Read by Paul Clarke
London, August 2009
I was expecting her, I knew her voice well, but despite people around us rushing to catch trains, I jumped at her greeting.
She gave me the kind of hug you give at a funeral.
‘You haven’t changed a bit, Joe,’ she said.
Even after all these years, the heft of her body was second nature to me.
The hug lasted a fraction too long, then we stepped away from each other. I couldn’t stop my eyes taking a leisurely wander up and down her. She still had red hair, but cut shorter, to shoulder length. She’d lost weight, which was good news for her cheekbones and chin but not for her eyes. Anyone else would have said she was stop-the-traffic striking, but I was always her worst critic. And part of me still wanted to find her broken.
‘Ten years. It’s been a long time, Jules.’
‘Ten years, two months, 18 days, and ten thousand miles’ she said. ‘Not that I’ve been counting. I was just thinking about it on the train here…’
Her fingers spidered the air. She did this when she got nervous. Playing air piano, we called it.
‘Let’s walk,’ I said, and Jules smiled and slipped her arm into mine.
Sydney, May 1999
The first time I laid eyes on Jules, I’d just broken my cheekbone in a drunken fight, and she was naked on a stage.
Sydney’s Kings Cross was supposed to be a stopover for a week or two, on the way to a bar job I’d been offered in Queensland. I was slumped in a piss-proof plastic chair, two rows back from the elevated stage. It was just one of a dozen strip clubs lining a 200-metre long parade: Sydney’s red light district, magnet to hookers, dirt cheap pizza joints, spit’n’sawdust bars, and stag nights. My friends, a gang of outback kids who came to the city for weekend blowouts, had all gone whoring upstairs. They were crazy, with a kind of alcoholic tourettes: their tongues were vicious when they’d downed a skinful of Tooheys. They’d started a fight with some Croatians down in Darling Harbour. A spot of bloodletting or sex was the only thing that could blunt them when they’d laboured in the fields a whole month.
I looked around and seeing I was the only punter left was about to leave when the lights lowered and a new girl backed onto the stage. I eased back into my chair, pressing a cold bottle to my eye socket where a Bosnian boot had landed.
When she spun round it took a second to realise she had her whole hand in her mouth and was working it in and out. Her whole hand. To the wrist bone. As she writhed side to side like a charmed snake, it crossed my mind what a mouth like that could do to you.
When she pulled the wrist out, and I saw it ended there, at the stump, my jaw dropped, and she smiled. Her routine was an incredible, gymnastic feat. She was young, lithe, gorgeous, and it was all for me. She left the stage and danced close, breathing spearmint in my face.
‘You’ve fractured your cheekbone.’
Her accent was pure received pronunciation. Queen’s English like I hadn’t heard since the Crown Court.
‘So are you. You need a CT scan. Can you see out of your eye? How many fingers am I holding up?’
‘On which hand?’
She didn’t smile and I wished I hadn’t said it.
‘Take your hand off my tit and cover your eye with it. Now follow my finger. Not great. You really should go, right now.’
‘I’d rather go upstairs with you…’
‘Sorry, I don’t do that.’
She got off my lap, and was about to leave. I slipped a $20 bill into her g-string.
‘For the diagnosis.’
This time she did smile.
‘What’s your name?’ I said.
She smiled again, shook her head and called over her shoulder as she left.
‘Whatever you want it to be.’
I returned to the club the following weekend, this time sober and with scars around my eyebrow from surgery. She came on at midnight. I tucked myself into a corner by the bar. It gave me a good view of the floorshow and a chance to watch her discreetly. It was nearly two hours before she arrived at my table.
‘How’s that eye?’
She traced the scars with her fingertips.
‘You were right about the cheekbone. That’s why I’m here, I wanted to thank you.’
‘Oh yeah? It takes two hours watching the floor show and a handful of dances to pluck up the courage does it?’
She sat on my knee and played with my hair.
‘Shall I dance for you?’ she said.
‘Let me take you for dinner?’
She stood up fast.
‘Sorry, I never date a private punter.’
‘But I haven’t asked you to dance…’
‘I know,’ she interrupted. ‘Think about it.’
Then she disappeared backstage.
When I saw her in a local bar a fortnight later with a handful of friends, dressed in jeans and a hooded top, her hair red and straight and not the curly blonde wig she wore on stage, I walked up to her and kissed her full on the mouth.
Her friends stopped talking and gasped. When I drew back, the surprise in her eyes shifted gears quickly through recognition to anger. She slapped me across the face. I raised a hand to my damaged eye, and her own hand shot to her mouth.
‘Oh sorry,’ she said. ‘That’s your bad eye.’
I laughed, and she slapped my good cheek, less hard this time.
‘You can’t just kiss a girl like that without… without even asking her name!’
‘You didn’t tell me the last time I asked.’
‘Look I’m sorry, I really am, let me make it up to you. Can I buy you a drink? Or maybe dinner?’
I had what seemed to be a placating hand on her arm, but in truth I inched her away from her friends toward an exclusive spot at the bar.
‘A spot of light supper perhaps?’
She laughed. I was teasing her plummy accent. Her friends turned a few degrees away and picked up their own conversations.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘Joe. What’s yours?’
Then she smiled a high-wattage smile that deserved a full-screen close up.
We explored Australia for 18 months in an ex-rental Landcruiser and a shared sleeping bag. We told our stories, shared our childhoods, confessed ambitions.
Then she went and ruined everything.
London, August 2009
When Jules emailed me a week ago, saying she’d be in London for the day and would like to meet up, my heart whacked so hard in my chest that I had to take a walk. I hadn’t heard from her since Sydney. I left it a couple of days before replying, and didn’t tell Imelda. She was pregnant and planning our wedding, and I didn’t want her to worry.
In the early years, I heard that Jules had married the guy she left me for. I learned she had twins, and after that I stopped speaking to people who knew her.
‘Can we sit?’ said Jules. ‘I’ve been on my feet all day.’
We’d been walking maybe an hour and were out where the plane trees line the Thames’ footpath, but I forget what we’d talked about along the way. The water was higher than I’d ever seen it, after biblical rains, and flotsam littered its surface.
We sat side by side on a bench facing up-stream to a reddening sun.
‘So how have you really been?’
‘Since I last saw you?’ she said. ‘Good, then very good, then very bad, and now…OK!’
‘Care to expand on that?’
‘OK, I got married, had beautiful twins, then the oldest of the two, Ellie, died in her sleep… and now I’m divorced.’
I looked sideways at her. That’s a lot of life I’d made her sieve down to a sentence. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
I watched a rowing crew round the hairpin bend.
‘Hold her hard,’ yelled the cox, and the four rowers squared their blades, slowing to avoid a fallen, bobbing tree, its roots still in the bank.
‘And how have you been?’
I skipped the seven years it took to stop looking for someone like her.
‘I’m good, very good, thanks. I’m getting married next month. And I’m going to be a dad.’
I told her how I met Imelda at an audition for a TV commercial and we fell in love while filming in the East End against a romantic Pacific-island backdrop. Now we were hurrying to marry so it wouldn’t look shotgun.
When I looked again, Jules had her eyes closed.
‘Are you OK?’
‘I’m fine, go on,’ but her face crumpled, and she didn’t try to hide the tears.
‘Hey, hey, what is it? You can tell me.’
She pushed her face into the crook of her arm, and made rapid little sideways movements with her head. I reached out and stroked her hair.
‘Don’t cry. Everything’s going to be alright.’
The crying slowed until it was a flutter in her chest. She rubbed her eyes and lifted her head.
‘I want you back,’ she said.
My hand dropped.
The river was on the turn. In places it flowed upstream, in others it had begun to flow the other way, and in the middle the water was almost still, eddying in small circles.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That could change things.’
Ten Years On by Rob Ganley was read by Paul Clarke at the Liars' League Sex & The City event at The Wheatsheaf in London on Tuesday 10 November 2009
Rob Ganley grew up in Coventry and now lives in Teddington with his wife and son. He is a magazine editor, but writing fiction is his first love. His work has appeared on Bartleby Snopes and Every Day Fiction, and his novel The Hypnotist’s Wife reached the YouWriteOn.com Bestsellers Chart.
Paul Clarke trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, after sacrificing his degree on the altar of Theatre. He has a fondness for grotesques, villains and all-round bad guys – theatre credits include Berkoff’s Decadence (with Sally Phillips), Moon in The Real Inspector Hound, and title roles in Vlad the Impaler, Macbeth, and Pericles – a rare outing as a good guy