Read by Elizabeth Bower
Jack is eating cornflakes. An empty flat. A new pack. Perfect. He’s only taken one bite when he hears footsteps in the hall. Damn it. He chews quickly and swallows hard. He’s only half finished when Rosa walks into the kitchen and glares in his direction. She picks up the kettle, sighs heavily at its emptiness and carries it to the sink.
‘What are you wearing?’ he asks.
She looks over her shoulder, the flame silk of her hair flowing down her back. ‘It’s what I wear in bed.’
She frowns and faces the sink. Cornflakes abandoned, he puts down his spoon and watches her glide around the room, making tea and looking in cupboards, seemingly unaware of his presence.
‘Since when did you wear that in bed?’
She doesn’t look at him. ‘When you were in my bed I didn’t wear anything. This is what I like to wear when I’m alone.’
‘Why would you wear that when you were alone? It’s not designed for just one person.’
‘There they are,’ she says, walking over to the table.
The camisole is silk, printed with red and pink roses and edged in red lace, it flows over her body like water; there are matching knickers that rest lightly on her thighs. Jack’s mouth is slack. As she reaches for the cornflakes he glances down between the lace. Her breasts are fully visible, small pink nipples mimicking the rosebuds on the silk. He waves a hand at her indignantly.
‘You can’t wear that around the house – it’s not decent.’
She sits down, pours herself some cornflakes and gives him a Paddington stare.
‘I’ll wear what I want, if you don’t like it - move out.’
She crunches loudly. ‘So much nicer when they’re fresh, don’t you think?’
‘Oh, so that’s what this is about is it? There’s no way I’m moving out. It’s my flat – me and Spike found it. I’m not giving up my sea view for you. I did wrong - I’ll admit that - so I don’t mind sleeping on the couch till you find somewhere …’
‘But please, don’t walk around like that while you’re still here. You wouldn’t prance around like that in front of Spike - so don’t do it with me.’
She puts down her spoon and smiles sweetly at his stony face.
‘Firstly, I am not moving out. Yes you and Spike found the flat but we all moved in together so it’s not actually yours.’
He opens his mouth to protest.
‘I’m speaking now - and for your information Spike doesn’t care what I wear because, just like you and me since you decided you prefer Colleen, we are just friends.’
She stands up, pushing her chair across the lino with the back of her knees. Her chest lunges forward and one of the lace straps falls off her shoulder and hangs halfway down her arm. They lock each other with furious eyes. She said the C-word and it puts him in the wrong.
‘It was just once. I was drunk. It didn’t mean anything.’
‘So you said.’
She flicks back her hair and takes her bowl to the dishwasher. As she dips down to pull open the front her knickers ride up over her buttocks; she straightens then bends again to put the bowl inside.
‘For God’s sake, can’t you put a dressing gown on or something?’
She snorts and turns to face him. ‘Why? I’m more covered up than I would be if I was wearing a bikini. If we were on the beach it wouldn’t bother you at all.’
‘That’s different and you know it. A bikini is more… solid. That thing you’ve got on is... It’s designed to turn men on – all that swooshing. I hope you don’t wear it front of Spike he’s not exactly known for his self-control.’
‘He has better self-control than you do.’
‘Does he? Well, he won’t if he’s presented with a series of titillating skimpies.’
A static silence drifts between them.
She takes a tube of lip balm from the kitchen counter and runs some over her bottom lip with her forefinger.
‘Do you remember what I was wearing the night we got together?’
He looks down at his cornflakes; they’ve gone mushy.
‘A black dress.’
‘Underneath? What was I wearing underneath?’
He swirls the pale flakes with his spoon then looks up at her. ‘I don’t remember.’
She arches an eyebrow.
He does remember. It had taken his breath away – a turquoise silk bra and pants finished with orange lace. She’d looked like a Hollywood starlet. The bra was old-fashioned and creaked as his fingers moved over it. She had to help him with the clasp because he was shaking so much. The memory moves over his face - and elsewhere.
‘See, you do remember.’
He nods, mouth open.
‘That night I wasn’t planning a seduction. I just like to wear that stuff. I like the feel of it. I like knowing that whatever I’ve got on, even paint-splattered overalls, there’s a bit of glamour underneath.’
She looks sad, as if she might cry again. He never meant to make her cry.
‘Please, just go and put a dressing-gown on.’
‘Fine.’ She slams the dishwasher shut and strops out of the room.
Jack sighs and carries his bowl of cornflakes to the bin; he throws away the mush then makes another.
‘There’s no way I’m moving out.’
As he stands at the kitchen window watching rain clouds scuttle across the sky he thinks about what she said. It was true; she always had worn incredible underwear. In their first weeks together, when they’d spent most of their time taking each other’s clothes off, he’d been stunned by the array of unusual undergarments. Every day brought a new sensual experience. Roses. He remembered the roses, embroidered buds and leaves cupping creamy breasts, swirling prints on loose satin that bewitched his fingers.
Sometimes she’d model them for him, one after another, looking at herself in her full length mirror, lifting her hair and tilting her head. He’d sit on her bed in a room of perfumed candles and scarf-dimmed table lamps and marvel at how lucky he was. It was never trampy; never obvious. Rosa was pure class.
She didn’t even buy it in normal shops. He went shopping with her a few times and she took him to a series of tiny boutiques hidden down little streets he didn’t know existed. These trips were the only time in his life he truly enjoyed shopping. He remembered one afternoon in particular. Inside, the shop was draped with heavy velvet curtains and there was a table with a huge vase of obscenely gashed lilies next to a mirror which multiplied the effect of their blossoms. An immaculately dressed woman whisked Rosa away through gilded saloon doors, leaving him to sit on an armchair and wait. As he listened to their pointy-heeled footsteps echo across the pious tiles, he felt as though he’d snuck in to the inner sanctum; somewhere forbidden to clumsy smelly boys like himself.
He looked at the flimsy garments pegged onto padded hangers in every colour imaginable. The scent from the lilies drugged his senses; entranced, he tip-toed across the floor to where the silk and lace were calling him. He checked to make sure he was really alone and then lifted a pair of chartreuse knickers to his face and inhaled deeply. Footsteps flickered; the saloon door swung open and he’d been caught red-nosed and laughed at. It was worth it.
Jack was surprised to learn that much of Rosa’s underwear was second hand. Initially this knowledge freaked him out, but then Rosa explained. She scoured vintage shops and antique markets to find pants that belonged to other people; people who were probably dead. She said there was something sexy in it, as if a little bit of their life-force had been left behind specifically for her. He remembered the delight on her face when she found something beautiful, like at the antique fair in the old Pentecostal church.
‘Look at this,’ she’d said, pulling some filigree out of a wooden barrel of rags. She’d shaken it out and held it up to the light filtering through the cloudy windows. It was a powder blue all-in-one; you could see the stitches down the seams.
‘I think it’s original.’ She gasped. ‘1930s or something – feel the silk, it’s like tissue paper.’
He stroked it softly; wary of rubbing it too much in case it dissolved, and thought how he’d like to feel the life-force in it when it was stretched over her body. He remembered now what it felt like when he did.
She never stopped wearing the stuff, never reverted to period pants and sports bras because she’d caught him and didn’t have to try any more. He wondered when exactly in the last two years he’d got so used to it he stopped noticing.
Then there was Colleen and her legs, and Rosa’s unexpected return from a hen weekend because she missed him. She’d found them together in their bed, Colleen’s serviceable knickers flung onto Rosa’s armchair amongst Rosa’s special things.
A seagull steps from the rain-slicked roof tiles of the house opposite and flies gracefully into the grey skies. There are light footsteps in the hall and he turns to see her walk into the room. She’s wearing lipstick and her hair is mussed up. He hasn’t seen the ‘dressing-gown’ before – it’s miniscule, a kimono that barely covers her bottom - black satin printed with cosmic butterflies and embroidered cherry-blossoms. It’s tied loosely on her hips, open to her waist exposing the camisole beneath. They lock eyes again.
‘A dressing-gown. You asked me to cover up.’
‘Jesus Rosa, it doesn’t cover much up does it? And it’s all …swishy.’
‘Yeah – it’s worse - it just makes me think there are more layers to take off.’
‘Get over it,’ she says quietly and walks to the stereo. She presses play and an old song comes on; one of theirs, from another life. They danced to it together in their room, close behind the closed door. She hums and sways to the lilting rhythm. The kimono rustles as she moves.
He can’t take any more. He walks up to her and grabs her waist, turning her in his arms, the satin slick under his touch. He buries his face in her chest, his nose rests on a breast and he can smell the softness of the roses. She stiffens in his arms; a corpse against desire.
‘Please,’ he whispers, the word muffled by her flesh.
He moves away, tears in his eyes, and staggers towards the front door and out into the cold bright air of the street beyond.
He’s gone for hours. She’s in the hall when he gets back, about to go out, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with no hint of what might be underneath. He feels green; sweat beads prick his forehead and his heart beats double speed. She stares at him with a welcome hint of concern.
‘Are you feeling all right?’
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, ‘I never wanted Colleen. I just want you. I had this done for you.’
He pulls off his T-shirt, wincing with pain; it hangs off his forearms like cotton handcuffs. On his chest is the blue-black outline of a full bloomed rose, complete with thorny stem and the word Rosa traced in a florid script. His skin is raw underneath.
‘I’m supposed to go back in a few days to get the red filled in but I don’t think I can do it without you.’
She laughs and touches her name with cold fingertips.
He sways. ‘Take me back – please.’
She looks into his eyes. ‘Maybe.’
The earth rushes from under him, and he falls, head first, into the scent of a million roses.
Underneath by Erinna Mettler was read by Elizabeth Bower at the Liars’ League Hot & Bothered event on Tuesday, July 14th, 2011 at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Erinna Mettler lives in Brighton. She was a runner up at the Guildford Book Festival and has taken part in many events including Brighton Fringe. Her first novel Starlings is out now through Revenge Ink! She is a founding member of Rattle Tales and is writing her second novel. www.erinnamettler.com