A Short Story by Edward Picot

When Joy first met Peter, at Cambridge in 1980, she was a History of Art student: tall and striking, with long black hair and large breasts: always a little plump, but never worried about her weight, because she never found it difficult to attract men. She thought of herself as Rubinesque.

She intended to have lots of children. Perhaps some of them would be illegitimate, because although she was still a virgin when she came up, she quickly had a number of love affairs, one of them with a Fellow of St Cats, and she was inclined to be careless about her contraception. Secretly, she was half-hoping something would happen. The scandal would have suited her.

Then she met Peter. He was thin, dark and introverted, a mathematics student, completely inexperienced with women. He was pointed out to her at a party: somebody told her he was a genius, but terribly antisocial. He was dressed in fantastically scruffy jeans, smeared with oil and paint, and a brown jumper with holes in the elbows. His hair was severely short, his ears stuck out, he wore circular steel-rimmed glasses, and he was smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Somehow or other, he didn’t look like a nerd.

Later, she noticed him in the kitchen by himself, apparently staring at the cold tap on the sink. She went and spoke to him.

"Hi," she said. "I’m Joy."

"Hallo. I’m Peter."

There was an awkward silence, during which she smiled at him encouragingly.

"Why were you staring at that tap?" she asked eventually.

"It’s dripping."

"Oh. Haven’t you ever seen a dripping tap before?"

"Of course I have," said Peter, not realising he was being teased. "I’m reading a book about chaos theory. There’s a man called Robert Shaw who did a mathematical analysis of a dripping tap. It’s quite interesting."

“I’ve got a dripping tap in my room,” volunteered Joy. “I’ve asked them to fix it, but they haven’t done anything yet.”

“I could probably fix it for you. I know all about plumbing. It’s quite a fascinating subject. When Victorian plumbing came in it was an environmental breakthrough, whereas now it’s a catastrophe. Wittgenstein was very interested in plumbing, too.”

“Do you model yourself on Wittgenstein?”

“Not at all. What a stupid thing to say. I don’t even understand him properly.”

“Why don’t you come and mend my tap for me?” said Joy, not at all abashed to be called stupid. “You could tell me all about Wittgenstein and plumbing.”

“You wouldn’t enjoy it. I’d bore you.”

“But at least I’d get my tap mended.”

He turned up at half past eight one Saturday morning, when she was still asleep, with the result that she opened the door in her nightdress, with her face flushed and her hair tousled. He was obviously confused by her state of undress, and she played on his feelings instinctively, yawning and stretching, sitting him on the bed, then bending provocatively to plug in the kettle, and finally announcing that she was going to get changed.

“You’d better close your eyes, if you don’t want to see my naked body.”

“What if I do want to see it?”

“Then you’d better keep them open.”

She pulled off nightdress while he sat on the bed and stared at her. Then she came and sat beside him. “It’s too early to be up,” she announced, putting her hand on his thigh. “Why don’t you take off your things and get in here with me?”

Looking back on their first two or three terms together, neither of them could remember, afterwards, how they managed to get any work done. In retrospect there seemed to have been a complete suspension of their studies. They couldn’t remember attending any supervisions or lectures, writing any essays or reading any books. They could hardly remember speaking to anyone else, going home for the holidays, or venturing out of their rooms, except for long handholding trips to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettle’s Yard, Heffers or the Arts Cinema. They seemed to spend almost all their time naked, sharing a single bed. Occasionally they would eat, ravenously, bowls of cornflakes or slices of toast first thing in the morning, bizarre cooked lunches such as pasta with fried carrots, hastily prepared in their rooms from whatever ingredients happened to be on hand, or takeaways which they rushed out to buy late in the evenings. Peter never had such an appetite again. Joy never went such long periods without food.

Twenty years later they were still together - but everything else had changed. They never made love any more.

They lived in a converted lighthouse on the edge of a white cliff, overlooking the Channel. Civilisation was near at hand - there was a dual carriageway within a couple of hundred yards - but they never had any visitors. They went shopping once a week. Other than that, they scarcely spoke to another soul. They didn’t even possess a television. Joy had her radio, and Peter his computer. Joy was now obesely fat, while Peter was unpleasantly scrawny. He was almost completely bald, and as if to compensate he had grown a goatee beard, which she secretly hated. He went running along the clifftops every day to keep himself fit. She thought it ridiculous of him. When he came back, scarlet in the face and popeyed, breathing in whooshes and glistening with sweat, she could scarcely bear to look at him. She disliked the little pool of moisture which collected in the hollow at the base of his throat. She didn’t like the smell of his hot body, either.

Joy never took exercise of any description. She never even climbed to the top of the tower. When they first arrived she had tried to start a garden, but the constant buffeting wind, loaded with sea spray, killed everything she planted, so she gave up.

Apart from his daily run and his meals, Peter spent all his time alone on the top floor, in a bare octagonal room sided with glass, where the lights and reflectors had once been housed. Now it was equipped with a computer and a telescope.

He made his money from investments, which he handled via the Internet. This only took him four or five hours per day. Originally, his plan had been to work on his investments in the morning, and his maths in the afternoon. He had been struggling to perfect a theorem of his own ever since he graduated: something to do with the effects of human observation on probability.

But then he lost interest in the problem. His computer, and the views from his windows, began to distract him. He was an environmentalist, and he began to scrutinise the outside world through his telescope, or trawl the Internet, for evidence of environmental decay. Soon he could recognise detritus and filth wherever he looked. He gave up his mathematical researches entirely. They no longer seemed important.

From his vantage point at the top of the tower, Peter could observe a great sweep of the sea. There was never a moment during the day when less than three boats were in sight. Roll-on roll-off ferries and hovercraft came and went from the nearby port. Huge rusty-looking oil tankers crawled along the horizon. And the lighthouse was under a flight path too, which meant that on cloudless days there were always a couple of aircraft to be seen, glittering in the air.

Inland, the landscape was badly scarred by the dual carriageway, which had been a simple main road when he and Joy first arrived. There was a roundabout, and alongside the roundabout had materialised first a garage, then an out-of-town superstore, then a huge red do-it-yourself emporium, then a bedding centre, and eventually a whole conglomeration of chainstores.

The rest of the landscape was still mostly fields; but in the last fifteen years most of the hedgerows had vanished. Small fields had been merged into larger ones. Livestock had disappeared from the open air into huge concrete-and-steel barns. Even the crops had changed: the early summer months were now dominated by blazing yellow fields of rape.

Peter viewed all these changes with deepening gloom. In his mind he pictured the whole planet as an expanded version of what he could see from his windows: a natural landscape defaced by the works of man.

At first they intended to have children as soon as possible, but nothing materialised in the first couple of years, so they started to tell people they were holding on till they were more financially settled. After another three years they both began to think there must be a problem. Then Joy finally did fall pregnant, only to have a miscarriage, followed a year and a half later by an ectopic pregnancy.

“Oh well,” said Peter, as a way of comforting her. “It’s a shitty old world anyway. Who wants to bring children into a shitty old world like this?”

He seemed to have lost interest, not only in starting a family, but in sex too. That was when Joy really started to put on weight. Eventually she got up to eighteen stone. She ate three square meals a day, plus a dessert with her lunch, and in-between times she snacked on chocolates or sweet biscuits. Every evening she opened a bottle of wine to share with her husband, drank most of it herself, and went to bed with a nightcap of Courvoisier or Tia Maria.

It wasn’t that she and Peter weren’t close. He spent a lot of time at the top of the tower, but he came down for his meals, and by eight o’clock he was finished. She saw more of him than she would have done if he’d worked in the city, for example. And he talked to her. Most of her news of the outside world came through him. She never paid attention to the news on her radio; she was only interested in the music; but Peter, when he came down, would tell her what he had seen from his windows or discovered via the Internet. Tales of environmental destruction. Her vision darkened in accordance with his.

At night he always turned his back on her to go to sleep. She slept on the left side of the bed, and he was most comfortable curled up on his right. On moonlit nights, because he was so thin, she could see the knobs of his vertebrae sticking out. He always fell asleep immediately, while she sometimes lay awake for hours. And he never dreamed, whereas she had vivid dreams almost every night. She dreamed she was pregnant, or else they already had a child. Sometimes the child was lost, and she was searching for it along the edge of the cliff, while Peter sat upstairs with his computer and his telescope, not caring. Sometimes the cliff was crumbling and the tower was toppling into the dirty grey waves below.

If she couldn’t sleep, or if her dreams woke her, she would get up in the middle of the night and go to the kitchen for a slice of cake, or another nightcap. Peter never stirred. It was no good trying to wake him up for the sake of conversation, either. She would have had to shake him and poke him for ages. He could sleep through thunderstorms or anything. It was almost like a coma.

One week the car broke down on the day they were due to go shopping. That night there was only enough food for a plain evening meal of pasta and sauce, with no dessert to follow and nothing to snack on afterwards. The freezer in the basement was completely empty except for a few frozen vegetables. There was no bottle of wine, either. Joy was ravenous.

She managed to find an old box of milkshake mix at the back of the cupboard, so she used up the last of the milk on that. She took the drink to bed with her and drank it through a glass straw, followed by the last of the brandy. But she couldn’t sleep. She got up after an hour and polished off the last of the Tia Maria, but she still couldn’t sleep.

Without sufficient food or alcohol, she became oppressed by thoughts she normally managed to keep at bay. It was a bright warm night, and Peter had pushed the duvet almost down to his waist. All the knobs of his backbone were plainly visible in the moonlight. The sight of them repelled and fascinated her. She began to think about sex, partly as a means of distracting herself. She remembered the sight of his large penis becoming erect, grotesquely thick and long in the middle of his scrawny body.

The empty tumbler which had held her milkshake was still sitting on her bedside cabinet, with the glass straw in it. Impulsively she took the glass straw and plunged it into her husband’s back, right into the spine, between two of the vertebrae. To her surprize it went in easily. He didn’t even wake. He gave a soft grunt, and his left hand, which lay on the pillow in front of his face, clenched convulsively.

She put her lips to the straw and sucked. Immediately, a thin jet of life-force squirted into her mouth, sweeter than chocolate and fiercer than brandy. Peter gave a sigh. She took a long drink. Her ill-feeling vanished. Eventually she withdrew the straw and replaced it in the tumbler. She could see the dark puncture between two of the knobs in her husband’s back, just below his neck, but otherwise there was no evidence of what she had done. He slept on, breathing deeply and evenly. Within a few seconds she was asleep too, deliciously asleep, and for once there were no dreams.

Next morning she was awake early and out of bed before Peter, which was unheard-of. She wanted to get the straw washed before he could see it. As it turned out there was only a little blood on it, but it might have been enough to make him suspicious. He slept an hour longer than usual, however.

When he came down he looked pale and tired. There were dark smudges under his eyes, and he kept rubbing his shoulders and the back of his neck. But he was unusually affectionate. He kissed her on the lips and gave her shoulder a warm squeeze before he sat down.

There was nothing for breakfast except a cup of tea. “I’ll walk into town and get you something to eat,” said Peter. “We can sort the car out afterwards.”

“No hurry.”

“I thought you’d be starving by now.”

“No, I feel fine.” To her own surprize, it was true. “Aren’t you going out for your run?”

“I don’t think I’m up to a run this morning. I don’t seem to have any energy. Perhaps I’m getting a virus.”

He kissed her again as he left, and smiled tenderly into her eyes, seeming more affectionate than he had done for years. But when he came back three hours later, he was in a bad mood. He complained about the traffic, noise and petrol-fumes in the middle of town. And although much of his walk had been along a clifftop path, through comparatively unspoilt country, the path was strewn with litter, and he couldn’t help noticing how sparse the local populations of birds and butterflies seemed, compared with ten or fifteen years ago. He also objected to the weather, which was unseasonably bright and warm for the time of year - it was March. A sign of global warming, he declared grimly.

“What a shitty old world this is,” he said.

But Joy was impervious to his ill temper. All morning she had been thinking about the previous night, and every time she thought about it her heart beat faster with excitement.

“Did you get any more of that milkshake mix?”

“No - why? I didn’t know you were using it.”

She blushed. “I drank some last night. It was nice. I might make a habit of it, instead of a nightcap.”

“I’ll get you some next time I go out,” said Peter, observing her blushes. They made her look girlish and pretty. It never occurred to him to wonder what she was blushing about.

He was in a bad mood again by the time he came downstairs that evening - having been observing the world from his windows, and gathering information from the Internet, in his usual jaundiced fashion - but he found Joy looking even prettier and younger than before, and he noticed at suppertime that she took only a modest helping of the main course, with no dessert.

“Are you on a diet, Joy?”

“No, not really. I’m just not very hungry.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. I feel a bit - sort of - excited and flustered, but I - I don’t know what the reason is.”

That night she repeated the experiment. She had been thinking about it all day, at one moment telling herself she’d better not do it again, at another making up her mind equally firmly to give it another try - but always with a beating heart and a dry mouth.

When they went upstairs, she took a glass of cold milk with her, complete with glass straw, reasoning that just because she had the glass straw with her, that didn’t mean she had to do anything with it. She sat up in bed and drank the cold milk with her heart pounding. She drank it in the dark, in small sips, and by the time she got to the end Peter was asleep as usual, rolled over on his side with his back towards her, the knobs of his spine showing above the duvet.

She could see the black puncture-mark just below the nape of his neck. It didn’t seem to have healed, or even formed a scab. From what she could see in the gloom, it was just a small round hole. It looked as if she could slip the glass straw into it without even having to push.

She took the glass straw and inserted it. Sure enough, it slid into place without any resistance. Peter gave a slight moan, as he had done the previous night, and once again his hand clenched on the pillow in front of his face. She leaned forward and sucked. The life-force gushed into her mouth, warm and delicious. Peter gave a sigh.

After that she did the same thing every night. Sometimes she tried to convince herself that she should leave it for a night or two, if only to give Peter a chance to recover, or to reassure herself that she wasn’t completely addicted. But she was. When the night came, and they went to bed, she couldn’t help it. She tried leaving the tumbler and straw downstairs, but she only had to go and fetch them.

The effect on Peter, physically, was frightening. He was wasting away before her eyes. He no longer went out running. He didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, but his movements were slow and feeble. Once he fell asleep on the toilet. His face became more and more haggard, his eyes sunken and ringed with black. His body had always been thin, but now it was emaciated. All the muscle tone was gone. His ears seemed to be getting larger. They stuck out grotesquely. Eventually, he even stopped going to the top of the tower.

“I can’t be bothered any more,” he said. “What’s the point? It only makes me depressed.”

Psychologically, he was undergoing a change of a different kind. Instead of expending all his mental energy on the state of the environment, he was refocussing his attention on Joy.

“You’re getting more beautiful every day,” he said.

And it was true. Her excess weight had melted away. Her body had attained a chubby, voluptuous firmness, all rich curves, her skin glowing and her hair shining with health. Her breasts were larger than before, and her nipples were darker, as if she were getting ready to breastfeed. Her senses were heightened too. She could smell things and hear things with exceptional acuteness. As spring turned to summer and the weather got warmer she took to sleeping naked, and the feel of the sheets against her bare skin filled her with shivers of excitement.

That was why it was so difficult to contemplate giving up the glass straw and her nightly drinks of life-force. She hated the thought of her old life, or rather her old lifelessness, buried in a sad mountain of desensitised flesh.

Then one night, when Joy inserted the straw and took her first sip, Peter failed to respond with his customary moan and sigh. The hand on his pillow remained unclenched.

She straightened and touched him on the shoulder. He felt cold. He didn’t seem to be breathing. Horrified, she pulled out the straw. “Peter!” she cried, shaking him. “Peter!”

Eventually he groaned and rolled over. “What’s the matter?”

“God, Peter, don’t do that to me! I thought - you didn’t seem to be breathing. For a minute I thought -” She put her hand on her breastbone and laughed with relief.

But Peter gazed at her in silence. His eyes were enormous and dark in the gloom, like two bruises in the vague pallor of his face. “Don’t stop what you were doing,” he whispered eventually.

Her heart gave a guilty lurch. “What?” she said loudly, then cleared her throat and added in a more normal voice, “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. I don’t want you to stop. I want you to go on.”

She couldn’t bring herself to reply.

“I want you to go on,” he repeated.

“I can’t Peter. I don’t want to stop, but I’ve got to. I thought you were dead just now.”

“I don’t care,” he whispered, still gazing at her. “I’m not bothered about that. Who wants to stay in this shitty old world anyway?”

“Don’t say that.”

He reached out under the duvet and touched her hip. His fingers were as cold as ice. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” he said. “To be inside you.”

Then he rolled over until his back was towards her again, the same as usual: the bumpy ridge of his spine arching away, with the little black hole just below the nape of his neck. She put the straw back in the glass, but then leaned over to kiss him on the wound, a light kiss, as if to say goodnight. A little of the life-force leaked onto her lips. She tasted it with the tip of her tongue, then kissed him again, this time with her mouth open, her tongue lapping the wound. Her head swam with the sweetness of it. She clamped her lips onto the place and sucked with her eyes closed, forgetting everything. For a moment there was a sense of obstruction, then Peter gave a loud gasp and threw himself backwards against her, legs stiffening. She felt his soul thump into her throat, like a bolus of fire. Before she could stop herself she had swallowed it. She felt it burning painfully inside her chest as it went down.

She sat up in bed, shakily wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, and switched on the bedside lamp. Beside her lay Peter’s corpse, still curled on its side, but shrunken and pale, reduced to a mere husk. She got out of bed and went round to the other side, to see if she could lift it. It weighed no more than a figure stuffed with newspaper. She dragged it out without much effort, and down the stairs to the basement.

In the basement was the big chest freezer, stuffed with all the food she no longer ate: legs of lamb, beefsteaks, chickens, packs of bacon, burgers, frozen vegetables and at least a dozen tubs of ice cream in a variety of flavours. She unpacked all the food onto the floor as quickly as she could. She had to chip out some of the lower packages, which were locked into the ice.

By the time she was finished it was five in the morning, and her hands were numb with the cold. She heaved the corpse into the freezer, and slammed the lid shut.

Her abdomen felt swollen and uncomfortable.

She climbed up the stairs from the basement, and instead of stopping when she reached the lower floors she kept going, climbing upwards. She hadn’t been right to the top for years, partly because of her weight and partly because Peter didn’t like to be disturbed. But now she had the whole tower to herself. She felt a sense of transgression and compulsion, the same mixture of emotions which had driven her to plunge the glass straw into her husband’s spine in the first place.

She reached the top. It was early morning, and the blueness overwhelmed her. She had been expecting to see Peter’s version of the world, dirty and overcrowded. Instead, she found herself in the middle of a huge blue empty space, vertiginous. Beneath her were the wrinkled sea, the white cliffs, the green landscape. Yes, there were glittering planes in the air; yes, there was a ferry on the sea, plus a tanker on the horizon; and yes, there was the road, thick with traffic even at this hour... But all the same... It was so much bigger and brighter than he had led her to believe.

It was warm, too, with the early sunshine pouring through the plate glass. She suddenly realised that she was immensely tired. She lay down flat on her back on the floor, and fell asleep.

She woke a couple of hours later. By this time it was getting hot, and her mouth was as dry as dust. The distension and discomfort in her abdomen were intensifying, too: in fact as she rose from the floor she experienced a spasm of cramp, followed by a wave of nausea. She opened one of the windows, to get a breath of fresh air. She heard the dull roaring noise of traffic from the dual-carriageway, pierced by the scribbling song of a skylark somewhere nearby.

Another spasm of cramp, and another wave of nausea. This time she really thought she was going to throw up. She hurried to the top of the stairs, pressing one hand to her mouth, and stumbled down the metal treads as quickly as she could, till she came to the bathroom.

By the time she got there, the nausea seemed insignificant by comparison with the pains in her abdomen. Something was trying to force its way out of her. She squatted over the toilet, almost fainting with agony. In the confusion of her senses, she didn’t know if she was passing a clot of blood from her womb or opening her bowels. She felt something big come out of her, and heard it fall into the water with a splash.

When she stood up and looked down, she saw that the bowl of the toilet was streaked with blood, and at the bottom there was a dark obstruction. After a moment she recognised it. It was Peter’s face, shrunken to the size of a doll’s, but at the same time swollen and vile, grimacing like a gargoyle. She pulled the chain. Clean water gushed into the bowl, but instead of whirling and draining away, it slowed dreamily and rose up, right up to the rim, as if it were going to spill out onto the floor. Peter’s face came floating towards her, and she saw the eyes move. She stepped back with an exclamation of disgust. Then the water sank, and gurgled away round the U-bend.

She flushed the toilet again. The gore and muck disappeared. Peter was gone. The water ran clean.

Later, she went down to the basement. The floor was puddled with melted icecream, which had seeped out of the cartons after she threw them down. The meat had begun to thaw too. She smelt the rank smell of blood mingled with the sickly-sweet odours of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. She picked her way through the mess and opened the lid of the freezer. It was empty.

Shortly after the loss of her husband, Joy experienced symptoms of the menopause, and soon she began the second stage of her womanhood. She put some of her weight back on, but only some. She ate freely, but no longer felt the need to fill an emotional void. As for Peter, she almost forgot him. Sometimes she caught herself wondering if he had ever really existed.

She began to spend more and more of her time out of doors. She planted a hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn all round the perimeter of the lighthouse garden, to get some protection from the sea breezes; and once this had established itself, her efforts as a gardener began to meet with success. She learned to grow plants which were suited to her environment - small, tough, some of them not far removed from weeds.

Every day she climbed to the top of the tower. She never looked at the computer, but walked all round the windows, gazing at the sky, the sea, the land, all the moods of the weather, and the various types of traffic coming and going. She never ceased to be surprized and refreshed by the size of the outside world, now that she was seeing it for herself.

© 1999 by Edward Picot