Vivien checked her hair and make-up in the bathroom mirror: nothing special, but nothing glaringly out of place. The wisps of grey that flowed through the waves of her hair, like oil on the surface of a running stream, were highlighted in the harsh glare of the lights that surrounded the mirror but, she was pleased to note, no thicker than they had appeared the night before. She was wearing her evening make-up; what her mother always referred to as ‘war-paint’: eye-shadow was just a shade darker than she wore during the day, her cheeks a shade rosier, her lips redder, fuller and altogether shinier. She smiled at her reflection, ‘Not too shabby,’ she muttered quietly ‘Not too shabby at all,’ and she turned to open the door, a delicate ghost of perfume trailing behind her as she left.
In the lounge of her tidy little flat, her guest sat silently on one side of the two-seater settee, leaving just enough room for her to settle beside him, but instead of doing so, she bustled. ‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you’d like tea. I have some iced rings in the cupboard. I so like an iced ring with a cup of tea, don’t you? Yes, we’ll have some iced rings too.’ She hummed happily to herself as she laid a tray with biscuits, cups, milk and sugar, and patiently warmed the teapot before pouring the boiling water over the tea and carrying the tray to the small table in front of the settee.
‘Are you a milk first man, or a tea first man, Mr Pettigrew? I always put the milk in first…’ Without waiting for a reply, she carefully poured a small amount of milk into each china cup and poured the tea, spilling a little onto the table. ‘Oh, I’ll get a cloth,’ she dashed towards the sink. ‘We don’t want that dripping down onto your shoes, do we?’ She fussed around, wiping the table, topping up his cup although he drank nothing, sipping her own tea and eating iced rings for two; spinning like the dynamo on a free-wheeling bicycle, creating more energy than she used. She chatted lightly, intimately, smoothing her hair from time to time as she caught her reflection in the mirror; straightening her clothes, brightening her smile.
Throughout it all, Lawrence Pettigrew said nothing. He reminded Vivien of the strong, silent men she remembered from the films of her youth. He reminded her of her father in the photo her mother kept in her purse; a young man before he went off to fight. Before he came back as the empty shell he had become. Before then… Her guest’s reticence did not disturb her, she simply took it upon herself to fill in the silence with her own happy chatter, asking questions that required no answers, telling stories that called for no response. She was happy just to be in company and Mr Pettigrew who, whilst by no means demonstrative, was at least making no big show of wanting to leave. Vivien was, she thought without irony, as happy as Larry.
Eventually she settled beside him on the sofa and, with little hesitation or resistance, rested her head on his shoulder. It was soft, warm and yielding. She sighed gently and a small bead of saliva escaped her lips and landed on his cheek like a kiss. She tutted quietly and wiped it from his face with the edge of her sleeve; watching as his smile slowly decayed from a warm and friendly openness, to a strangely asymmetrical leer that spread across his cheek. She moistened her lips with her tongue and yawned with an exaggerated spread of her arms. ‘Well, I think it’s time for me to go to bed now,’ she said. ‘You look very drawn.’
Mr Pettigrew was unmoving, helpless to refuse, as Vivien laid him on her bed. ‘This won’t hurt at all,’ she giggled lightly. Slowly she teased the rubber band that secured his balloon head away from his pillow body, and released it with an airy indifference, allowing it to bounce away towards the door. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Let me help you out of that shirt.’ She pulled the old ‘T’ shirt from his memory-foam body with a soft care, placing it at the foot of the bed before giving his body a jolly good fluffing up and, laying her head gently against his chest, closed her eyes and drifted into a dark, dream-filled sleep…