When Nora stepped out into my headlights there was no way I could avoid her. The front bumper embraced her legs and she jack-knifed flat over the bonnet, arms outstretched, face to the windscreen, staring at me through the glass, looking me straight in the eye.
She and I held each other’s gaze for what felt like for ever, although it could only have been as long as it took for her to slither back down onto the road. My foot was squashing the brake pedal and my hands were squeezing the life out of the steering wheel; Nora was spreadeagled and already dead. Yet, in spite of this, in that protracted moment of eye-contact sparks of recognition crackled between us, and I knew that our love was meant to be.
I was driving home from Janice’s house, where I had been told that it was over between us, whatever we had was over, all over; where I had been called ‘overbearing’, ‘too demanding’ and ‘an emotional cripple’, for which I instantly forgave her because I was none of those things; where I had been accused of trying to run her life for her, and vilified simply because I liked to know where she was when I wasn’t with her, as if that wasn’t a perfect expression of my love for her.
I had left her in tears. I was in tears, that is, not Janice. Her eyes were as dry as bones, and as white and as hard. I drove away from her house along blurred, stinging streets where neon lights shone like starbursts and houses glowed like images in stained-glass windows; and then Nora stepped out into the glare of my headlights, and I didn’t see her in time because I was blind with tears because Janice didn’t love me any more. From which I can only conclude that fate intended that Nora come and throw her arms out to me over the bonnet, gazing at me in her death as though I was the only one who could ever make her happy again, before tumbling floppily out of sight. From the timing of it, the serendipity of it, I can only believe that Nora was meant to be mine.
I don’t know how long I sat in the stalled car, hearing the engine tick as it cooled. I only know that when I opened the door and stepped out, I was as nervous as a virgin groom on his first night with his new bride.
I moved silently to where Nora’s crumpled form lay flat on the tarmac. She was wearing a creamy-white suit, and her skirt had rucked up an inch or so above her knees. Her head was thrown back to expose the curve of her neck, and a small trickle of blood was leaking from behind one ear.
I stood over her for a long time in the empty street, waiting for her to stir, moan, breathe, flutter her eyelashes, twitch one manicured fingertip. When I was quite sure she was dead, I bent down, slid my arms under her, picked her up and carried her to the car.
She weighed next to nothing, and her lightness, along with the perfect scarlet O of her lips and the resilient rubbery stiffness of her limbs, made me think of an inflatable doll – the kind you get from those blank-fronted shops in side streets, the kind that lie there without a life of their own until you inject your own animation into them.
No one saw me as I laid her across the back seat and drove her home with me. And no one saw me carry her, all dressed in white, across the threshold of my house. It was a private, special moment, marred only somewhat by the cracked-knuckles sound made by her head rolling around loosely on her shattered neck.
I took her upstairs and laid her out on the bed in the spare room. It was presumptuous of me to remove her clothes, but everyone hates to go to bed fully dressed, don’t they? And I performed the deed as civilly as circumstances allowed, leaving her almost decent in her simple white cotton underwear. I arranged her body carefully, made her head comfortable on the pillow and wiped the blood from her hair with a damp cloth.
I skimmed through her belongings for a name but found only a credit card with a surname and two initials, the first of which was N. So I called her Nora, after my mother.
I switched out the lights and spent the night in the armchair by her bedside, keeping vigil over my Nora till dawn came. She slept soundlessly, peacefully. In the glow of daybreak, I saw what I thought was a smile spreading across her face, but it turned out to be just a wand of light that the sun had inserted through the gap in the curtains and was slowly running over her lips.
I went over and drew the curtains fully open, then spent a happy half-hour examining the new woman in my life by the light of the rising sun. Her lips and eye-sockets had turned purple and the contours of her bare stomach and thighs, which I remembered from the night before as being tightly muscled and sharply delineated, had blurred, losing definition as her skin had thickened and grown floury. Her left arm jutted at an ungainly angle over the side of the bed, and her knees and elbows were swollen with large blue-black bruises. It was then that I noticed a certain ripeness to the air in the room – but then what bedroom doesn’t smell in the morning, of farts and the sleep-steam of bodies? Nevertheless I opened the window a crack before heading downstairs to make my breakfast.
I thought about Nora all day at work. I signed documents and attended meetings and made telephone calls and dictated letters and thought about nothing but Nora. At lunchtime in the canteen Montgomery from Accounts asked me how Janice was, and I actually had to remind myself whom he was talking about. “Janice,” I told him, with the look of a gladiator-in-love who has recovered from more wounds received in the ring than he can remember, “is ancient history.” He wanted to know more, because my tone implied that I wasn’t telling him everything, but I left him wriggling on the hook. It would have been premature of me to mention Nora when things weren’t completely established between us, when a proper commitment had not yet been made. I’m superstitious about these things.
Back home, I bounded upstairs to see how she was getting on. During the day she had swollen up as though someone had inserted an bicycle pump into her mouth and inflated her. Her fingers, once slender, now resembled pork sausages. Her flesh strained around the waistband of her panties and the wiring of her bra and, though it pained me to do so, I felt obliged to remove her undergarments, cutting the elastic with a pair of blunt-nosed nail-scissors. Naked on the counterpane, Nora was beautiful, Ophelian, delicately vulnerable. But she smelled worse than ever.
It was all right for a couple of days. I could bear the smell on account of her beauty and the fact that she made so few demands on me, and I would look in on her morning and evening without fail, but the duration of these visits shortened as the smell intensified. I bought a bottle of perfume from the chemist’s, the brand Janice preferred, and splashed it all over Nora and all over the room, but its sickly-sweet scent only added to Nora’s sweetly sick stench to create a nauseating blend of man-made and nature-made.
We could not go on like this, and I told Nora so, and with manly authority in my voice. The smell of her had pervaded the entire house. It was always there, always around me, in the atmosphere. Nowhere indoors could I get away from her. Even in the shower, lathering myself in shampoo and magnolia-fragrance soap, I could smell her amid the clouds of steam, and was reminded of earthy mist over early-morning moors.
Janice noticed the smell when she dropped round, unannounced, to – in her words – “see how you are”. She didn’t mention the smell directly, but she kept casting her head to the side while she talked to me, raising her nose to the air like a cat.
I behaved impeccably in her presence. Nothing I said or did gave her any impression that I was upset at the way she had treated me or that I was worried that she might discover that I had found myself another girl so quickly. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and I didn’t want her to think me shallow, so we sipped tea and talked sensibly, like two grown adults, and as she was leaving Janice said, “I’m glad we can be sane and civilised about this, Gerald,” and I replied, “Janice, I’m as sane and civilised as they come.”
And when she was gone, I went around the house spraying pine-fragrance air-freshener into every corner of every room.
But the smell only grew stronger. It clung to me, to my skin, to my clothes. They began to notice it at work. Carver from the Legal Department asked me one day in the corridor if I’d trodden in something I shouldn’t have trodden in, and old Horace who runs the stationery cupboard couldn’t help wrinkling his nose when I came in for a ream of A4 and a ballpoint.
But what could I do? I wasn’t prepared to ditch Nora. Our love was meant to be, and I would do anything to keep that love alive. (Isn’t it funny how the bland clichés from pop songs suddenly burst out vibrant and true when you’re in love, really in love?)
The smell permeated everything about me and everything I did, and no amount of soap or aftershave could shift it. My colleagues at work began shunning me in the canteen, and my secretary found every excuse to spend as little time as she could in my office, and I knew that the temps in the typing pool were whispering about me behind my back. The smell, in fact, was making me so unpopular that in the end I did the only thing I could: I handed in my notice. I quit. And when Mrs Haldane in Personnel asked me why I was quitting, I said it was because I wanted to spend more time with my loved one.
My loved one who was not so lovely any more, who was not at all the woman I had fallen in love with.
“Nora,” I told her, exactly a fortnight after we first met, “I love you, I care for you, I want to be with you. But…” I drew a fresh breath through my handkerchief, lowered it and continued: “There is something between us, something standing in our way, and I think it better that we clear the air now – spill our guts, so to speak – rather than bottle our feelings up, which only means that one or other of us will explode at a later date.”
I covered my mouth and nose quickly again, and raised the kitchen knife I had brought upstairs with me, tightening my rubber-gloved grip on the handle. I glanced at the copy of Gray’s Anatomy which I had propped open on the pillow beside Nora’s head, and using this as my guide, set about disembowelling her.
The illustrations in Gray’s, with their fine lines and delicate cross-hatching, did nothing to prepare me for the clotted, reeking mess that was Nora’s innards. Choking, I hacked and slashed and chopped with a singular lack of surgical precision, then plunged my hands in and sloshed fistful after revolting fistful of intestine and organ into a bin-liner.
Finally, when Nora was empty and the bag was full, I carried the bundle of viscera downstairs and dumped it in the dustbin out in the back yard. Immediately three interested cats appeared and began sniffing around the base of the bin, but I shooed them away and, just to be on the safe side, secured the bin lid down with a length of washing line.
Then I returned to the spare room to inspect my handiwork. The sag of Nora’s belly and the jagged slit running up her belly from mons veneris to solar plexus were – let’s be frank here – unattractive. And as I looked more closely at her, I saw now that her whole skin was a chromatograph of spreading bruises, not the smooth expanse of milky white I remembered at all. And even though I knew that the worst of her was sitting outside in the dustbin waiting for Tuesday’s collection, I realised that she wasn’t the same any more and would never be the same again. She had changed. The one remaining constant in our relationship was the one thing about her that I couldn’t stand: the smell.
I wondered what to do. How could I bring back the old Nora, the Nora who had only days ago thrown herself at me so openly, so blithely, so freely? How could I restore her to perfection?
I could not. But I could improvise.
I started by filling in the cavity in her belly with a tangled length of garden hose and giving her back her heart in the shape of my alarm clock, which I tucked inside her ribcage. It sat there snugly, ticking away the semi-seconds, beating perhaps a little too quickly for a healthy heart, but then that’s love for you.
Once I’d done this, once I’d begun making improvements to Nora, it seemed unchivalrous to stop, so straight away I set to hollowing out her throat and inserting in it a portable transistor radio. If I wanted her to talk to me, all I had to do was flip a switch and she would give me Radio 4 (her conversation was wide-ranging and knowledgeable, but not notably feminine, except during Woman’s Hour). If, on the other hand, I wanted her to sing, then she was only too happy to (and her repertoire was vast and the range of her voice was as broad as can be, from Classic FM to hardcore dance music). And if I grew tired of the sound of her, I always had the option of shutting her up at the touch of a button.
Her eyelids had peeled back to reveal milky-white orbs like ping-pong balls, so I substituted them with a pair of large paste diamonds. I would have given her the genuine article but, since I no longer had a job, money was tight. She didn’t seem to mind. Paste diamonds are a girl’s second-best friend.
Her left arm had to go. Stuck stiffly out over the edge of the bed, the hand would often butt against my crotch in an extremely crude and suggestive manner – perhaps this was deliberate on her part, I don’t know. I replaced it with a broomstick, anyway, to the end of which I taped five table-knives for fingers. I was careful to position her new arm alongside her torso so that there would be no risk to my private parts. Soon after, I replaced her right arm with the hose and nozzle of a vacuum cleaner, for reasons of symmetry and aesthetics.
I bought a device from one of the aforementioned blank-fronted shops as a substitute for Nora’s most intimate organ. I never did use it, although it was good to know that it was there; that I could make love with Nora any time I wanted to, if I wanted to.
Eventually her legs became so misshapen that it was a kindness when I replaced the left with a carpet roller and the right with a mop. I entertained fantasies of hoisting Nora upright and trundling her back and forth across the floor, her throat playing the theme tune from The Archers while she cleaned the carpet and the kitchen tiles. But I never dared. I never dared presume.
The drying rack from the sink drainer became her new ribcage. Unfortunately her breasts then sank in on themselves like badly-set jellies. My solution to the problem was – if I say so myself – a stroke of genius. I wrung the gel from a freezer bag into a pair of pink polythene plastic sacks, topped each with the teat from a baby’s dummy, and stuck these on top of the drying rack. Hey presto, a Hollywood starlet’s dream come true: a bosom that would never sag.
But I think the pièce de resistance was Nora’s brain. I scooped her cranial cavity clean, sawed off the top of her skull and fitted an electric blender there. With her hair glued around the blender’s perspex cylinder, it seemed to me that I had come up with the perfect symbol for the mind of Woman: nimble, utilitarian, deceptively easy to use, lethally sharp if you aren’t careful.
And all the off-cuts and left-over fleshy pieces I dutifully bagged and binned for collection.
Come Tuesday morning, when I heard the dustbin lorry rumble round, I felt profoundly sad to be losing so much of the old Nora, but drew comfort from the thought that the new Nora I had created would last for ever and would never need to be thrown away.
I heard the dustmen shouting agitatedly to one another. I didn’t hear what they said. I was lying beside my Nora and had no thought but for my Nora – Nora whom I had restored to beauty, whom I had returned to her rightful place in my affections, as was meant to be.
I was still lying beside her when, half an hour later, there came a knocking at the front door and a loud officious voice asked me to open up. Even when the knocking turned to hammering, and then to splintering, I didn’t so much as stir. There were footfalls on the stairs, but all I could think about was Nora and myself and our future together. I would want nothing from her and she would ask nothing from me (except, perhaps, a fresh bottle of perfume a week), and the longer we stayed together, the stronger our love would grow. We would stay together while our looks faded and our eyesight failed, and we would still be together long past the point when other couples lose interest in each other, when their love settles into complacency, when nothing the one does can satisfy the other. We would stay together until long past the expiration date of love’s warranty.
- Imagined Slights [Gollancz, June 2002] – ISBN 978-1857988017
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• Filed under Extracts • 08/06/2002 •