Funny Pearls are proud to present our 2019 short story competition runner-up
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
by Rowena Macdonald
Clare awoke in Louisa’s guest bed next to Rory. Louisa’s bed-linen was as crisp as new money and had obviously been doused with lavender water when it was ironed. That Louisa had the time and inclination to iron bedding, let alone perfume it, was extraordinary to Clare.
At the foot of the bed were two sets of waffle towels folded into lozenges with a handmade soap placed in the centre of each. On the walls were paintings by other artists that Louisa represented but none by Clare. A colourful daub by Victor LaForgue took pride of place opposite the bed – why couldn’t Louisa see that he was a bullshitter who just could not paint? Were her own paintings too gloomy? Should she start using brighter colours? She tried to turn her thoughts away from these doubts and enjoy the sun streaming through the curtains. It had turned the room into a box of light. Against this unsullied backdrop, for once without the chaos of the children, she felt that perhaps she and Rory could start over.
Rory was snoring like a man underwater, submerged by the alcoholic deluge of the previous evening.
‘To business and pleasure,’ Louisa had toasted, after Philip had poured them all the first of many glasses of wine.
‘To more pleasure than business,’ Rory said.
They chinked their glasses. Talk turned immediately away from business. Rory tried to discuss England’s chances in the rugby but nobody else knew anything about this. Clare wished Rory would take the hint that Philip and Louisa had no interest in sport. She refrained from talking about the kids and asked whether anyone had seen any good exhibitions or theatre lately. Philip enthused about a video artist whose work he’d seen at a gallery in Hackney. Louisa mused over a play starring an actress in late middle age whose role had required her to take off all her clothes.
‘Very brave,’ said Clare. ‘My worst nightmare: being naked in public. And at her age.’
‘She was gorgeous though,’ said Louisa, with the generosity of the truly beautiful. ‘Gorgeous in her imperfections. Older bodies are so much more interesting. Their histories are written upon them.’ Her own body, neatly tucked into capri pants and a matelot jersey, looked as if it had a very short history even though she was the same age as Clare.
‘So true.’ Philip took a comfortable swig of wine. ‘Older people are far more interesting to photograph.’
‘That why you spend your whole time snapping pretty young things?’ said Rory.
Philip pursed his mouth. ‘I’m preferring to shoot more unusual-looking people these day.’
‘That’s a bit fascist. Won’t be many people left if you shoot all the unusual-looking ones.’ Rory guffawed.
‘Such as Clare, for example.’ Philip smiled at her.
‘No,’ Clare clapped both hands over her face. ‘I hate having my photo taken. Anyway, what are you saying, Phil? ‘Unusual looks’ doesn’t exactly sound flattering.’
‘Yes, Phil, what are you saying? This is my wife you’re talking about.’ Rory’s voice still held the end of his guffaw.
‘It’s entirely flattering.’ Philip patted Clare’s arm. She felt a blush filling her cheeks like slowly-poured red wine.
Louisa searched Clare’s face, as if trying to find something she had lost. ‘You’re a very attractive woman, Clare: you have very lovely…teeth.’
Clare turned to Rory with slow deliberation: ‘Why, in ten years of marriage, have you never mentioned my teeth?’
Rory guffawed again.
By the end of the evening Philip had to help Clare drag Rory upstairs, where he collapsed on the bed, hogging the mattress. After examining her teeth in the bathroom mirror from various angles, Clare squeezed in beside him.
The next morning, leaving Rory to sleep, Clare showered. The bathroom was titivated with nautical paraphernalia: an antique glass buoy, a ship in a bottle and a mirror shaped like a porthole. She brushed her teeth very thoroughly and decided she would start flossing every day as soon as she got around to buying some floss; clearly, she hadn’t been giving her teeth as much attention as they deserved. When she returned to the bedroom Rory had disappeared. She was roughing her fingers through her wet hair when Louisa trilled, ‘Coffee’s ready’.
‘Coming.’ Clare padded downstairs, ducking under a beam hung with one of Philip’s photographs of Louisa on a beach in a silk dress, her nipples jutting like pebbles.
Rory and Philip were lounging with the papers while Louisa ministered to them like a geisha. She was as immaculate as ever, her hair caught in a chignon and her perfume mingling with the smell of coffee.
‘It’s such a gorgeous day, I thought we should have a picnic on the beach. How does that sound, Clare?’
Louisa poured a cup of coffee and placed it in front of Clare along with the milk jug and a bowl of sugar crystals like coloured sand. All her movements had an unhurried, choreographed elegance as if she was performing for an invisible camera. Clare wondered if this was a hangover from her modelling days. Ten years earlier, Louisa had graced all the top fashion magazines. Since then she had swapped the catwalk for an art gallery on Cork Street. She had invited Clare and Rory to her cottage in Norfolk as Clare was one of the artists she represented. Clare had been flattered by the invitation: perhaps this meant she was going to become part of Louisa’s inner circle, like Victor LaForgue; perhaps it would result in more sales. She had decided to leave Josh and Eddie at her parents’, envisaging, rightly, that Louisa’s holiday home would be a too exquisitely tasteful domain for two boisterous little boys.
‘Amazing how she finds the time to make everything so beautiful, isn’t it?’ said Clare, as they gathered their beach things in the bedroom. ‘I suppose, the thing is, she doesn’t have kids messing everything up.’
‘Mmm.’ Rory pulled on shorts and surveyed himself in the mirror.
‘I think, in a way, her homes are where she exercises her creativity.’
Rory continued to look in the mirror.
The tide was out when they got to the beach so the white sand stretched for miles. The sea was like a strip of torn grey paper in the far distance.
Louisa kicked off her flip-flops. ‘Don’t you love the feel of sand beneath your feet?’
‘Absolutely.’ Rory kicked off his. ‘Shall we see if we can find somewhere really private?’
The four of them walked along the dunes to a hollow where no one else could be seen.
‘Sea air’s just what I need to blow the cobwebs away.’ Rory stretched and pulled off his shirt. ‘We should have brought the cricket set.’
‘Thank God we didn’t. I’m so glad you won’t be able to rope me into playing.’ Clare undressed under her towel, wobbling as she placed one foot into her swimsuit, then the other. She wished she’d been as prescient as Louisa who was wearing her bikini under a sarong, which could be whipped off with ease.
‘Excuse me – nature calls.’ Rory bounded up the dunes and stood with his back to them and his calves braced. When he returned Louisa was unpacking a basket of delicacies. ‘God, Louisa, you’re such a domestic goddess,’ he said. ‘Clare, have you seen this picnic?’
‘Looks delicious.’ Clare was smearing factor 25 onto her nose.
Louisa arranged first the food on a red and white cloth, then herself under a straw sun-hat on a pink towel with a hardback copy of the latest Booker Prize winner.
‘Don’t you want some of this, Louisa?’ Rory smacked his lips over a chunk of very ripe Brie.
‘No, I’m not hungry yet.’
While the others demolished the cheeses, the pâtés, the herb-infused olives and the smoked salmon quiche, Louisa ate one slice of Parma ham dabbed with mustard and three segments from a white peach, which Philip sliced into twelve with his Swiss Army knife. Clare felt like the Brie, creamy and burgeoning in her M&S swimsuit with its matronly stomach control panel, compared to the Gruyère sliver of Louisa in her cheese-wire bikini.
‘I’m surprised you’re not drawing this,’ said Louisa, after lunch, indicating the horizon.
Rory had fallen asleep beneath the sports section and Philip had wandered off.
Reluctantly, Clare got out her sketchbook and began drawing the view. She hated drawing to order, but she didn’t want to seem rude by not being inspired by Norfolk.
Louisa peered over her shoulder. ‘You’re so lucky to have your talent,’ she murmured, before closing her book and lying on her front with her bikini unclasped. Clare’s pencil strokes became tight with the anxiety that she might turn over at any moment. She remembered Louisa once telling her wistfully that she would ‘always have her art’, that it was ‘the only eternal thing’.
Philip returned with an armful of driftwood and began building a fire. There was something boy-scoutish beneath his metropolitan gloss, Clare decided; something sweetly earnest in the way he kept pushing his heavy-framed glasses up his nose and concentrated on positioning the wood in a precise wigwam.
‘Darling, have we got anything I can use as kindling?’
Louisa did not reply.
‘How about the sports section?’ said Clare.
‘Ah, yes.’ Philip crept over and as he carefully removed it from Rory’s face, Rory awoke with a snort.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Making a fire.’
‘Good idea.’ Rory sat up. ‘Tell you what I fancy, though.’
Louisa opened one eye.
‘What?’ said Clare.
‘A swim. Anyone else up for a dip?’
‘Once I’ve got the fire going,’ said Philip.
‘How about you go in and tell us how cold it is,’ said Clare.
Rory looked hopefully at Louisa. ‘Coming?’
Louisa opened her eye again but remained face down. ‘I never swim in England.’
Rory harrumphed off to look in his bag. ‘I’ve forgotten my trunks,’ he announced, after half a minute of rummaging.
‘Really?’ said Clare. ‘Shall I have a look? You know you can never find anything.’
‘No, honestly, I’ve searched the whole bag. What a complete bummer.’
‘How about swimming in your shorts?’ said Philip. ‘They’ll dry off.’
Rory looked down at his shorts.
‘You could swim in your pants,’ murmured Louisa.
‘Not his pants,’ said Clare. ‘They’ll go see-through.’
‘You know what?’
‘What?’ Clare frowned. Rory was wearing an ominous lightbulb smile.
‘I might go skinny-dipping.’
‘No…Rory…please…don’t be silly.’
‘Come on…there’s no one around…’
‘There’s us,’ said Clare.
Rory gazed about the empty beach. ‘Sometimes one just wants to cast everything off and be free.’
‘Don’t let us stop you,’ said Philip. He was focused on rolling newspaper into long, tight sausages. ‘We’ve seen it all before.’
Louisa did not open her eyes so her expression was unreadable and before Clare could protest further, Rory had whipped off his shorts and his pants and was standing before them, entirely naked, his penis swinging heavily like a large squid between his thighs. Ten years of their shared history had hardly been written on his body, whereas she couldn’t say the same for herself: two children, good food, too much drink, not enough exercise was scrawled indelibly all over her. She and Philip watched as Rory charged across the sand and roared with exhilaration as he hit the waves. Louisa fastened the back of her bikini top, turned over and sat up. ‘Rory’s got a lot of joie de vivre, hasn’t he?’ she said.
When he returned, dripping and panting, his penis had turned into a shrivelled prawn which he cupped protectively. ‘Christ, my bits have shrunk completely.’
That evening, after they had half-drowned themselves in another deluge of alcohol and staggered upstairs, Clare unpacked their beach bags and hung her swimsuit out to dry. When she unrolled Rory’s towel, a scrap of black nylon fell out.
‘Rory! Here are your trunks! You had them with you, after all.’
Rory, reclining against the lavender-scented pillows with his hands behind his head, shrugged and smiled. ‘I know I did,’ he said.
Rowena Macdonald’s debut novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe (Aardvark Bureau/Gallic Books), was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in 2017. Her short story collection, Smoked Meat (Flambard Press), shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize, is available on Kindle or in paperback (£11 inc p&p) from author, please DM, if interested. Twitter: @RowenaMacdonald, Instagram: @rowena_macdonald