Joseph could not touch one so young. She was a child, a daughter. Wedding her, he was almost ashamed – an old man with grey in his beard and she a dark-crowned girl. Yet he trusted God, and he knew that to be ashamed would be a dishonour upon Him.
‘Mr. Mannheimer had to go and get the stepladder to tie my hands to the beam. He used rope because he said he didn’t have any chains, but that I was to try to imagine that’s what they were seeing as that’s what he’d paint. He said he’d just tie me loosely but I said no thanks, if I have to hold my arms up myself I’d be worn out in no time so please to tie me up proper so I can hang from the chains and not pretend. Afterwards he got down and off my plinth and looked at me tied up there. I liked it when he did that, better than when he’s looking at me from behind his easel. Then he frowns and says, “Please not to shave under the arms again.” Then he says: “You are a dromedary.”’
‘And your name?’ ‘Ippolita.’ That name is as good as any other – it is not hers. She does not ask mine and I do not offer it. Her voice is young – low and sweet. By the smooth whiteness of her hand I would judge her to be about 25 years old; the black lace of her domino conceals her neck and bosom, the flesh of which I have found is the most reliable in estimating a woman’s age. I raise her fingers to my lips and keep them there long enough that she may feel not just my kiss but my breath upon her skin. I lift her other hand then and kiss the palm, and note the ring she wears – la fede it is called here: faith. I wonder if her husband is present at this levée, if he watches us now, if they have arranged it so. I cannot say what colour are the eyes glittering behind the mask, for by candle-light we all have eyes like onyx marbles. She may be a whore, a lady, an initiate. With the mask all distinctions are erased.
The first incident happened a couple of months into the year. Nina, of all people, approached him after class and said, “tu eres el hombre mas apetecible del mundo.” In other words, that he was “appetizing,” in fact the most appetizing man “in the world.” Like certain fruits. Edward was speechless. As he blushed, Nina smiled, unwrapped her skirt, slowly turned, and walked away. She was wearing gym shorts. All the girls were in their shorts: it was gym period. But when she turned her head to look back, no longer smiling but with her eyes very wide open and lips parted, Edward was . . . stirred.
In the year we spent together, we pretended every night. We needed them, our fictions, in order to proceed. Wrapped in our inventions we were safe and free, without the distractions of fact. Last night I tried to list them all, the things we would pretend. We pretended I was a robot, new and neatly packaged, sent to him in error. His puzzlement in unwrapping transforming into thrill. The depth of my satisfaction in completing my programmed task. I pulled a face while doing this, a robot face. If he ever caught me doing this he would laugh and have to stop.
I was born on 9th September 1966. My mother cut the placenta off me and said "You're the fatal blow at the arse end of the revolution." Mao Tse Tung had died an hour ago. I was missing my left eardrum. When I turned three, my father died too and the "one-child" policy came into force; suddenly, there were no brothers or sisters around, we were little emperors to be maintained and my mother said "If you were later, I would have aborted you for a boy." She wanted a man to help her and instead she had me; so the number of little boys started to grow, twenty three million of them, with no hope of a woman, future sexual orphans, the fruit of Deng's policy and Chinese copulation
When the Chancellor of the Diocese visited the Convent of the Sisters of Holy Affliction, Sister Michael always received him with a kiss on the lips. That was the closest Fr Tom got to enjoying a woman. He relished that kiss, even as he winced at the austerity of the place, imagining those who, over the years, had cut themselves off from family and comfort here.
The aliens crash-landed in the middle of London Fashion Week - right through the roof of the old tobacco factory into Jemima Ong's debut show. Everyone applauded as the 'creatures' took to the catwalk. They were even wearing the same distressed crinolines and burnt sienna/mauve palette cut to their multiple tentacles and horns. 'They're attacking the models!' cried the football player and his wife in the front row. Except the models seemed quite happy about it. Ecstatic, even. The girls and the aliens tangled in and out of file down the catwalk like a self-weaving river of long lost tribes reuniting, burning with love.
Times have been hard for our business. Pornographic experience is so easily available. The internet hasn’t helped. And the crash sent a generation of hungry youngsters into the arms of the old. So we’ve had to branch out and to specialise. We offer the parts that porn doesn’t. We offer you reality at ten pounds a minute.
“Happy anniversary!” Gore felt a small plate, which probably carried cake, brush up against his fingers. He couldn’t believe it had been ten years; wasn’t it amazing how what you did every day added up in increments to your entire life? Like a crude comedian, he thought, asked to host a prestigious awards show, the tiny events didn’t deserve to be associated with something so profound. But maybe it was egalitarian and good: every instant played its part in extending and ultimately ending life, the way that all the people in Gore’s apartment played their parts in maintaining their arrangement. (And wasn’t it weird that such an unconventional living situation should be commemorated in such a traditional way, with a celebration, admittedly private and small? Didn’t it take the erotic appeal away from how they lived? Weren’t the others disturbed by the noisemakers, the cards, the clapping, and the candles? Apparently not, for they themselves had thrown the party and bought the cake, from which Gore was now starting to fumble a piece loose with his fork.)