Chapter 6, THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE

(Chapter 5 is the previous post. Chapter 7 is tomorrow’s post. To read Chapter 1 you will need to look at the January archive)

6

Angela And The Invisible Man…

What follows is not one of Wilfred Lawless’s predictions concerning his great-nephew’s future, but a true story told to me in a bar in a European capital in December 2015. I have buried Angela’s and Duncan’s identities and provenances needless to add, but all the essential details are real and not invented. It is both a love story and a kind of fairy story, and even a success story, yet almost certainly it would never appear in the Testimonials Pages of Lovebirds.com. I recommend you read it as if it were a short story.

Angela Jorge had never seen him before they met in the cheap hotel in the Alfama, one of the most shamblingly picturesque parts of Lisbon. His name was Duncan Dean and he was a dark-haired Scot aged sixty from Dundee, who had contacted her partly because she had very good if patchwork English. Angela had worked for five years as an evening shift manager in a huge gastro-pub in South London, and had been outstandingly good at her job. She now ran a small supermarket in a grubby street close to a public garden full of elderly and melancholy Mozambicans and Angolans who had been living here in Portugal for decades. She and Duncan had been in communication on the site for a few months, and they had telephoned a dozen times, and swapped numerous emails and texts, remarkably terse and desultory ones in his case, as if bizarrely he was challenging or confronting, rather than dating her. Duncan gave away nothing much over the phone, and certainly didn’t shower her with small or large endearments at any stage. His chief reason for choosing Angela as a date, was that she like Duncan was one of the very few who did not put their photograph on the site, but instead just a silhouette. The site emphasised that not putting a picture dramatically reduced any chances of success, but somehow she and Duncan had immediately sniffed each other out as being two souls with a great deal in common. It was always hopeful Angela who had approached the Scotsman’s silhouette with the assumption he was shy and, who knows, maybe beautifully handsome, and until today when he arrived by taxi at the two-star hotel there was no evidence to the contrary.

Angela had also suggested Skyping, just so that he wasn’t cruelly disappointed, nor indeed was cruel enough to show it on his face after the first coffee, as had happened once with a myopic and perspiring seventy-five-year-old Lisbon man who after five minutes said they were never going to make a pair and vanished without even giving her the money for his coffee.  Duncan had curtly refused the offer, and said he didn’t believe in sitting in a TV interview chair like a brainless soap star, nor of having a prospective girlfriend prancing about on the telly for him. His telephone voice was extraordinarily empty and without inflection, which made her think that somehow over there in Dundee he was staring into either a huge hole recently excavated by the city council, or at an ugly and unfinished building, or more obscurely a frustrated personal project from his youth or middle age. Angela was five years younger than Duncan and she had two children, one of whom was Rosa who worked in the supermarket and was its co-owner.

Work in her case was a euphemism. Short and sleek and dark-haired Rosa, did as little as possible and regularly took days, weekends, whole weeks off to go gallivanting all over the place, Spain included. She went there with her new boyfriend Jose, who was a well-off accountant with a Mercedes and with two attractive houses in the suburbs, one of which he rented out to wealthy foreigners. Worse still Rosa impudently emptied the till when she buzzed off in his car, and she used it as her private bank on all other occasions. Although Jose was generous, Rose had an aggressive sense of personal pride and wanted to pay her way, meaning Angela was continually at her wits’ end, as in an area like this the takings were scant and monthly credit was the norm. The final insult was that Rosa openly despised her mother and blamed her for her father’s premature death, because Fernando had perished of a heart attack, eight years earlier, aged only forty-eight. He’d had his heart attack because he took no exercise, chain-smoked and drank vast amounts of the cheapest aguardente. Fernando was also violent and had once in front of all the customers clobbered her over the head in the supermarket with a hammer which he was using to nail a devotional saintly picture to the wall (he was very religious, as was thieving Rosa). The blood poured from her hair and he’d pushed her out of the shop into the little kitchen where he’d ranted away at her for showing him up by crying so loudly and stupidly when he’d reasonably enough clocked her for her irritating suggestions on exactly where the saintly picture should hang.

Angela’s life had been abuse from start to finish, or at any rate up to the present day. Her Dad who was an Alfama plumber had beaten both her and her sister from infancy, locked them in dark cupboards as standard punishment when tiny, and he had molested both, albeit discreetly when their outstandingly witless and devout mother was at Evening Communion. They both managed to tell her about the interference by the time they were ten and twelve respectively, but she studiously misheard and conflated it with the beatings, and dismissed both physical and sexual abuse as par for the course in any case in the Alfama in the Fascist Portugal of the Sixties. Their Dad was neither Fascist nor Socialist, he was supposedly a Christian Democrat, and pious to boot. Being neither charitable nor remotely democratic, he was good preparation for Fernando who she married when she was eighteen years old simply to get away from home.

Relating all this to Duncan in a hurried resume, she showed him a photograph of herself in 1977 where she was so miraculously blond and slim and coy and beautiful, he could scarcely restrain himself. “Is that really you? God alive. You look like a gem, a star, some magical queen from a fairy tale.”

After some frowning calculation, he showed her a photo of himself in 1978 when he was thirty-four and working as an electrical engineer in Dundee. He had dark and lustrous hair, lovely chiselled cheek bones, was handsomely dressed in a tailored suit, and his haircut was a gilded punk style. He had been married for seven years to a woman called Moira, an upmarket hairdresser and also a make-over expert.

Angela sighed. “You were incredibly gorgeous, weren’t you? You were such a handsome man.”

Duncan grunted and indicated in two blunt sentences that his childhood and his parents had been fine, no complaints, other than they were religious Presbyterians and had tried to encourage him in that direction. By the age of sixteen, he’d cast all that off, and had never been in a church or chapel since. Angela countered that she was a Believer, despite all the problems she had faced as a child and in her hellish marriage. One of the few things to give her consolation these days was to pray both inside and outside of the very old baroque cathedral nearby, and especially when her daughter Rosa was driving her crazy. The hardest thing to bear was the pitiless and vaunting contempt of your own offspring. Rosa not only embezzled from the till, but she had no guilt whatever, and said it was a kind of payback for Angela not looking after her father properly. By a miracle Fernando had never hit her as a child, and had made her his golden favourite, so that Rosa had long mythologised him as the perfect father and had been deeply distressed for about a year after he died. It was no good Angela spelling out the humiliating violence he had inflicted on her for twenty-five years. Rosa had even implied she had brought it all on herself by driving him mad with her demands to move to a better area, and her pathetic neurotic worries about everything under the sun. And then there was the other thing, the elephant in the room, and she was spectacularly unkind about that perpetual source of sadness too.

Duncan hadn’t been shocked at all to hear about Fernando and the hammer on her head, and was neither condemning nor approving, but he scoffed loudly at her now for being in such a hole with a delinquent kid of twenty. Angela had two practical options. Next time Rosa started stealing, just ring the Alfama police station and have her arrested, or if she couldn’t face shopping her own blood, then threaten her with the police, and take a belt to her in the meantime. The other option was simply to kick her out of the house, now she had a rich accountant as a boyfriend. Angela blinked at these sensible enough prescriptions, and said she’d already asked her why she didn’t move into Jose’s luxury villa, seeing the relationship was so strong. Rosa had irritably professed her wish to be financially independent, but Angela could see it was just plain fear that the good looking and confident and often ludicrously bumptious accountant might heartlessly decide to ditch her one day.

“Anyway,” she told him, “it’s not as simple as that. As an act of lasting retribution for all my shortcomings, Fernando left the shop in Rosa’s name, not mine. Before she started stealing we just put everything back into the shop and lived on about fifty euros a week between us. Now she’s stealing all the time I have to live on nothing a week, which of course is not possible, and yet it has to be. She says she feels the suffocating pressure of owning a near-bankrupt shop on her skinny shoulders, so I ask her in that case why the hell she steals all the bloody takings.”

Duncan was sage again. “Walk away from it. It’s a hopeless mess and your daughter is a hopeless mess. Or at least, she is when she is in contact with you, because she obviously loathes you. She might well be a star with her Jose, I suppose, but she’s never going to be reconciled with you in this life. She despises you, Angela, and it’s her fix and her passion to despise you as much as possible. Walk away and leave the little fool to sink into the debt that she’s creating day in day out. She’s using you as her fall guy and scapegoat, fucking up the business and blaming you for it, so you owe her absolutely nothing. She may be your daughter, but she’s behaving like an idiot and a demoness minus the fangs and talons, and behind all that she’s just a plain and simple crook. She’s a fucking thief because emptying the till is fucking theft. You have no obligations to a petty criminal, have you?”

He then listened stupendously bored as Angela in a broken and faintly childish voice trotted out the moral pros and cons, and concluded she could not betray her one and only child to the police. He stared at her balefully and decided there was no point in arguing further. She was as stuck in the mess as her stupid little daughter who was creating it, and there was manifestly nil hope for either of them. Humming his derision, he started taking his clothes off and indicated that Angela should remove hers. In doing so they both turned aside out of modesty and sensitivity but with all the ridiculous mirrors all over the hotel room he couldn’t avoid a glimpse of her naked breasts and he all but fainted at the sight. Ditto when she stooped for something on the floor and her innocent behind was in the strange retreating perspective of a receding train track and with the prominent and extensive curvature at the front like some beaming and comical visage.

Angela did as she was bid and didn’t even need to ask how he preferred to make love. There was no hint of preliminary caresses but then neither did he have that scornful disdain on his face that Fernando had always had. Fernando liked her to lie flat on her back and never wanted anything else, whereas Duncan she saw clairvoyantly would want her flat on her belly. He climbed on top of her and she felt his stiff cold stomach against her perspiring backside. It was late June and it was exceptionally hot which made the corpse-like coolness of Duncan’s belly a puzzling mystery. He began to thrust away, his sex as hard and indestructible as granite, in complete silence, and she with her nose buried in the pillow was wholly unable to make any tender communication. A tender word or two would have been nice, but as with Fernando tenderness was always somewhere else, in some other room, and most likely some other country, possibly some other universe. Fernando had had a habit of surlily announcing his irritation if she shuffled underneath him, or even if she didn’t shuffle and confounded his expectations. With him it was all over in five minutes, and he rolled away without any kiss or goodbye or goodnight or God bless, despite all his resolute churchgoing. But Duncan was one of those who would take an hour or a month or a year or an aeon to reach his climax, and throughout he would stay as rigid and unrelenting as a concrete pillar.

Yet Angela was relishing it nonetheless. If you are used to a five-minute man, then to experience a five-hour man is a miraculous thing. Duncan was as mute and melancholy as a Victorian undertaker, but he kept on thrusting and thrusting as if assiduously building some quaint ceremonial or ritual structure inch by inch, and with no waste of vacuous and redundant words. After a half hour and in the intense heat, the sweat was rolling off her behind which was glued suctionwise to his icy belly. When he lifted his gut to allow for the torrent to seep away, there was a squelching farting sound that made her chuckle a little but elicited no mirth from him. The whole world could fart uproariously for Duncan’s benefit, but he would scarcely lift an eyebrow much less smirk or cackle.

Angela came to her climax three times in an hour, but Duncan would have carried on as silent as a nightwatchman for evermore. She took a deep breath and asked him with a thumping heart if they could pause for a while and maybe go down to a café, then come back here and start again if he wanted. Duncan grunted and lifted himself off slowly and sat up on the bed. Then he removed the gossamer thin black scarf he always wore across his neck and chin, and up as far as his nostrils. He wore it in the streets back in Dundee, and always got some bemused looks and occasionally some crack about Zorro or the Invisible Man, or Batman, or simply that he looked like a comical hold-up gangster…

Comical? Comedy? There was a livid slash scar at a transverse angle reached from his left nostril and across both lips, down as far as the base of his chin. Umpteen plastic surgery attempts still left him looking as if a couple of angler’s lead sinkers were hanging on his lips and pulling them down into a gloomy and perpetually froglike leer. He looked like a huge and comically overgrown toad or perhaps a blowfish or pipefish or some other monstrous piscine freak. He had intervened two years ago in a fight between two drugged up kids on a Saturday night in an ill-lit backstreet In Dundee. One of the little bastards had shrieked his druggy rage at him, then chibbed him and kept on chibbing him, and only stopped because there was so much fountaining blood it was pissing over the chibber himself and he later told the polis he did not like that.

On his last phone call, he had told her all that, so that she was not shocked when he turned up at the hotel with his black and gossamer mask. Now she looked at him without fear or repugnance and although he looked sad and cold and freakish, she could still see the seemingly honest soul beneath, and knew that the ice and the coldness and the silence were only his quivering defences. She could almost make out the visual chimera of what she believed to be his eternal soul, and was moved with pity to approach him, and tell him that, despite all, he was at bottom as lovable as anyone else, and she in particular would love to be allowed to love him for the rest of their mortal days.

Duncan immediately put up his hand to ward off her approach. Angela misinterpreted and thought he was simply indicating the presence of what Rosa called the elephant in the room. In fact, he was staving off her tenderness and the wish to love him heart and soul that he saw in her bright and impassioned blue eyes. His wife Moira had left him within a year of the chibbing, and he couldn’t blame her for shrugging her shoulders, being openly angry, and sensibly abandoning a bullfrog. If she Moira had been turned into a frog or toad whether by fairytale or non- fairytale means, he would almost certainly have abandoned her too.

He stared at the elephant in the room, though he had no idea of the thief Rosa’s nasty little insult. The elephant was not some metaphorical enigma nor gnawing structural weakness in what was unfolding between them in this sweltering and mournful Lisbon hotel room. The literal elephant was literal Angela who was no abstraction at all, but was physically enormous, monumentally obese, as vast though not as splendid as an ocean liner. Her 1977 photo showed a beautiful blond young woman who was slim and handsome and with piercing eyes, whereas now four decades on she had barrelled into what reminded him exactly of the tyre garage enduring mascot, the Michelin Man. Instead of the cheery anthropomorphic layers of automobile tyres, Angela had unimaginably myriad layers of fat, endlessly spiralling successions of gross blubber, so many folds and folded folds and folded enfolding folds, she was like some geographical contour map gone mad. Her breasts were as vast as the moons of Saturn but they danced on a quivering platform of purest fat that in turn pirouetted on a billowing Mount Everest of a stomach, which seemed to fill up the whole room and made the image of an elephant seem graceful and slim in comparison. He had already seen her naked behind in the mirror, and it was like a rhino’s or a hippo’s and it defied belief because it seemed not like a single backside but a whole army or armoury or flotilla or convoy of female backsides conjoined and annealed and secretly assembled for obscurely strategic defence purposes.

Angela suddenly understood what was going through his head. Firstly, the fear of desperate and claustrophobic embroilment with a love-starved woman, the only good thing about the romantic arithmetic being that she lived five hours away from him by plane. Secondly, his open if unshocked appreciation of how exactly she looked in her elephantine nudity. And talking of arithmetic Angela also saw that the equations of their two preposterous situations, the one in Dundee, Scotland, the other in Lisbon, Portugal, were perfectly mathematically balanced. Duncan looked dreadful and was also wretched in his perpetually ice-cold skin, and she Angela also looked dreadful and was alarmingly overheated in her sweating nakedness. Therefore, and very evidently, they were perfectly suited.

She took another deep breath and told him as much, but instead of deriding or denying her, he just stared and stared at her, and his dilating batrachian lip seemed to curl up with something like a nostalgic and even innocent sort of pleasure.

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