Dead Right

“You’re not forcing me to fly in a lousy old plane!” Gillian shouted, smashing a mosquito on her arm.

“Look, Air Jebal is 23% cheaper. It’s the same trip apart from the six hour wait in Dubai,” reasoned Clive. Where money was concerned, he brought all his patience to bear.

“I’m flying direct with British Airways, that’s the end of it!” she yelled back.

_____

 

Her mistake then, taking his silence for assent. He’d gone and bought the cheap ticket – no changes, no refunds. Why hadn’t she bought the damn thing herself? She cursed her lack of courage to take life into her own hands. Was she so worn down, so changed from the confident, handle-anything person she had been not so long ago?

 

“It’s only 40 minutes on that thing, then a 767 from Dubai,” he said handing her the ticket. She looked at his sandy eyelashes, fluttering impatiently over pale eyes as he justified himself righteously.

 

“I detest you.”

She said it out loud, she was sure, yet he continued to rant and fuss, the mouth opening and shutting, so perhaps she hadn’t spoken after all. Years of keeping her thoughts to herself were a hard habit to break. For 19 years she’d put up with his mean ways and though she felt it would be something major which finally pushed her, this little straw had finally broken the camel’s back. She didn’t care about the trip now. Her recurring dream of dying in a small, old plane (“typically female, old planes are simpler, thus more reliable” – Clive) slid away beneath the greater decision she’d made.

_____

Twenty minutes into the flight, the Boeing 727 suddenly dipped. Gillian closed her eyes, mentally kicking out the tenants of the house in Tunbridge Wells and investing in a makeover. The worn out cottons washed so many times and dried in the shocking heat, would be replaced by an elegant winter wardrobe. Good wool, silk and linens spread themselves out in her head. It dawned on her that her childless state, for the first time in all those years, seemed like a hand on her back pushing towards a new life.

“I’ll get a degree, find myself a lover,” she decided.  “Life looks good.”

The plane lurched slowly downwards, headed for the sea. Thirty passengers froze in disbelieving silence as the lockers crashed open and every loose object in the cabin spiraled downwards. In the last seconds Gillian, realisation having thrust itself upon her, screamed furiously

“ You louse, Clive!”

_____

 

Only the tail end of the plane was visible. While the sea heaved, disturbed and enraged, a tiny vortex made its way out of the wreckage, rising above it. It took hours to orient herself, floating above the wreck, watching the rescue crews swarming round the Arabian Gulf. Though she had now had no body, no voice, Gillian felt more whole than she’d ever been in life. A feeling of calm weightlessness thrilled her until huge anger flooded over her again.

“Dead! On the way to my own life….”

 _____

 “No survivors in Air Jebal disaster…”

Gillian hovered as Clive sat glued to the leather chair only he was allowed to sit on, blindly watching the news again. Of course he was shocked. He shook and shook, and their friends (hers) wept as they sat with him. She was getting used to disembodiment now, learning the knack of moving herself about at will. She watched his face closely. It had been nearly a week; she knew his accountant’s brain would sooner or later click back in. Though she was having success tuning in on thoughts of others round her, Clive until this moment had been a blank. She knew he was back to his old self when she got two words loud and clear from his head:

“The policies!”

He got up and walked straight through her.

_______

Gillian wafted back to Tunbridge Wells.  Clive’s plan would be to get back there, if only to personally accompany the insurance cheque – her life, his money – to the building society. A building society! No offshore accounts in Jersey or Geneva, shares in international markets. He was a money man himself, yet his choking conservatism had kept him from taking even a small risk, or spending money at all. She remembered his glee when the African Aid scandal had broken.

“Told you, Gillian, they’re all corrupt. No more contributions from me,”  and he cancelled the yearly standing order of fifty measly pounds she’d begged him to make two years earlier. Her depression had lasted a month, it was this that made her begin to loathe him. How had she stood it so long? There had to be justice, there just had to be. And perhaps there was……

 _____

 Gillian floated through the streets, alleys, banks, offices and even the bedrooms of the girls and women of Tunbridge Wells not knowing quite how she’d recognise who she sought.  She was looking for a way to even the score with Clive, and had a plan. She watched as Clive eventually arrived back in England to collect the cheque in an atmosphere of solemnity and sorrow.

 _____

 Gillian drifted through the smoky, crowded bar of the Lion where a darts championship was in progress on TV.  A customer swung the door open on the  toilets, which on a good day might smell of disinfectant. Behind the bar a confident, well-built brunette caught Gillian’s eye. Something in her manner transcended the dingy, brown surroundings. She was feline, slow moving, with a  tinge of abandonment in there somewhere.  A drunk at the bar nudged his mate as she leaned her 36 DD’s slightly too far forward and put two pints on the bar. Leering at the name badge SOPHIE on her left breast the drunk said

“What’s the other one called, darlin?”

”Five pounds, please” said Sophie evenly.

As he dug around in his pocket, the drunk offered his six-pint philosophy.

“See, I happen to know – I mean look at Victoria Beckham –  it’s a fact that all women want in life these days is big tits, isn’t it?” smirked the drunk.

“Some of us want them, love. Some of us just have to serve them drinks,” Sophie said.

The drunk sulked. His mate laughed, saluting Sophie with his pint as she banged the till shut and sashayed up the bar in her tight skirt. Gillian’s heart leapt.

“You’re magnificent! ”

She watched Sophie have a word with the old barman.

“Hey, Roger, that’s me done then” Sophie said, taking off her name badge.

“OK Soph, everything OK?” he asked.

“ Feeling restless, Rog,  need a change. Been here three years now. Thinking of moving on….”

He nodded sympathetically.

“They say a change is as good as a rest.”

“Could be right, Rog, could be right.”

Sophie looked thoughtful as she put her coat on.

Gillian ( with her heart in her mouth so to speak), followed Sophie home, praying her instinct was right.

“Right Sophie, let’s see who you are. Be bad, be real.”

Sophie dropped into the chemist as she ambled home through the rain. She tried out two Shisheido lipsticks. Crushed Velvet and Peppery Fuchsia suited her best. After using the testers she expertly slid them into her bag – no bar codes on testers! – and bought a packet of condoms.

“You can handle anything” laughed Gillian  “What style!”

As Sophie wandered past the paper stand on the corner, Gillian rustled round and under an Evening Standard . It went slowly up in the air and plopped down open on Sophie’s wet shoes. A huge ad reading “Ecstasy Escorts Seek Women of Class” caught Sophie’s eye.

“Want it back?” she asked the paper seller as she scrunched up the paper with both hands.

“Nah, bin it, love,” he shrugged. She did, after pocketing the ad, and quickened her pace to get home in time for Mr Harvey, her Monday regular.

_____

Gillian pondered death. Though she was handling the no body thing pretty well now, it was a weird state to be in, but not without perks. It was how she had imagined a near-death experience to be. She lived in a parallel universe with her emotions and feelings intact, could observe everything, everyone, everywhere dispassionately. Except for Clive, whose greed had robbed her of her earthly span. Her rage towards him was unabated. Between leaving the pub and arriving at Sophie’s flat, Gillian realised that by concentrating hard, she had somehow been enlightened about Sophie’s life. It was as if she had subconsciously googled “Sophie Carter” into a computer and all the hard facts had been analysed and sent back to her.

 

Gillian knew now that Sophie’s real name was Rita. At 16 she’d had twin boys, eventually marrying their father, Pinkie Black, who’d got his nickname after being on the receiving end of an East end meat cleaver. Pinkie was deeply unsatisfactory as a husband, worse as a father, so when he went off for good on the twins’ third birthday, Rita just got on with it.  Jason and Zak finally left home at fifteen. They’d both taken after their father – light fingered little sods. Rita’s Mum had moved to Milton Keynes with a bloke about the same time. She’d been like a sister when Rita was growing up, borrowing clothes, partying, but  was  becoming hideously motherly now she was on her own again. Rita worked hard to send her thirty quid a week, otherwise Mum might arrive back on her doorstep.

 

Rita watched Oprah to educate herself. Well, you had to if you wanted to get on! One show had women who’d moved up in the world after having learned computer skills, so Rita enrolled in a course.  She learned fast and after three months was competent enough to even bet on-line. An Oprah special had women who’d changed their lives through elocution lessons. Rita signed up for these too, and slogged at it for well over two years. Her dropped aitches and flat vowels had been ironed out for good and since finishing lessons, just a month ago, she’d only slipped up now and again when she was plastered, or in a fury. She then changed her name by deed poll to Sophie Carter, to celebrate the person she had become.

_____

 Clive walked down Oxford Street on a glorious summer day. It was heaving with traffic and a thousand different languages, yet he had a strong feeling Gillian was around. Her tense irritability was pinging round his head! Gillian hadn’t been able to resist clouting him. He’d shocked her by walking into Armani when she would have bet her life (if she’d had one) he’d darken the door of Marks & Spencer as usual. Emerging triumphant in a new 1,700 pound suit, he’d run straight into a slow Hare Krishna procession snaking its way over the whole footpath. His lips pursed, he strode through the middle of them, almost colliding with a grubby kid brushing past with his melting ice cream.

“Un-be-liev-a-ble!” he hissed in five clipped syllables as he gathered pace towards the quiet end of the street. He turned sharply, hand automatically going to his neck. He could have sworn Gillian had actually hit him!  Then he heard her voice shout “Agitato!” at him! Pretentious cow, that’s all she ever remembered from the Italian lessons she went to, a nickname she’d taunted him with for years……

“Slow down, Clive, breathe,” he told himself.  “Gillian is dead, you’re too wound up, relax.”

He tried a couple of deep breathing yoga exercises he’d seen Gillian do. Watching this, Gillian sneered

“You mocked me when I did those exercises, Clive, and look at you now!”

He somehow felt forced, by what felt like a mean finger pressing into his chest, to lean against a neat green door where his eye fell on the classy plaque: ‘Ecstasy Escort Services – For the Discerning’. He leaned, considered the drastic changes in his life lately, his unhappiness, and thought

“Why not? I’m a widower, with right and proper desires…and nothing if not discerning,” he murmured as he went upstairs.

Gillian punched the air, metaphorically speaking, as she watched as the man who had once been her nearest and dearest arrange a night on the tiles.

 

Half an hour later he’d narrowed his choice down to three on the video the agency showed him. He really fancied the big blonde, or that Polish redhead, but something was wrong with the video, as they both kept disappearing off the screen and up popped the well-built brunette every time he pushed a button. He flicked the switch back and forward – but Gillian flicked it immediately the other way – so it stuck fast on the brunette’s picture.

“Maybe its fate.”

Clive smoothed his hair and did up his Armani jacket button with a flourish, decision made.

“For you sex means ownership, always has, always will. The die is cast, Clive.”

A sense of victory poured through Gillian.

 _____

At 8.00 p.m. the following Tuesday in the bar of the Savoy Hotel, Clive stood up and shook hands with Sophie Carter.

“How do you do?”

He felt superior in the new suit and indeed in his new status. Widower.

“How do you do?”

Sophie replied in a beautifully modulated, accentless voice.

“Two gin and tonics, waiter,” Clive snapped his fingers.

Sophie listened to Clive’s sad story.

“…..of course I didn’t expect to be a widower at 45, it’s a shock.”

“I’m so sorry Clive, you must be desperately lonely.”

“Well, my life’s all over the place. I’ll be staying in Abu Dhabi but little things, like how to organize the servants, the household, just seem so hard to do.”

“What’s Abu Dhabi like?” asked Sophie, who’d never heard of it.

“Oh great fun, small community, perfect weather year round, trips into the desert and all that. Standard of living is wonderful, you can live a good life. Women enjoy it hugely having servants, they’re all spoilt.”

Gillian saw Sophie’s wistful expression and saw she was dreaming of  herself having fingernails, and the sun on her back.

“Are there good shops, good TV?” Sophie asked Clive.

“Oh, plenty of air conditioned malls with all the latest gear from cars to designer clothing. You pay a lot less for everything than you would in England. TV’s a bit ropey, but it’s getting there.”

“Did your wife enjoy it ?”

“Yes, Gillian loved it to begin with. She learned Arabic, so she made friends with the locals. They were always bringing her things, vegetables, local crafts and on one famous occasion, a goat!” he laughed, shaking his head.

“What did you do with it?”  Sophie giggled.

“We were meant to eat it, but we gave it away quietly, not wanting to hurt their feelings.”

Clive looked earnest.

“Actually, Sophie, I’m the treasurer of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, so we do have responsibilities along with the easy life, you know.”

Sophie widened her eyes and laid her hand on his arm.

“Well, a gentleman like you will soon be snapped up by some lucky woman,” purred Sophie. Clive smiled. Yes, he was a really good catch.

“Now, Sophie, enough about me, what about yourself.”

His voice grew masterful.

“I’m a widow, entirely on my own.”

Sophie’s eyes moistened and glinted as she searched his face, her gaze resting on his lips. He was transfixed. Clive took Sophie’s hand in his, protective, manly.

“Tell me.”

He was sure he was going about this in the proper manner.

“I’ve been alone for years, no family.”

Here she dropped her eyes and inhaled deeply.

“I warn you now, Clive, you never get used to it.  We all need companionship, someone to live for, but not all of us find it. We just have to… deal with what life dishes out. Let’s make the most of it.”

“God,” thought Clive, his gonads leaping to his head “this woman’s on my wavelength.”

 

On the way to Clive’s room they were joined in the lift by a glamorous blonde carrying a small, tartan wrapped Chihuahua. The woman got out on the first floor trailing a cloud of expensive perfume in her wake. There was a silence, Clive felt shy.

“Do you like animals?” he asked Sophie.

“I’m fond of dogs and horses…..except when I lose on them,” Sophie frowned.

Clive laughed and thought  “A woman with wit!”

As they stepped out of the lift, he said

“Books!” making her jump.

“What books do you read?”

He was stretching the possibilities here. Sophie hesitated for a while then said

“I’m reading something called Rebel Angels…..”

Clive stopped dead in his tracks, having just opened his door.

“I’ve just finished ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’. I’m onto “The Lyre of Orpheus.”

“What?” said Sophie – as in what is the liar of wotsit and what are you changing the subject for? A tattered old paperback called Rebel Angels had jammed the window open in the ladies at the Lion for years.

“What?” heard Clive, interpreting it as what a coincidence! What, you like Robertson Davies too? What chance of two people reading the same trilogy at the same time?

They gaped at each other, he certain Sophie was his destiny, she switching to professional mode and getting on with it. She undid his tie. His passion caught fire, ignited by her mind.

_____

 Back on the underground, Gillian watched Sophie count the extra money he’d tipped her.  Clive would phone to make sure she got home safely. Though the agency forbade this absolutely, Sophie broke the rule. While Clive had been in the bathroom (two minutes in whole two hours), Sophie had found in his wallet 16 tenners held together with a paper clip, his passport and a building society account with  300,000 pounds in it.

She was still reeling when she arrived home, the phone already ringing.

“Clive, Clive….”

Her voice was low, husky.

“ Sophie, why did I let you go. Can and I come and get you?”

“No, you bloody can’t!”

Sophie’s internal shriek, as she looked round  at the mess, reached her lips but Gillian covered the mouthpiece just in time.

“Listen, Clive, I’ll call a cab and be back quick as I can,” said Sophie recovering her temper.

She kicked off her shoes, made herself a treble rum and black and plonked down on the sofa.  It did them good to wait. She flicked through the TV channels, but there wasn’t much on so after a while she picked a magazine off the heap. God, her feet were sore…….  An article caught her eye.

“Today’s woman always carries her passport – who knows where you might end up?”

“Dunno when I last saw mine,” Sophie mused aloud after skipping through the article.

She started to search, the passport was in her underwear drawer but Gillian, irritated, moved it to a pile of papers she’d been nosing through to find out more about Sophie.  What a mess! It was far better than she hoped for. There was a court summons dated a month ago brought against her by an internet gambling site, a hefty 13,500 pounds. Red letters from banks, catalogues and British Gas, all threatening, all recent…… these were all in her married name, Brown, so Sophie Carter was still married to Pinky Brown.  Perfect!

“God, Sophie, find the thing and get on with it.”

Gillian was anxious now. Sophie finally uncovered the passport, still pristine. Sophie Carter, single. She dumped it in her bag and rang for a cab.

 

The street in that small hour was deserted, except for a tom cat on the prowl. Gillian waited with Sophie and had a euphoric feeling that something marvellous was about to happen. A taxi crawled round the corner, its blackness reflecting the sulphur light as it passed beneath, slowly heading in Sophie’s direction.

“Come on, you slow bugger.”

Sophie pulled her coat round her and shivered.

It drew up but as she rushed to get in, out stepped Mum with Jason.

“Mum!”

“Jace!”

Four of his front teeth were missing.

“Unload them cases, driver.”

Mum was imperious.

“I’m back, Mum” said Jason.

“Me too, Milton Keynes stinks!” said Mum striding towards the flat as though she’d only been out shopping.

“ I’ll be back tomorrow” said Sophie, chucking the keys at Jason and ordering the driver up west. She flopped back exhausted, her eyes closed. Gillian whispered so softly

“Trust fate, Sophie, Clive can give you sunbathing, servants, security. You’re worth it.”

Sophie dozed a bit, yet a smile hung on her lips.

_____

 Clive shaved himself extra carefully, then filled the bath to the brim; he was paying for it. He hopped in and began to think.  Water had always cleared his mind, brought out his best ideas.

“Sophie, wonderful Sophie”.

He compared Gillian’s bleating with Sophie’s quiet intelligence, the way she soothed him without challenging him. She wouldn’t make his life misery taunting him or trying to goad him into living a jet set life.  She’d cried when he’d given her a tip. The gratitude of the woman! Whereas with Her, it had been nag nag about investments, adopting children, buying real paintings, supporting an African village or standing on the Great Wall of China.

“You were always so greedy, Gillian.”

And sex. Well, no comparison was there between the warmth of Sophie and the frigid Gillian with her back to him night after night. He was sorry she’d died really, but these things happen and it wasn’t turning out badly. He reached for a towel and catching sight of his excellent shave and tanned face, smiled brilliantly into the mirror. Life was good!

_____

Down at reception, Clive negotiated with the desk clerk.

“But, sir, the American Express offer is for one night only”.

“Yes,” Clive was tetchy, but correct. “But it’s not every day one gets married and I hoped you’d reconsider in the spirit of the occasion.”

“When will the marriage take place, sir?” enquired the clerk in a sombre voice.

“ Thursday or Friday. ”

“Very well, sir, in the circumstances we’ll extend the offer for two more nights.” He dryly added “For very little extra, sir, you could have our honeymoon suite?”

He anticipated Clive’s answer word for word.

“The room’s fine.”

_____

“Sophie!”

“Clive!” Their kiss was passionate, full.

“Marry me. Come to Abu Dhabi.”

“Marry you? But….Sophie blew in his ear with short little breaths and any thought

or common sense disappeared into the black hole of Clive’s brain. Afterwards, as he snored beside her, she crept out into the corridor with her mobile.

“ Mum, listen, only got a minute, I’ve met this bloke. He’s loaded, I’m marrying him, going to Abu Dhabi”

”Yes!” cried Mum.

“Gotta go but I’ll drop you a note from Heathrow…”

“Heathrow!” cried Mum.

“Look after things Mum, I’m not divorced, I haven’t mentioned the kids, but after tomorrow – tough!. Do something will you?”  Sophie’s voice rose to a level of confidence which thrilled her mother.

“Look in the yellow pages and see how much Jason’s teeth will cost to fix. Private. OK?”

“Private! ….but if you’re not legal you should get pregnant, quick, before he finds out” suggested Mum

“ No way! I’m sitting by a pool, gonna get a real tan, with my servants bringing me Hello! and champagne. I’m not lifting a finger; I’m not having another brat, it’s bad enough marrying HIM!”

“Give him hell, girl” laughed Mum.

“He’s a walkover, my money problems are over, yours too if you play your cards right” Sophie’s voice dropped a bit.

“Fab!” Mum shrieked down the line.

Sophie crept back into the room and slipped into bed, stretching her naked body against Clive’s.

_____

On Friday, Sophie became Mrs Clive Barwick. The witnesses were council officials, wearily dragged from their desks, one either side of the bridal couple. As the bride said “I do” loudly and proudly, the silent witness hovered over them and planted a kiss of gratitude and affection on the back of her neck. Sophie turned. There was nobody there, yet sure as eggs, she felt happiness and laughter fill the room to bursting point. Life was good!

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