved in sex crimes. Dicky dismissed these suggestions as “twaddle” and suggested Craig send out a search party to look for his sense of humour.
The tension between them grew steadily, until about three months ago, when Craig made an unacceptable observation. On a few occasions, Dicky looked over Craig’s work and made comments along the lines of: “I notice you feel it’s wasting your time to do a good job on clients who are of such low social worth.” Each time he made this comment, Craig attempted to correct his wrong impressions but Dicky seemed unreachable on social matters. And when Dicky again repeated this same comment, Craig thought he must be simply stupid, and told him so.
This seemed to disturb a hornet’s nest under Dicky, since, from that moment, he found it impossible to sit still. And over the following three months, he danced around the office, listing the names of his celebrity and other prestigious clients, and leaving hanging in the air such comments as, “Nobody who’s ‘stupid’ could get a client like that. And here’s you with your low-life clients, and apparently that makes you ‘intelligent’. Oh, what a strange world some people live in—” and he would dance back into his own office. But the hornets’ nest would not let him rest and half an hour later he would come dancing back out, singing his own praises and then theatrically wringing his brow as he attempted to calculate the worth of a certain solicitor who could only attract “low-life” clients.
Which brings us up to yesterday. Dicky’s behaviour was particularly intolerable the whole day, since one of his most prestigious clients, Dame Harriet Blewit of Mayfair, was in the office, making her will.
Craig came to liken Dicky’s personality to a cloud of locusts buzzing around him, attempting to eat into his sanity. It was fair to say Craig had never hated anyone as much as he now hated Dicky Bright. But he was imprisoned in his partnership with him because he could not afford to buy himself out. While Triple Ex Productions owned the house next to his, Craig was, in effect, about £200,000 in debt—a fact he also dared not reveal to Dicky, since Dicky’s cloud of locusts would have descended on those circumstances as onto a fresh crop of tender young corn. And while enduring his sentence, he also had to conceal from Dicky his discontent, lest Dicky forced him to leave, which would have certainly led to Craig’s financial ruin, probably his professional ruin, and possibly even homelessness. Craig was, well and truly, imprisoned.
Yesterday, he told Dicky he would be bringing Andrea into the office. He asked him not to make his standard joke when he met her. Dicky, of course, dismissed this request as twaddle, but when Craig approached him with Andrea, Dicky did seem to be making an effort to behave normally.
Craig said, “Dicky, this is Andrea Segovia.”
Dicky held out his hand and said, cheerfully, “Oh! do you play guitar?”
Andrea looked sternly at him and said, “No, I do not play guitar.”
Dicky glanced at Craig suspiciously, but then resumed his cheerful demeanour and said, “Oh, I am sorry. Welcome to our practice,” and continued holding out his hand, since he now had no idea what to do with it until Andrea shook it.
Andrea said, sternly, “Everyone thinks I play guitar. It is not polite to make such assumptions.”
Dicky could not believe his ears. He looked down at his hand, which was still held out before him, and wondered what on earth he was going to do with it. He looked back to Craig, and the fleeting suspicion from a moment ago now opened the door of Dicky’s mind, stepped in and took up residence. He was sure Craig was up to something, that he had coached Andrea in some way and was using her to make a fool of him. When Craig discussed Andrea with him, Craig was evasive and only said she was a friend he was helping out by offering her this job. Dicky now wondered how much of this was true, and exactly what Craig was plotting. He looked down at his hand, felt cheated and momentarily out manoeuvred, but resolved he would not be outdone like this. He withdrew his hand and took his resolve back into his office and shut the door.
Craig gave Andrea a desk to sit at and gave her some routine tasks to do. After she completed those, he gave her Dicky’s notes concerning the will of Dame Harriet Blewit of Mayfair. Andrea was to type up and bind the will, which would complete her first morning’s work.
Meanwhile Craig spent the morning preparing for the case he would be defending in court the following day. Though their firm had come to specialize in sex offences, this case was unlike the ones Craig was used to dealing with. A man called James Jones, who was thirty-two and repaired washing machines for a living, was charged with stealing a woman’s dirty underwear from a washing machine he repaired. When Craig first met him, James said, “Just call me J.J.—everyone does. I’m innocent, by the way. I mean, I did it, but they can’t prove it, so that makes me innocent, right?”
There was something about J.J. that made him instantly appealing. It would have been difficult to dislike him. Craig warmed to him instantly and this somehow made him even more determined than usual to do his best to help his client.
Andrea completed her morning’s work and left for lunch. He gave her simple directions on how to get back to Chepstow Villas. It was a ten minute walk between the office and Piccadilly Circus underground, and she was to ride the tube back to Notting Hill Gate underground.
Shortly after lunch, Dicky was called to a local police station to consult with a client. On that day, Dicky was acting as a duty solicitor for the Criminal Defence Service, which meant anyone who was taken to a police station could consult with him free of charge. Though Dicky preferred to be hobnobbing with his prestigious clients, he sometimes did this type of work, since it was an opportunity to flaunt his superiority over the “misguided low-life”, as he fondly referred to them. And the police station that called him was frequented by a high volume of sex offenders, so the odds were that Dicky would enjoy himself. Craig imagined him greeting the client with something like: “I’ve come to get you sorted out properly. Now I’m here, I can correct all your mistakes. Bright by name, brilliant by nature!”
End of extract
The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.
19 June 2008
See my sketchbook entry on writing this story, which includes an analysis of the characters.
See readers' comments on this work here