A few weeks after Charlotte left her boyfriend she selected a celebratory handbag but discovered her credit card was missing from her purse. Kenneth had been raw, scented and occasionally violent, in a way that had marshalled her into passionate submission. She had finally seen that he was an inconsiderate bully, badly programmed as a child.
She checked online and found that forty-two pounds remained in her account, and the other three thousand had been spent or withdrawn over the past few days. She was livid. This was hard won holiday money she might have spent with Kenneth on Corfu, clubbing and staying at a beach hotel and drinking cocktails every night. She wouldn’t have minded paying for him before, but now she was planning a trip to Norway on the fjords - alone - with her new, non-existent handbag. Did he think she was stupid?
She parked outside his block and pressed his buzzer. No answer. She pressed again, long and relentless, remembering how she used to stand burning right here, how once she had gathered a bag of rose petals from the park and cast these on his bed sheets where they had made spellbinding love.
Kenneth leaned out over the railing, bare-chested, his dreads cast down. That mane she used to love was now so scrappy.
‘Kenneth, I need to talk.’
‘I'm coming up.’
She dragged her body up the stairwell. He let her in. She had already bolted herself up tight so that his long lean abdomen and those loose drawstring pants would have no effect upon her. She felt a little undone, but thought she was doing fine. Kenneth said he would make her a cup of tea and, although there was no evidence, Charlotte knew the presence of another woman was on display. That noisy woman had been subdued by the magnified, timeless moments of intimacy when she had groaned, like Charlotte, like a cat.
‘Did you take my credit card Kenneth?’ Charlotte called out to the kitchenette. ‘The money’s all gone.’
‘Give it me.’
‘Don’t have your credit card, Charlotte.’
He came and sat next to where she was hunched on the couch. Charlotte cupped her hot tea. Kenneth lolled back and his hand reached out, making warm contact with her back. She felt the journey of his hand, the architecture of the bones, the electric impulses on their travels out from his brain, his bitten-down nails and the bustling transport of his blood.
‘Don't touch me,’ she said.
She splashed the tea all over him and his grimy couch.
Charlotte did not go to Norway. She did not buy the overpriced handbag, inappropriate for a fjord cruise anyway. Kenneth’s cries had brought a neighbour running to the front door and rushing inside. Charlotte had never seen this woman before. Much older, with loose clothing, loose breasts, but a firm high rump that stood up challengingly. She looked past Charlotte at Kenneth clutching his stomach. Charlotte was now appalled by what she had done and Kenneth’s moans had tapered off.
‘Kenneth! What’s happened to you?’
Kenneth pulled himself up, retrieved the empty cup Charlotte had tossed at him, told this woman he had been clumsy enough to spill his tea.
‘Doreen, Charlotte. Charlotte, Doreen.’
Doreen marched out with her large bottom following close behind. When the door slammed Charlotte sat there for a full minute. Then her hand crawled over and untied Kenneth’s trousers. She got onto her knees and hiked up her dress and steered herself over his exultant instrument; gasped at its clean plunging. Their eyes careered into each other.
After making love they slept. Leaving Kenneth had truly exhausted Charlotte’s body. Her desire and her reason had thrashed together these last weeks; she had lost weight and her colleagues had become concerned. But now, in the bedroom, enveloped in Kenneth’s scent and arms and skin, Charlotte unpicked her rationale. She could easily earn the money again. They would go to Corfu and stay by the beach. She kissed his forehead with its light film of grease after his exertions, marvelling at the way he could drop into slumber the way a bird cruised off a cliff. She wanted to crawl into his dreams.
On the way back from the bathroom Charlotte saw Kenneth’s stuffed wallet on a shelf above the bed. It was at eye height, next to another book he had never read, inviting her to rifle through and prove one of them honest, the other a disbeliever.
She looked over the composition of their bodies, hers nude and standing, his folded in shades of beauty. She stared at the wallet.
Kenneth’s eyes opened.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris at twenty-one to write, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her work has been Pushcart-nominated and published widely in the U.K. and Europe. She lives in Italy.