Extract from Spying On Strange Men




‘If I bore you it will be with a knife.’ Louise Brooks

We slept with the windows open, keeping the grilles locked, the scent of jasmine wafting in. We live on the ground floor of a mansion block. Our apartment is like a little house, white and seductive; London audible on the other side of the wall.

We’re not wealthy though people imagine we are because we almost live in Mayfair. My husband has an expense account. I dabble in creative projects. My latest addiction is art.

We’re the kind of couple people envy. We get invited to glamorous parties, but don’t always go.

There I am, sleeping on white satin sheets, dreaming I’m a character in The Blue Dahlia.

I dream in black and white the colour of my hair and skin. The ambiguous edges smudging to silver when I paint my eyelids, maybe.

When I wake up, the first thing I see is his face, shining with happiness in our wedding picture. But this morning, propped up against the photograph on my glass dressing-table, is a large cream envelope. There’s no name written on it, but I know it’s for me.

I sniffed it before opening, I don’t know why. The paper had a sweet scent, or maybe that’s the glue used to seal it?

Inside were photographs of a girl I’ve never seen before. She looks Russian or Polish. A coarse Slav who’ll be fat and faded before her 19th birthday. Some people feel obligated to live down to their caricature.

Enter the maid, giving a creaking curtsey somewhere between mockery and entertainment.

‘Sorry Miss, I didn’t know you was up.’ James insists that Miss is a compliment. I don’t look old enough to be Madam.

‘Where did this come from?’ I waved the envelope but her eyes went straight to the picture, face down on my dressing-table.

‘Out of a camera, Miss.’
‘Who delivered it?’
‘The front desk sent it round first thing with a big bunch of them lilies you like and I put that there while you was asleep in case it’s important, Miss.’

Has she looked in the envelope? Is she gloating? Or is her face just set in its usual sour pout?

I dressed without showering, something that gives me the creeps, and ran to reception hoping to catch the night porter before he finished his shift.

But Elvis the Porter wasn’t on duty last night when the envelope was delivered.

‘Good things come in the night, Miss. Like Santa Claus.’ He lowered the zip on his jumpsuit, flashing a bit of chest to his nervous audience.

‘Normally Elvis would have been here, on account of me being the night porter. But I’ve been working nights on my own account, so Elvis is here during the day.’

He tapped his nose, leaning in close so that I could smell his breakfast. Shite on toast, also known as Marmite.

‘Elvis has an idea, Miss.’

We huddled together in the security room, checking the building’s CCTV.

There I am, walking down the garden path in my ironic white skinny jeans. There’s my husband, getting out of a taxi, back from his travels. There you are, in reception talking to Elvis.

At first glance I thought you were James. I had to rewind, look again, catch you emerging from your vintage red Jaguar. You could be his younger brother. Except he doesn’t have a brother.

What are you up to? Delivering flowers, that old excuse. You have come to see where I live, to gloat because you own a big house with a swimming pool and I live in a flat with a communal garden.

The view shifts from reception. I appear again on the garden path, looking fat from this angle. Those white skinnies are going on the bonfire.

‘Around and around it goes, Miss,’ Elvis said. ‘Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel.’

The camera spies on the car park, watching my creepy neighbour sleep in his car. When it comes back to reception, the large cream envelope is on the desk.

‘Like Elvis said, Miss, it appeared in the night.’

‘Like Santa Claus.’

‘It’s not Christmas for yonks yet, Miss, but Elvis can offer you a ginger snap.’

Is there any point in me talking to the other porter, Miguel, who’s always asleep with a half-eaten Mars Bar in his mouth?

‘Elvis has plans to become a Dick, Miss.’

And there was me and the rest of the world thinking he was one already.

I sat on my white bed allowing my mind to go blank so that the answer would come.
it? I could destroy the picture. Pretend I haven’t seen


What does it mean?

You know what it means.

My life is a mess and I don’t know how to fix it. There’s a mysterious solution I can’t quite grasp. Maybe it’s a question of tenses?

The characters are not the problem it’s the sequence. Without her there couldn’t be you?

I know what I have to do.

His computer is in his dressing-room behind his bathroom.

Why does he keep it in there? Why does he lock up his clothes?

Feeling ridiculous, like I was acting the part of someone older and uglier than me, I stole the maid’s key and searched his underwear drawer for clues. His spare passport, one of his phones.

The evidence must be here. Times, dates, credit card bills. Encrypted in technology. If only I knew the password.

I know the fucking password.

It’s my name, unless he’s changed it to her name.

The solution and the mess are the same thing. Left and right change sides when you turn around but east and west are always in the same place. I can see better with my sunglasses on.

There I go again! Imagining sight and blindness, like intimacy and separation, are opposite ends of the spectrum. Thinking I can clear things up with a shift of perspective, a change of scene, a new boyfriend.

Why would I even imagine I can control the future when I definitely didn’t control the past?

When I had finished snooping I was at a loose end so I ran a bath.

He’s been careful. No names. A good spy. X in Moscow. Y in London. No sign of Z yet. Unless that’s her in the photograph?

No telephone numbers. I could steal his phone and call every number until a slut answers. But I draw the line at making myself ridiculous.

As Aeschylus must have said already, without betrayal there’s no drama.

Knowledge is power. Without information, I can’t get revenge. If I had an address or even a name for, let’s call her Z, I could send a dead chicken in the mail.

But I don’t. So I checked that the maid had gone, peeled off my clothes, and stepped into my bath just in time.

Our wedding picture caught my eye. There’s one in every room, spying on me.

The clarity of his complexion makes him look inno- cent. In movies, the villain is pockmarked. So in real life good skin has come to mean good faith. Where is he now, that boy I married? Where am I?

Angry in my pink marble bathtub plotting a murder. The bath full of rose petals picked on a moonlit night. He spat on my heart with his betrayal.

Betrayal is a cliché.

Does his romance convert me into a victim? Has he won again, beat me to it, devised his escape route? Bought her presents? Those miscellaneous expenses from shops I haven’t heard of can’t all be surprises for me.

Why would the stinky little slut send me a picture she doesn’t even look that good in? How the fuck does she even know where we live? James is so secretive he has secrets even from himself.

Maybe the ho-bag didn’t intend the picture for me? It’s a present for him. Something to remember her by? A warning? But if the envelope was for him, it would have his name on it.

When I come out of the bath, he’s home.

His heart has no home. He gets nervous when love circles him. Panics when happiness closes in. Should I laugh out loud or bite him?

‘Hello Baby,’ he says, like nothing’s changed. He looks innocent. We are still the perfect couple. ‘We’re going to the Russian Riviera.’

© Carole Morin