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I posted Chapter 1 way back on 13 January. Subsequent chapters have appeared each Friday, and will continue to be posted until all 50 have appeared here. You can find those already posted via the archive; just search for the chapter you want to read.
Missed the start? Find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
Read, enjoy, invite your friends to join us.
Friday 7th May
Zoë arrived late on Friday night. A tall, willowy, woman with startling aquamarine eyes that sparkled. She smiled easily and had long shiny hair the colour of coal. I liked her on sight. Netta didn’t. Leigh greeted her with a kiss full on her mouth and a great hug which he held for a long time. Netta folded her arms across her chest and tapped her bare foot.
I took Zoë’s case. ‘Where shall I put this, Leigh?’
Netta and Zoë both looked at him.
‘Zizi’s only here for a couple of nights, Netta…’
I thought Netta would make a fuss, but she shrugged and pretended she didn’t care. ‘Fine. We’ll split it, then. Do you want him tonight or tomorrow?’
Zoë laughed out loud and I had to join her, it was so infectious. Netta looked uncomfortable and Leigh smiled knowingly.
‘Perhaps you’d rather we shared him both nights?’
Leigh’s face was a picture; he wanted none of that. Even I could tell she was joking but Netta seemed to think she was serious.
‘Fine by me. Just because we live in the sticks, we’re not savages, you know. We can be every bit as sophisticated as you southerners.’
‘My dear, you’re clearly far more sophisticated than I. Tell you what; I’m positively pooped after slogging up that dreadful motorway. You look after the poor man’s needs for tonight. I’ll keep him warm tomorrow. How’s that?’
Leigh grinned. ‘The bedroom opposite yours, in that case.’
‘What, this case in that case?’
‘No, that case in this case.’
‘Right. In that case, I’ll take this case up.’
‘In that case, thank you.’
Zoë laughed. ‘You two should be a double act.’
Leigh looked at me. ‘Maybe we should’
Netta butted in. ‘Mum’s in that room tomorrow night’
‘No problem. Ma can change the sheets in the morning. You can cosy up with Matilda or use the far end room tomorrow night. I think I’m going to enjoy this birthday.’
When I returned, they were in the sitting room, drinking wine, and I noticed Zoë’s outfit for the first time as she stood to thank me. She wore a sheer, batwing, paisley print cotton blouse, in colours that echoed her eyes, tied under breasts I would have liked to sport. The fabric lay soft and close to her skin and the low cut neckline exposed her deep cleavage. Round her long, slender neck was a black velvet choker bearing a single emerald. Her black trousers were low on her hips so her navel was exposed and they hugged her legs until they flared at the embroidered bottoms. Black, strappy sandals with low heels exposed feet that had worn badly fitting shoes for too long. The nails on her fingers and toes were painted bright aquamarine to match her eyes and eye shadow.
‘That was kind of you, Faith, thank you. Leigh’s told me a lot about you and I’ve been looking forward to our meeting. He’s warned me you’re dangerously honest. Tell me, how do I look?’ There was a gleam in her eyes and humour around her mouth that spoke of mockery. But it was herself she was mocking.
‘I think Leigh must be mad not to have asked you to marry him years ago. But I’m glad he didn’t. You’re beautiful, Zoë. To look at, that is. Of course, I don’t know enough about you as a person to determine your character yet, but I think you’re probably rather nice and I think and hope we’ll get along well.’
‘What a delight! It’ll be Ma who suggested marriage, of course. Leigh’s my first love but he’d never get me to leave London and live in this godforsaken place. And I’m such a slave to the weed, he’d never be able to put up with me. He describes me as a beautiful ashtray, you know.’
That was when I finally realized that Leigh didn’t smoke and that none of his lovers and friends smoked in his company. Zoë’s admission made me aware of how strongly he must feel about it and I wondered why.
Netta had seated herself at Leigh’s feet, staking her claim, as Ma would say. She’d caught his hand and pulled it over her shoulder so that it rested on the top of her breast under a shirt unbuttoned to expose most of her upper half. I could see his fingers gently stroking her and I wondered what it would feel like. The thought had me blushing. What was it about Leigh that made him such a magnet for women?
‘Why is it, Zoë, that Leigh’s so attractive to us all?’
He gave me a strange look, as if he hadn’t thought I found him attractive, as if my question surprised him.
‘She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?’ Zoë sat on the vacant sofa and patted the space beside her. I joined her as Leigh struggled to get up and pass me the glass of wine he’d poured whilst I was upstairs.
Zoë touched his hand as I took the glass from him and a look passed between them that Netta couldn’t see and that had me wondering what was so powerful that it could keep them apart. The touch lasted only seconds and he returned to his seat, where Netta again took the hand and placed it on her breast. He glanced at her and gently stroked her skin again as she turned away to stare at Zoë with triumph. Leigh, however, also returned his gaze to Zoë.
Zoë never took her eyes off him as she answered my question. ‘Leigh’s one of those men, though I’m not convinced he should hear this, who holds a mysterious charm for women. Tall, dark and devastatingly handsome he is of course, like the heroes of so many cheap romances. But it’s not just his looks, or those amazing eyes that make you feel like a million dollars every time they include you in his glance; it’s a knack he has of making you feel you’re the only person alive when he’s with you.
‘Even now, with the three of us for company, we’ll each feel we’re the only one around when he speaks to us. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s always been that way. Of course, the fact that he’s an incredible lover and as horny as a rutting stag, doesn’t do him any harm either. But you never feel used by him. He has this way of making every woman feel special. We all love him and he loves all of us. Isn’t that right, Leigh?’
‘Well, he’s loving me tonight. He’s only got one and it’s mine tonight!’
‘My dear, I thought you were all for sharing him? Though I have to say, I’ve never been able to see what’s in it for the other woman with three in a bed.’
‘He’s got hands and a tongue, hasn’t he?’
‘I see. You’re obviously way too sophisticated for me, my dear. I have this old fashioned notion about keeping a man to myself in bed. Terribly primitive and square, I suppose, but that’s me.’
‘And me.’ Leigh gently took his hand from Netta’s skin and rose to his feet. ‘Come on, wanton angel, let’s get to bed so that Zizi can rest after her long journey.’
Netta was on her feet at once.
‘You go up and enjoy the bathroom together. Save water; bath with a friend. Faith and I can have a little chat until you’re in the love nest.’
Netta needed no further encouragement and dragged Leigh from the room.
Zoë was laughing quietly as they left. She refilled our glasses from the bottle. ‘Now then, Faith, mind if I have a ciggie?’
‘I don’t, but Leigh will.’
‘Oh, how splendidly loyal of you. Will you join me in the back garden, then, so I can have my fix?’
We took our wine out to the bench against the back wall of the house, the lights from the kitchen and utility room patching the grass with golden oblongs. Zoë lit up as soon as we closed the door behind us.
‘Don’t ever start with this foul master, especially if you’ve any designs on Leigh, Faith. It stopped him marrying me, and I very much want to be married to him, I can tell you. But it’s a pernicious weed and a jealous master.’
‘If you love him so much, why don’t you just give up smoking?’
‘You really are an innocent, aren’t you, sweetie, encouraging a rival to do something that will help her steal the man you love? You’re too kind for your own good. I love Leigh. I always have and I always will. I’ll go to my early grave, hacking black death from my diseased lungs, loving him. But I can’t give it up. This weed’s a clever killer, Faith. Ensnares you through advertising, rebellion, fashion, peer pressure or simple stupidity. Once hooked, unless you’re very lucky, you’re on it for life. No, I can’t give it up, believe me, I’ve tried. Its hold is too strong.’
‘How can they let it be sold if it’s that bad?’
‘Ah. Vested interest. Jobs, revenue, indifference, ignorance, but mostly because the governments of the world make huge sums in taxes from the legal killers who manufacture this poison. It’ll never change as long as the politicians are in the pockets of the paymasters.’
‘Are you ill now?’
‘Only in my mind. The real sickness will come later. But enough of that. Leigh won’t marry me; he thinks of me as an ashtray and he hates smoking for reasons he’ll tell you in his own good time. But he may well marry you, my dear.
‘Don’t let that promiscuous, sexually athletic sister of yours put you off. Leigh loves his sex and his beautiful women, but he’s never shown the slightest signs of settling down with anyone. Never, that is, until you came along. The way he talks about you makes it obvious to any woman. That’s why your selfish little sister is so damned terrified of you. It’ll take time, Faith, but he’ll discover the real you and fall in love and be faithful to you for the rest of your lives together. I’ll come to your wedding and weep for what I’ve lost, but I’ll be glad for Leigh and for you.’
‘You seem very certain. How can you be so calm about me marrying the man you love? I don’t understand.’
‘I think you do. I’m certain because I know Leigh better than he knows himself and he’s undeniably falling in love with you. I am, as you put it, calm about the prospect because I love him. This’ll sound terribly corny and cringe-making, but it’s true for all that; love is selfless, it’s sex that’s selfish. If I can’t have Leigh, and I can’t, I want to know that he’s with a woman he loves and who loves him in return. That woman is you, Faith, for all your innocence and naivety. Perhaps even because of those qualities.’
‘You’re very honest.’
‘Not as honest as you, sweetie. I’ve nothing to lose now. Borrowed time. The only thing in life I truly value will never be entirely mine, so I have little to fear but the painful end. When they tell me the rot’s set in, I just hope I have the guts to end it myself. The thought of slow disintegration fills me with unspeakable horror. Please promise me you’ll never succumb to this curse, never even try it.’
It mattered to her. I could hear and feel the pain that lay behind her bravado. She was so sad and helpless and I understood it wasn’t her fault. She knew she was addicted, knew she was powerless to change, knew her habit would eventually kill her. I vowed I’d never fall into its clutches. ‘I promise. I give you my word of honour.’
I watched as she took another cigarette from the silver case in her handbag and lit it from the glowing stub of the first. She blew out a great blue cloud of smoke and it seemed to relax her but there were tears in the corners of her beautiful eyes as she looked at me. ‘Good. Break that promise, sweetie, and I swear I’ll come back to haunt you!’
‘Want a drag?’
I pulled away from the offered death stick and shook my head, vigorously. ‘Why would anyone offer poison to a friend? I don’t understand.’
‘Ah. That was a test. But you’re quite right. I started because friends persuaded me. Some friends, eh? What would you think of someone who begged you, with much underhand persuasion, to walk blindfold across a busy motorway? This is every bit as lethal. Odd sort of friendship, isn’t it?’
I nodded. ‘How can you stand the thought of Leigh in bed with Netta?’ It was out of my mouth before my mind had grasped the consequences. ‘I’m sorry!’
She just turned and looked at me, the curl of smoke escaping her mouth as she parted her lips and then briefly smiled and nodded. ‘You’ll feel it more keenly than me, of course. It’s fresh for you, this love. You don’t yet know what you’re missing. You haven’t experienced the magic of Leigh’s physical love. He’s a man made for loving women. I wasn’t his first but I lasted the longest. Whilst he was living with me and we were both studying, he was pleasuring other girls. In a sense, and this is wonderfully ironic, it was the pressure of his infidelity that drove me to the weed. Cruel; that the one thing that ensured I’d never have him exclusively was something his behaviour pushed me into. I ought to hate him, you know. But, idiot that I am, I can’t.
‘I’ve known Leigh a long time. He’s an unusual sort of philanderer in that he really does love his women. He lives to give us pleasure, to enjoy us and celebrate us and please as many of us as he possibly can. There’s none of the usual insecurity of the run-of-the-mill gigolo in Leigh. He isn’t doing the rounds to prove his manhood or because he’s scared that commitment will somehow stunt and imprison him. He moves amongst us and shares what he has to give as generously and evenly as possible. It’s like a mission with him; he’s a missionary spreading the good news of fucking by demonstration.
‘Whether I wish he was with me instead of Netta is immaterial. He is with Netta now. Tomorrow he’ll be with me and I’ll adore my time with him, treasure every moment, every touch, every loving look. We’ll fuck through the night and into the morning and still I’ll want more of him and he’ll want more of me. But when I’ve gone, he’ll be giving his all to Netta, or Abby or Sue or Helen or any of the many of his previous lovers who’ll come to his party. And those who are chosen will give and those who are not will sigh their regrets but they won’t blame Leigh. He can only be with one of us at a time and we all know that most times it’s just not our turn, that’s all.’
I found it impossible to reconcile what I felt for Leigh with this ability to let him go so easily. ‘If I had Leigh, I’d have to be the only one for the rest of my life. I could never let him be with another woman in that way if he was mine.’
Zoë was watching me closely. ‘Sometimes it’s better to have a small portion of what you desire most than to go without entirely. That’s the choice for most of us. With you, it’ll be different. Leigh doesn’t know he’s falling in love with you, because it’s never happened to him before. There’s a world of difference between loving women and being in love with a woman. One day Leigh will find that being in love with you is more important than anything else. When that happens he’ll be yours exclusively, just the way you want him, sweetie. Come on, it’s growing cool and I’m whacked. Let’s get to our lonely beds.’ She dropped the glowing cigarette onto the grass and twisted her shoe over it as if she hated the thing and wanted to grind it to pulp.
Zoë seemed so certain about my future with Leigh and there were so many questions I had for her. But she swept into the house and left me to close the doors and turn off the lights. By the time I reached the landing, her door was closed and the light was off. In the silence, I thought I heard weeping, but it was so quiet I couldn’t be sure.
Tired, exhilarated, full of fearful optimism, my head buzzing with all I’d heard, I lay in my bed and watched the crescent of the moon slowly cross the blackness through my window. It was very late when I found sleep.
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