Three months have passed since the death of my wife. It has been a long summer, hot and unbearable. My only solace is knowing that it will be my last. I sweat incessantly. Others thrive in the sickly heat. Oh, that the rain would rinse the smiles from their faces. I keep my ghastly body hidden from the outside. Sometimes I cough. Recently more and more. But I rarely dwell on this. Hacking out a thick wad I get on with my business of living and dying. It is all I know.
On the rare occasions that I find myself exposed to the outside elements, I seek refuge in public houses. Bronzed women and men gape at me as I hurry past them, bundled in my winter attire. Today I find myself in an establishment that is damp, dark and dingy. Black mould crawls from the ceiling, spreading its icy fingers wide. Heavy droplets of moisture etch trails in the misty panes. Even in my coat and scarf, I feel a deep chill.
The bartender is a foul old man like myself. With a disgusting rag he attempts to shine glasses. To no avail. He greets me on arrival with a noise less than a grunt. A man of my own ilk. I point at a tap and he pours stout for me into a pint glass smudged with greasy fingerprints. This I down with one enormous gulp. He does not acknowledge my feat. Miserably I point back to the tap and my glass is refilled. I will savour this one. I migrate to a table in the corner and make my nest.
At this moment I notice another solitary figure in the establishment. Sitting in the opposite corner is a young woman drinking red wine and reading from a large tome. She has straight dark hair and wears a short white dress befitting the season. Her lips are dark red in stark contrast to her pale face. She poses her glass on her table and brushes her hair from her eyes. I find myself mesmerised by the delicate pattern of her movements. She looks up and her eyes lock onto mine. Her eyes linger on me for a moment before she smiles and returns to her book. I feel a deep chill that has nothing to do with the dampness. She leans nonchalantly on her elbow, brandishing her book high, the cover now in my plane of vision. It reads Crime and Punishment. I am stunned by the gaudy manner in which she flaunts the novel at me. What kind of business is she trying to conduct here?
It is not long before she approaches me. She slides gracefully from the counter (where she deposits her empty glass) to the table across from mine. I notice that her book has been left abandoned.
“Are you alone?” she asks. I do not know how to respond and so say nothing. She smiles as if to encourage me and continues: “I too am alone. Will you join me for a drink? I have a room upstairs.” She makes a signal to the barman who inclines his head in acquiescence. She leads me by the hand behind the bar, past its surly attendant and up a set of stairs. I had not known that this den had rooms for rent. I watch the back of the girl as she leads me up and a strange sensation floods through me as I ascend.
It is just as damp and disgusting upstairs as below. I am led into a bare and desolate room. The walls may once have been white. The room contains only one large bed that is dank and vile. She strips me down to my undergarments and peels back the moist sheets, then watches as I crawl in. Her red lips shine in the semidarkness. She is soon beside me. The night passes. In the morning, her eyes are bright and her lips are full. I am shrivelled and drained. The whiteness of my body bleeds into the whiteness of the sheets. I feel the girl stir beside me. She bends over me and kisses my forehead. Sliding wordlessly out of the bed, she takes her leave. Struggling to an upright position, I stare down at my shrunken body. It seems that I have given an essential part of my being to this pale-skinned beauty.
When I crawl out from under the disgusting sheets, I am unable to stop my body from trembling. The deep chill of the public house has infested my bones. I head downstairs. The barman is in the same position that I had found him the previous day. He barely acknowledges me as I step past him outside into the searing heat of the morning sun. As I stand on the porch, the trembling worsens, and it takes all my efforts to remain upright. I lean my back to the door, breathing heavily. The sun draws out large droplets of perspiration on my face. People bustle past me impatiently as I stare blankly into the street. And I realise now, on the dawn of this hot and sweaty day, that nothing remains for me but my inevitable death in this sticky soulless summer.