Ties that bind

A short story by Hilary Mantel.
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Louisa said, "I wish something would happen. I wouldn't mind if it were bad."

Alice, her lunch date, looked hard at her. A forkful of green pasta was poised in the air. "Yes, you would," she said.

Louisa sighed. "I just need a change, that's all. I feel tied. I need to go to new places, meet new people." Hopelessly, she pursued a piece of lollo rosso. "Adjust my... my self perception."

"I thought you'd already adjusted it," Alice said. "You go to acupuncture. Self-defence."

"It's not enough. Look, it's not as if I'm after a man in my life. I mean, I'm a realist, I know there aren't any."

"Some," Alice said cautiously. "You can get them a couple of hours a week, like cleaning agencies. Tuesday and Thursday, something like that. Or do you remember my Tony? I used to have a share of him, with Corinne Docherty and that ginger-haired girl, I told you about her, the one who left to go and sell photocopiers."

"Yes, that's all right for you," Louisa said. She waved to the waiter for another mineral water. When she looked back at Alice, the veiled insult was hardly veiled at all.

She ran her eyes over her friend. Alice was not fat, you couldn't say that, she acted fat, that was all; her clothes lacked cohesion, her shirt always creeping out of her waistband, her jackets creased across her broad back. And look at the way she sat there, slumped in her chair; look at the way she slurped dressing on her salad! "I want more for myself," Louisa said. "I have never thought I was meant for such a constrained existence."

The waiter - he was a man, of course, but neither of them noticed him - took their plates away. He creaked the sweet trolley in their direction, and stood mute while they had their ritual debate about pudding. He served them, and offered cream, and they waved it away, and him with it.

"I do wish they'd modernise this sweet trolley," Louisa complained.

"Yugh, but s'place s'awright, round corner, s'easy," Alice said, through a mouthful of calories.

Louisa wanted to reach across and slap her, as her own mother used to do: don't talk with your mouth full!

"Alice," she asked, "why do you think it's wrong to want an exciting life?"

Alice swallowed her mouthful of cake. "Because the excitement is usually at the expense of someone else."

"Why is it more reprehensible..." Louisa struggled with the word; one Campari and orange did for her, in the vocabulary department. "Why is it more reprehensible to want a life with a bit of dash and drama in it, than to want a life in a cottage with roses round the door?"

Alice took her last gulp of wine-by-the-glass. She didn't answer.

Louisa leaned forward. "My basic problem is credibility," she said. "Oh, you're an old friend, I can tell you."

"Sure," Alice said. "I'm like an old carpet. Just walk the dog-shit in."

Louisa ignored her. "You see these little slags in the office getting all excited when it comes to Friday morning. That tart Shona said, what are you doing this weekend, Miss Howell, are you going to your mother's again?"

"So that's what's worrying you," Alice said. She sipped her double espresso. "Not that your life isn't exciting, but that people don't believe it is?"

"If they believed it was, it would be," said Louisa, with a flash of sense. They paid the bill and went to the Ladies.

When she was washing her hands, and Louisa was rummaging in her make- up bag, Alice said, "I could fix something for you. A bit of drama."

"What?" Louisa said sceptically. "A blind date?"

"Oh no. I wouldn't know anyone you'd like."

"No, I don't think you would."

"I'd thought... well, I don't know exactly... but what are friends for?"

"What? What are you going to do?" Louisa's lip pencil quivered in the air.

"You won't enjoy it if you know beforehand," Alice said. She smiled, and Louisa saw that there was a fragment of spinach lodged between her teeth. She thought, the years go by so fast; I am getting old.

Two days later, Louisa was yawning at her work-station, when her extension buzzed. "A Miss Mildmay is downstairs in the reception area, she says she has an appointment."

Louisa's heart skipped: just the once. After all, it couldn't be a very good drama, if it was Alice who had planned it. But frankly, she'd expected it out of office hours.

For security reasons, you had to go down to meet your visitors. Alice had her briefcase with her, and looked as professional as she was ever going to get; her skirt was an inch too long, Louisa noticed, and she still hadn't managed to get her fringe cut. "Miss Mildmay," she said dotingly, offering her hand.

"Miss Howell," Alice simpered, brushing fingertips.

"Do come up," Louisa beamed.

In the lift she tried to break the pretence, pinching Alice on the arm: "Well, what's new?"

Alice didn't answer; she just smiled at herself fatly in the mirror glass that lined the lift.

They stepped out on the fifth floor. Louisa said, "OK, come on then, what's the surprise?"

Alice said, "This", and hit her over the head with her briefcase.

Fortunately - as Louisa realised later - it was one of the light-weight female executive type, so it didn't knock her out or mark her for life; but it did stun her. She bent double, and peered fuzzily at Alice's big knees, and then gagged as Alice's arm locked itself around her neck. She clawed at the arm, at the thick wool jacket, then her own arm flailed out for support as Alice began to walk.

From the lifts there were only two ways to go; Alice understood the layout of offices, and she chose the right one. Dragging Louisa with her, shouldering open the swing doors, she strode into the main, open-plan area.

Louisa's self-defence classes hadn't done her much good. Instead of twisting her head free, screaming for help while at the same time jabbing at her attacker's eyes, she bleated, "Alice, Alice, let me go, you bloody idiot." There had not even been time to activate her rape alarm.

Alice snarled, "Mrs Bradshaw to you, you whore."

"Wugh?" Louisa said. "Wugh Mrs Bradshaw?" Her chin was forced up at a painful angle; it was hard to articulate.

"Who am I? Who am I? You know bloody fine who I am! I'm Gareth's wife, you sad baggage. Didn't you bother to ask him his surname?"

Chairs and heads swivelled. Eyes peeped over partitions. Alice yanked Louisa's hair, hard, and some of it came out... not by the roots, but still...

"Call Security," someone suggested. Nobody did it. Desks were deserted, computer screens blinked unattended.

"Get your own man, can't you?" Alice snarled. "If you can, you miserable runt. Why are you so skinny, are you HIV positive?"

"Get her off," a voice called, without much urgency. "She's murdering Miss Howell."

Alice turned, to face another segment of her audience. Head clamped under her arm, Louisa turned with her, eyes down on the carpet tiles, her body sagging at the knees. Her tunic sweater was riding up over her bottom; she could see feet, a ring of feet. There were boots laced up to the knee, there were sensible low-heeled courts and the 4-inch spikes on which that tart Shona had been tottering around all week; and there were men's feet, shuffling backwards, peeping from under the room dividers. Tears sprang to Louisa's eyes. "Dugh break my jaw, Alice. Dugh break my jaw, please."

Then - tightening her grip, one hand in Louisa's hair - Alice began to talk. "This bitch," she said, "has been screwing my husband Gareth twice a week for the last 18 months. And you lot, I bet you had no idea, had you? Little Miss Butter-wouldn't-melt, that's what you all thought. Little Miss Carpet Slipper. Little Miss Ovaltine. Oh, come on, admit it." Alice put on a coy, high-pitched voice. "What are you doing this weekend, Louisa? Oh, I'm going to the vicarage tea- party!" Alice snorted. She reverted to her normal voice. "I'll tell you what she does, shall I? Gareth said, `I can't live a lie, Alice: we do bondage.' Yes, that's what Gareth said. She's got this kind of leather vest, where her tits peep out."

"Oh, yuk!" said a bright voice above the ring of feet. It was that tart, Shona. "Then what do they do? Is there whipping and that?"

Louisa said, "Is nugh Bradshaw. Is Alice Mughmay." Her mouth was swelling up - the briefcase's combination lock had caught her lip. "Nugh nugh anyone called Gareth."

"Oh, nugh nugh," Alice sneered. "Shut up, you pox-ridden baggage. Let these people hear the truth about your nasty little double life."

She began to hit Louisa then: to slap her on the crown of the head, as if she were a tambourine. And all at once she dropped her - Louisa falling on hands and knees to the floor - and walked out unmolested, the way she'd come in.

Some months passed; yet the noise was no less as the waiters pulled out the chairs with a bow and a scrape, and the first sip of wine still numbed the soft palate.

"Just a small scar," Alice said. "Interesting really. Men will wonder how you got it."

"But my tooth!" Louisa waved a breadstick in the air. "I had to have my tooth capped!"

"I paid for it, didn't I?" Alice dug into her saute potatoes. "Come to that, you never compensated me for my briefcase. It got a dent in it."

"I asked for excitement," Louisa said. "I didn't ask for violence."

"Well, beggars can't be choosers," Alice said.

Because of the notoriety, Louisa had been forced to leave her job. She had moved into office equipment sales, like the ginger-haired girl who used to share Alice's boyfriend. Her life had changed. "That's what you wanted, isn't it?" Alice said.

"Suppose so," Louisa said. She stabbed her fork into a dry chicken breast.

After all, she travelled a lot now. There were businessmen in hotels, who sat in the bar, rattling the ice in their Jack Daniels. She would hesitate in the doorway; their eyes would pass over her. She never looked into their faces, finding it difficult; her smile would focus on their throats, on the knots of their ties. There had been that rep in Glasgow: short, but exceedingly forceful. There had been the man who had taken her business card, and next day sent her an orchid in a box; that had been the high point, to date. One man had got carried away, and given her an order for a gross of suspension files and an ibico ibimatic Kombo Deluxe binding system ("punch and bind in one"). It's state-of-the-art, she'd assured him, as she picked up her price list from his morning pillow and flung her dirty underwear into her case; but his secretary had rung next day and cancelled it, and had been rather sharp about the whole thing.

She glowered at Alice. Alice's eyes were roving in the direction of the sweet trolley; all these months on, it had not been modernised at all, and still creaked towards them with its freight of jellified mousses and cardboard gateau. One day, she thought, I will meet the ginger-haired girl at some trade exhibition. I will tell her about Alice's true character. You're lucky to have got away unscarred, I'll say. When Tony left her, she was so sick with jealousy, you know, because I'd got this big affair going with a bloke called Gareth...

She said to Alice, "You shouldn't have said that thing about a leather vest. You should have called it a bustier."

"No, it was a vest," Alice said. "I can see it all."

Louisa closed her eyes. Gareth came fleetingly to view: the drooling lust on his face, his member erect below his harness. Then she saw the ginger-haired girl, sitting opposite, hanging on her every word licking her pink lips as she, Louisa, shivered a little and leaned forward to confide: "Gareth, now, that was something special..."

Louisa picked up another breadstick, and pointed it at Alice like a witchdoctor pointing the bone. Then delicately, she put it to her lips and began to nibble it: nibble nibble nibble, towards the unamiable future, and towards the confining darkness that will soon embrace us all

This story appears in `New Writing 5', edited by Christopher Hope and Peter Porter, published by Vintage, price pounds 6.99