His body was glistening with sweat, but there was no feeling of heat. The salty drips ran down his torso and turned the belt-line of his shorts from Khaki to mud-brown. His shirt lay on the aircraft wing, grilling dry in the sun. He was lean and muscular still; his biceps ballooned as he strained to pull the wing-cannon into a better line of fire then tightened the bolts to hold it firm in its new position. When there was ammunition to spare, he and the other armourers would jack up the rear of a Hurricane and fire a two second burst into the Burmese jungle. If they'd done their jobs well it would bring down a tree, a single tree where the four wing-cannon came into sharp focus, where the Japanese Zero should be.
He said something. His mouth moved. He was making a joke, it was visible in his eyes, but no sound came out.
Now he was on a train in northern India, half-conscious from malaria and the lump of opium somebody had put in his cigarette to distance him from the disease. Monkeys scrambled across the outside of the window, peering in, their bodies skewed and angled like lizards, their heads upside-down or sideways and their mouths opening and closing, and they were talking to him, definitely talking to him, but he couldn't hear them.
And now he was on leave in the old city of Delhi, close to the Red Fort, with his service pals in an area where they shouldn't have been. Three fresh-shaven Englishmen walking down the narrow streets, all cluttered with bicycles and oxen and street-sellers sitting cross-legged on the kerb with piles of groundnuts next to them, or turmeric, or a single pair of worn-out shoes with laces sprawling on the stones. From the lower balconies of the tall decaying buildings on either side, young prostitutes in their washed-out saris called to them, inviting them upstairs. And he went with one of them, who was no more than fourteen, and she barely smiled and was unresponsive but he was smiling and joking all the time to compensate. He lay down nude on her pathetic little mattress, on the cool cotton, openly showing her his body, waiting for her to show hers, and then she faded, became unclear, undefined, in a room with see-through walls, obscured by mist and standing still but not moving forward in time.
He drifted into consciousness and rolled stiffly onto his side, feeling tired in his body even after a good night's sleep, but not thinking about it too much, since it was a problem that couldn't be solved.
Danielle was next to him, her back to his front, and he reached out to place his hand on the nightgown covering her thigh. A strange hand, not really his own, all covered in brown flecks like the freckles that covered his face when he was a schoolboy, and raised and rivered to show every vein and sinew. Pompadou Centre hands, Danielle called them, with all their ducts and machinery on show from the outside.
In years gone by he would have placed that hand on his wife's breasts, and it would have been a sexual act, but not now. Where once there had been hills there were now long barrows, reminders of what had once existed. Danielle referred to them as her flaps, and was fond of them, as a farmer becomes fond of a pair of dray horses and retires them onto good grass on sentimental grounds. Roger had a memory of those firm round hills in his mind, like a photograph, and their contours stored in the skin of his fingertips, and he preferred to keep those memories alive, not destroy them with sight and touch. Like the memory of a special kiss or of hotel sheets still damp in the morning from the night-sweat of sex.
She stirred beneath his hand and murmured. "Mmmm. And how are you this morning?"
"I, er... I think I may have a hard-on," said Roger, not wanting to waste time. They were too rare these days to be ignored or left idle. It was an event, like a marriage ceremony or a Christmas party. An event with its own fixed time-scale that wouldn't tolerate delay.
"Oh," said Danielle. "Do you want me to put my teeth in?"
Once, she would have wrestled him and bit him and nipped his flesh to fire up his passion. Now she had to reach for her teeth. But never her spectacles, although she could barely find her teeth without them. Nature was clever enough to decay their eyes at the same rate that it decayed their partner's body, and both of them were respectful of that.
They made love, on rare occasions, to their memories of each other. The strong handsome serviceman and the beautiful vivacious Land Army girl. And did not touch each other too much, or look with corrected vision to see that things had changed. They made love without strong passion, without erotic drive, love solely for partnership, to show they were one, as women make love from adolescence, and men learn to do by the end of their lifetime.
"No, that's all right," said Roger, realising that he couldn't risk delay. He touched himself and found he wasn't quite ready. He needed stronger recollections.
He could still remember their first time - babysitting at Aunt Cloe's, three days after they'd got engaged. That would now seem so reserved to the modern generation, but was so forward, so adventurous at the time. Danielle, he knew, was a virgin, quite comically naive, but he'd had his five or six wartime visits to whores to give him false confidence.
On the sofa, with the fire dying down and the radio off so their ears could play sentinel, they'd fooled around more seriously than usual, Danielle's forearm pressing against his crotch, his own hand - still unflecked and secretive with its pipework in those days - allowed to roam freely across the borderland of her thigh. And as two panting dogs, in love, yes, truly in love, they'd crossed the frontier that night at aunt Cloe's and launched headlong into sin, after one or two mishaps. Danielle caught her earring in his shirt pocket, and found it funny, and in his excitement he'd lost track of the layout of her thighs and sensuously stroked her handbag on the sofa by her hip, thinking it more cool and leathery than expected, and only realising his mistake when he found the keys and lipstick inside. They gurgled and roared so loud at his foolishness that Cloe's kids fell awake and started crying, and had to be comforted back into unconsciousness.
When they came back to the sofa from the children's bedroom, all their nervousness had gone, wiped clear by the laughter and soft words. Only lust remained, and it claimed them for itself, and throughout life they would be puzzled when others described how bad their first times had been.
Not yet, thought Roger, still holding his organ, pushing down on it like the heel of an ornate cane.
And then he remembered Danielle in her heyday, in her thirties, a vibrant sexual woman with two children by him. Sure of herself, sure of him. Standing next to him in her evening dress, voluptuous, by the cloakroom of the Theatre Royal in St. Martin's Lane. And so desirable he'd wanted to cry.
Not this time.
He took his hand away from the soft jelly heel of the rubber cane and placed it back on Danielle's thigh. "Sorry," he said.
She grunted, then realised she'd grunted. "Don't worry," she said. "Another time."
"You know..." he began, filling in the space where sex would have been, "I was reading; there was a man in - where was it? - Georgia, old Russia, in the mountains, and he lived to 130 years old. And somebody asked him when he'd stopped having sex. And he said; when I was 95. And then they asked him; how did you feel about stopping? And he replied; like I'd finally been allowed to dismount from a wild horse."
Danielle placed her hand over his. "Male fantasy."
Roger laughed, briefly. "Yes, I suppose it is."
We lived our lives like two geese, thought Roger, as he stared idly at the unfocused back of Danielle's neck and drifted back to sleep. Like two farmyard geese in life-partnership, with a raised white kennel to live in and occasional splashes in the pond. Two geese that raised two goslings. Nothing more.
Back to Short Story Menu
Copyright Andrew Starling 2000 www.foxglove.co.uk