About 6 o’clock, just as Melanie came to the end of her day’s work and grew aware that she was hungry, someone knocked at her door – a timid knock, signalling someone of no importance. She went to open, and saw a small, thin girl, bespectacled, earnest, holding a clipboard.
“Please, if you have a moment, I’d like to talk to you about a lottery for the RNIB, to help the blind, you know – only £1 a week, and you can win up to £25000!”
The speaker appeared to be about thirty; she was dressed with painful neatness, in well-worn garments too meagre for the evening cold. She stood clutching her clipboard as though it might protect or warm her, respectful smile on drawn features. She chanted her way through her patter in a singsong voice, clearly not expecting to have it heard, flinching as Melanie shifted from her leaning posture to ask, “What time do you knock off?”
“Well… this is probably my last call of the day.”
“Come in for a moment, then. I should like to speak to you.”
She hesitated, then hopped into the hallway, doubtless still hopeful of making a sale. Melanie led the way into her sitting room and insisted she take the comfortable chair by the fire. The girl surveyed her new surroundings, cheerful, cosy with lamps, paintings, books, and with a little unaccustomed sympathy and interest from her host, began to give an account of herself. For a year now she had lived off the petty commissions from petty sales, cajoled from the guileless and lonely, sometimes earning as much as £60 in a day, but often much less.
“I wasn’t made to get on in the world, that’s all. I never could seem to stick to anything, couldn’t seem to put my heart into any sort of work. I’m a day-dreamer, truth be told, and the very last sort of person ever to succeed at this sort of thing – I feel actually sick before I knock on every door, I tremble at the thought of a new voice or face; they can smell my fear, I’m certain of it, and more often that not I get a mouthful of abuse for my trouble. I’ve had a dog set on me before now – oh yes, I promise, it’s true! – threats to call the police, insults flung at my looks, brains, honesty… ”
“Are you married? Boyfriend?”
She flushed and stared at the carpet. “No.”
The other watched her for a moment. “Will you tell me your name? I’m Melanie. Melanie Graham.”
The girl fumbled under her fleece to find a lanyard and present it. “Ruth Goodyear.” The words were printed under a startled looking image of the girl, light glinting off her glasses.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ruth. Would you be able to spare the time to have dinner with me this evening?”
She stammered, twisted in her seat as though in pain, blushed deeper. Melanie watched the girl try to think of some reason why she couldn’t possibly stay; improbable as it seemed, she was genuinely burdened with shyness. While Ruth muttered how she couldn’t possibly inconvenience – so very kind but unfortunately – Melanie settled the matter by pouring two large glasses of red wine, their fragrance the strongest conceivable argument against coyness. Ruth sipped at it and ceased to twist.
“That’ll warm you up. And give you an appetite. You look half-starved. Anything you can’t eat? Excellent. You’re already my favourite ever guest. Do you mind cats?” A fluffy white model jumped on to her lap.
“Love them.” She buried her spare hand in the cat’s fur and bent her head to listen to the purr.
“Better and better. I’ll knock up something simple. Shan’t be a minute. Help yourself to wine.”
Ruth took another sip, rolling the dark purplish liquid about the glass. “Gosh, that’s glorious. You can feel it doing you good. The best medicine. Spreading through my brain and limbs – ”
Melanie smiled. “Plenty more. Drink up.”
At which Ruth picked up the bottle and pretended to glug from it. They laughed, Ruth’s sounding strange, unnatural, as if unpractised; she tried again, and the loudness of it seemed to startle her.
She put the bottle down carefully. “What do you think? Is it possible for the shy to break the habit?”
“With enough wine, certainly. But how on earth do you cope sober every day, knocking on doors, facing every possible reaction, mostly hostile, if you yourself are so afflicted?”
“Oh God, it’s torture! Every day, every knock, torture; it never gets easier, never. I do it because I can’t get anything better. All my life I’ve suffered from a lack of self-confidence. That’s why – ”
But here Melanie brought over bowls of nuts and olives, and the girl stopped talking to turn her full attention to them, too eager to disguise her appetite. More food arrived, hot and rich, and she devoted herself to it with keen pleasure and steadfast attention. She lifted her head. “I never in my life tasted anything so glorious. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Honestly, it was nothing. Thank you for keeping me company. Coffee? Brandy? Dessert?”
“Please!” She’d stopped fighting her good fortune. The cat lay peaceful, pressed against her belly. They began to talk more unselfconsciously. Melanie mentioned she’d grown up in Chelmsford.
“I studied there!” Ruth said. “Loved it too. Not been back since I graduated. Something brought me here, and I got stuck.”
“Me too. Most of this town’s inhabitants, probably. A man?”
She nodded, drank more brandy. “You?”
“Not exactly. Getting over one. But essentially, I suppose, yes.”
They drank in silence, until Ruth asked: “Why did you ask me to eat with you tonight?”
“Just an inspiration.”
“You thought I looked in need of it, perhaps. I was. It’s done me such good.”
“I’m glad.” She half-expected the girl to jump up and leave, but instead she reached for more goodies, settled herself and the cat, and took a deep breath. Her phone pinged and she snatched it up, read from it, started twisting in her chair. The cat jumped away.
“Is that him now?”
“Not more than usual. We’re in the middle of a row, that’s all. A perpetual row, it seems, sometimes. It’s been going on about eight years.”
“Maybe you’d like to tell me about it? Might give it some perspective.”
“Well. Yes. But that’s not the problem, not really. I’ve always known that – oh God, maybe I will tell you. I’ve no one to tell and it’s killing me.”
“Nasty beasts flourish in dark corners. Shine a torch on them and they tend to scuttle away.”
“He didn’t start nasty. He was charming, utterly charming. I met him at university. Mark. He was a PhD student doing a bit of lecturing, ten years older than me. He sought me out, made a pet of me, praised me, encouraged me. I was idiotically shy, lonely – it meant so much to have someone so talented notice me.”
“What did you study?”
“Fine art. He got me noticed, at first, by important people. Had me exhibiting, found people to review me. It was thrilling. Then as the years went on I started to get more attention than he did. Made friends with other artists, collaborated, exhibited with them – I guess he was jealous. Wanted to keep me his own little secret, this little gem he’d discovered – ”
“You’re not that little.” Melanie reached for the bottle. “Sorry. Go on.”
“When I graduated I moved here to be near him. Even though I’ve never been near his house. We meet at hotels. When he isn’t angry with me, or busy. He’s very busy. Angry too, usually. I share a flat with four other girls – well, they’re all younger than me. I look after them. It’s sort of like a family.”
“But not. Do you still make art?”
“I don’t have much energy these days, or time. This stupid job drains you. Fearing it drains you more. And sometimes it hardly seems worth it, the rows he starts, you know, if I try to do anything with my creations. There are so many other artists he despises. Claims they contaminate the entire scene. Sometimes he gives vague reasons for this, other times it makes no sense at all. He doesn’t even try to justify himself. But if I associate with them he goes crazy. Won’t speak to me. And it’s slowly breaking me. Part of me likes the jealousy, the possessiveness. Makes me feel special. I know how crazy that sounds.”
“He’s probably fucking them too.”
“The other artists, the ones he doesn’t want you to meet. Classic. So that’s what tonight’s drama is about?”
Ruth reflected. “Not just that. He begged me not to visit this street. Said it wasn’t safe. Can you believe that?” There was silence for a moment. “Do you really think that? They’re not all girls.”
“He’s an artist, what’s the odds? Who is it he doesn’t want you to meet today? Apart from anyone in this street.”
“There’s a new gallery opening in the old town. Four artists exhibiting, one of them I was friendly with a few years back. She’s asked me to go along. There’ll be press there, heaps of other artists I used to know – ”
“Can I see this Mark?”
She nodded, scrolled, found a picture of a chubby middle-aged man, reclining on a sofa. Melanie screwed up her eyes, pressed her fingers against them, shook her head, drained her glass.
“Christ. Wow. OK. Oh god, Ruth – well, look, you haven’t asked for my advice, but here it is anyway, gratis. While that phone’s in your hand, before you can even give it a moment’s thought, I want you to type, ‘Stop wasting my finite life and patience, you loathsome, decrepit, flabby old ghoul’. Got that?”
She giggled, and did as she was told.
“Now, still without thinking, press send.”
“Oh I can’t! I can’t!”
“What have you got to lose, exactly? He’s destroying your prospects and youth. You haven’t the least hope of a future with him. He wants a wife and a little pet. Probably he has dozens of little pets. This insistence on isolation is freaky and suspect. You’re still young and engaging enough to start afresh. But you haven’t long. Look, imagine a stranger told you that story. What would you tell her to do?”
She moved a hand slowly over her throat, then back down, then whispered, “Chuck him.”
“Seems you’re the better artist. The better human. He’s bringing you nothing but grief. An occasional snatch of his busy life when he feels generous and inclined. We’re all worth more than that. You’re worth more than that. More than this.” She gestured at the clipboard.
“I don’t see that I am.”
“You should see what I’m seeing. You’re twice the woman who walked in here. Unburdened, filled with good things, you’re glowing, witty, delightful, filled with possibilities. Don’t choose to return to the drawn wretched creature who knocked on my door an hour ago. One tiny little flick of your finger, you can be free of her forever. Do it.”
© 2020 Melissa Todd
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.