Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: homeFiction

Dear Old Stockholm–part 2

A novella in six parts

In retrospect, it seems obvious that it was after I lost my job that I became less tolerant of Lucie’s smoking. At first, to my surprise, it hardly bothered me at all. I was rather pleased that she smoked roll-ups which, compared with ordinary cigarettes, smelled almost pleasant. They also added something to her general air of exoticism. I didn’t even object to her smoking in bed, though I drew the line at acquiring an ashtray. Once, when she filched one from a pub, I insisted on taking it back. To the landlord’s enquiry as to whether I was also going to return the pint glasses, I feigned hurt innocence.

Gradually, though, I found that Lucie’s free and easy attitude to smoking in the flat had started to irritate me. No doubt, my own resources having become so stretched, I resented what I took to be her carelessness with her own. I started to insist that, with the exception of her first cigarette of the day, she smoke outside.

Our flat was on the first floor and did not have either a garden or a balcony. For her early morning smoke, I insisted that she stand at an open window and blow the smoke out. Since she was in the habit of having a smoke before taking her shower, she typically put on the previous day’s t-shirt in order to stand in the window. If she hadn’t been wearing a t-shirt the previous day, she would often just wear her bra.

I had mixed feelings about this. The window opened onto a quiet street of terraced houses. On the one hand, I found something thrilling about the idea of my darkly beautiful French girlfriend, standing in a window wearing only a bra and smoking. On the other, I knew that there were young children, a boy of about 11 and his sister a few years younger, in the house directly across the street, and I was always afraid that their mother might complain.

There was a church of an unusual denomination a few doors up the street on our side. I had a vague idea that it was Baptist, but I was never interested enough to bother reading the board outside the single-storey modern building. They occasionally got coachloads of visitors from the United States and on those occasions, the not-quite-tuneful singing went on for hours at a time.

One Sunday morning we woke with hangovers, relatively late. Lucie took up her usual smoking position at the open window. She was wearing a black bra. One of the American church coaches was parked just outside. A plump man in his early 30s gawped at Lucie from a window of the coach. He wore a tie and a light beige jacket. She stuck the roll-up in her mouth and mimed taking off the knickers she was not in fact wearing, bending her knees with a wiggle and pushing her hands down the side of her legs. Her observer gulped and made a gesture that clearly conveyed the desire that she should hold up the knickers to “prove” that she had really taken them off. Of course, he had no way of knowing that she hadn’t been wearing any in the first place. There had been no need, since the window ledge was almost at a level with her waist.

At first, Lucie pretended not to understand the man’s gesture. He too did a little wiggle in his coach seat, then bent down and picked up a pair of imaginary knickers, which he held up to the coach window with both hands. Lucie smiled, but shook her head. The coach was now starting to empty but the man stayed in his seat till the last moment, hoping for more.

Finally, when the man was the only one left on the coach, Lucie pulled a kitchen chair towards her and stepped up on it. She did a slow twirl. The man’s eyes bulged. Lucie stepped down off the chair.

I had witnessed this performance with excitement and some surprise. Certainly, it had struck me before that Lucie had a small streak of exhibitionism but she tended to keep it in check. It seemed to me that she was barely aware of it. She flashed me a grin of pure delight in her daring, and in her capacity to excite unwilled desires in the male psyche.

“What was that about?” It came out sounding sulkier than I’d intended.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a bit surprised that you’d choose to give an eyeful to an American religious nut who probably voted for Bush.”

Lucie grimaced. “Ah, lighten up. I wasn’t doing the guy any favours.”

“You weren’t? You must have made his week. Probably his whole year.”

“More like I made him shoot off in his pants. Did you see his face?”

I wondered if that were true, and felt an unwelcome twinge of sympathy which I irritably dismissed. If he had indeed ejaculated spontaneously, he had very nearly not been the only one.

Not the least surprising thing about Lucie’s performance at the window had been her apparent readiness to engage in some kind of quasi-sexual play (albeit of an aggressive, indeed hostile, kind) with a member of a religious sect. Shortly after our first meeting, we had been delighted to discover that we both described ourselves as “atheists”. It was yet another thing we had in common, something that seemed to cement our coupledom by marking a shared characteristic that distinguished us from the bulk of humankind.

As we got to know each other better, we discovered that our shared atheism was of two very different types. I was, and am, a materialist, someone who believes that the material world is the whole of reality. Of course, I tend to avoid the term “materialist” because religious thinkers have been very successful in attaching to it a pejorative meaning. Perhaps paradoxically, my rejection of spiritual mumbo-jumbo means that I tend to get on better with a reasonable down-to-earth Anglican than with, say, a pagan or some kind of new age Aquarian.

I soon found out that Lucie’s atheism, by contrast, was particularly antipathetic to Christianity and that she saw no difficulty in making common cause with all varieties of nonchristian spiritualists, from Wiccans to Buddhists. From time to time, a dismissive remark on my part would draw from her a pained and puzzled look, as if I had betrayed an agreement implied by our shared outlook on religion.

After she’d enrolled at Queen Mary, Lucie joined a women’s group based in the college (but not restricted to students) that prided itself on its inclusiveness: its motto was “all women welcome”. It comprehended several Wiccans, a medical rights faction notable for its opposition to “Big Pharma” in general and to the MMR vaccine in particular, various unaligned feminists and even a couple of trotskyists, a species I had thought was extinct. I didn’t ask very much about this group’s meetings because, in the first place, I preferred not to know and, in the second, I intuited that a breach, by proxy, of the group’s women-only policy would not have been welcomed. From the few remarks that Lucie let drop, I formed the impression that the group had a paradoxical quality. On the one hand, it was remarkable that such a disparate bag of politico-socio-spiritual beliefs was able to produce near unanimity on questions of policy and strategy; on the other, despite this near unanimity, they managed to find an endless list of minor details and incidentals about which to argue interminably.

When Lucie joined, the group was meeting twice a week. While this suited the substantial minority of members for whom the group was the main focus of their existence, the rest found it too demanding a commitment and the schedule was revised to one meeting a week, on Tuesday nights. On meeting nights, Lucie was late getting home, usually after midnight. At first, I tended not to wait up but, as the weeks went by, I found that I wasn’t getting to sleep while I had the bed to myself, so I started to stay up, reading or working on my blog.

One night, the third week in April, 2001, she still hadn’t come home by ten to one in the morning. I tried her mobile but it went to voicemail. I briefly considered phoning a few local casualty departments but remembered reading that such exaggerated concern usually means that the worrier is fantasizing about injury to the person who is ostensibly being worried about, so I quelled my inclination to panic. I was, of course, still awake when she got in about an hour later.

“Long meeting?” I tried hard to keep my voice neutral.

“Oh, I decided to give the meeting a miss. I was in the bar with Ben Colleran and just couldn’t seem to muster the enthusiasm to drag myself away to a meeting about patriarchy and the medicalization of women’s conditions.”

“Ben Colleran? Isn’t he — ”

“My tutor. Yes. He has a lot of ideas about the construction of the gendered gaze. The kind of thing I might do my master’s thesis on.”

‘It’s a bit early to be thinking about your master’s thesis, isn’t it? Why not finish the first year of your degree first?’

“Of course. But I want him to recognize that I have a certain direction. Goals. I’m not just playing at this, or filling in time.”

“I’m sure you succeeded in getting his recognition at least, Unless he had too much to drink, of course, and promptly forgot who he’d spent the evening with. By the way, is the bar open till 1 am now?”

“No, of course not. Oh, hell, I had no idea it was so late. I’m terribly sorry, love. You must have been really worried.”

“A little. I tried your phone. You could at least have had it turned on.”

“I had. Oh, I must have forgotten to take it out of silent mode when I left the library. I’m always doing that. I’m really sorry, love, but it was just a mistake. Don’t sulk. I’m very sorry, but there was nothing to worry about. Really, I’m sorry.”

I didn’t think I had been sulking but there’s no way to say you’re not sulking without sounding sulky, so I kissed her and said that I was going to bed. I must have been asleep within thirty seconds. I woke at 3.30 with a full bladder and reminded myself that I hadn’t asked her where they had gone after the pub closed. That could wait till the morning.

She was showered and dressed before I woke, which was unusual. She was wearing a denim skirt that came to mid-thigh, with navy opaque tights, an outfit I particularly liked. When she had worked in the bank, she had been expected to wear a skirt every working day, a discipline she’s understandably reacted against since achieving the relative freedom of studenthood.

She was sitting at the table, drinking a coffee and playing with an unlit roll-up.

“There’s another cup in the jug.” She avoided French words, such as “cafetière”, while speaking English, as if to fall back on her native language would be to cheat.

She noticed my sleepily lecherous gaze fixed on her legs and swung them out from under the table, as if to give me a better look.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s what?”

“That,” I pointed.

“It’s called a thigh, I believe. You’re the native English speaker. Or do you mean my tights. ‘Collant’, in French, because they’re supposed to look as if they’re stuck to the skin.”

“It looks like a bruise. On your inner thigh.”

She pulled up her skirt to study it.

“You’re right. It is a bruise.”

“How did you get it?”

“I have no idea. I hadn’t noticed it until you pointed it out. Perhaps I need to get a bicycle without a crossbar. A bicycle for a lady. Do you think that would suit me?”

“You must know where you got a great big bruise like that. Show me.”

She hiked her skirt up a bit more and raised her right leg over the left, so that I could see better.

“No, I mean take off your tights.”

‘I don’t have time, love. I need to be out of here in five minutes.’

“I want to see. It looks serious.”

“Bruises nearly always look serious and they rarely are. It’s not sore, I assure you.”

“I’d still like to see.”

“I think you can safely let me worry about my own injuries, such as they are.”

As a child I was prone to lose my temper. I could see that this frightened my parents and that in turn frightened me. Accordingly, I learned to control my temper which, for the most part, meant that I learned to keep it hidden. Much less frequently, I allowed myself to lose it strategically, which can be thought of as another kind of control. Though we had lived together for nearly four years, Lucie had never seen me in full tantrum mode.

Now, I allowed it to show itself. In truth, though I gave it permission to emerge, I’m not confidant that I could have prevented it. In a cold, imperious tone, I told Lucie to take off her skirt and tights. She looked at me sadly for nearly a minute, then pulled her legs in under the table and leaned forward with her elbows on it.

“All right,” she said. “I do know how I got the bruise. Ben and I didn’t stay in the bar till closing time. We left at about half past nine, went back to his flat and had sex.”



“You didn’t get an extensive bruise like that from consensual sex. He attacked you.” I meant “raped” but it didn’t seem necessary to say it as baldly as that. Lucie laughed.

“Attacked me? That’s ludicrous. You’ve met him. You surely don’t think that he needs to resort to rape in order to get sex.”

“You said yourself that rape is about power, not about sex.”

“But sex is about power. Partly, anyway.”

“Why are you defending him. Look what he did to you. Quite apart from the rape, it’s assault occasioning actual bodily harm.”

“I know it’s difficult for you to accept, but the simple fact is that we had sex. Willingly, enjoyably — ”


“Not at all! I just bruise easily.”

“Like hell. I’ve lived with you for four years. I’ve never noticed a bruise.”

“I’m sorry, love. I understand why you’re upset.”

I could see that she was about to remind me that we’d always agreed that we weren’t going to have exclusive, proprietorial rights to each other’s bodies. It was true but it seemed a ridiculous cliché when compared to the brutal reality, which … which I didn’t dare think about if I wanted to be sure I could hold back from causing her physical harm. She was insisting that this had taken place with her willing participation but the idea was monstrous.

To forestall her sorry recital of the terms and conditions on which we had agreed to establish our relationship, I repeated my order that she remove her skirt and tights. This time she stood up, stepped away from the table and reached behind her to unzip her skirt. Whether deliberately or instinctively, she did it in the manner of a striptease, gently twisting her hips and looking at me with feigned timidity from under quivering lashes. She pushed the tights down to just above her knees, then sat down again to get them off her lower legs. When she had finished. she stood up again and looked at me directly. She placed her right foot on the chair, bending it at the knee, so as to expose her inner thigh to me. The bruise was long, narrow and mostly red, with a bluish/purple zig-zag running through it. It started a little over two inches above her knee and continued into her knickers.

I told her to take her blouse off as well and she complied. There was a second bruise around her right ribcage, which continued under her arm. I asked her to raise her arm so that I could look at it more closely, and then to remove her bra. She looked at me steadily as if in disappointment rather than surprise, then unfastened the bra and shrugged it off. She immediately began to pull her knickers down her legs.

“That isn’t — ”, I started, but she had already dropped them on the floor. Her right breast was, so far as I could tell, quite badly bruised by what seemed to be fingermarks. She gave me a sad smile, as if to say that this was a side of me she hadn’t seen before.

“Is this the first time you have forced a woman to strip for you?”

“I wasn’t forcing you to strip. I’m looking for evidence.”

She simply shook her head. I went to my desk drawer to find my camera. When I took it out, she said “that’s enough”, picked up her clothes and locked herself in the bathroom. In her hurry she left the tights, which lay on the floor with the right leg stretched out and the left bunched up. Because the dense material was not stretched over pale skin the dark navy colour looked black. It seemed to me to resemble nothing so much as a black hand with an elongated finger pointing straight at me.

Some twenty minutes later, she shouted through the door that she wasn’t going to come out while I was in the flat. I went out to buy a paper and some matches, as she’d mentioned that she had left her lighter in the pub. When I got back, the tights were still pointing their accusation at the bed. Six days later, Lucie phoned me to arrange to collect her belongings.