This is how I began, with the tang of wine, the sour of anger, the spice of treachery. All salted with red blood and spilled friendship. We all have to start somewhere. You might have come to it in a church, or a school, or the public street. Or in your lover’s arms.
We all know, you never stop at one. But you always remember the first time. Who it was, where you were, why. I was in a provincial gallery, one brisk night in October.
Wine splashed in my glass. I was rough with it and the red meniscus swayed to the edge of danger. I lifted it to my lips. The sharp tannin scent nipped me, belying the sweet taste flooding my mouth, smooth on my tongue and voluptuous on my gums. The first taste was always the best. All the others were chasing this moment.
Especially that night, with Simon’s injunction to behave ‘just this once’. My promised compliance was the bitterness in the back of my throat, the smell wrinkling the bridge of my nose. I gritted my teeth at the memory of the controlled cajoling, the lurking admonitions as he reminded me of the importance of his appearances at this week’s little soiree. London critics were coming, drawn by the School’s increasing reputation. Amazing what a few aggressive collages will do, judiciously hawked to grace nouveau windows in Clerkenwell or the Jewellery Quarter. Really, Sophie was the one in the spotlight. She’s the special effects guru.
Around me the clacking of the party hummed along its accustomed tracks. Kissy, kissy. Smiling chit and chat. Little deals made, minor pledges disavowed. Nobody looking at the walls, everyone ignoring the photographs that excused this schmooze-fest. I took another mouthful of the merlot the college doled out on these occasions. Once the first rush was past, I could taste the vinegar. It didn’t stop me drinking. You know how it feels.
It hadn’t started out like this. Long ago, so long ago, before Simon, the wine was just part of the fun. The witticisms, the easy eroticism of studenthood. The arrogance of knowing you were the best, the brightest spark ever seen, that the critics were just waiting to kiss your feet. We never had the money for spirits, nor anything much really. Occasionally, very occasionally, there was a bender. But usually a few glasses, a few tokes, some casual fumblings on a bumpy mattress under a thin duvet and some smelly blankets. Then a bright morning, and more pictures.
That night, the night I began, I twisted the remnants of my precious glass, seeing the young Simon in the lees, and the even younger me. The best, the brightest spark in the Art School caught the attention of the firebrand trophy lecturer, took fire at his energy and authority. We walked hand in hand on the beach. Sure, I was old enough, wise enough to be trusted with a relationship with faculty. There was a row of course, but they let me graduate. Simon’s promises, his determination to marry me helped.
And here we were, him with his reputation and me with my pathetic little sinecure. Allowed to fool around in the darkroom. And I only had that thanks to Sophie. Dear Sophie, who’d stuck by me ever since those hangover-free halcyon days. Strange I couldn’t see her, but she’d be around somewhere. She even rescued me when I was drunk during the Royal visit, covered for me with the Dean. I would be long gone, to perdition perhaps, or to Paris, if not for her. If I stayed sober through the evening, it would be for Sophie. Sod Simon.
I topped up my glass and turned away from the table, looked around the long gallery. All the usual damn faces. Smug, glowing, radiating in the lights and heat that pressed against the long windows. As always, in this space, I could see our posing reflections in that wall, striated, shattered by passing headlights, observed with amused aloofness by passing students. My jaw clenched, I could feel my molars grinding. I was here on orders. And on sufferance. I’d better just look at the pictures.
The nearest one I remembered from the darkroom, a big, dramatic piece. The student had struggled with the minute variations in black that made up the texture of old stones at the mouth of the well. The shot, straight down the shaft, had the pull of a Kapoor sculpture, deep and heavenly. Hung here, the glass reflected the lights, the window wall, myself. Mousy hair, sallow skin, in my drab skirt, safe blouse and little cardi, approved by Simon as not drawing attention. Not pulling attention away from him. I had less colour than the well. Where had all my colours gone?
I peered closer. I could see Simon, that ridiculous gold waistcoat glittering in the depths. He had insisted on wearing it, despite my jeers that the whole town must be sick of it. He’d worn it every evening since he picked it up in some London flea market. Since when did he start prinking like some charity peacock, a down-at-heel bird of paradise? It wasn’t for me, I was sure of that. He was standing behind me, off to the left. He must have thought I couldn’t possibly see him, even if I bothered to look. Tricks of refraction and reflection, bright lights and dark walls of glass, of silver enamel on shiny paper, put Simon’s tiny figure inside my wine.
He stood next to Sophie. There she was, my old friend, my pal, the smoother of my path. She had her hand on Simon’s arm, her rings twinkling, a distant star in the black sea. She looked up at Simon, at my husband, and smiled. Her hair was more rich darkness against Simon’s golden stomach. His hand so white, punctiliously clean, like the underbelly of a lizard, came up and stroked her cheek.
I heard myself hiss. Simon and Sophie. Surprise! The kaleidoscope’s click took my breath away. The pattern was obvious, once seen. The twisted instant rewrote my life. How had she done it? She had listened, oh so carefully, to his woeful stories of my drunkard’s cunning. My every smash confirmed it. She must have cooed and cosseted him. She had so often pampered me! Simon must have loved it. Invisible me to nag and hector. Sophie to charm, woo, bedazzle. Their trap to keep me in place. His respectable cover, her safe cop-out. Everyone around us must know; nobody looked askance at their caress, or so much as glanced in my direction. They had played a long game with me.
Not any more. I could leave them to it, just walk away. After all, no-one would miss me. But that wouldn’t do. Even they, devious, deceitful, would expect some display from me, a last flare up of the brightest spark. They would be disappointed if, at the last, I behaved.
I threw my drink, still full, in to the deep well of the photo. Hard against the glass, shattering, tinkling. Loud. Shards, sharp, glistening with red, scattered around my feet. The clackety clack halted and the faces turned to stare. Simon’s mouth was distorted, bouncing with frustration, wanting the floor to open under me. Sophie, starting away from him, stepped forward, arm outstretched. Concerned. Caring. So keen to tidy me away.
“My dear,” she started.
I hissed again, stuttering over their names, struggling to utter all their betrayals. Then pulled myself together.
“Lovely photos,” I said, moving towards her. “Just the show you promised us all. I’m so glad I could play my small part.” She clutched at me without grace as I enfolded her in my arms. I could feel her relief that the worst was over, that I had shot my bolt.
My teeth met through the skin of her neck. The pretence that all was well broke against her scream. Salty, viscous fluid ran over my lips and the tip of my tongue. Her perfume mixed with the stink thick in my nostrils. My gums curled back at the unaccustomed subtleties. I swallowed, the new sensation rich and hot in my stomach. No wine or spirits, no bodily fluid, would ever taste the same again. I could get used to this, to the oaths implicit in the taste of warm blood.
Red smears showed across my teeth as I smiled at them all. “Goodnight darlings,” I said.
In the awed silence, broken only by Sophie’s panting sobs, I walked away. Feet steady and back straight, I walked out of the shattered glass and the bright lights and the avid faces. In the dark, on the cold pavement, I breathed deeply. The fresh air was intoxicating.
That was how I began. Now tell us your story.
Sarah Tanburn lives in South Wales in a small flat overlooking the sea. She writes fiction, travel and poetry.
Her published work includes the short stories The Ocean Is My Lover available from www.etherbooks.com, Blessed Are the Peacemakers published by Snapshots of History in 2012 and Switzerland which won the Get Writing Cup in 2012. Her creative non-fiction and reviews span travel memoir, including Partition, [wherever] magazine, and December: Dusk at www.inksweatandtears.co.uk.
In 2016, she spent two months on a tall ship exploring the far south; you can read about it at www.sailingtoantarctica.com.