Why did you do it? she wants to know – and he senses her outrage. She is not the first, neither will she be the last; but he is well used to the idea of scandal now.
Because it was better that way, he tells her.
But it was a lie.
What makes you say that?
She is a little confused. She had thought him an unusually honest man but now she is being forced to reassess. A man who can deceive – bewitch – so publically and so beautifully is surely someone to be wary of. The finest words are foulest lies, her mother used to warn.
He watches her framing up her response, the way she struggles for the words to say how she feels. Words that won’t seem unreasonable.
I loved that book, she explains. It inspired me. It gave me courage.
Then why does it matter who wrote it? is his question.
Because a man can never know what it’s like to be a woman.
He chuckles to himself. How many times has he heard this? I never said that I did.
Still she is not convinced. I thought it was meant to be a true story. Not just fiction.
I can assure you, Miss Zhou, he tells her firmly, fixing her in his Impressionist gaze, that absolutely every word in that book is one hundred percent true. Which is why you once liked it, I presume.
She is somewhat chastened by this – embarrassed. She has opened up a little too much to him and, consequently, he can now see right through her. Instinctively she closes down. Once again her emotions – her impetuous assertions – have left her exposed. She feels alone and vulnerable again, for she does not have the force of five thousand years stacked neatly behind her. Not like the others do.
She has dared. And lost. And that is why she is alone.
And in her thoughts – the critical chorus triumphant.
Lapsing back into her enveloping cushion of Cantonese politeness, Aurelia Zhou sighs as imperceptibly as she can and continues with the procedure.
She snaps on her gloves. She smiles her smile.
Meanwhile, Erasmus Lyle takes the opportunity to offer her a strategic but not entirely heartfelt apology. Because he is not sorry. Not for any of it.
Should you ever wish to hear my version of events – please, feel free.
He allows the words to work a few beats of their caustic effect before looking up at her and smiling as warmly as his crocodile skin will allow.
With this, she understands that he has not been offended and she softly exhales her relief. To his foggy eyes this simple, demure gesture reveals a smidgen of sex – like a wave passing through her, so that now, out of the blue, he can see that she is ablaze. That there is a fire in the middle of her life – and that it is the same one that burnt him.
And made all those words pour out of him.
In fact, she’s wanting something now. She wants to know. So why didn’t you just write it as yourself?
I did, he replies.
As a man, I mean?
The word, the idea, hangs in the cool morning air. He feels the urge to explain – but catches the impulse in time.
It is her turn to watch him now. She senses an ocean of stories inside him. Ones she knows he will recite when asked – but will not offer. However, she is pleased that his first thought was to tell. She thinks that perhaps the only real difference between them is that he is more disciplined.
Biting down on the tremor that is now running through her, she tells him, I never thought a man could feel that way.
He crinkles his leathery smile at her once more. You just haven’t met the right man.
How well she knows this. Soon she will be unmarried and in her thirties. Soon the lights will show her flaws. And she will just be a nurse – and she will grow old and be nursed in turn. She has used up her other dreams. They have led her to this room.
Where she takes her careful measurements and gives her best advice.
Where the old man sits in his dappled arcadia, in his incredible sea of calm, glowing with an intense compassion – like a channel of the great light. The rock through which the river flows.
She takes his blood, thickened with age, and it rises like syrup. He is in no hurry to be diagnosed, let alone prescribed. But he yields to it gladly. For the pleasure of her minty breath in his nostrils – and because beauty is the only thing left to him.
She wipes away the little red glob and as she does she notices the needle marks.
Another thing to judge me for, he whispers – and when she turns and catches his eye she realises that none of this upsets or flusters him. There is a kind of beautiful, melancholy peace about him – as though all his sorrows had stripped him back to the skin and set him free.
Aurelia Zhou is afraid of her own sadness.
The old man has turned his into a source of unimaginable joy.
She brushes a finger lightly across the two tiny mounds in the crook of his arm.
Why do you do it?
Because it’s better that way.
After she has gone, he crashes into himself. It feels like the sound of crumpling metal. Slow and low and telling.
He laughs at his own pointless yearning. He knows there is no way. But still he feels it. Something in him refuses to die. He likes this. It reminds him. For he has come to believe that those who say they have transcended desire are either liars or fools. The heart may survive the mind, but the mind shall not outlast the heart. Such infinite majesty contained within such puny vessels. Erasmus is agog at the wonder of it.
If he could sing, he would.
Aurelia Zhou, he says out loud – and all the love he has ever felt comes surging out of him. A tide futile and divine. Tears stream down like pearls made from light and he feels the impossible distance. Like he used to. When he was in the exquisite thrall of another. Learning to surrender. Everything.
Her sensible voices are urging her to shut him out. If he can deceive millions of readers, they warn, he will surely make a fool out of you.
But Aurelia has other voices. Softer. Kinder. Less sure of themselves. These are the ones that made acting possible. The ones who learned early that all distinctions melt in the end. That there is truly nothing between us.
When she has finished her rounds for the day, written her reports and signed her time sheet, she thinks about the bookshop across the road from the restaurant where she sometimes eats alone.
Drinks alone. Goes home alone.
And she wonders if he’ll be there.
Gordy cannot believe his luck. The old boy has a distinct sparkle him. Ras hasn’t mentioned it specifically but Gordy knows why. He’s more curious than ever now. Who is this remarkable girl? The one he wants to live for.
Across the table, Erasmus is busy weighing up whether to call Lilith. He pictures her painted mouth – the soft plush of her bosom – the wetness she lets him touch. These are things he cannot shake. The animal things. The urges that have undone him so many times before.
The woman in the bookshop hasn’t had anyone ask her for that in years. She thought people didn’t read it anymore. It’s why it’s not in stock. Maybe not even in print.
You could try the secondhand shop down the road, she tells the customer.
The Chinese looking woman in front of her seems agitated. Obviously wants it pretty badly, she is thinking, as the customer ponders her options.
Actually, it’s an awesome book, she hears herself saying – as memories of it resurface. Maybe if you find one you could lend it to me, she adds.
The Chinese lady makes a weak attempt at being amused and then leaves with a short, quick nod.
Turn left, the bookshop lady calls out – and her rapidly departing customer duly obeys. It was always that kind of book.
Erasmus needs Gordy help him into bed.
At first Gordy was tentative about this – almost afraid – but he has learnt not to let his ingrained homophobia get in the way of his caring. Love, he has discovered, conquers fear.
The old man’s grateful eyes.
He looks like a child sometimes and Gordy is moved to the core. There are nights when he privately cries afterwards, sitting in front of his fancy computer. He misses his boys. It is an ache he carries that lives at the distance of thought.
Ras has given Gordy the greatest gift of all. He has allowed him to love without judgement. Gordy has never known such a thing.
Aurelia Zhou sits in her room – and he is open on her lap. European letters on an off-white page. A book with a dog ear and a personal message to someone she will never know written in blue ink. A birthday gift returned. No longer a must.
But now she can see it was him all along.
She thinks about the needle marks and although she is afraid, she feels that she understands. He has seen the magnificent insignificance of things. The futile glory of human endeavour. She believes that, once again, he will give her the courage to feel. He will help to free her from the burden of importance.
She closes the book. Kills the light. Folds her hands on her belly and allows herself to drift slowly into a peaceful rest. She does not think of young men – but of him. A frail, myopic, skeletal man. Pungent and wrinkled.
The scuff marked, pre-loved book lays upturned on her bed – inches from her unpainted fingers – while she sleeps deep and dreams of being on stage once more.
Erasmus smokes a joint and tries to quiet his rampant imaginings – but he is glad she knows who he is. His notoriety will allow him to revel longer in her splendour. That glorious black hair of hers. Those sculptured hands. Her shy girl smile. If her touch should linger just a little, he will know for sure – and knowing, he will be ready.
He stubs out the end and breathes in the sweet clouds.
Tonight, life is an avowedly simple beast.