A story about stealing, cooking, willies, stuff like that. The Edinburgh Review published this last year.
Dorothy Pugh lives two doors down. For some time now she has been effecting a slow transfer of objects from my house into hers. It started with a recipe book. I was in her kitchen clutching a mug of coffee and this recipe book was on the breakfast bar between us. It was mine, I knew it well, it had a water ripple through the pages and a spine-break at the paella page. Spanish Countryside Cuisine. "Spanish Countryside Cuisine," I said out loud, thinking that Dorothy would realise and blush and tell me that she'd borrowed it and forgot to say and did I mind and could I advise her please on her paella because she'd tried and tried and the consistency just didn't match mine? But she just did this sleepy smile, touched the book as if it was a nice dog and said, "Oh my God, ever since Malaga I have just been craving boquerones en escabeche." Then she picked it up and put it on the shelf of her Welsh dresser, next to a dried-flower arrangement that I recognised from the alcove in my spare bedroom. When I went back home and surveyed my house I noticed other things were missing: two hand towels, a boxed Dundee cake, one of the sofa cushions and my husband's golf clubs. I am keeping abreast now and I know that she steals something every time that she comes round. I also think that she has had a set of keys cut, so that she can steal things when I am not there; and that my husband has been helping her with some of the heavier items.
I started keeping a log book. But then Dorothy Pugh stole my fountain pen.
She comes round for coffee, day after day. It's a habit. I imagine that's what she tells people: "Poor thing two doors down, I do drop in, it's a habit." I have a strong suspicion (strong enough that I can see it reel by in my mind like a scene from a film) that early in our marriage my husband Had A Word with Dorothy Pugh, and made the suggestion that She Might Pop In On Me. "You might pop in on her. Old stick, gets tetchy, you know, solo, all hours. Might you pop in? So kind. Busy woman like you." Each day I wait anxiously for her to arrive: I bite my nails and arrange the items on the table so that it looks as if I have been making a soup. I have in fact been making a soup, but it doesn't really look as if I have - or not in a good way. So I put the onion in a nicer position and I hide the OXO cube foil.
I wait anxiously for her to arrive and then once she arrives I wait anxiously for her to leave.
You would not think to look at us that Dorothy would want my things. You might rather expect it to work the other way round. I am a shaggy sort of woman, I have spread outside my clothes, I have not bought new ones, I have allowed my hair to donkey. Dorothy is angular and blonde. She clicks when she walks, and it is something she makes jokes about, ruefully, as if it is a humiliating flaw. I think she does this in order to draw attention to how thin she is. My bones, see how they stick out, it's so problematic being fragile like me! Walking behind her on the stairs I wish things upon her and her bones: ARTHRITIS, OSTEOPOROSIS. I walk behind her on the stairs because I follow her in an effort to limit her stealing. "I'm going to use your bathroom, sweetheart," she says, and I jump up and follow: I just need to fetch my reading glasses, I say, or set the alarm clock, or see about the cat. Click, click, click go the backs of her knees. I stand breathless on the landing while Dorothy Pugh pees, I listen tight-headed for the tiny whisper of her wiping, but following her doesn't seem to make any difference. Still in her wake there are gone things. As the door shuts behind her latest visit, and the heat fades from her lipstuck coffee cup, I notice the latest gaps. Clean dustless spaces on the mantle where once sat souvenirs. Unfaded square shapes on the wallpaper, missing the pictures that made them. I spider the house, touching where things aren't. How is she doing it. How are you doing it. How is she doing it, Dorothy Pugh.
I made a mistake: I told her that my husband had a very large penis, a penis so large that it was uncomfortable for me to have sex with him especially in certain positions which happened to be the ones he most liked and so we had basically stopped. (I'd had a gin.) You should never tell another woman that your husband has a problematically large penis. She will make a sympathetic face at the time but thereafter she will think about it and think about it and then one day she will go round when you're out and he's in and she will lean on a doorframe and bite her lip.
I couldn't get pregnant and I couldn't stop myself from thinking that it was because his very large penis was causing rearrangements inside me, even though I know bodies don't work like that, or probably they don't. So we tried to adopt this Chinese girl, but it didn't work out. She had a face so simple and perfect that it was like a face sketched in a steamed-up window, but she screamed and screamed when I held her and eventually the lady came back and said The Chemistry Just Wasn't Right.
There is a very large pile of unopened letters on the table by my front door, because I have stopped opening them. It is because opening them often leaves me feeling anxious, whereas not opening them doesn't. Dorothy, gliding by once, noticed the pile. She stopped and fingered it curiously. "Sweetheart," she said. "Some of these have big red capital letters on them, you know." She beamed. Questioningly. I shrugged. Answeringly. I think that was the day she took away the iron with her. The house is beginning to look as naked and bony as the inside of an umbrella. And I worked hard on it, on its fusses and nice things. We lived well. My mother would say that, when she visited. She would throw her eyes around and say, "You live well," in the sort of voice that one might use to say, "You live like pigs."
(My husband, you should know, is the kind of man who if someone mentioned pigs in the context of their being dirty would declare smugly that "pig is in fact a clean animal." He is always pleased about being right.)
You will be wondering why he married me in the first place. I know you will be wondering, because it is the question that is written across every person that we meet together (which is not very many persons). The answer is that my husband stole a very great deal of money from a company that he worked for, and got away with it by having a nervous breakdown. I was a psychiatric nurse at the time, and I looked after him; he married me when he was still quite drugged. What I remember about our wedding is a great sea of baffled faces and then at night in bed him blowing outwards like a monster during it - hoo hoo hoo - and falling very quickly asleep after. I stroked my own hair in the dark. On the walls there were these sort of plaster horns with pretend flowers coming out of them, and they cast long twisting shadows every time a car went past outside. My mother didn't come to the wedding. She looked at the photos, blew smoke on them, and said, "You did well," in the sort of voice that one might use to say, "You killed somebody."
I go into the living room and stand staring at the lawn with the leaves trembling on it. It isn't autumn but all the leaves have come off the tree anyway, meaning, I suppose, that it has a disease. While I am through there, I hear some clanking which reveals to me that Dorothy Pugh or somebody to whom she's loaned her keys is taking quite a number of the remaining items out of the kitchen: the microwave, the cafetiere, the egg timer. Under the circumstances I feel that I should look for some help, so I decide to visit the house next door, the one that squats between me and Dorothy. I leave through the front door while the items are being carted out the back. The house next door is occupied by a couple who live as if it is the 1950s. The man has gunky upright hair and the woman is taller than him and big in the hips and wears a lot of lipstick and gingham. She does her hair in victory rolls. She even takes the rubbish out with her hair in victory rolls. The 1950s couple trawl charity shops for period kitchenware as if it's their occupation. I see them returning sometimes, when I'm at the window, and they grin and wave a piece of Bakelite at me. I know from conversations over the years that they do own a DVD player, but grudgingly, and only so that they can glean interior decoration tips from Doris Day films. I don't mind them. Dorothy Pugh wrinkles her nose at them. I suppose they don't have anything she wants.
I knock on the door of the 1950s couple. It takes a long time for the door to be answered and while I'm waiting, I shift from foot to foot and bite the back of my hand. I'm throwing glances over at my house, which is moving about on the inside, like a person who is dreaming. The 1950s man opens the door. His eyes look out at me very wide.
"Hey, mama," he says to me. There's a smell of heavy smoke behind him.
"Hi. Hi. I live over there. I've -"
"Well, I've got a little problem."
"I know about problems. You should come in," he says, throwing his arm out behind him. Behind him is dark. I follow him in. We go through the hallway and into their living room. Their house is the same shape as mine, but they still have all of their possessions, which are mostly space-age-looking and pale pink or pale minty green. They have china cats, and plastic flower arrangements, and velvet portraits of heavily-made-up Oriental women. The curtains are all closed even though it's still day outside. His smoke is all over the air. There is something burning in the ashtray. I sit down thumpishly in a space-age-looking pale minty green chair.
"They are taking my things," I say.
He picks up the thing he's smoking, and sits down too, in a space-age-looking pale pink chair, which squeaks under him. Once he is sitting in it, he sort of waddles it closer to me. Making a lemon-face, he sucks down smoke.
"There's a lot of that goin' on," he says. "A lot of disrespect. A lot of HEXPLOITATION."
"Hexploitation's what I call it, mama. There's a hex on the people. They watch us, don't they? They want what we've got. Can't you feel it?"
I'm looking around the room while the 1950s man is talking, and I realise that this is a room in which a woman has not been for some time. The china cats wear lacy caps of dust that make them look like tiny nuns, and there are butts stubbed out in the pots of the fake plastic cacti. There's an old yellowness on everything, and a smell - the kind of smell that happens in a very unclean fridge. He is still talking. "They won't stop," he's saying, "until we're stripped bare." I flinch at this and turn back to look at him. "Until we're nude!" he says. He says it like the start of 'noodle'. Laughing with his mouth wide open, he passes the big loose joint to me. I take it awkwardly. His hands free, he claps them both on to my knees, and says it again: "Until we're nnnnuuude." He is behaving inexplicably, but at the same time there's something distantly familiar about the way he's looking at me. I only place it when his hands begin to travel up my thighs. You would think, wouldn't you, that one of the few advantages of being a woman of no charms whatsoever would be a general immunity from this sort of approach? You'd think a woman like me would be able to be alone with a man, and be safe. It isn't so. Ask any ugly, unkempt woman. Certain men have done a course in us and learned certain things. That we crave attention. That we have no self-protective strategies. That we don't have sharp nails, or jealous boyfriends, and that to the touch with eyes closed, we're not all that different from the good-looking ones who'll give them the runaround and know exactly how to hurt them in the crotch. If you have a daughter, don't bother warning her off low-cut dresses and wiggly walks. Warn her off matted hair and misbuttoned cardigans. Warn her off unplucked brows. They send the wrong message. They say that you're available. They say that you don't care what happens. I draw on the wet end of the joint and the smoke hisses into me and rasps at my palate.
"Where your wife is?" I ask him, mixing my words because of the smoke and also because his hands are rubbing my legs as if he is trying to mould them into a different shape. A fly buzzes near the window.
"Daisy's not my wife," he says. "She's a hip lady, a real hip lady, but she's not my wife." He's pushing his head into my neck as he's talking, and the words are muffled. "If she was my wife, she'd still be here, wouldn't she?"
I don't have time to ponder this logic, because his hands are trying to get into me and no-one has been in that area for a long time and it is making me make noises. His face near my face smells very old, as if he has been underground. The room is getting darker and I'm wondering if there can possibly by now be anything at all left in my house. I struggle him off me. 'This isn't what I came here for,' I say. "I wanted you to help me."
"What makes you think this wouldn't help you?" he says, scrambling at the front of his trousers. While he is plucking out his penis, I whip to my feet, knocking over the space-age-looking pale minty green chair. I run for the door, into the hallway, past the kitchen where the smell is even stronger, to his back door, which is guarded by a plastic hula-hula girl hatstand who swings her grass skirts at me in surprise. I still have the joint in my hand. It's dark over the 1950s couple's scabby back yard. I burst out and land on the pavement outside my house as if I have been spat. There's a big white van there with its motor running. On the side of it it says RIGHT MOVE! in speedy letters with an arrow through them. My husband's car is parked behind it. He and Dorothy Pugh are standing next to it, both smoking cigarettes and smiling. They have their arms twisted around each other's backs and fronts so that you can't tell whose is whose except that his are hairier. His eyebrows slide up his head and he says, "There you are," as if I am all that was required to complete their happiness.
"It's all done now," he says. "It's all as we arranged."
I nod my head hard, hiding the joint in my fist.
"It looks a bit bare in there!" laughs Dorothy Pugh. "We're sorry about that!"
"I am quite sure that both of you deeply are," I say, and we all nod solemnly at each other. Then a deep soreness strikes the back of my throat and tears start to run down my face very fast and in surprising volume. My husband looks distraught. "It's all as we arranged!" he says again, in protest. Dorothy Pugh's face snaps shut. "WE NEED TO GO. NOW. DARLING," she says. In perfect harmony, they both drop their cigarette butts on the gravel and grind them out with their heels. I look up at my husband's big face, and I place the damp crumpled joint in my mouth. "Will you light this, before you go?" I say.
Looking surprised, he takes out a lighter that belongs to me and lights the end of the joint, while Dorothy Pugh watches with a mouth like an asterisk. And then the van moves off, and they get in the car behind it and go.
Breathing in, I look at my back door, and I look at the 1950s man's back door, which seems to still be trembling. I wonder where Daisy is. The smoke is heavy and soft in my brain. I squidge the roach on the gravel, next to the two dead cigarette butts of my husband and Dorothy Pugh. I go back into my house. They have turned all the lights out before leaving, as if no-one lives here any more, and in the blue dusky living room there is nothing at all but my sewing stool. It's a stool that you can flip open, and inside there are needles. There once was a pouffe and a cushion that went with it, but they have gone. Through the wall, I hear the sound of surf guitars, and then the 1950s man shouting, 'YEAH. That's RIGHT. Fuck YOU, you fucking BITCH.'
The stool looks stupid, all on its own. I sit down on it, to make it feel better. I sit down on top of the needles.