He noticed her right away. There were quite a few people in the hotel restaurant but she caught his eye; a lone blonde, in her late forties perhaps, but well preserved. Gerald looked at her again. Was that a half-smile? She crossed her legs. His eyes followed the movement, noting how her calves curved down to slender ankles and high-heeled red shoes. Something, that blasted something, stirred. Not here, he thought, not with Maggie around. He looked across at his wife of twenty odd years who sat quietly preoccupied with one of her puzzle magazines. Maggie would never wear red shoes or paint her lips, and she would never know what was going on in his head, such as his fantasy about taking the blonde back to their room. He smiled wryly, soft bugger, hadn’t he resolved after Angela ‘never again’. How quickly his resolve was weakening. Poor, silly Angela, the blank eyes, the soft swollen triangle between her closed thighs. She was blonde. It was always blondes with him. Strange that he’d married a brunette. He looked at his wife again. Not as brunette as she had been, the odd silver streak here and there. She was saying something.
‘This pen’s dried up. Have you got one with you?’
‘In my jacket, I think.’
He felt in the pockets of his jacket hanging on the chair behind him. As his fingers touched the pen the blonde walked by their table, a hint of musky perfume in her wake.
‘No. Thought I had. I’ll just pop back to our room and get one. Order some coffee, will you?’
He paused in the hotel lobby as the blonde went towards the lift and pressed the button. His pulse quickened. He hadn’t intended this but he couldn’t stop now.
A woman with two squabbling children joined the blonde as the lift door opened and he slipped in behind them. He was close to her now, so close he could see the down at the base of her neck beneath her upswept hair. Without hesitation, he followed when she got out on the second floor. She had murmured ‘thank you’ in a voice as soft as melted butter as he stood aside. He followed for a few steps then, watching, paused to tie an imaginary loose shoe lace. Near the end of the corridor she paused and he saw her entering a room. The door closed quietly. Gerald stood up and walked by noting the number, 59, then ran down a flight of stairs.
The coffee had just been served when he returned to Maggie. She took the pen without looking up.
‘Thanks, dear. Pour me a coffee.’
He was calmer now. At this moment he would choose a world populated by women like Maggie; women who didn’t wear red shoes or silently taunt men. But even as he thought this he knew it wasn’t enough. His hand closed round the gold anklet in his pocket and he saw the face of Evie Tyler, blonde hair fanned across a pillow.
Maggie had planned the weekend. He saw no reason to demur. Weekends away, holidays, meant little to him. Unlike her, who enjoyed them, he had little desire to ‘go away’ as soon as days lengthened and temperatures rose. He preferred the familiarity of his city, and the towns and cities his job took him to, with their river banks, markets and alleyways to any so-called beauty spots or touristy places.
Sometimes he wondered how many more stately homes and gardens, such as the one they had just returned from visiting, awaited him. He had walked along on the guided tour of the gardens half-registering the sotto voce murmurings of delight from the others in the group over this shrub or that flower. His mind had been elsewhere. He liked to plan these things carefully.That was a part of what the satisfaction derived from. He had acted on impulse only once when, lowering his standards, he picked up Angela from under a bridge near Manchester’s Piccadilly Station. Not a wise move. One of the other girls had been nearby, might even have seen him. He was lucky to get away with that. No more, he had told himself, no more. Now here he was making plans, but this blonde was from another league, one he was used to. Maggie interrupted his thoughts.
‘Wasn’t that giant thistle magnificent? I’ve got a few seeds here. I’m going to try and grow one.’
‘Have we got space for any more plants?’ he said. ‘Every time I look something new seems to have popped up.’
They walked towards the restaurant as she carefully wrapped the seeds in a tissue. ‘I can always find room for one more.’
Lunch was followed by a tour of the house. Pausing in front of a painting he had gazed at a golden haired, Rubenesque woman, head thrown back, as a swarthy man bent over her.
One woman commented, ‘They liked well covered women then. None of this size zero nonsense.’
Someone else murmured agreement.
The guide continued with his explanation of what the painting depicted. Gerald looked at the plump, yielding flesh and hoped that the blonde was still at the hotel.She was more his type than this flabby woman. In between jotting down notes on the painting, Maggie was in deep conversation with a sturdier, younger woman. Perhaps she was another amateur artist. Painting was Maggie’s interest, or mid-life crisis as he termed it. She had even joined a course to improve her technique. He could think of a subject he’d like her to paint. He diverted himself with similar thoughts until the tour ended and they returned to the hotel.
Nearly 6.30. Gerald looked round the foyer scanning faces and the backs of heads. No sign. He had left Maggie in their first floor room showering and changing
‘What’s on the schedule for tomorrow? He had asked as she hummed and hawed over what to wear that evening.
‘There’s several places we could go,’ she said, ‘depending on the weather. Museums, castles, gardens, the usual sorts of things, and we’re not too far from the sea.’
Choking back cultural indigestion he feigned interest. ‘Hotels usually have leaflets of nearby places of interest. I’ll pop down and have a look.’
‘We could check when we go to dinner,’ she said, shaking out the skirt of a blue dress. ‘But if you want to …..’
‘Might as well do it now, while you’re showering.’
He flicked through the fistful of leaflets he’d gathered, looking at the mundane world around him, hoping to see her. Only those blondes had relieved the ennui of life, each day seeming like the one before or the one that followed. Hadn’t some poet, said, where can we live but days? As he was wondering if it was Larkin the day came alive again, delicately perfumed and golden haired. She was standing a few feet away, reading the evening menu displayed near the entrance to the restaurant. An elderly woman with a walking stick was talking to her. He caught snatches of their conversation. Evidently the older woman had left her glasses in her room and the blonde was reading some of the menu to her. He moved closer, so close, that he could almost count the honey coloured freckles on her exposed shoulders, sense her warmth. She turned to go.
‘Thank you, Stella,’ said the older woman.
Stella. He played with the name in his mind. Did she half smile at him as she walked away? He wanted to follow her, to enter room 59, instead he returned to his room and to Maggie. No more reckless moves, he told himself, enjoy the pleasure of anticipation.
‘Thought you’d got lost,’ she said as she walked from the bathroom in bra and knickers.
‘Got sidetracked looking at tonight’s menu. What happened to the blue dress?’
‘You know what we women are like. I changed my mind.’ She took a flower patterned dress from its hanger and eased it over her head.
He glanced at her body, still shapely and quite firm, but it did not arouse him. He looked on her as on those paintings earlier in the day and now, as then, felt little. Affection, yes, but not the fire he felt when he was near the blonde. Stella, he played with the name in his mind. Stella, star, a heavenly body, a fixed luminous point in the night.
Maggie held out a necklace. ‘Hurry up and have a shower, dear, and can you fasten this for me?’
He took the heavy beaded necklace and placed it around her neck, fastening the clasp. As he did so, the thought of pulling it tight around her throat flashed through his mind, as it did from time to time, and as quickly passed. He could never do that. What if we could all read one another’s minds, he thought, as he selected a shirt. He looked along the shelf, sometimes a tie was de rigeur. He found a suitable one and put it in a jacket pocket. He turned the shower on. How could he get into Stella’s room? It was unlikely she would invite him in, so how could he do it? He probably only had a day or two, most people seemed to leave after the weekend, and he had the added problem of Maggie being around. On those other occasions he had been on his own, working, using an hotel as a base. Perhaps it was too risky this time, too many complications.
Stella, his Stella, as he now thought of her, was already seated at a table in the restaurant when they went down. She was wearing a red dress and what he assumed to be patent black shoes decorated with a red bow. Her blonde hair was swept up and long gold earrings caught the light. He steered Maggie to a nearby table, one that gave him a good view.
‘What can I get you to drink, sir?’ a waiter asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Gerald gave the wine list a cursory glance. ‘A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, please.’
There were voices at Stella’s table. As the waiter moved out of his line of vision he saw that the woman with the walking stick was talking to her.
‘No. Please …do join me,’ he heard Stella say, and the other woman sat down partly obscuring his view. He moved his chair slightly but it made little difference. Throughout the meal he had to content himself with glimpses of Stella and snatches of her soft-toned voice.
‘Where were you?’ Maggie said at one point. ‘I just asked you a question, but you were miles away.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, thinking, not miles away, only at a nearby table. ‘Just had one of those vacant moments. What did you say?’
‘Nothing important. I was just wondering if you’d like to go to this zoo tomorrow.’ She passed a leaflet across. ‘It’s years since I went to one. They’re better now, aren’t they?’
‘Yes. According to bits and pieces I’ve read,’ he said, aware now that Stella had risen from her table.
As she passed by he heard a faint clunk. Looking down he saw something bright near a leg of the table. It was a long gold earring: Stella’s. Maggie was still engrossed in the zoo leaflet. He quickly leant down and picked it up. What incredible luck. The perfect excuse to visit room 59 was now safe in his pocket.
He turned the TV off after the late evening news, little of which had registered with him. He had sat quietly for the last hour, outwardly composed but inwardly supercharged, electric, his mind racing. None of this was apparent to Maggie he was sure, nor must it be. The timing, the semblance of normality, were all important, even more so with her around. He was sure she’d follow her usual bedtime routine: a warm drink, half an hour’s reading. He just had to maintain his equilibrium. His fingers grazed the earring in his pocket.
‘I think I’ll make a drink. Do you want one?’ she said, plugging in the kettle.
‘No thanks. Perhaps later.’ He was keeping himself in check now though urgency pounded at his temples so hard he could almost believe it was apparent.
Maggie picked up a book and settled down.
‘I’ve got a bit of a headache,’ he said. ‘It was a bit stuffy in the restaurant. I think I’ll take a walk outside, get a bit of fresh air.’
He half expected her to mention paracetamol or something, but she didn’t. Merely looked up, half smiling, and said, ‘Ok.’
The restaurant was quiet now the guests had departed. Only a couple of staff remained, busily tidying up and preparing the tables for breakfast. In the reception area a few people loitered. He nodded at the sturdy woman from earlier in the day. At the desk some late arrivals were booking in. He walked outside and breathed in a large lungful of the cool evening air. Somewhere out in the inky hush an owl screeched. He thought of Evie and the others. Soon his blonde star would join them. He turned and went back into the hotel.
The corridor leading to room 59 was quiet. He had used the stairs to reach it avoiding the lift and anyone who might be using it. He checked around again then
moved quietly towards the door, his breath short and sharp tearing at his throat, then knocked. For a few seconds nothing then the door opened halfway. She was still wearing the dress but her hair, like a golden aureole, now hung loosely around her neck. His eyes fastened on a strand curling around her throat. He pictured his hands there.
‘Is there something I can do for you?’ she said
He took the earring from his pocket, dangling it in the crack of light from the room. ‘I found this in the restaurant. Thought it was yours.’
The door opened wider and she gazed at the earring. ‘It looks like mine. I’d only this second noticed it was missing.’
The adrenaline rush was levelling out and now he felt that familiar coolness of purpose. The fish was almost on the hook.
She reached out a long-fingered hand. ‘Thank you. That’s kind of you.’ In one movement he grabbed her hand and forced her back into the room as the door closed, covering her mouth with his free hand. Pushing her onto the bed, he reached for the tie in his pocket. Unlike most of the others, Stella was resisting. His excitement increased. He had almost covered her body with his when she gave a powerful twist and her elbow thrust into his diaphragm. Surprised, gasping for breath, he caught hold of her again and, as he did, she brought a knee up into his groin. Through the grip of searing pain he became aware of voices, the crackle of a radio and then, as the door burst open, pandemonium. Instinctively, he tried to rise, to escape, but found himself in the grasp of Stella and the sturdy woman.
There would be no more blondes; only walls, and guards, and keys jangling.
No more Maggie either. She had written to him before the divorce. Told him how she’d come across Evie Tyler’s anklet in his pocket when sorting laundry. Told him of her shock when she saw a picture of the missing anklet on a TV crime programme and then part of a car reg. which matched their own; a car which had been seen near the Manchester station when Angela Paton had disappeared. At first, she said, she had hoped against hope that she was wrong but common sense had told her that it was more than a matter of coincidence, so she had searched through his things and found the other trophies: the engraved bangle, the ruby ring, the art deco locket and the crucifix. The crucifix had upset her most of all. Going to the police was such a big thing but one of her art group, Stella, was a policewoman. There was no need to tell him any more, he knew the rest.
He knew the rest now, Gerald thought, folding the dog-eared letter. He had read it frequently during the past two years but he couldn’t say why, neither did he know why he kept it. He picked up the daily newspaper and turned again to the wedding photos on page 83 where, in the left-hand corner, a smiling Maggie and Stella gazed back at him.