Sex with Strangers collects twelve short
stories about - frankly - what it says on the tin. And they
really are frank. This collection includes my story, Barely
Barely Grasped Pictures begins...
When she's on holiday, she play-acts herself
(unless, of course, she's in Spain with other English people
around, in which case she pretends to be French). Floating
into seaside coffee-shops in a long summer dress, dark glasses,
and a floppy hat, she can pretend to be the sort of person
who floats into seaside coffee-shops in a long summer dress,
dark glasses, and a floppy hat. She enacts being a character
who buys long drinks with mint in them and condensation sparkling
on the sides, and watches how the light from the water dances
on the walls of the sort of arty, sparse café that a person
like her frequents. Because she is transient, here, she can
be what she seems. The moment is perfect because it is frozen.
Forget that there is another place where, choiceless as a
child, she must arrive every day by nine o'clock, uniformed
in what is appropriate, and stay there, humdrum and appropriate
and known as "the one who…", until half-five or six, and even
then follow the deeply-grooved rut of the office worker to
commute home, sometimes via the supermarket, fix supper, eat,
relax, wash, get to bed at a suitable time, sleep. Repeat
whether or not desired. Forget the people who know her sources,
habits, limits of her knowledge, and workaday pigeonhole in
life. Here, she is the tip of her iceberg - cool, remote,
unfathomable. A disaster waiting to happen.
One slim foot has half-escaped its sandal, which dangles from
her toes; the artless childishness belies her creamy composed
smile. Her bag, hanging from the back of the chair, is a smudge
of straw. Her hair, fluffed up by sea air, froths out beneath
her hat in fuzzy curls. Can she feel the eyes watching her?
He stepped in and she came alive. It was barely
perceptible - her shades hid the sparkle of interest in her
eyes. One hand rearranged a curl by her ear, almost absent-mindedly,
and drifted back down to her glass. Once there, it was awkward
and the fingers stretched out to twiddle the straw between
the ice-cubes - as one does, as anyone does, quite naturally.
Her face was angled towards the panorama of sea through the
French windows, through the door by which he stood hesitantly.
He'd seen her here every day this week, and her presence like
a cloud of perfume was spoiling his favourite haunt. He could
no longer saunter to the bar, knowing her eyes were in the
room. He could no longer sit at a table and lose himself in
a book and a cloud of cigarette smoke, with his spine tied
to hers by invisible string. This was his coffee-shop,
where he could be a recluse, and all week he'd only
been able to orbit her. Now, standing within the range of
her gaze, even his hands were shy and made to hide themselves
in the pockets of the jacket he'd forgotten he wasn't wearing.
Day by day, her skin was turning to pale gold, though he never
saw her lying on the beach, steaming and sweating under the
sun, like the other tourists. She wore three long dresses,
by turns - a white one that whispered at her ankles (could
he but be that hem, to kiss those ankles), a pale blue one
that knotted together at the back, exposing her angular shoulders,
and a pale pink silk one with cream and maroon flowers softly
splotched across it. Luggage restrictions, of course. He knew
what she was, that she would leave and he could have his coffee-shop
back, that her presence here would evaporate like the early
spring morning mist the tourists never saw, and he would be
left clutching at air, yearning for a woman whose name he
didn't know. But he did know her - he knew she was
only pretending to be what she was. He saw it in the consciously
elegant curl of her spine when she sat, the way her foot trembled
to feel the sandal dangled but let it hang nonetheless. He
had to speak to her.
He'd spoken to her already, of course. Every
night when the cold salt air blew in across his room carrying
the babble of voices and thrumming of music from late-night
bars, when the orange lights of the boulevard bounced up onto
his ceiling, his body lay in bed and his mind drifted through
the streets with her. When he climbed the metal stairs to
his concrete box of a room, her ghost trailed behind him.
When he opened the door on his almost-empty room, she saw
what he did: not the poverty of furniture and unswept floor
gritty with sand, but the moonlit breakers rushing towards
them framed by the long window. Lying alone, he turned to
her imaginary face and let his hand be the soft brushing of
her lips against his. Then his hand became hers, small and
sweet as it cautiously explored beneath the covers, and the
pillow was her body against his, and he made her cry out many
times before he let himself be buried completely, no holding
back, in the clasping warmth of… his fist. She always vanished
when he came, so that he was left alone in bed again, gasping,
holding only his own faded pillow and wilting cock, and feeling
a little desolate and just a little ashamed. Only then, could
"You have ruined my coffee-shop with
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"Since I saw you, I can't sleep without the fantasy of you
coming repeatedly under my hands, my tongue, my cock."
"Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice you…"
So far past the opening moments in his head, he couldn't think
of an opening line, and walked to the bar rather than stand
vacillating by the doorway. Never mind butterflies, his stomach
was a lake of lava and ice: would he buy her a drink, would
he approach her table, would he peel back the cool façade
and pry into her elegant untouchability through which her
real thrumming life couldn't help but shine? Would he teach
her to drop her dress and pretences onto the sunset sand?