Unsatisfactory Paramours of Britain
“Strange Men,” stories by Jenny Hill
I met the man when I stopped to give him a lift on my way home from town doing nothing in particular. I was on my own as usual and here was somebody with his thumb out looking for company. And because my motives weren’t entirely altruistic and I knew I was going to get into something with him, I felt only loathing as he opened the passenger door. Later that afternoon, he backed me up against the kitchen counter, his mouth hard against mine, and pulled up my skirt and put his hand between my legs. His breathing was laboured, and I thought I heard him whisper something coarse. I stopped it there and drove him to his tent out in the countryside. Getting out of the car he put his fingers to his nose and thanked me. The rest of the day I wondered, every minute, if he would appear at my door with a rucksack and his hand outstretched at waist level. I locked the door and washed my infested body but couldn’t shake the scenario playing out in my imagination that he was back and sitting on the couch in the afternoon with the curtains drawn watching sports.
The next day I took the same route into town, my eyes scanning the roadside ahead while the everyday things of the country passed unnoticed. He was standing at a junction smiling like a man who’d won a bet, but there was a fight before we got anywhere and I dropped him off near a supermarket. In the rear-view mirror, I thought he looked sad about how things turned out. He was gone, and I drove towards home too fast and with the radio turned up until his existence was explained away by old rock songs, sung loudly.
There were never many friends because I pretended stuff didn’t happen, but anyone who knew me knew it all happened, all my bad decisions hung out for all to see, like one hot star in the evening sky.
The couple down the track had three kids they home-schooled in a small kitchen with a slate floor at a table positioned too close to the back door and butt-up against the stairs to the small loft all three kids slept in. Being home-schooled in that house was a cold and drafty affair, played out against the thudding soundtrack of the younger kids running up and down the uncarpeted staircase.
Even further along the track lived the woman’s parents. Their large, white house, set in the kind of acreage parks are made of, belied the impoverished hippy status of their daughter’s set-up. When the old man went into rehab to detox from a diazepam addiction, the family moved into the big house and wondered how they’d ever lived in the other. A “For Sale” sign appeared where the track met the road, and after several miscalculations on the part of prospective buyers, an arrow was attached to the sign’s pole with “100 yards” written across the tail in black marker which bled with the first rain.
It took months for the house to sell. The pot-holed track, already a factor, also deterred the suppliers of amenities to people without the money to pay the additional costs. The small house was completely off the grid, which appealed to the paranoid and those with something to hide and went some way to explaining why nobody noticed the man climbing in and out of my house through the kitchen window. Alex, my short-lived dalliance with lodgers, had lost his key some weeks back, but as it hadn’t had much of an impact on his life he hadn’t bothered to mention it. His boot prints on the kitchen counter were the first sign of something out of the ordinary happening in the house, soon joined by pistachio shells in my bed and finally his revelation on a ride into town that the police were looking for him after an incident at a naval base. If I was interested, he said, I could check out the bookmarks on my computer.
He had all kinds of stories, most of them too big for my terraced house and small life, and I asked him to leave. I could have just closed the kitchen window but the bad feeling I had about him necessitated lies, and I told him I was considering adoption. He stuck up his middle finger, his parting shot.
Nick left me suddenly for a professor on his teacher training course. Apparently, when the faculty met to discuss the students’ progress the mention of his name made her smile. I didn’t know her, and her name got lost amongst the slew of new arrivals that year, cheerful and curious creatures that stuck together like spring lambs after the thaw. When the couple in the cottage on the other side of the track felt the warmth breath of a stranger on their necks, the fact that it had taken sixteen years was the bigger surprise. She liked new things, and he wanted nothing much to change. But he loved her, and when she took up running he bought her running shorts several sizes too small, and when she got into growing vegetables he surprised her with a plot dug under the shade of an old oak, and when she met her new Brian he broke his nose and stopped her from seeing their daughter.
For months afterwards, Jill would call out to him when he was drunk, and he would go to her until some wall or tree got in the way and stopped him. When the judge made the stopping permanent, Brian took to drinking in the park near her new man’s flat and as soon as he heard her calling he’d stagger up the steps to bang on the door until someone answered. The fact that it was usually someone from one of the nearby flats who tried to shoo him away didn’t bother Brian because he could do nothing else but heed the siren’s call until the day came that a bottle of pills helped him to fully understand her false promise.
Nick went to Kenya to teach English to rural children, and the professor went back to her students. When he got in touch years later to ask me to look up the side effects of Mefloquine, I wondered why he hadn’t done so himself with the computer he’d used to send the email. But vanity borne from some distorted sense of having been selected took over, and I responded with pages of extracts from online publications. It took several more years for the penny to drop that his contact had been something else.
A new man
When the new guy moved in, it was because he was different. I didn’t care that he couldn’t reach the out-of-date condiments at the back of the cupboard or that he enquired daily about menus and clean things. Sometimes it would rain for weeks, a cold, wet sheet wrapped tightly around our lives, and we’d stay indoors and take out our frustrations on each other. Television made me wistful, and I’d stare past the TV set and out the window at the hedgerow top and flat grey sky, disappointed there wasn’t more, feeling different to the man who chose to be distracted by flickering images and minor tasks.
The new guy wanted to take a trip and arrangements were made. But our lethargy had become a habit by the time the trip came around, and we sat at home and watched TV together and told no one of our change of plan. Later that evening the plane came down, and the owner of our intended B&B telephoned to check on our whereabouts and inform us of her outrage at our lack of consideration. I asked her “what’s it to you, you’ve got your money”, and put the phone down. Shame drove me into the kitchen in search of something in the cupboards, but I could find only beer. It was clear I needed a new start with someone who was taller than me, someone I could spend the summer with.
Jenny Hill lived the first half of her life in Wales, where for a long time she believed that everything in nature was the colour of slate. She is a writer of short stories.