OUR KIND OF CRUELTY


This is a love story. Mike’s love story.

Mike Hayes fought his way out of a brutal childhood and into a quiet, if lonely, life before he met Verity Metcalf. V taught him about love, and in return, Mike has dedicated his life to making her happy. He’s found the perfect home, the perfect job; he’s sculpted himself into the physical ideal V has always wanted. He knows they’ll be blissfully happy together.

It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t been returning his e-mails or phone calls.

It doesn’t matter that she says she’s marrying Angus.

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This is a love story. Mike’s love story.

Mike Hayes fought his way out of a brutal childhood and into a quiet, if lonely, life before he met Verity Metcalf. V taught him about love, and in return, Mike has dedicated his life to making her happy. He’s found the perfect home, the perfect job; he’s sculpted himself into the physical ideal V has always wanted. He knows they’ll be blissfully happy together.

It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t been returning his e-mails or phone calls.

It doesn’t matter that she says she’s marrying Angus.

It’s all just part of the secret game they used to play. If Mike watches V closely, he’ll see the signs. If he keeps track of her every move, he’ll know just when to come to her rescue . . .

A spellbinding, darkly twisted novel about desire and obsession, and the complicated lines between truth and perception, Our Kind of Cruelty introduces Araminta Hall, a chilling new voice in psychological suspense.

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  • Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • May 2018
  • 288 Pages
  • 9780374228194

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About Araminta Hall

Araminta Hall is the author of Everything and Nothing. She has an MA in creative writing and authorship from the University of Sussex and teaches creative writing at New Writing South in Brighton, where she lives with her husband and three children. Our Kind of Cruelty is her first book published in the United States.

Praise

One of LitHubs Most Anticipated Thrillers of 2018

“This is simply one of the nastiest and most disturbing thrillers I’ve read in years. In short: I loved it, right down to the utterly chilling final line.”—Gillian Flynn

“A perfect nightmare of a novel—as merciless a thriller as I’ve ever read. Astonishingly dark and sensationally accomplished.”—A. J. Finn, author of The Woman in the Window

“A tense, intelligent thriller that kept me gripped and guessing until the last page—and thinking long after that.”Erin Kelly, author of He Said/She Said

Discussion Questions

1. As the book begins, Mike Hayes, the narrator and main character, is in prison. His barrister has told him to write down the story of events leading to the murder for which he will soon go to trial. Why does the barrister say that Mike’s story feels like “something he can’t grab hold of”? What are clues in Part I that Mike’s version of events may not be accurate? Are there things he tells us about himself that reveal more than he intends?

2. When Mike and Verity met, as students at university, they were both promising young people from very different backgrounds. What initially drew them together? What challenges did they each face and how were they suited to help each other? As their relationship progressed over nine years, how did they each change?

3. What is the Crave, the game Mike and Verity play? How did it begin and how was it named? What does Mike read into Verity’s e-mails and meetings with him that make him believe her marriage to Angus is “the ultimate Crave”?

4. Why does Verity invite Mike to the wedding? Why does she get back in touch with him at all?

5. What is Kaitlyn’s motivation for befriending Mike? How does he interpret her kindness? What does she mean when she says they are both outsiders at work? How does she come to suspect that he is not what he seems?

6. “Eagles are magnificent,” Verity tells Mike, explaining to him why she wears a necklace with a silver eagle on it. What does the eagle mean to her? What does it mean to Mike?

7. Mike’s childhood was a combination of cruelty and kindness—a boyhood of damaging cruelty, followed by foster care with Elaine and Barry, who loved him and tried to repair the damage done to him by his mother and her boyfriends. What are instances of kindness and cruelty toward Mike or between other characters? How does Mike respond to kindness? What is his idea of love?

8. What is in the box that Elaine gives Mike when he goes away to university? Which objects are meaningful to him? Even though he says he meant to throw it away at the first opportunity, why has he kept it? How is Mike a combination of the cruelties and kindnesses that the objects in the box represent?

9. What is the sequence of events leading to Angus’s death? Are there signs that Mike is an angry man who might be capable of killing? Who else might bear some of the responsibility for Mike’s actions?

10. The testimony given at the trial often challenges Mike’s version of events. For example, he tells us that Verity’s friend Louise made a pass at him at Verity’s wedding. But Louise testifies that she had never liked Mike, that he was agitated at the wedding and had pushed her. Which version of the story is more believable? What are other examples of testimony that contradict Mike?

11. “I am well practiced in ruining things,” Mike thinks as he remembers the events leading to Angus’s death. What leads him to make this observation? Is he a confused and grieving man who has been betrayed by circumstance or a man who deliberately chooses to do wrong—the dangerous fantasist invoked by Petra Gardner or the confused “good lad” his foster mother believes him to be? Does he deserve any sympathy?

12. Besides Verity, are there other people who matter to Mike? How would they describe him? How do his impulses, either cruel or kind—toward his foster parents, co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances—intensify during the months after Verity leaves him?

13. The media covers the trial as a scandal and relishes in reporting every detail of Verity’s background and relationships. Why are the press and public opinion more focused on her than on Mike? Why do they seem eager to assume she is guilty? Is she treated fairly in court?

14. As the book ends, Mike receives the YOU ARE NOT postcard from Verity. Why did Verity send the postcard? How does Mike interpret her message? Why does he believe he has “saved” her?

15.  The epigraph that opens the book (from The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch) implies that Our Kind of Cruelty is essentially a love story. Is it? What else does the epigraph foreshadow?

Excerpt

PART ONE

The rules of the Crave were simple. V and I went to a nightclub in a predetermined place a good way from where we lived. We traveled there together but entered separately. We made our way to the bar and stood far enough apart for it to seem like we weren’t together but close enough that I could always keep her in my vision. Then we waited. It never took long, but why would it when V shone as brightly as she did? Some hapless man would approach and offer to buy her a drink or ask her to dance. She would begin a mild flirt. And I would wait, my eyes never leaving her, my body ready to pounce at all times. We have a signal: As soon as she raises her hand and pulls on the silver eagle she always wears around her neck, I must act. In those dark throbbing rooms I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looking in that tall, broad way, and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces, looking scared and timid. Sometimes we couldn’t wait to start kissing, sometimes we went to the loo and fucked in the stalls, V calling out so anyone could hear. Sometimes we made it home. Either way, our kisses tasted of Southern Comfort, V’s favorite drink.

It was V who named our game on one of those dark, freezing nights where the rain looks like grease on your windows. V was wearing a black T-shirt that felt like velvet to touch. It skimmed over her round breasts and I knew she wasn’t wearing a bra. My body responded to her as it always did. She laughed as I stood up and put her hand against my hot chest. “That’s all any of us are ever doing, you know, Mikey. Everyone out there. All craving something.”

It is true to say that the Crave always belonged to V.

* * *

Part of me doesn’t want to write it all down like this, but my barrister says I must because he needs to get a clear handle on the situation. He says my story feels like something he can’t grab hold of. He also thinks it might do me good, so I better understand where we are. I think he’s an idiot. But I have nothing else to do all day as I sit in this godforsaken cell with only the company of Fat Terry, a man with a neck bigger than most people’s thighs, listening to him masturbating to pictures of celebrities I don’t recognize. “Cat still got your tongue? My banter not good enough for you?” he says to me most mornings, as I lie silently on my bunk, the words like unexploded bombs on his tongue. I don’t reply, but it never goes further than that because in here, when you’ve killed someone, you appear to get a grudging respect.

* * *

It is hard to believe that it isn’t even a year since I returned from America. It feels more like a lifetime, two lifetimes even. But the fact is I arrived home at the end of May and as I sit here now writing in this tiny, dark cell it is December. December can be warm and full of goodness, but this one is cold and flat, with days that never seem to brighten and a fog that never seems to lift. The papers talk of a smog blanketing London, returned from the dead as if a million Victorian souls were floating over the Thames. But really we all know it is a trillion tiny chemical particles polluting our air and our bodies, mutating and changing the very essence of who we are.

I think America might have been the beginning of the mess. V and I were never meant to be apart and yet we were seduced by the promise of money and speeding up time. I remember her encouraging me to go; how she said it would take me five years in London to earn what I could in two in New York. She was right of course, but I’m not sure now that the money was worth it. It feels like we lost something of ourselves in those years. Like we stretched ourselves so thin we stopped being real.

But our house is real and maybe that is the point? The equation could make me feel dizzy: two years in hell equals a four-bedroom house in Clapham. It sounds like a joke when you put it like that. Sounds like nothing anyone sane would sell their soul for. But the fact remains that it exists. It will wait for us without judgment. It will remain.

* * *

I employed a house hunter when I knew I was coming home, whom I always pictured stalking the streets of London with a gun in one hand and a few houses slung over her shoulder, blood dripping from their wounds. She sent me endless photos and details as I sat at my desk in New York, which I would scroll through until the images blurred before my eyes. I found I didn’t much care what I bought, but I was very specific in my requests because I knew that was what V would want. I was careful with the location and also the orientation. I remembered that the garden had to be southeast-facing and I insisted on the house being double-fronted because V always thought they were much friendlier looking.

There are rooms on either side of the hall, rooms that as a child I simply didn’t know existed, but that V taught me have peculiar names: a drawing room and library. Although I’ve yet to fill the bookcases and I have no plans to become an artist. The eat-in kitchen, as estate agents love to refer to any large room containing cooking equipment, runs the entire back length of the house. The previous owners pushed the whole house out into the garden by five feet and encased the addition in glass, with massive bifold doors that you can open and shut as easily as running your hand through water.

Under-floor heated Yorkshire stone runs throughout this room and into the garden, so when the doors are open you can step from inside to out without a change in texture. “Bringing the outside in,” Toby the estate agent said, making my hands itch with the desire to punch him. “And really, they’ve extended the floor space by the whole garden area,” he said, meaninglessly pointing to the sunken fire pit and hot tub, the built-in barbecue, the tasteful water feature. He was lucky that I could already imagine V loving all those details, otherwise I would have turned and walked out of the house there and then.

And that would have been a shame, as upstairs is the part I like best. I’ve had all the back rooms knocked together and then repartitioned so we have what Toby would no doubt call a master suite but is actually a large bedroom, a walk-in wardrobe, and a luxurious bathroom. I chose sumptuous materials for all the fittings: silks and velvets, marbles and flints, the most beggingly tactile of all the elements. I have heavy curtains at the windows and clever lighting, so it’s dark and sensuous and bright and light in all the right places. At the front of the house are two smaller bedrooms and in the attic is another bedroom and en suite, leading to a roof terrace at the back. Fantastic for guests, as Toby said.

I’ve also taken great care over the furnishings. A tasteful mix of modern and antique, I think you’d say. Modern for the useful things like the kitchen and bathroom and sound system and lighting and all that. Antique for the decorations. I have become a bit of an expert at trawling shops and sounding like I know what I’m talking about. And I found a field in Sussex, which four or five times a year is transformed into a giant antiques market. People from eastern Europe drive over huge trucks filled with pieces from their past and laugh at all of us prepared to part with hundreds of pounds for things that would be burned in their country. You’re meant to bargain with them, but often I can’t be bothered, often I get swept away with it. Because there is something amazing about running your hand along the back of a chair and finding grooves and ridges and realizing that yours is only one of so many hands that must have done exactly this.

I bought a cupboard last time and when I got it home and opened it there were loads of telephone numbers written in pencil inside the door. Marta 03201, Cossi 98231, and so on and so on. It felt like a story without a beginning, middle, or end. They struck me as the possible workings of a private investigator, or even clues in a murder case. I had imagined having it stripped and painted a dark gray, but after I found the numbers I left it exactly as it was, with flaking green paint and an internal drawer that sticks whenever you try to open it. I’ve become attached to the rootlessness of the numbers. I like the thought that none of us will ever know what really happened to these women or to the person who wrote down their numbers. But I’m not sure what V will think about the cupboard. Perhaps she will want to smooth the numbers away.

The colors on the walls all belong to V. Lots of navy blues and dark grays, even black in places, which the interior designer assured me wasn’t depressing anymore. She encouraged me to have the outside of the cupboards in the walk-in wardrobe painted a shining black and the insides a deep scarlet. She told me it was opulent, but I’m not sure she was right because all I see when I walk into the room is leather and dried blood.

* * *

Almost the first piece of mail I received after I moved in was an invitation to V’s wedding. It came in a cream-colored envelope and felt heavy in my hand, my not yet familiar address calligraphied in a fine ink. The same flowery hand had emblazoned my name across the top of the card, which was thick and soft, the black lettering raised and tactile. I stared at my name for a long time, so long I could imagine the hand holding the pen, see the delicate strokes used. There was a slight smudge against the i, but apart from that it was perfect. I took the invitation into the drawing room and rested it on the mantelpiece, underneath the gilt mirror, behind the tall silver candlesticks. My hand, I noticed, was shaking slightly and I knew I was hotter than the day allowed. I kept my hand against the cool marble of the fireplace surround and concentrated on the intricate curls holding up the perfect flatness of the shelf. It reminded me that pure, flawless marble is one of the most desired materials known to man, but also one of the hardest to find. If it’s easy it’s probably not worth having, V said to me once, and that made me smile, standing in my drawing room with my hand against the marble.

I knew what she was doing, it was all fine.

* * *

I had e-mailed V from New York to let her know I was coming home. That was when she replied to say she was getting married. It was the first piece of correspondence we’d had since Christmas and it shook me very badly. I had only stopped trying to contact her in February and I e-mailed with my news at the end of April, which meant she’d only had a couple of months to meet someone and agree to marry him. “I know you’ll be surprised,” she wrote, “but also I think your silence these past few months means you’ve accepted that we are over and want to move on as much as me. Who knows, perhaps you already have! And I know it seems quick, but I also know I’m doing the right thing. I feel like I owe you an apology for the way I reacted to what happened at Christmas. Perhaps you just realized before I did that we were over and I shouldn’t have behaved as I did, I should have sat down and spoken properly to you. I hope you’ll be happy for me and I also hope that we’ll be able to be friends. You were and are very special to me and I couldn’t bear the thought of not having you in my life.”

For a few days I felt simply numb, as if an explosion had gone off next to me and shattered my body. But I quickly realized how pedestrian this reaction was. Apart from all the love she clearly still had for me, V seemed to be under the impression that I had wanted the relationship to end. Her breezy tone was so far removed from the V whom I knew that I wondered for a moment if she had been kidnapped and someone else was writing her e-mails, although the much more plausible explanations were that V was not herself, or that she was using her tone to send me a covert message. There were two options at play: Either she had lost her mind with the distress I had caused her at Christmas and jumped into the arms of the nearest fool, or she needed me to pay for what I’d done. This seemed by far the most likely; this was V after all and she would need me to witness my own remorse. It was as if the lines of her e-mail dissolved and behind them were her true words. This was a game, our favorite game. It was obvious that we were beginning a new, more intricate Crave.

* * *

I waited a couple days before replying to V’s e-mail and then I chose my words carefully. I adopted her upbeat tone and told her I was very happy for her and of course we would still be friends. I also told her I would be in touch with my address when I got back to London, but after the invitation landed on my mat I knew I needn’t bother. It meant she had called Elaine and that in itself meant something. It also meant that she probably wasn’t as angry as she had been. I quickly came to see the invitation for what it was: the first hand in an elaborate apology, a dance only V and I could ever master. I even felt sorry for Angus Metcalf, as the ridiculous invitation revealed him to be.

MR. & MRS. COLIN WALTON

REQUEST THE PLEASURE OF

YOUR COMPANY AT THE MARRIAGE

OF THEIR DAUGHTER

VERITY

TO

MR. ANGUS METCALF

AT STEEPLE CHAPEL, SUSSEX

ON SATURDAY, 14TH SEPTEMBER

AT 3:00 O’CLOCK

AND AFTERWARD AT

STEEPLE HOUSE

I woke sometimes with the invitation lying next to me in bed, not that I ever remembered taking it up with me. Once it was under my cheek and when I peeled it from me I felt the indentations it had left. In the mirror I could see the words, branded onto my skin.

I left it a few days and then sent a short note to V’s mother saying I would be delighted to attend. Not, I knew, that she would share my delight.

I have spent a lot of time with Colin and Suzi over the years and there was a time when I imagined them coming to see me as a sort of son. Sometimes at Christmas it was hard to shake the feeling that V and I were siblings sitting with our parents over a turkey carcass. “We make a funny pair,” she said to me once, “you with no parents, me with no siblings. There’s so little of us to go around. We have to keep a tight hold of each other to stop the other from floating away.” Which was fine by me. I loved nothing more than encircling V’s tiny waist and pulling her toward me in bed, feeling her buttocks slip like a jigsaw into my groin, as our legs mirrored each other in a perfect outline, her head resting neatly under my chin.

Sometimes I think I liked V best when she slept. When I felt her go heavy in my arms and her breath thicken and slow. I would open my mouth so that my jaw was able to run along the top of her head and I could feel all the ridges and markings on her skull. It didn’t feel like it would be hard to go farther than the bone, to delve into the pulpy mixture protecting the gray mass of twisted ropes that formed her brain. To feel the electric currents surging, which kept her alive and alert. Often I would feel jealous of those currents and all the information they held. I would want to wrap them around myself so she would only dream of me, so that I filled her as much as she filled me.

I wonder if V had to argue with her mother to invite me, or if Suzi thought it would serve me right to see her daughter happily married to someone else. I wonder if she planned to look at me during the ceremony and smile.

But in retrospect Suzi always was a stupid woman, always pretending she wanted to be different when really she wanted to be exactly like the people who had surrounded her all her life. I should have realized this sooner, as soon really as I heard her name.

“I’m Susanne,” she said to me on our first meeting, “but call me Suzi,” which wasn’t too bad until I discovered she spelled it with an i. A y would have been too cozy for Suzi, too normal, too close to who she actually is. And you should never trust people who yearn to be something other than who they are.

* * *

It wasn’t even vaguely hard to get a job in the City when I arrived back in London. I had glowing references from the American bank and my performance there spoke for itself. My new salary was large and my bonus promised even more. I didn’t mind the journey to the office each day and I even liked the tall, glinting building where I worked, high in the clouds. I spent my days shouting about numbers and watching them ping and jump on the screens on my desk. It was so easy I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t do it.

V had always said we should aim for retirement at forty-five and it was a target that looked easily within my grasp. I presumed she hadn’t completely changed her life since February and was still at the Calthorpe Centre, working in her sterile basement on her computer programs that, she said, would render humans useless one day. She claimed not to know why she did it, why she persevered so steadily to make machines cleverer than we are, but I think she loved the idea of inventing something artificial that was better than the real thing. I think she loved the idea of seeing if she could outsmart human emotion.

It occurs to me now that if V hadn’t gotten her job we might have gone to America together. We might still be there. But I don’t like to think this way, it leads you down too many dangerous paths, into worlds of temptation that can never be yours. And I indulged too much in that sort of thinking as a child: That woman kissing her child in the park could be your mother, your key could let you into the house down the road with roses around the door, the smell of frying onions could be someone preparing your dinner.

And anyway, that is what happened. I got the job in America and she got the job in London. We were both riding the crest of a wave, me offered a salary so high I couldn’t take it seriously and V the youngest person ever to have been taken on as a director at the Calthorpe Centre, only five years out of university.

“How clever of them to make it sound so innocent, like a medical foundation or something,” she said after she took the call.

I wrapped her in my arms and whispered my congratulations. “But I’m going to New York in three months,” I said.

She pulled away from me and her face tightened around her words. “I can’t turn this down, Mikey.”

Something rose through me that I thought might tip me off-balance. “I won’t go then. I can get another job here.”

“No. You’ve got to go. It’s an amazing opportunity for you. You can do a couple of years and earn lots of money and then we can start our proper life when you get back.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“That’s because it is. We’ll talk every day and it’s not that far. We can fly over for weekends. It will be romantic.” She laughed. “You’ll be even more like my eagle, flying across the Atlantic in your silver bullet.”

But that thought jolted me. I reached out and took her by the shoulders. “You have to promise that you won’t ever Crave without me, V.”

She shook herself free and rubbed where my hands had held her. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Her tone cut at me and I turned away, trying to hide my hurt. But she followed me, twisting her body around mine. “Mike, I would never do that, you must know that.”

She stood on tiptoe so that her mouth was against my ear. “I love seeing how scared they are of you,” she whispered. I held myself still, until she said, “Let’s Crave.”

* * *

I think we both knew it would be our last time. We went to a nightclub in Piccadilly Circus. We’d been there before, but not for at least six months. It was always filled with foreign students and tourists and gangs of boys up from the provinces. And the odd prostitute or escort. No one there looked like they were having a good time and the music was a hard, steady thump that reverberated through your body and felt like you were giving yourself CPR. The lights strobed, making everyone’s skin take on a sickly, alien pallor. And something fluorescent in the air made the whites of everyone’s eyes glint and lint show up on everyone’s clothes.

V was wearing a gray silk dress that revealed the milky whiteness of her shoulders and her long, thin neck that curled into the base of her skull. She had piled her dark hair on top of her head, but tendrils had escaped to caress her neck, in a promise of what your lips could do. Black liner flicked over her eyes, stretching and elongating them, and she licked at her full lips that had never needed any lipstick. There was a blush high on her cheekbones, but I didn’t know if it was real or false. She smiled as the barman handed her a tall, brown drink and I saw her nails were painted black.

My own drink was too sweet and it coated my throat so it felt tight and sore. My head was filled with the knowledge of the time we were going to have to spend apart, which was causing an ache to build in my temples. A drunk man swayed into me, his girlfriend giggling on his arm. We were right next to the bar and it would have been very easy to take his head in my hands and bash it against the hard wood. The blood would have come quickly, his head contorted and broken, before anyone could have stopped me.

I looked back at V and she was still alone, still leaning against the bar, her drink making frequent trips to her mouth. It was possible she looked too perfect for this place and I thought about telling her we should leave. It was like putting an exotic butterfly in a roomful of flies, all buzzing around their own shit. I pushed myself off the bar to go to her, but as I did a man approached her. He wasn’t much taller than she was; stocky, his large muscles bulging like Popeye’s from a pristine white T-shirt. His skin was swarthy and even from where I stood I could see it was covered in a film of sweat. A heavy silver chain with some sort of round coin encircled his neck and his black hair was slicked off his face. He wasn’t ugly, but something about him was grotesque, almost like his features were too large for his face.

I stopped myself from moving, my eyes locked on the encounter. I imagined, as I always did at this moment, what it was like to be that close to V, to feel the heat from her body and to imagine your hands at work there; to look at her lips as she spoke, to catch glimpses of her tongue as she laughed and wonder what that mouth was capable of. He leaned forward as he spoke, craning close to her ear, his hand poised in the air just by her arm, as if summoning up the courage to touch her. She laughed. He dropped his hand to her hip, where it finally connected with her body through the silk. She was still leaning against the bar, but she tilted her hips forward slightly so he could slide his hand behind her, against her buttocks. He closed the gap between them, extinguishing all the air, his groin pushing against her hips, no doubt already advertising whatever it was he had. I kept my eyes on V’s hands, but they stayed on her drink and the eagle hung untouched around her neck.

My breathing had deepened and my body felt weak and useless. A mist was drawing down and I worried that soon I wouldn’t be able to see at all. Soon I would miss V’s sign and she would be swallowed by the night and the man. I turned my head and saw the neon exit sign above the door. I imagined walking toward it and into the open, returning alone to our flat, getting into bed, and waiting for her to come home. I imagined letting go and not caring, the idea like tiny pins in my brain.

I looked back and even though the man’s face was against V’s neck, I could see her hand on the bird. The woman in front of me yelped as I pushed her out of the way. “Watch out,” she called after me, pointlessly. But even in the seconds it took for me to reach her, I saw that V’s expression had changed by the time I came upon them. She wasn’t laughing anymore and was pushing slightly against the man’s chest as he lowered his face toward hers. I took him by the shoulder, yanking him backward, so his drink made a stain down the front of his T-shirt.

“What the fuck are you doing to my girlfriend?” I asked, feeling the people around us melting into the background.

“What the fuck?” he said, straightening up. We stared at each other for a minute, but I had height and muscle on him and he had felt my strength when I’d pulled him back. He waved his hands in the air. “Nice fucking girlfriend,” he said to me. Then he looked at V. “Cocktease,” he said, turning away.

I felt V’s hand on my arm as it tensed and drew back, ready to lay waste to his stupid, oversized face. She turned me toward her and pulled me closer and I leaned down and kissed her, putting my hands where his had been, laying my claim. Her tongue was quick and fast and I wanted her so much I thought I would sweep the drinks off the bar and lay her in the spilled liquor. But she pulled me away, past the round tables and chairs, past the writhing bodies on the dance floor, past the booming speakers, past the merging couples to a dark corner. She backed herself into it, pulling me toward her. She opened my fly and pulled me out, wrapping her legs around me. The silk of her dress slithered upward too easily and she wasn’t wearing underwear, so I was inside her quickly and she was biting the side of my neck and moaning and it was like all the other people had gone and we were the only ones there, the only ones who mattered.

* * *

Afterward, in the cold night air, with drunken people bustling along their sad, forlorn ways to terrible encounters, V said, “For a second I thought you’d abandoned me.”

I took her hand. “How can you say that?”

“Because I touched the bird and it took you a while to come.”

I realized I must have spent longer looking at the exit sign than I’d meant to. “I’d never abandon you,” I said.

“Promise?” she said, and I looked over and saw she wasn’t giggling anymore and she looked smaller, the black lines smudged around her eyes.

I stopped, even though the streets were so full that people immediately walked into us. I lifted the delicate silver bird that lived on the chain around her neck and she stepped toward me. “I’m your eagle,” I said. “You know that.”

* * *

I didn’t give V the necklace. In fact, she told me she bought it for herself with her first ever paycheck from a waitressing job when she was sixteen. She told me she’d been walking past a shop and it had glinted at her from a window and she’d felt a deep desire to possess it. I had always presumed it to be a dainty bird, like a swift or even a clichéd lovebird, and I was surprised when she first told me it was an eagle. But when I looked properly I saw the length of the wings and the curved beak.

“Eagles are magnificent,” V had said. “They are the only birds that get excited by a storm, then they fly straight into it and use the wind currents to lift them above it, so they can look down on all the chaos. But also,” she said, putting her hands over mine, “they are very loyal. They mate for life.”

I’d leaned down and kissed her mouth. “I’m your eagle,” I’d said.

* * *

I thought it expedient to make friends in my new City job, even though the same plan hadn’t gone that well in New York. I would be fine if it were just V and me forever, but I’ve learned that people find you strange if you’re happy like that. So, I’ve learned their ways. I understand now that people do not always mean what they say. That they enjoy hours of meaningless chat in crowded bars without a reason like the Crave for being there. That they are happy to share their bodies with others and then act as if they barely know them.

If someone says something like “I could fucking kill him” or “I’m feeling so depressed” or “My legs are about to literally drop off,” they don’t actually mean any of those things. They don’t even mean anything close to those things. When a woman puts her hand on your leg she does not expect you to reciprocate. When a man calls you mate, it doesn’t mean he likes you. When someone says “We must get together soon,” you shouldn’t ask them when or text them the next day.

When I was in primary school I pushed another boy in my class, Billy Sheffield, and he fell and grazed his knee. My teacher, whose name I forget, told me I had to say sorry, but I refused because I wasn’t. He had called me some name, again I forget what but it would have been something along the lines of Two Stripe or Fleabag, in reference to my market-stall trainers and unwashed clothes. Either way, I wasn’t sorry. So they took me to the little office where rumor had it they sent the crazy kids. A rosy-cheeked woman smiled at me and told me to sit in a comfy chair while she offered me sweets. It made me wonder if being crazy was all that bad after all.

“Why aren’t you sorry?” she finally asked me, after I’d stuffed myself with candy.

“Because I’m not,” I said.

“But when you saw the blood on Billy’s knee, didn’t you feel bad that you’d done it?” she said.

I thought back to the moment, standing over Billy and looking down at his raw knee, the skin scraped back and drops of blood popping onto the skin. I knew how it would sting and burn, how a bit of gravel might get trapped inside and how the nurse would right now probably be spreading foul-smelling iodine across the graze, wrapping it in a white bandage that he would wear like a medal of honor. “I thought he deserved it,” I said.

“No one ever deserves to be hurt,” she said, still smiling.

“He called me a bad name.”

“Yes and that was very mean. He’ll be punished for that. But you still have to say sorry for hurting him.” I must have looked blank because she went on. “Sometimes, Michael, it’s worth saying sorry even if you don’t completely mean it. Just to keep the peace and make the other person feel better.”

I still often wish I’d asked her if that applies to all emotion, or only contrition.

* * *

But I have learned enough lessons over the years to better understand what is and is not expected in life. I knew, for example, that when George, who worked in the office next to mine, asked if I’d like to come out for a drink soon after I started in the City, I should arrange my face into a smile and say yes.

I had by then established a successful routine, and that made me feel confident about being able to adapt to a social situation. I rose every day at five, ran for forty minutes, the same route, which was an acceptable 9k, came home and showered and dressed, and left the house at six ten in order to be at my desk by six forty-five. The office had its own gym, as all those offices do, and so I also worked out during my lunch hour on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I would have done it every day, but I knew there would soon be client lunches to attend and times when it was necessary to look as if I were so busy I was working through lunch. This setup meant I had a bit of flexibility and could switch my days around if need be. I also bought a bench press and weights for home. For now they were in the bare library, but I knew V would never agree to this arrangement so I had already looked into the costs and feasibility of excavating the basement to make way for a gym. V always loved the heat, so I thought a sauna would work down there as well.

There were eleven of us out that evening, although only two are worth mentioning: George and Kaitlyn. George was loud and good-looking, but he drank too much and wasn’t very bright. His godfather ran the firm or something and his father was a lord, so he never had to worry about things like performance. You’d be amazed how many people there are like that in the City. How hard the rest of us have to work to carry them. And you could hate them, but what’s the point. The world, as I learned at a young age, is hardly fair and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.

Kaitlyn worked in another office along my corridor, so we’d waved and said hello before. She was thin and tall and always dressed in some sort of dark-colored suit and wore amazingly high heels. I would watch her stride past my windows and wonder how on earth she didn’t trip and break her ankle. And yet she moved so effortlessly in them I came to conclude that she must have been wearing them for so long they had become an extension of her legs. Kaitlyn was very pale, with the lankest, blondest hair I’d ever seen. She was so blond the shade extended to her eyelashes and eyebrows, which gave her an otherworldly quality. And her eyes were very blue, almost like looking at ice. I thought she’d be stern and severe, but in fact she was the exact opposite.

“So how are you finding us all?” she asked when we found ourselves at the bar together, her accent a beautiful, soft Irish.

“So far, so good.”

“I hear you made a killing at Schwartz’s. I’d love to work there one day. My dream is to live in an apartment overlooking Central Park.”

“My apartment overlooked Central Park.” I glanced back at the rest of our table as I spoke, wondering when I could leave. We had been there for two hours and they were all getting sweaty and red-faced, with a few of them making frequent trips to the toilets.

“Oh wow,” she said. “Why did you come back?”

“I did my two years. London’s my home. The plan was never to go for more than two years.”

“Yes, but New York. And Schwartz’s.”

Neither of us seemed to want to go back to our table, so I sipped my drink at the bar. “My girlfriend has a job here she couldn’t leave.”

“Oh, right. It must be impressive if it tops Schwartz’s.”

“She’s not a banker. She works in artificial intelligence.”

Kaitlyn whistled through her teeth, an odd sound, not unlike one you’d use to call a dog. “Wow, what a power couple.”

“Not really.” I noticed that Kaitlyn wasn’t drinking her wine and the glass was tilting over the bar. “Careful, you might spill that.”

She looked down and laughed, taking a small sip. “So where do you live now?”

“Clapham.”

“Oh, near me then. Are you by the Common?”

I nodded. “Yes, Verity was very particular about being near the Common. She’s a runner.”

“I’m a walker,” Kaitlyn said. “I’ve got a little dog and I walk him there every weekend. It’s the closest I get to home.”

“Where’s home?”

“A tiny village in the south of Ireland, you won’t have heard of it.”

“Is your family still there?”

She nodded, and I was struck suddenly by the thought of her flying across the sea to this harsh London life, away from the coast and the hills.

“What brought you here?”

She shrugged. “Oh, you know, life. Ireland’s beautiful but it’s not the easiest place.” For a terrible moment I thought she was going to cry, but she laughed instead. “I bet you have one of those gorgeous double-fronted houses on Windsor Terrace.”

“How on earth did you know that?” I asked too quickly, wondering if she’d been looking through my personnel file or something.

But she laughed again. “Because that road is just one long line of bankers, that’s why!”

I tried to picture some of my neighbors, but realized I couldn’t. I hoped she was exaggerating. Because if there is one thing V hates it’s unoriginality. And what could be more unoriginal than working in the City and living on a road of bankers. I could feel Kaitlyn looking at me but I refused to return her stare, feeling my cheek color under her scrutiny. I hated her at that moment, with a deep, horrible passion. Because how dare she come along and piss on my bonfire? My beautifully laid, perfectly proportioned bonfire.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Araminta Hall