They’re in bed. Harpie and a man called Stefan, as far as she knows. Through a slightly open window they can hear the cars on the motorway down below. Everything in this room lacks character, apart from a very ugly, bright red wall hanging above the bed. You’d think you can’t go wrong with something geometrical, but this triangle composition is just hideous. Who am I to judge, though, she thinks considering the trashy negligee she’s wearing. But she’s doing it for a good reason, she knows Stefan really likes such things. ‘Sorry,’ he says again. Harpie thinks he says it because he’s ashamed, rather than that he’s feeling bad about her not having come, yet she feels it’s sweet of him to say. He’s sweet.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll have a nice evening anyway.’ She looks at him and smiles, trying to avoid a hint of pity in her gaze. Men don’t like to be pitied, particularly in the case of sexual incompetence. It’s always difficult to please in such instances, so she hopes he’ll soon stop thinking about it, allowing her to give him what he wants. Attention, she thinks, the seriousness of her touch, making him feel his body matters. She gives him a little kiss and goes to the bathroom, drops the full condom in the bin and takes a wet tissue from her bag to wipe the lubricant from her vagina. She doesn’t mind. He likes her. Of course, she’s dead nice to him, that’s her job, but she thinks he appreciates her kind of niceness, that he can differentiate between what’s professional about her attitude and what are the vague contours of the real woman.
‘Sylvia?’ Stefan calls in a nasal voice from under the covers.
‘Yes?’ she answers in the same voice.
He has a mischievous look in his eyes.
‘I have an idea, but it’s naughty.’
‘Oh? I love naughty ideas.’
Actually, she hates it when adults use the word naughty. Especially when it’s to do with sex. It reminds her of the corny sex shop lewdness common in swingers’ circles, which she used to find most unappealing. And yet she sways her hips, as it’s hard to make things work without this kind of stuff.
‘No, not that,’ says Stefan putting his arm around her.
‘Would you like to smoke a joint with me?’
She can’t, she’s not allowed to. She’s been asked before, and she’s always said no. She doesn’t like saying no. It’s not that big a deal, but it interrupts the magic. Harpie tries to make her men feel high on the idea that they can do anything they want, as often as they want. That’s not true, of course, because there are plenty of things Harpie doesn’t want to do, and if they want more, they must pay up. But they need to believe.
Harpie turns to Stefan.
‘You know,’ she says, ‘normally I wouldn’t. I’m not allowed, but I bet you know this.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Then I’ll tell you something you don’t know yet. Light your joint.’
He reaches for his jacket hanging over the chair beside the bed. It’s a ready-made joint, suggesting he doesn’t do this often. She thinks he’s beaming, believing she’ll do it for him because he’s special. Well, he is. She almost doesn’t want to say more.
‘It’s because I think this is the last time for me,’ she says.
Passing her the joint, he asks, ‘The last time? The last time with me?’
She inhales, and blowing out a large plume of smoke, she instantly feels the splash of tepid milk over her brain, a pleasant feeling of sinking.
‘The last time with anyone in this role. No more NH and Westcord Hotels for me.’
‘Why?’ says Stefan looking worried.
‘I’m more of a Van der Valk girl.’
He smiles, relieved.
‘No, that’s a lie. A Hilton girl, at the very least.’
She’d like to say, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ but that might touch a nerve.
‘The reason’s quite funny, actually. It’s because I’ll be on TV soon.’ Now she herself is beaming. A future for Harpie, who would have thought?
‘Really? Are you an actress, or am I not allowed to ask?’
‘Of course, you can ask!’ she says. ‘But no, I’m not an actress. I’ll be in the news soon, I think.’
‘Ah, I know. You’ll rob a bank. I knew you’re not the type for a nine-to-five life, but now you’ve had enough of dirty old men like me, too, you’re going straight for the booty. Cutting out the middle man.’
They laugh. In the slow, wobbly state that the marijhuana has induced it becomes clear to her that she’s sad, yet she feels relaxed enough to consider it calmly, analysing its cause.
‘Hey, Stefan,’ she says softly. She takes his hand under the covers. ‘I’ve always liked being with you.’
‘And I with you.’ He rests his head in the curve of her neck.
‘I always thought I’d feel bad driving off or coming home after seeing you,’ he says. ‘But I don’t. I don’t feel at all as if I’ve been with a whore. Sorry, no offence.’
‘None taken,’ says Harpie, hoping he’ll continue.
‘I just think, I’ve been with you, and it was wonderful. It felt good, and it’s no one else’s business.’
Harpie squeezes his hand. He needs to stop now, or she might fall apart.
‘It’s this nine-to-five life, you know. Sometimes I don’t know how I do it. I mean, literally. Sometimes I reach my front door not knowing how I got home.’
Harpie imagines him standing in his little front yard, a chubby child watching television, a woman sitting at one end of the sofa looking up from her mobile when she hears his key in the lock.
Because she is feeling despondent, she asks, ‘And do you feel sad then, or don’t you feel anything at all?’
‘Nothing at all. No, that’s not true. I’m scared.’ He takes another drag. ‘I’m afraid that nothing’s real, but that you’re still guilty. I fear everything’s cloaked in a shroud of pretence, covering the sound of incurable reality’s rattling bones.’
Harpie feels like crying, but she doesn’t. She considers saying, ‘I love you very much, and I’ll blow away the shadows, so you can see they’re not real. There are good times hidden somewhere, and we can go there, you and me.’ But it would be a lie. It’s only what he needs, and she can’t give him what he needs.