The Value Of Everything [Short Story]

Posted: February 16, 2013 in Literature/Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Who knows when and how my life changed. I’d never done anything like this before and while I was almost certain that it was what I wanted at the time, as the hours passed keen optimism somehow transformed Franz Kafka-style into guilt yet somehow I was still sat there in a hotel suite slurping red wine like it was a Japanese tea drinking ritual. Only with greater speed and less inner peace.

I counted it again. It didn’t feel like money anymore. The notes were just cut-out shapes made from paper. Their value had decreased and no matter how neatly I stacked them on the bedside table they may as well have been crushed leaves ready to go in a child’s scrapbook. I inspected one of the notes between my finger and thumb, turning it and bending it like they were clean underwear fresh from the dryer. They were far from clean. Metaphorically I mean. And the money…not the underpants.

I walked around the room taking in the new sights and smells the way you do when you visit a friend’s home for the first time. You look at the photos on the mantelpiece; the bargain bin artwork on the walls. You sit down on a couch made from some material your arse is not familiar with. And you decline all offers of hot drinks and ceremonial biscuits. Because you’re just that cool. God, why did I book such a fancy room? Dark, wood panelling? Electronic blinds? Two bedside lamps? What the hell was I thinking?! Looking around it didn’t feel like a hotel room. It felt like a culmination of forty hours spent at work so I could afford this evening. That’s all.

So what was I doing there? Ask my wife. Actually, no don’t. She’s the very last person who needed to know about my reasons for being there. And her mother. Both of whom are not so much capable of murder as they are one wrong move away from creating a real life revenge film. Complete with low budget camera effects for grittiness. Ever seen Hard Candy? Good, you know where I’m coming from then. It’s that old cliché I’m afraid: you reach a crisis point in your life where you think ‘is this what it’s going to be like from now on?’ You have every control over your own destiny yet there you are contemplating life-crushing questions. So you end up sat on the edge of an expensive king size mattress, confessing your sins to a bottle of Shiraz and waiting for the escort you hired.

I reached over to the money again and counted it. Again. One hundred and fifty exact. Just paper with squiggles and patterns. Nearly half a week’s wages. And it was no longer mine. By contrast one hundred and fifty pounds was comparatively cheap for an escort. Obviously I had to pay any last remnants of my dignity as a down payment but still it could have been worse. Worse? While my wife sat at home with the foreknowledge that I was away on a colleague training scheme I was moments away from handing over enough notes to spread out into a rudimentary period drama fan. Which, given the sweat oozing from my forehead would have been a more appropriate use of the money. So how could it have gotten worse? Scratch that. How could I have been a worse person?

So what of my wife and the tragic circumstances I found myself in? I loved her, of course. I wouldn’t speak of her with such frequency – or, indeed, fear – if I didn’t love her. Our years spent together were almost boringly happy. There were no real sudden events that lead me to be sat on a feather-stuffed duvet with the only thing stopping shame from emanating out my pores being the clothes on my back. We were childless, thankfully. That somehow alleviated a small portion of the guilt. And it was a choice thing. Neither of us had knackered genitals or anything. My balls are healthy, thank you for asking. Her mother did have a tendency to call my ability to father a child into question. Sometimes during meals. Other times at less appropriate locations. Funeral processions for example. The venue didn’t really matter to her.

‘Raisin prick’ I believe was the expression; somehow implying that as the years went on and I ceased to rear a child my genitals would somehow give up and shrivel inwards like a piece of dried fruit. Bless that woman.

No, my shame sprung from a sudden realisation I think a lot of couples feel eventually: detachment. With ever increasing demand to work more hours from both participants the evening couch cuddles became less of a way to unwind after work and more of a liaison that required prior booking and the crossing out of important dates in our planners. We both swanned off with barely a text message to warn the other. The irony being that I began to suspect she may have been seeing other people behind my back. Who marks important meetings in their diaries by dotting their i’s with cute little hearts? I ask you.

I heard a knock at my door. It was gentle but purposeful, like a loud whisper that’s meant to be discreet but public. I looked over at the money that I had unwittingly fanned out on the table. With a new tremble in my limbs I tipped the rest of the wine into my mouth not bothering to savour anything but the sour taste of this moment. I was glad I’d bought two more bottles. Expensive ones too. Again I ask: why?

As I approached the door I had images of seeing my wife in a boob-tube stood on the other side, her diary in her hand and a list of male names crossed off with me on the bottom like the last pick for a school football team. My hands now clammy I reached for the handle and released the door from its frame. There, out on the hotel hallway, with fishnet attire a-plenty and a mini skirt so vinyl-looking it could have sported a white label, stood my 54-year old mother-in-law.

The space between us didn’t seem real. It was as though a two-way mirror had been placed between us and neither of us were aware that the other was looking at them with an empty expression. We had seconds to come to terms with this new scenario and I had neither the wit and cunning to be able to scramble for an innocent excuse, nor the vocal skills to be able to express it. Her dangling jaw suggested she felt the same. All we could muster was the shaky exchange of each other’s name.

“Jennifer?” I said.

“Clyde?”

The exchange was pointless. We both knew exactly who was staring who in the face. Jennifer looked up and down the corridor. Not a soul in sight. Not even our own which had, by now, already been condemned to a new circle of Hell.

“I…didn’t…” Jennifer began. “I mean. Is this…?”

“I don’t…was it you who…?” I continued. “Well…fuck…”

The word pierced Jennifer’s face and she recoiled. I’d never sworn in front of her before but given the circumstance we’d found ourself in I may as well have written it on a piece of paper and stuffed it into her cleavage.

“Language!” She said.

This may have sounded like an odd response. But in fact it made sense in retrospect. We both knew what was going on. She knew why I was in the hotel room and I knew why she was knocking on my door. To deny it now would be so delusional unicorns would start dancing around us is we even entertained the idea.

“Well, shall I come in or not?” She asked, not smiling.

“Are…you sure that’s a good idea?”

Her shoulders dropped and she glared, librarian-style, at me.

“Clyde,” she said, “I’m a middle-aged women in a mini skirt standing outside a hotel room at ten o’clock at night. Yes, it’s a good idea.”

“Good point.” I said. “I have wine if you want some.”

“God yes!”

She walked over the threshold and I discreetly closed the door. For some reason I put the chain across. Who was I protecting? Also: I have wine? Why the hell did I say that?! Was I actually going to go through with this?

Jennifer sat on the edge of the bed, still warm from my furiously pressed cheeks. She took her shawl off revealing more shoulder than I’d ever thought I’d see on her. Seeing a woman in low cut tops and high rise skirts is a tremendous image. To see it on the mother of your wife is curious and confusing in equal measures. By all accounts this should have been the ultimate male fantasy; possibly even the beginnings of a good porno. But arousal was nowhere to be seen so embarrassment took the wheel working triple shifts.

“Bottle’s empty.” She said, nodding at the wine that was no more.

“I bought plenty.” I said.

I reached down the side of the bed into a Waitrose shopping bag and pulled a bottle of red out. The body was wrapped in a gold thread and was nicely chilled to room temperature. Expensive wine. For the last woman on Earth I expected to see in my hotel suite. I uncorked the wine and poured two glasses carefully balancing the measurement between being a good host and not wanting to inundate her with a memory erasing amount of alcohol. I handed her the glass and simply stood opposite her.

She finally broke the ice:

“So, how long has this been going on?”

“This is the first time, I swear.”

I gulped some wine wanting oblivion as fast as possible. Was it good tasting wine? I couldn’t tell you. It could have been pony dung for all I knew. The details were lost on me.

“What about you? I asked.

“Eight years.”

I held my glass still, half tipped and centimetres from my lips.

“Eight years?! You’ve been doing this since before me and Claire were married?”

“Yes.” She replied.

Her tone was neither apologetic nor scornful. It was a hard fact.

“But why?”

Jennifer twirled her glass and contemplated the colours in the liquid. I knew she was a keen wine enthusiast. Somehow wine and fishnet stockings don’t gel so good.

“Money,” She said,

Again, a simple fact.

I began to relax into it a bit. Suddenly I was feeling less guilty. This was my first escort call and I hadn’t even done anything yet. While the intent was obviously there I hadn’t actually gone through with it. But here was my mother-in-law: part-time call girl for eight sodding years. If we were going to Hell I would surely get put in a nice, up-market neighbourhood simply by proxy.

It wasn’t what she did or her reasons. It was how completely out-of-character this was for her. When you think you know a person after so many years you never see that person as anything other than the memories you hold onto. This wasn’t Jennifer the Escort. This was Jennifer the 54-year old estate agent. She read Phillipa Gregory novels and grew tomatoes in her greenhouse. Jennifer the Call Girl was her superhero alias; saving men everywhere from a backlog of semen. Morals aside it just didn’t make sense for a woman with a career and money to be doing this.

“Why do you need more money?”

“You can never have too much money.” She said.

She finally took a sip of wine, using that gesture instead of punctuation to make her point.

“Does Paul know?” I asked.

Paul was her husband. AKA my father-in-law. AKA the most oblivious man on the planet.

“It was his idea.”

“What? Why?”

“He fancied a summer home. Maybe in Spain, he says. Personally I’d like something in Florida but he’s always had his eye on somewhere a bit more Latin. And you know how much he loves mainland Europe anyway. He’s even considering taking Spanish lessons in the ev-”

“-Wait, wait wait. He knows you’re having sex with other men for money and he’s okay with this? All because he wants a summer home?”

“I’m not a prostitute, Clyde.”

“What the hell do you call this then?!”

I don’t know why I gestured to the whole room around us. By all accounts she was well within her right to answer with ‘I dunno, king size with en-suite?’

“I’m an escort. Which is different.”

“How?”

“You pay for my company. Not for my body. I meet people and we have an evening together. If the two of us decide to have sex afterwards that’s between two consenting adults. Nothing illegal about that.”

She sipped some more and stood up to meet my gaze better.

“Now I have to ask you why you hired an escort in the first place. Something tells me you don’t have a spare cinema ticket going or a reservation at a posh restaurant. Does Claire know?”

Claire. AKA my wife. AKA her daughter. AKA the woman with the most justifiable reason for murder in the world

Somehow everything had been turned. Now I was the guilty party. This was a woman with years of experience in confronting men like me. She could smell the shame on me. Big, wet patches of shame soaking the underarms of my shirt. Also flatulence. I couldn’t afford to be anything other than calm about this.

“Please don’t tell Claire about this!” I said from my new position on both knees. “Please! Please! I love her and I don’t know why I’m doing this!”

I got up again and strode over to the bedside table. I took the fanned out money and swung it around until it wafted Jennifer in the face.

“Here.” I said. “Just take this and you can go. We don’t need to do anything. Just please promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to her.”

My echoes died. Had I been shouting? I wasn’t aware. Jennifer coolly took the money from my hands and counted out each note.

“One fifty.” I said.

“I can count.”

She folded the notes up and held them in her grasp. Her other hand came up and touched me on the cheek. It was surprisingly cold.

“I’m not going to tell Claire.” She said.

“Really?”

“Look I know you love her. But I’m not stupid. I know you’ve been distant with each other recently. You want female company and I get that. Who am I to judge someone when this is what I do for a living? I can’t say this is your proudest moment though.

“I know.”

I watched as she counted fifty pounds from the bundle and put it down her top. She handed the rest to me. One hundred pounds exact.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“Discount.”

“I don’t get you.”

“Look, I want money. And you want to keep this a secret.” She smiled at me.

I looked over at the door. The chain across it had taken on a more sinister look. There’s a fine line between privacy and prison.

“Your choice.”

Figures, I thought. And I swallowed the rest of my wine.

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