ALISON LITTLEWOOD

 “My kisses send a man to Hell,” read the ad. And I’d have thought little of it. There were lots of new ads in the phone box that night, and of frankly better quality – some of them were even laminated! Whereas this one was just a bit of card, and it didn’t even have a fancy background or a font. And it’s not much of a promise, really – I’ve read far more imaginative things, ads that claim that just one little drop of her sex and your soul will be hers, that you’ll become the slave of Madame X, the plaything of Mistress Y, aspire to be nothing more than the boot licker of Baroness Z and her coterie of sexy young Baronesses-in-waiting. Kissing doesn’t sound very good; kissing sounds a bit playground.

 But it wasn’t the way the promise was worded, more the way it was buried beneath the rest of the ad, so it didn’t read much like a promise at all, more a sort of embarrassed apology. There was the usual guff above it: ‘Attractive and Busty! Call for Satisfaction and Pleasure beyond your wildest Dreams! (Hand jobs a specialty!)’ And then, in smaller print, and so very sober, without even the hint of an exclamation mark: ‘NB. No kissing permitted. My kisses send a man to Hell.’ The way an ad for a used television would admit that the remote control was missing, or the special two for one offer at the pizza restaurant did not include pizzas.

 Intriguing or inept? Who could say? And for a while, I suppose, I got it wrong; I went back home to Sandra and to Jamie and I tried to forget all about it. But the thought of that card and that strange warning nagged away at me, and it was as much as I could do not to say to Sandra, late as it was, I need to go out to the all night supermarket, I need to pick up some groceries – but I couldn’t think of any groceries that seemed credibly urgent, and besides, it was just a bit of cardboard in a phone box, it really wasn’t even one of the nice ones. And I lay next to Sandra that night as she slept, and I was wide awake, and I kept on telling myself that at any moment I’d be able to slip out from her arms, get dressed, get in the car, get out – get back home with the card before she noticed. But I didn’t dare, and I’d think about what it could mean, kisses sending men to Hell, what would that feel like? And I broke a rule the next day; in the lunch hour I went back to the phone box, and it was broad daylight, and I never go looking in broad daylight, it’s just outside the school gates for Christ’s sake, and me in my tie and jacket, what would people say if I were caught? I’d get straight into the phone box – maybe I could pretend I was making a phone call, how about that? – yes, straight into the box, find the card, grab it, get out – and that was the plan, keep my eyes peeled to see no one was looking – and in I went, my heart beating so hard, as if I were actually going to phone the woman, as if I could do that to Sandra, oh, as if – and for a second I panicked, the card was gone, someone had already taken it! Someone else had come in, someone else who wanted to go to Hell, and I hated him so much, that man with dreams of damnation so much less hesitant than mine – there was something bigger and bolder where the card had been, and it had a photo on it of a woman in a mortar board sucking the end of a whip, and the old connoisseur in me would have once have been rather stirred – but not now, I didn’t want to see that slut, I wanted Little Miss Grey Cardboard, Little Miss Dull Font, the hell kisser, my slut – and I hit the phone with frustration, and looked down, and there it was, I saw it, there it was on the ground, it had fallen off, or maybe it had been pulled down by the mortar boarded woman and her whip, it didn’t matter, I was staring at it, it was mine. I bent down. I bent down, closer to the fag ends and the puddle of lager and the dirt, I picked up the card, I wiped it clean. I took the trouble to wipe it clean, I put it in my pocket, I hurried away.

 I want you to understand – I need you to understand – this is only a hobby. I don’t do anything wrong. I never take any of the cards. I just like the look of them. I like to read the new ones, yes, admire them a little, admire the way they’re worded, the different ways the items on offer are sold – I don’t take the cards, I love Sandra very much, and I’d do nothing to hurt her, and she might go through my pockets one day and find them, and then where would I be? Or at work, even worse – a card might drop out in the staff room, right in front of the headmaster, or in front of Mrs Daubeny, what would that do to her hatchet face! – no, really, it could happen. And if I do take a card, it is ever so infrequently, and only if it’s a special card that repays closer examination, I’d never phone the number on it. After all, what would I say? I wouldn’t know what to say. Most likely I’d just hang up. I might wait for a bit first, then hang up – first, I’d hear the voice on the other end, hear her primp and pout and try to sell herself, see whether she’d use the exact same words on the card, and they do sometimes! it’s so funny, it sounds so artificial! – and so I might have the card by my side to read along, the special cards, the cards where there’s a good photo, and I’d stay silent, imagine those increasingly impatient ‘hello’s and ‘is anyone there’s being formed by big red lipsticked mouths. But I wouldn’t say anything, and if I were ever to do so, it’d be very innocent, I’d express sympathy for them, I’d tell them I was sorry they were reduced to this level of employment, I’d be kind, I’d be friendly. And I’d never ask to meet them. That, of course, would be bang out of order.

 But this time I did take the card. And I did phone. And I set up a date, for the very next afternoon.

 She wanted to meet somewhere public. She promised she’d look discreet. And so she was, reassuringly discreet, emphatically discreet. We met in a cafe she chose, and it wasn’t too close to the school, so I thought that was all right, and she ordered a cappuccino and a rock cake. She was wearing some make-up, but it was very normal make-up, there wasn’t even any nail varnish, and I suppose that was good, and she wore an anorak, and she wasn’t even young, she was nearly middle aged, she must have been in her thirties. The voice had sounded a bit breathy on the phone, like they always do; now, when it came out of this plain plump woman it just sounded a bit tired. She had a nice face. She had a nice face, at least, and she smiled as I sat down and joined her. “Are you disappointed?” she asked, and I assured her I wasn’t. “Thank you,” she said. I assured her I had no expectations  whatsoever to be disappointed by. “Thanks,” she said.

 She began talking then, about what was available, lots of facts and figures I wasn’t interested in. “What about the kissing?” I said. She stopped, sort of sighed at that. Told me that it was all right, there’d be no danger. She always had the mouth bandaged up so there was no chance of contact; it made her voice a bit more muffled, but some clients liked that. She began on again about cleanliness, and I had to interrupt her once more, “Tell me what you mean by the kissing.” She bit deep into her rock cake, shrugged, gave a kind of apologetic smile. She explained she’d had this curse since birth – one brush of her lips, and the poor recipient was going to Hell. But she hastened to add, her fingers, all ten of them, whatever they got up to, they were safe and utterly without taint. “How do you know they go to Hell?” I asked, and she said, a girl knows, a girl just knows. I asked her how much she’d charge for a kiss. I asked whether a kiss might be possible. Against her rules or not, if it were my decision, if I accepted the consequences, if I assumed full and complete responsibility, would she snog me? She looked away from me, she said, very quietly, yes. I asked her if anyone had ever dared buy her kisses before. She said, still quiet, still not looking at me, “You all do. Every single one of you.”

 We agreed to meet the next day. And I decided that before then I had to put my affairs in order.

 I went back to the school. I was teaching the fifth form Wordsworth for their GCSE exams. They hated Wordsworth, and to show solidarity, I now hated Wordsworth too. I told them I wouldn’t be in tomorrow. I told them they’d get a substitute teacher. They all liked the sound of that, oh, how their faces lit up! I’d have been offended, but I couldn’t blame them, it wasn’t personal, they were sick of the sight of me, they needed a change. I didn’t tell them they’d never see me again – that the substitute teacher would be forever, that would have spoilt their fun, because as soon as a substitute becomes the real thing it is just as drab and dull as any normality, I couldn’t inflict that on them, let them be happy a little while longer. I cleared my desk. I didn’t set them any homework. “Take the evening off,” I advised them. “Go nuts.”

 And I went home to Sandra and Jamie. Sandra had defrosted us all some pizzas. Mine had pepperoni, and Jamie wanted pepperoni, but he never wants a full pepperoni, so I had to give him some of mine. He studded his own plain margarita with the little red discs of sausage and then stabbed them down deep into the dough so it looked like they’d always been there. When he went to bed I asked him if he wanted me to read him a story. I don’t read him stories very often – no, he said. “But would you like me to?” I asked, “I will, I don’t mind, anything you like,” and he just said he was tired. I tucked him in, and he seemed surprised by that. And, I think, pleased? “You know I love you very much,” I said. “And if anything happens to me, I want you to remember that. Oh, and remember what I look like, too.” He promised he would. “And be a good boy for Mummy,” I added.

 And downstairs to Sandra I went. She was watching television. I asked what it was, and she said she didn’t know. I asked her if she was enjoying it, and she said yes. I asked her if we could talk, and she said we could talk in the commercial breaks, but it was the BBC, there weren’t any commercial breaks, and I had to sit with her and watch this cop thing for nearly an hour. I got bored. I began to rub her feet. “Mmm,” she said. At the end of the programme I asked her if she loved me; I loved her, I said, did she know that?; I loved her very much, did she know how much? “Yes,” she said, and I didn’t know what the ‘yes’ was in answer to. I asked her what would happen if one day, say, I left her, and she laughed and said, “Where would you go?” And I said, what if I did, what would happen, shouldn’t we draw up a will? She said she’d get it all anyway, what was the point? And I told her I wanted mt brother to have my old Rupert the Bear annuals, and she said fine. I tried to pick a fight with her, told her she was taking me for granted; told her that if my Ruperts ended up in an Oxfam after all I’d come back and haunt her – but she didn’t notice, or did notice but didn’t care, by this time she was watching the news. I wondered whether I would be on the news tomorrow, if that was how she’d find out. – And I supposed it wouldn’t make the national news, not unless the kiss was very explosive, but I might get into the local paper. I asked her if we could go to bed. I asked her if we could make love. I asked her if we could make love, the way we used to, in the old days, when we thought nothing could ever stop us, we’d defy her parents and mine and the teachers at school, and just as soon as we were old enough we’d be free and they wouldn’t be able to hold us back, nothing would be dull again. She said she was tired. But we could kiss for a bit. So we kissed. And it was pretty good, but not good enough to send me to Hell, it wasn’t worth a damn.

 I got ready the next day the same way I always did, I didn’t want to look suspicious. But I brushed my teeth a bit harder, I wanted to make my breath nice. I went to her, I rang the doorbell to her flat. She opened the door, welcomed me in – I thought she might have made a little more effort, but she was just in a T-shirt and jeans, and still no nail varnish, but she was wearing thicker lipstick, I’ll give her that. She showed me into her flat, and it really was very small. She asked if I wanted a drink, and I thought, why not, it’s not as if I’m going to drive anywhere afterwards! – and that made me laugh. I said I’d have what she was having. And she was having a tea. I sipped at my tea, and she sipped at hers, and I thought as I watched as her lips touch that tea – does that mean the tea has been kissed, does that mean she’s sending the tea to Hell? – and I thought, is there tea in Hell, will I have that comfort, at least? – and I thought, all that tea inside her mouth, and that’s where I’ll be following soon – and I thought, the tea’s taking all the lipstick off, so really, what was the point of the lipstick in the first place? “Well,” she said. “Well,” I agreed. “Shall we get to it?” she said.

 I asked her if I needed to take my clothes off, and she said that since it was just a kiss I needn’t bother. She said if I wanted her to take anything off she would, and I said, no, no, don’t put yourself out, and immediately regretted it, if I was going to die, shouldn’t I at least get a look at her tits? I sort of leaned in for the kiss, and thought, but shouldn’t she be leaning in to me? – and my heart was beating so wildly, and I wondered whether it was going to hurt, whether it’d be like a heart attack, or like something hot burning off my skin, or like gently falling to sleep. And she said, “You’d better pay me first.” Sorry, I said, sorry. And gave her the money. That seemed fair, I didn’t want her to have to go through my pockets when I was a corpse.

 She said, “You do understand this is your last chance to change your mind? That once it’s done, it’s done. You’re going to Hell, and nothing can stop that, not repentance, nothing.”

 And I said I understood.

 And she kissed me.

 It was a kiss. Just a kiss. There was a little bit of tongue, but I think for what I was paying she could have pushed it in a bit further. It was pleasantly soft. There was good breathing control. Look, I’m not saying she didn’t know how to do it, she had experience. There was an aftertaste of tea, and I couldn’t be sure whether it was her tea or mine.

 Then she pulled away. And smiled at me kindly. And that’s what I wanted then, I think, kindness. So I smiled back. “There you go,” she said.

 “That was very nice,” I said, and she nodded.

 She got up then, and turned from me. She strapped something on to her hair, pulled it tight into a bun. She put on a bit more lipstick, and I thought, don’t do it now, no point after the stable door has shut. After the horse has been put before the cart. After the horse has left the stable. I thought a lot about horses and carts and stables, and I didn’t quite know why, and I was frightened.

 “What happens now?” I asked.

 “How do you mean?”

 “How long will it take?”

 And she stared at me, and then she laughed.

 “God,” she said. “What do you think? You’re not going to die! You think you’re going to die?”

 I thought that was what this was all about.

 “Well,” she said, “I mean, you are going to die. Some time. You were always going to die, some time.”

 But I’d wanted something to change my life.

 She shook her head. “No, no, I don’t deal with changing lives. I’m just hand jobs and fucks and kisses. You’ve come to the wrong girl.” And I suppose I looked sad, and she stopped laughing. “Oh dear,” she said. “You’re going to Hell. I didn’t lie. You’re going to Hell, and it’s a real place, and there’s no escape from it. But not now. You’re not going to Hell today.”

 “So what do I do?” I asked, and I’m embarrassed to say, I began to cry.

 “That really isn’t anything to do with me,” she said, not unsympathetically. “Sorry.”

 I asked her if I could see her again, and she said there was no point, she could hardly send me to Hell twice. I asked her if I could see her again as a friend, and she said no. I asked her what her name was, but she wouldn’t tell me.

 “You’re something special,” I said. “You’ve got a talent. It’s an odd talent, granted. But it’s all yours. I thought I had something once. I’ve forgotten what it was. Don’t you forget.”

 I like to think she was touched by that, but I was still crying, so she probably wasn’t much. I went downstairs. I looked at the bell to her flat. It had three names by it, could three people really share such a small space? Stacey James, Mary Leech, Alison Littlewood. I don’t know which name was hers, but I liked Alison Littlewood best. Alison Littlewood, this is for you.

 On my way home I realised everything was different now. The future was decided. And I could do anything I wanted now, it didn’t matter, I’d already failed the exam. There was nothing to hold me back. If I didn’t go to school again, so what? If I wanted to burn down the school. Leave my wife, beat my kid. Destroy everything, and start all over. Destroy everything a thousand times, for as long as I had still to live.

 Sandra and Jamie were watching television. They didn’t look up as I came in. But I saw that Jamie was holding on to his mother tight, and she was leaning in to him.

 There was laughter from the television. Somebody had just fallen over into some gunge.

 I knew right then and there I was going to pack my bags and leave.

 They didn’t look up from the screen, as I said. Didn’t look at me. But Sandra shuffled to one side, and Jamie shuffled along too. They’d squeezed against themselves ever so close. And Sandra tapped at the empty space beside her.

 They wanted me there. They wanted me to belong. Not much, maybe, but they wanted it all the same. And I wondered if they looked at me whether they’d be able to tell the difference, my infidelity fixed fast upon my lips, eternal damnation for all to see. But if they weren’t going to look at me, if they weren’t ever going to look at me, it didn’t matter.

 And I sat down beside them on the sofa. It was a tight fit.

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