So, ladies and gentlemen, please raise your glasses and let’s drink a toast to Leon and to the success of his new book.’
‘To Leon! To Leon!’
Her voice was scattily loud, Poppy realized to her embarrassment, in contrast to the others’ muted tones, but this whole occasion had clearly gone to her head. Crazy, cocksure bubbles seemed to be coursing through her veins, as if the tepid, cheapo wine in her glass had turned into champagne. But was that any wonder when she was actually in the presence of the legendary philosopher she had admired since leaving school; seeing him in the flesh, at last, rather than on the dust-jackets of his seventeen prestigious books?
Peering towards him, as he stood beside his editor at the far end of the room, she marvelled that, at eighty-two, he looked still impressively youthful. His posture was upright, his white hair still profuse, his voice vigorous, compelling. He made Martin, at a mere fifty-eight, pale into a shadow – balding, pasty-faced Martin, who, despite his own eminence, spoke in a halting mumble, as if unsure of his opinions. Yet, today, she would gladly kneel at Martin’s feet, because without his timely string-pulling, she would never have been invited to this launch party at all. Certainly, none of the other post-graduate students had managed to gain entrée, however influential their supervisors or well-connected their tutors. Indeed, she was nervously aware that she appeared to be the youngest person present.
The editor was now saying a few concluding words. In the general hubbub before the speeches began, Poppy had failed to catch her name, but she was certainly distinguished-looking, with her high cheekbones, aquiline nose and airy disregard for fashion.
‘And, of course,’ the woman continued, ‘Leon will be signing copies of his book, so, Leon, if you’d like to sit here’ – she gestured to the small table and chair prepared in readiness – ‘I’m sure many people will be extremely keen to buy it.’
‘Me for one,’ Poppy murmured, about to squeeze her way to the front of the room, until Martin laid a restraining hand on her arm.
‘The college has already purchased three copies for the library, so no need to buy one yourself.’
Couldn’t he understand how vital it was for her to possess her own personal copy, inscribed with the great man’s signature? No, he probably couldn’t. Martin was always maddeningly blasé about the big names in his field and, since he himself had a superfluity of books overflowing the floor of his college room, he probably failed to realize that lesser mortals might only just be starting to build up book collections.
‘I mean, it’s fiendishly expensive, Poppy, and I know you’re strapped for cash.’
‘Yes, maybe, but I want a reason to speak to the author, don’t you see?’ Before Martin could detain her any longer, she hastily excused herself and joined the end of the queue. No chance of being bored while she waited, with so many academic celebrities to spot. Some of them looked as if the twenty-first century had completely passed them by, wearing trousers with turn-ups, or ancient Harris Tweed jackets, or even Fair Isle waistcoats – the sort featured in films from the forties.
Feeling a shade self-conscious at knowing none of the guests but Martin, she was gratified when the man queuing just in front of her turned round to introduce himself as Hubert Hodgkinson, a Professor of Philosophy. Bearded and bespectacled, he sported an alarmingly pink shirt and dapper blue bow-tie.
‘Have you read the new book?’ he asked, once they’d exchanged a few pleasantries
She would have hardly had a chance, since it was published only today. Hubert and his ilk would probably have been sent a proof-copy, or even a signed volume as a personal gift from the author. ‘No, but I’ve read all the rest,’ she said, in her own defence. And From Hegel to Existentialism, I’ve read four times.’
‘Well, you’re obviously a glutton for punishment!’
She bristled at his snide remark. Admittedly, Leon’s books were written in a dense, convoluted style, but that was simply part of their challenge.
‘And what’s your own speciality?’ Hubert enquired, raising his voice above the wine-fuelled babble throbbing all around them.
‘Well, I’m still finishing my doctoral thesis, so I’m very much a novice.’
Another man ahead of them had now turned round to join the conversation – a more amenable type, judging by his tone. ‘And what’s the subject of the thesis?’ he asked, genially.
‘Gottlob Frege – mainly the distinction between concept and object.’
He seemed none the wiser – unsurprisingly, since he went on to explain that, unlike Hubert, he wasn’t a philosopher, but worked in publishing and mainly on the fiction side.
While he expatiated on the current parlous state of the book business, she was distracted by the fact that the queue was moving fast and there were now only a couple of people in front of them. Since she was determined to make an impression on the great Professor Leon Kozlov, she needed a few minutes’ silence, to work out what to say – some pithy but profound remark that would encapsulate her devotion and enthusiasm. It would be an appalling waste of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to stand tongue-tied in his presence.
Fortunately, Hubert had begun chatting to someone else, and the publisher had reached the head of the queue and was engaged in buying his book, so she used the time to prepare her opening words. But once he’d had his copy signed and melted into the crowd, she came face to face with her hero; his startlingly dark eyes looking directly into hers.
‘What an incredibly beautiful woman!’ he exclaimed.
The unexpected compliment, uttered in so dramatic a tone, threw her off-balance entirely. A furious blush began to envelop her from scalp to toe and the scintillating words she had so carefully prepared vanished in crimson confusion.
‘Have we met before?’ he asked, still gazing at her with a focus of attention that only intensified the flush.
‘Er, no. I don’t think ….’ She was behaving like an awkward adolescent, unable to formulate even one coherent sentence.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Poppy,’ he repeated, spinning out the name in a long, exclamatory sigh. ‘Yes, I recognize you as my Muse from long ago, so we must have met in another life.’
No way could he be serious. He knew absolutely nothing about her and, as for their meeting in a previous life, how could a philosopher of his standing ever entertain such a fanciful idea?
‘Never would I forget such exquisite grey-green eyes. I’m drowning in their depths! And your hair deserves a poem in its praise. That fantastic shade of auburn rarely exists outside a Rossetti painting.’
Was he making fun of her? Or had he had too much to drink? The wine-glass on the table beside him was very nearly empty. But, pissed or not, it was surely inappropriate for a man of his age to take so intimate an approach. And his voice had changed completely. The magisterial tone he had adopted for his formal speech, as author, was now replaced by a velvet-and-Courvoisier purr, as if the two of them were alone together, rather than in a crowded room. And what embarrassed her particularly was that the gawky young man from Blackwells, in charge of selling the books, had overheard the whole extravagant spiel.
Disoriented, she thrust her credit card towards the lugubrious-looking fellow. ‘I’d like to buy a copy, please.’
However, Leon reached out smartly for the card and pushed it back into her hand. ‘I wouldn’t hear of you buying it. As my miraculously resurrected Muse, you deserve a free copy – if not the entire pile!’
‘No, really, Professor Kozlov, I couldn’t possibly -’
‘Call me Leon!’ he interrupted, cutting off her objection, then, opening one of the books with a flourish, he grabbed his fountain-pen, scribbled something on the flyleaf and passed the tome across the table.
The ink was still wet and had splattered into tiny blue-black blotches, such was the force of his pen. His writing was exuberantly large and the inscription itself left her staring in disbelief.
You enchanting creature, I simply have to see you again. Phone me, please, on 07939 875593.
Beneath the squiggled signature, was one plunging, long-legged kiss, penned with such fervent emphasis, it had all but scored through the paper. This couldn’t be happening, she thought. Instead of the polite but brief exchange she had expected, stranger to stranger, he seemed to be suggesting an assignation. Or did he intend them to meet simply to talk philosophy?
As if sensing her uncertainty, he seized a second copy of his book and began inscribing that one, too, the pen ejaculating another flurry of excitable blue-black spurts. Again, he passed it over; letting his cold, bony hand linger against her warm and fleshy one.
We just have to take this further, my enchantress. And make it soon, or I’ll die of deprivation!
She stood stupidly dumb – elated by the inscription, yet also shocked and bewildered. How could she respond in the face of such excess, or respond at all in such a public place? The bookseller had slunk away, thank God, presumably aware that his presence was, to say the least, superfluous, but the editor was still hovering in the background. She had probably planned to take her author to meet various academic luminaries, yet Leon seemed oblivious of the fact he was holding up the proceedings.
‘I’ll be expecting your call,’ he whispered, leaning across to grip her wrist, as if about to take her captive and spirit her away.
Suddenly decisive, she shook her hand free, thanked him for the books, then turned her back and made a beeline for Martin – safe, predictable, unextravagant Martin. Never once had Martin made a single comment on her appearance, let alone in such fulsome terms. And, anyway, her looks weren’t particularly special – well, apart from her hair, which was her best feature, admittedly, being thick and wavy and naturally auburn, without recourse to chemicals. But her eyes were, frankly, boring, more slatey-grey than green, whatever Leon might say. Besides, if she were truly so exceptional, why didn’t she have a current boyfriend? No one had shown the slightest interest in her since she had ended things with Edward, on the grounds he was too old. But, hell, Edward was thirty-five – a mere thirteen years her senior – so how could Leon possibly imagine that she would welcome a relationship with a man of eighty-two?
Well, she didn’t and she wouldn’t. His books she would treasure – undoubtedly learn a huge amount from this new volume on phenomenology – but the two inscriptions, however beguiling, must simply be ignored. Fuelled by too much Chardonnay, they were patently insincere.
‘Come in, come in!’ he enthused, as he tugged open the front door. ‘I can hardly believe you’re here, when you took so much persuasion.’
He seemed so disconcertingly different from the Leon of the launch, she instantly regretted having come. He also looked disorientingly older, as if the flesh had shrivelled on his face, allowing the skull and bones beneath to make their outlines felt. Yet how could that have happened in the mere six weeks since the launch party? On that occasion, he had worn a smart velvet jacket in an elegant shade of blue; now he was dressed in a crumpled off-white shirt and unflattering mud-brown trousers. Even his hair seemed different: straggly and overlong, so she suspected his dapper appearance at the party had been due to the ministrations of his editor, who must have taken him in hand, to make a good impression on the guests.
‘Poppy, it’s wonderful to see you!’ he exclaimed, and the sheer fervour of his welcome made her feel ashamed of her initial negative reaction. What she had to remember was that a man of his towering intellect might well consider it frivolous and shallow to lavish time on his hair or dress. And, after all, his expression was just as lively, his voice as exuberant, his whole manner vivacious, as if the blood in his veins was frisky-young and super-charged, in contrast to his scraggy neck and arthritic, blue-veined hands. At least he had made no mention of enchantresses or Muses – a definite relief.
‘Prepare for a climb to the heavens,’ he said, with a smile, leading the way up a narrow flight of stairs. ‘I warned you I live in a garret!’
Despite the warning, she was completely unprepared for the small, shabby bedsit they finally reached, five flights up, at the top. The address might be Bloomsbury, but the ambience was, frankly, slummy. How could a man of his distinction live in these cramped conditions and in such a total mess? The rug on the floor was threadbare and the cover on the small divan looked as it hadn’t been washed in aeons. Books had overflowed the shelves and were piled ten-deep on every surface, making Martin’s profusion of volumes pale into insignificance. A film of dust had settled on the battered mahogany desk, and the curtains at the window hung lopsided on their hooks.
‘Forgive my modest home,’ he said. ‘But I bought this flat for a song when I was in my early twenties and have lived here ever since. And, because my needs are fairly basic, I see no reason to move.’
She marvelled that anyone should live so long in one place – most of her contemporaries were forever decamping from flat-share to flat-share, as their friends or prospects changed. And she couldn’t help admiring his lack of materialism in having no ambition or desire to climb the property ladder, unlike most of the population. And, as for the general squalor, well, again, she tried to excuse him. Any true philosopher would have his mind not on tedious housework or interior decoration, but on logic, theory, rational analysis ….
And, indeed, once he’d settled her in the one (well-worn) armchair and poured her a glass of claret, he turned the conversation to her thesis. ‘So what made you choose Frege?’ he enquired, perching on the edge of the divan and fixing her with the same intense, unsettling scrutiny she remembered from the party.
‘Mere chance,’ she replied, nervously, shifting in the lumpy chair. ‘I happened to go to a Philosophy Society meeting, which was exploring his life and work. And I was immediately intrigued by the way he started as a mathematician and from there devised a logic he applied to other areas. You see, right from my late teens, I’ve been equally interested in philosophy and maths, and Frege seemed to bridge that gap.’
He nodded eagerly, genuinely interested, it seemed. ‘’I, too, have always been struck by the way his thinking took him from mathematics to logic to semantics, then back to mathematics again. I reckon he was the first philosopher fully to understand the complexities involved in explaining what makes a statement true or false. Plato may have seen the problem of the unity of the proposition, but it took Frege to come up with a solution.’
She was profoundly relieved that they were now on safe intellectual ground and that she was managing to hold her own, despite the monumental gulf between his breadth and depth of knowledge and her own as yet shallow paddlings. And, as he embarked on a discussion of Frege’s influence on Wittgenstein, she actually let herself relax. Of course she didn’t regret having come. This would be something to relay to her children and grandchildren – an evening with a legend.
‘Although one of the problems with Frege,’ he added, leaning forward, as if to bridge the gap between them, ‘is his anti-Semitism. It’s always been a blot on his reputation and, personally, I find it hard to stomach.’
‘Me, too,’ she concurred, ‘but, from what I’ve gathered, it wasn’t too extreme until well into his old age. And, anyway, I try to regard it like musicians do with Wagner – you know, appreciating the work, while disapproving of the prejudice.’
‘Talking of Wagner, shall we have a little music?’ he suggested. ‘And how about something to eat? I’m sure you must be hungry.’
‘Well, yes, both would be lovely – so long as it’s no trouble.’ Inwardly, she was tingling with excitement. Dinner with the world’s greatest living philosopher, in the sanctum of his home, and to the accompaniment of Tristan and Isolde ….. She must be dreaming, surely.
With surprising agility, he sprang up from the bed and opened the lid of an ancient gramophone, positioned on one of the bookshelves. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any Wagner,’ he remarked, as he selected a record and placed it on the turntable, first blowing off the dust. ‘But this is Eric Satie. Are you familiar with his music?’
‘Well, he’s a far cry from Wagner – in fact, he opposed the whole Wagnerian cult. He thought music should be pure and simple, not overloaded with weighty symbols or intertwining themes.’
Was there anything this man didn’t know? Even his possessions were intriguing: the gramophone itself, with its pile of 78s, the black Bakelite telephone, complete with receiver and dial, the bottle of real ink on his desk – things she had never seen except online, or in old photographs. It was as if he existed in a time-warp; a piece of living history made flesh. Fascinated, she watched him set the gramophone needle carefully down on the vinyl and, after a few clicking, buzzing noises, a fragile stream of music stole into the room – spare and soulful music, although sounding rather scratchy and distorted.
‘It’s not exactly hi-fi,’ he admitted, as if tuning in to her thoughts, ‘but I’m too busy to be bothered with all this new technology. And, whatever its deficiencies, I’d like you to sit here and enjoy it, while I make us a little supper.’
‘Can’t I help?’ she offered.
‘No. My kitchen’s barely bigger than a cupboard, so there isn’t room for two. Anyway, I want you to relax. When you first arrived, you looked absolutely terrified. I don’t know why, because I assure you I’m not an ogre!’
She flushed. Hardly surprising she’d been nervous, wondering what on earth to expect after his excesses at the party. She realized now, however, that, on such a glitzy occasion, all the wine and adulation must have gone to his head, so that he had acted out of character. This was the genuine Leon: the serious intellectual and erudite professor.
Once he’d refilled her glass and vanished into the kitchen, she took a long, appreciative swig of the wine. Being more accustomed to the cheapest offers at Oddbins, it was an unexpected luxury to savour a fine claret. Besides, a drink or two would help her to relax. She was still ridiculously anxious that she might reveal her ignorance by letting fall some naïve or artless remark.
While he was gone, she tried to focus on the music, so she could comment on it intelligently. However, the record lasted only minutes and then all she could hear was a scratchy noise from the needle as it continued to revolve. So she examined his expanse of books – there were shelves from floor to ceiling on three of the four walls – books not just on philosophy but on art, music, religion, history, politics …. If only she could imbibe that wealth of knowledge simply by looking at the volumes, so that, when he returned, she would be more worthy of his company.
In fact, he was back far sooner than she’d expected and not with anything resembling dinner.
‘I’ve made you my speciality,’ he announced, setting down a small plastic tray on the desk. ‘A cheese-and-marmalade sandwich. They’re the perfect partners, I find – the cheese smooth and bland and creamy, against the bitter, tangy, chunky marmalade.’
Her fantasies of lobster, quail or pheasant shrivelled into dust. But what stupidity, on her part, to imagine that such gourmet fare could emerge from a cupboard-sized kitchen, or from a bachelor who lived alone and had probably never learned to cook.
Having taken off the record and replaced it with another, he unloaded the tray and handed her a plate. ‘I hope you don’t mind eating on your lap. There just isn’t room for a table and, anyway, I’ve never found one necessary. To be honest, Poppy, I’m usually too busy to bother eating at all.’
Being greedy by nature, she envied his asceticism, although, once she had studied the contents of her plate, it was all she could do not to grimace in distaste. The plate itself was a treasure – fine porcelain patterned with twining leaves and flowers – but the sandwich looked, frankly, inedible. He had toasted the bread and burnt it, and the two charred and blackened slices enclosed a slab of bright orange processed cheese, and were oozing a sticky amber gel she assumed must be the marmalade, although ‘chunky’ it certainly wasn’t.
‘Bon appetit!’ he said, settling himself on the bed again and tucking in, with relish, to a similarly unappetizing sandwich. Indeed, he was eating with the avid concentration of a literally famished man, as if nothing had passed his lips since the dainty little canapés served at the launch party, six whole weeks ago.
She, too, was hungry, but not for this abortion of a snack. However, from courtesy alone, she took a reluctant bite. The cheese was hard and greasy but tasteless, while the peculiar runny marmalade began drooling down her chin and onto her best blouse. In the absence of serviettes, she couldn’t mop it up and, in any case, her attention was engaged in the onerous task of trying to force the mouthful down. All she could taste was burnt bread, dry and acrid. Perhaps his eyesight was failing, along with his sense of smell, and he didn’t even realize it was burnt.
Suddenly, embarrassingly, she actually started to choke and took refuge in her wine, gulping a good half of the glass, in an attempt to swallow the obstruction in her throat. Yet, the stubborn sludge of crumbs refused to dislodge and she was dismayingly aware that her rasping cough was obliterating the muted, mellifluous music.
Leon, all concern, quickly transferred his plate to the floor and rushed over to pat her gently on the back. Mortified, she continued to cough, which only made him more solicitous. ‘Hold on! I’ll fetch some water.’
Returning with a glass, he held it to her lips and encouraged her to sip. Although grateful for his ministrations, she knew she must look a sight, with her streaming eyes and smudged mascara. But, ever attentive, he put down the glass, whipped a hankie from his pocket and wiped her face with consummate tenderness. The handkerchief was mercifully clean, and cobweb-soft from repeated washings and, as it whispered against her face, she had a peculiar sense of being a tiny child, vulnerable and stricken but in safely nurturing hands.
‘Better?’ he asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
She nodded. The coughing had stopped; the obstruction disappeared – although her heart was beating ridiculously fast, from shame as much as discomfort. ‘I ….I’m terribly sorry, Leon,’ she stammered, aware of her crassness in spoiling this magical evening.
His only answer was to take both her hands in his. ‘You’re a highly sensitive woman, Poppy. I realized that the minute we met. And you’re still het up – which is wholly understandable. You see, I strongly suspect that my uncouth peasant food proved an affront to your delicate system. Forgive me, will you, please? To tell the truth, I’ve managed all these years without really needing to cook. Either, I dine out with my cronies, or get by on a bowl of cornflakes, or a spoonful or two of baked beans, so when it comes to entertaining a fastidious lady ….’
‘Look, the sandwich was fine …. Please don’t think ….’ Was ‘fastidious’ polite-speak for ‘fusspot’? Had she offended him, deep-down? The second record had now come to an end and the irritable, scratchy noise, repeating and repeating, echoed the agitation in her mind. Leon, however, seemed oblivious of the noise and, far from looking offended, his eyes were fixed on her with something close to adoration. Without releasing her hands, he suddenly moved a little closer and kissed each of her eyelids in turn. Astonished, she was about to repel him, but the pressure of his lips was so innocently subtle, the gossamer caress seemed more nurturing and protective than intrusive and seductive. Or perhaps the wine had knocked her off-guard. She had to admit she did feel slightly woozy, having downed a morale-boosting Vodka-and-Coke before setting out this evening, as well as Leon’s claret. However, far from taking advantage of her, he led her gently to the window and drew aside the tattered curtain.
‘I want to show you something, Poppy. See that bright star above the rooftops? That’s the planet Venus and it’s exceptionally bright at present.’
She gazed, enchanted at the small, glittering point of light – a star she would never have known or noticed had he not pointed it out.
‘It’s by far the brightest object in the sky, and that’s probably why it got its name.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well, Venus is the goddess of love and beauty, so she’s also a dazzling presence.’
She experienced a frisson of excitement, as the pair of them continued to gaze out beyond the jumble of chimneys, spires and roofs, at the mysterious night sky.
‘Amazing to think it’s only slightly smaller than our earth, when it looks as small as a diamond solitaire’ – he paused and turned towards her – ‘a diamond I’d like to give you, Poppy, because you’re a Venus, too: a goddess of love and beauty.’
However extravagant the compliment, she accepted it, this time, elated as she was by the whole tenor of the evening and by the sheer brilliance of the star itself. Why shouldn’t she be Venus, if only for an hour, rather than an earth-bound poppy doomed to fade in some drab field of corn? She didn’t even object when he slipped an arm around her waist. It felt natural, somehow, fitting, as if they were being drawn together by this shared experience. Rarely, in her ordinary life, did she spare a thought for the stars, or look beyond the narrow focus of the books in the library, or the papers on her desk.
Slowly but persuasively, he moved his lips towards hers. Instantly, she made to pull away – too late. Already, he was kissing her and the kiss was so wildly passionate, so sensuously erotic, she had no choice but to respond. This was a young man’s kiss – ardent, fierce, emphatic – yet with subtleties she had never known before: his adventurous tongue exploring, seeking, flicking; forcing her own mouth to co-operate. All her misgivings melted in the wild fire of his embrace and, even when he coaxed her on to the bed and continued kissing her neck, her throat, her décolletage, she was powerless to resist. The sensations were exquisite, as if he were galvanizing new erogenous zones in her body, undiscovered till this moment. The kiss was going bone-deep, dissolving her previous rigidity into liquescent surrender.
He unbuttoned her blouse, skilfully and swiftly – no fumbling fingers or clumsy tuggings – then released her bra in a single adroit movement and began stroking her bare breasts. ‘Poppy,’ he breathed, ‘your flesh is just exquisite – a miracle of loveliness. If only Titian could have met you, he would have banished all his other models and painted only you and you and you.’
His praise was pure hyperbole, but now she accepted it as of right. None of her previous boyfriends had ever been so totally bewitched by her body. Edward might grunt ‘Nice boobs!’ when about to ‘shag’ her – his word and one she loathed. With Leon, there would be no ‘shagging’. He brought poetry to the art of love, and clearly cultivated passion as one of the highest arts. The bumbling men she’d met so far simply hadn’t possessed the skill to peel off a woman’s tights and pants in the easy and ingenious fashion he was now employing, as if the garments had simply dissolved beneath his hands.
‘Darling Poppy!’ he exclaimed, as he gazed at her naked belly and gently spread her thighs apart. ‘I want every artist in the world to record your gorgeous body on their canvases, so it will go down to posterity.’
His adulatory words were set to the subtle music of his fingers, so how could she object? In truth, his touch was so lingeringly provocative, she seemed to move into a different realm where nothing else existed save her own voluptuous pleasure. Beneath his hands, she was indeed a Venus, experiencing extremes of sensation no mortal could ever know.
‘I dared not hope,’ he whispered, ‘that your bush would be the same astounding auburn as your hair, but the two exactly match, I see.’
She shut her eyes to savour the electrifying feeling of his lips and tongue probing deep inside her: lapping, tingling, startling, in a whole symphony of impressions. This was a rite of passage, a vital initiation, as she morphed from girl to goddess.
But, all at once, he sat abruptly up and began tearing off his clothes. ‘I must have you, Poppy – now!’
His voice was fierce, emphatic, but, as she stared at his thin, white, spindly legs – so suddenly and fatally revealed – and at the long, pale, dangly penis, only semi-stiff, her passion collapsed at a stroke. Seconds ago, she’d been revelling in the attentions of a vigorous young stud, so who was this old fossil, with his skeletally thin thighs and pathetically hairless body, and a face ravaged and creviced with wrinkles? Appalled, she pushed him off, deep revulsion replacing wild desire. ‘I’m sorry, Leon. We have to stop.’
‘Stop?’ he repeated, astonished. ‘But we’ve only just begun, my darling.’
She wasn’t his darling – not now. The reality of his aged body, brought home to her so dramatically, had changed her mood entirely, and her overwhelming wish was simply to escape. Yet he was using every skill he had to overcome her resistance – fondling her buttocks, stroking her stomach, even exploring her anus – and actually holding her down with a physical force she could barely credit in someone of his age. How could the flame of lust burn so fiercely in a man of eighty-two, or his need to penetrate her be so all-consuming? Surely only a prostitute would be willing to couple with his pallid, stick-like body, or tolerate his drooping penis, as it struggled to maintain any sort of grip inside her.
Again she tried to heave him off, but he only redoubled his efforts to restrain her, apparently unconcerned whether he hurt or even bruised her in the process. But, with youth on her side, she managed to dislodge him, and then leapt off the bed and began struggling back into her clothes in a frenzy of impatience, determined to make her get-away.
But he, too, jumped up; his face contorted with rage. ‘So now you’re revealed in your true colours, Poppy, as just a selfish little prick-teaser – a taker, not a giver. You had no problem, did you, relishing every possible pleasure for yourself, but when it comes to my needs, that’s a different matter, clearly.’
‘Oh, you’re accusing me, are you?’ she retaliated, maddened by his bitter, vengeful tone. ‘A minute ago, I was Venus – now I’m crap.’
‘Yes,’ he sneered, ‘certainly you’re Venus, but what I omitted to tell you, my dear little ignoramus, is that Venus is one of the least hospitable places for life in the whole of the solar system. In fact, it’s the nearest thing we have to Hell – covered with lava flows and so blisteringly hot it could easily melt lead. Astronomers say that anyone who tried to visit would be roasted, crushed and corroded, all at once. And that’s exactly what I feel you’ve done to me. I worshipped your body, lavished it with praises and caresses, and then you suddenly turn on me, insult and reject me in the most humiliating manner and -’
‘Look, it wasn’t like that. You don’t understand.’
‘No, I don’t. And nor do I want to, you silly little bitch. I don’t intend to waste my breath on someone so self-centred, so get out of my sight and don’t ever dare come back!’
‘I wouldn’t if you paid me!’ she yelled, forcing her feet back into her shoes, grabbing her coat and bag, and stampeding down the stairs, in a turmoil of emotion –humiliation, anger and, yes, guilt. She had been selfish. And rude. But ….
She tugged open the front door and stumbled out into the night and, there above her, glittering and mocking, was her namesake, Venus, the brightest – and most hellish – of the stars.
‘Venus’ is from Wendy Perriam‘s latest collection of short stories, Bad Mothers, Brilliant Lovers, published by Robert Hale and available as an e-book (here) or paperback (here [Amazon] or here [Robert Hale]).