Reed watched as Orla moved closer to his wife, as if intent on convincing him just how much prettier she was. He didn’t need convincing.
‘Falling in love’s all bullshit anyway,’ Orla’s husband said. ‘For the birds mate.’
Reed wondered whether he meant the expression: it’s for the birds, or whether he meant falling in love was for women — for birds. He was formulating a question in his head, aimed at getting to the bottom of the confusion, when Orla’s husband spoke again:
‘Falling in love — no one falls in love — s’all bullshit that is mate.’ He crushed his empty can and threw it onto the table, before leaning into Reed, nudging his shoulder. ‘You listening to ‘em? You hear ‘em?’
Orla was laughing, swishing a shallow puddle of red wine around inside her glass. He recalled the first time he’d seen her at work, making her busy way from the conference room to the stairs. He of course gave her a second look, but there was no falling for her. In fact, after talking to her the first few times, he thought her cold, unwelcoming even.
‘Need to be up early,’ Orla’s husband said, staring at an unopened can of lager. ‘Fuck it,’ he said, and with a crack, opened it. ‘Car’s a rust bucket now anyway. Late morning’s not gonna make a difference.’ He guzzled the lager.
Reed looked for something to fill the silence between them. ‘Orla said you fix cars.’
‘Fix cars… she said that? Fix cars. That what she said?’ He snarled at the two women sitting opposite.
‘Sorry, do you not—’
‘Fix cars?’ he said again, stroking his throat, grimacing. ‘Restore classic cars mate. Battle the inevitability of age, of entropy. I restore modern automotive masterpieces.’
‘Entropy?’ Reed asked.
‘Entropy,’ Orla’s husband said before gnashing his teeth. He stared at Reed as if he was to blame, as if he was the cause of everything that ever fell apart. ‘It’s a cancer — metal cancer. And indiscriminate — doesn’t matter what car it is, rust’ll get it in the end. Doesn’t matter what sort of car we’re talking mate.’ After sighing, with his eyes fixed on Orla, he mumbled one more time, ‘Fix cars?’
As Reed watched and listened, he was convinced this man had no idea his wife was in love with another man.
* * *
‘You have to,’ Orla had said.
‘With him there?’ Reed asked.
She shrugged, looking about the office before leaning into him. ‘Come on,’ she whispered. ‘It’s my thirtieth — want you there.’
He looked past her, out of the window, down onto the square below where people were heading out for lunch.
‘We said we’d be friends,’ she said. ‘If nothing else — and well this is what friends do isn’t it?’
‘But your husband will—’
‘Bring your wife,’ she said, as if this would even things up, make things fair. ‘Bring her,’ she said, her words colourless, or masochistic.
‘You want me to bring my wife? To your house?’
She shrugged again. ‘There’ll be lots of people there, no one’ll suspect a thing.’ He noticed her impatience, and couldn’t help feel she hadn’t thought any of it through. ‘Want you there. You’re…’ She checked herself, again looking about, ensuring no one was watching. ‘Just want you there.’
She stroked his arm and held on to the cuff of his shirt.
Not for a moment did he consider letting her down. But still, when he did nod, he marvelled at how the slow and gentle movement of his head could change the demeanour of another person so completely.
On tip-toe, she kissed him. It was the seventh time she’d kissed him.
* * *
‘We should go,’ Reed said interrupting Orla and his wife, having given up waiting for a break in the conversation. ‘Everyone else left over an hour ago.’ He looked at his watch for dramatic effect.
‘No,’ Orla snapped. ‘Not yet — we’re having fun. Tell him no,’ she said to Reed’s wife. ‘Tell him. Tell him no.’
Reed’s wife agreed, and through laughter, told him no, before splashing more wine into her glass.
‘Christ,’ Orla’s husband sighed, watching his wife open another bottle of wine. ‘Be a right mess if she carries on. She’s a hurler,’ he said, as if he was a doctor breaking some important, worrying news.
‘Hurler?’ Reed asked.
‘Red wine.’ Orla’s husband was shaking his head. ‘Christ,’ he muttered again, before swigging his can. ‘You ever pissed the bed Reed?’
‘Yeah, pissed the bed… Jesus mate, why’d you keep repeating what I say? You noticed — that you keep repeating what I say? Yeah, pissed the bed? People say they’re pissed, but unless they’ve actually pissed the bed, they’re not pissed at all. Why it’s called getting pissed.’ He belched, surprising himself. ‘You ever pissed the bed Reed?’
‘No. Never have.’
‘Do it once, and you can’t stop.’
Reed watched as Orla’s husband looked at the ceiling, his head shaking from side to side as if recalling each occasion.
‘I’ll phone a taxi,’ Reed said, raising his voice.
No one acknowledged him.
‘Pissed myself in a taxi once.’ Orla’s husband stared at the table. ‘Taxi driver wasn’t happy.’
‘I’ll phone a Taxi,’ Reed said, making Orla and his wife stop talking and look at him.
‘He was fun once,’ his wife said, looking at him but talking to Orla.
‘Really?’ Orla said, one eyebrow raised. ‘So serious isn’t he?’
‘Shall I phone for a taxi?’ he asked again.
* * *
‘I’ll get your wife drunk, so she’ll be good for nothing when you get home.’ Orla’s fingers still held onto the cuff of his shirt, and her kiss was still moist at the edges of his lips. ‘It’s my birthday, and I don’t want you doing anything with her on my birthday.’ Again she tugged at the cuff of his shirt. ‘You promise?’
‘Friends?’ Reed asked, one eyebrow raised.
‘You and me,’ she said, her finger wagging in the space between them, ‘this — between you and me, will never be friends.’ Her arms and shoulders were folding inwards as though she was preparing to fall into him. ‘But we’ll have to make do.’
‘Not sure I can,’ he said.
‘No choice — told you.’ She let go of his shirt. ‘The kids. Can’t do it to Liam. And you have Charlie.’
She kissed him again, but this time the kiss felt different.
‘You promise? Not on my birthday.’
‘Promise,’ he said, again not for a moment contemplating letting her down.
* * *
‘Here,’ Orla’s husband said, leaning into him, his heavy, sour breath pushing up against his neck and face. ‘Don’t wanna be rude mate, but…’ He paused to muster a delicate burp, readjust his position in his chair, and move closer. ‘Would you go ahead and phone that taxi? Not being rude, but…’ Again, he burped, blowing it in the opposite direction. ‘You see, Orla…’ he nodded sideways across the table, ‘when she’s had a drink… well, let’s just say… it’s worth making the most of it.’ Orla’s husband leaned away, nudging Reed’s arm to make him look at his winking eye.
‘Make the most of—’ Reed stopped himself.
‘When she’s had a few, she’ll let me do anything to her — if you know what I mean. And she fucking loves it.’
‘I’ll order that taxi,’ Reed stated, meaning it this time, making Orla and his wife stop mid-conversation and stare at him again. He stood, knocking the table and the drinks.
‘Steady on mate,’ Orla’s husband said.
‘You still going on about that taxi?’ his wife said.
Moving out of the room, struggling to dig his phone out of his pocket, with trembling fingers, he fumbled and stammered his way to ordering a taxi.
* * *
‘It’s here,’ Reed shouted into the lounge. ‘Taxi’s here.’ He stepped out of the house and waved to the taxi driver who was pulling the car onto the drive, headlights illuminating the front of the house.
‘Owe you one mate,’ Orla’s husband said, patting his back, before kneading his shoulder.
Reed ignored him, occupied with biting the inside of his cheek.
‘Christ it’s cold,’ Orla’s husband said, burying his hands in his pockets, his hot breath billowing, his nose snorting. ‘Need to get into bed ay Reed? Wrap up. Ay Reed? Get into bed. Huh Reed?’
Reed closed his eyes to manage the fizzing in his head, the sickness in his stomach, the tightness in his chest.
They stood in silence. With his eyes closed, Reed listened to the two women giggling, saying their goodbyes, promising each other they would do it again.
He opened his eyes. Orla’s husband had moved towards a car parked next to the house, covered in a green plastic sheet. He pulled at the sheet, revealing a section of the bonnet. ‘Look at it. Covered in rust. Get’s them all in the end.’ With a fingernail, he scratched flakes of rust free, letting them roll across the bonnet and fall to the ground.
Reed nodded and then looked at the stars.
There was more silence. Orla’s husband rocked back and forth on his heels.
‘Look,’ Orla’s husband said, the tone of his voice different: quiet, exact. ‘I know what’s going on mate.’
Reed gulped, the maelstrom in his stomach intensifying.
‘I know what Orla’s like,’ he went on. ‘She’s something else huh?’
Reed shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He looked back to the house, into its warm orange glow. He made the effort to sound confused, ‘Not sure I—’
‘And I know what you’re thinking.’ Orla’s husband blew warm air into his hands. ‘That she’s unhappy, that she needs saving, that she… that she loves you.’
‘Wait,’ Reed said trying to smile. ‘We work together…’
Orla’s husband sighed. ‘I know exactly how this goes mate. And I’m telling you for your own good, because you seem like a good guy, and there’s no way you’d have fucked her yet.’
Anger spasmed through Reed’s arms and legs, and he imagined explaining how much he and Orla both wanted to; but it sounded ridiculous, even in his own head.
‘Know exactly how this goes mate. When you’re gone, she’ll take me upstairs.’ He pointed to the bedroom window. ‘Don’t think any of this changes any of that.’
‘No,’ Reed said. ‘I don’t know—’
‘It’s ok, really. I get it. Orla’s an attractive woman. And there’s… there’s something about her. We both know it. Both see it.’
‘Wait,’ Reed said, wanting his brain to work harder, to help him sound reasonable. He was surprised, shocked even, with how perceptive this man was, with how transparent his own thoughts must be. ‘I think you misunderstand—’
‘Reed,’ Orla’s husband said, his expression altering as he moved into the glaring light of the taxi’s headlights, the contours of his face taking on an angular, demonic shape. Reed’s body tightened and he considered how people read posture, body language, threat and capitulation. ‘Listen. Told you — falling in love’s all bull shit. Doesn’t work like that. Love — it’s fucking rust. And if you let it, it’ll eat you away mate.’
Reed’s fists clenched. He imagined his fists breaking bones, smashing into flesh. But it was only a fantasy that warmed him, reassured him, helped him deal with the fear.
‘S’all over you — can see it. Rust mate. You need to take control. For your own good. Orla’s been fucking my brains out for the best part of a year — and now I know why. She’s one hell of a fuck at the best of times. But lately…’ The sound of the two women inside the house laughing made them both turn to look. ‘But you know all this don’t you?’ he continued, lowering his voice, appearing to enjoy the cloying viscosity of each word dripping from his lips. ‘Why you’re going after her. You know don’t you? You know.’ His smile shifted, curling in its warmth like a dog settling for the night. ‘And we both know, that wife of yours… she’s not like that… she’s not like Orla….’
Reed flinched at the reference to his wife, and he felt his back straighten, his height swell, his chest widen. All around him, a dozen shadows grew outwards, and the desire to fill more space, to swallow more of the world, made him shake.
The two women appeared at the door, spilling out into the cold with drunken laughter and shocked complaints at the cold air.
Reed’s wife fell into him. ‘Take me home.’
‘Night Reed,’ Orla’s husband said, wrapping his arm around Orla’s shoulders, walking her back into the house.
* * *
It took Reed some time, and a lot of patience, to negotiate his wife into the taxi. After acting as mediator between the taxi driver and his wife, who bickered over the fee, he found solace in the perfumed warmth of the car.
As the car reversed off the drive, Reed looked out of the window. He knew before looking, Orla would be in her bedroom window. Her room burned with a russet glow, and her presence was dark against it, her silhouette raising a hand. A larger silhouette appeared behind her, reaching to draw the curtains. With a sweep from either side, the curtains were drawn and the light was gone.
As the taxi pulled away, already his wife was unconscious, her head resting on his shoulder. Her dress had fallen from her lap, showing the tops of her hold ups. Reed’s eyes met those of the driver’s in the rearview mirror and he reorganised her dress.
He recalled what Orla’s husband had said. It was true, he hadn’t fallen for Orla — in fact he’d never fallen for anyone. It had never happened like that for him. He hated that Orla’s husband was onto something, and he had to look the other way to avoid admitting it. But he felt it — because of Orla, he was corroding. He was, he was crumbling; the rust had taken hold, had weathered through to the machinery in his chest, to the mechanisms in his head, to the gadgetry of his fingers.
The drone of the car’s engine and its tyres pulling at the road beneath, made him drowsy. His wife stirred beside him, moved closer, collecting more of his warmth.
A bump in the road shook him. He glanced at the rearview mirror and saw where Orla had kissed him; on his cheeks and on his lips, were patches of rust. His hand moved to his face, his fingers scratching at his chin and mouth, causing flakes of rust to fall onto his coat, shirt and lap. In the mirror, the driver looked at him, his brow furrowed. Reed looked at the debris on his white shirt, and in doing so, was drawn to the sound of the machinery inside his chest, squealing with mechanical effort. The brackets at his elbows and wrists screeched, his neck rasped with dry splintered metal, and his eyes closed and opened with a dryness that scratched. It was on his wife too, on her face, her neck and arms; it was spreading, deepening, and yet she only sighed contentedly in her sleep. He could see, in all the places he’d ever touched her, where he’d ever held her, or kissed her, the rust deepening in its colours and completeness.
A grinding sound emanated from the taxi driver’s movements too: the joints along his arms collapsing and extending with muted squeals as he turned the steering wheel and manipulated the gear stick, his knees and ankles rasping at their brittle, worn joints.
His phone vibrated next to his chest, unsettling his wife; she mumbled something incoherent. He took out his phone, and read Orla’s message: Behave. You promised.x
He moved so his back rested half against the door and half against the car seat. He arranged his wife’s head so it rested on his chest, her copper hair falling across his chest. And where he’d touched her to move her — on her arms, her shoulders, her throat — a fresh blistered veneer of rust was lifting from her skin. He imagined apologising for it — for all of it. After all, there was a time she’d made him rust too.
The amber streetlights flashed by, creating the effect of a strobe light, illuminating his cracked hands, with their lavish colouring: the sepia maroons and burnt oranges, the coppered browns and vermillion reds. Touching his face where Orla had kissed him, his fingers traced the delicate sharp edges lifting from his skin like petals. He didn’t mind it being there; no, it was more than that, he welcomed it. He wanted it, even if it meant being dismantled, atom by atom. Orla’s husband was wrong: he was falling — if not in love, then apart. And he wanted it — had searched it out.
The car rolled to a stop at a red light. He noticed one bedroom window, different to the rest, in that a light was on. He imagined how in every bedroom, there existed a private universe, in which people either slept alone, or beside another person, but always in their own rust. It’s this that kills us, he thought: with every kind word, with every touch, with every kiss, we cover one another in rust.
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