Art: Lady Vengeance
When Gloria was troubled, she often put it down to non-inflected Chinese verbs. In English, verb endings and verb spellings changed according to their tense and function: they told you what and when they were. In Chinese, the verbs stayed the same: you worked out the wheres and the whys and the wherefores through context. Many Englishmen struggled to understand this.
Englishmen, perhaps especially Gloria’s clients, griped at the scale required of Mandarin Chinese. You began each phrase with the greatest factor, the macro, and then you worked your way steadily towards the verb, becoming more and more specific. In Chinese, time and space were additional attributes to actions: actions floated free till pinioned by prepositions. Mr Davies, this morning, had got lost halfway through a sentence and shouted at her. That morning, on the second floor, on the emergency back staircase, in the darkness, Gloria had cried.
Perhaps that was what she found so comforting about The Great Attractor: he placed her in context – the most profound context possible. He looked at her over that great distance and told her where and what she was.
He was always teasing her about distance. “Distance is only speed by time,” he’d say, again and again, hoping she’d laugh. Then he’d tell her about speed: how the earth was spinning at a thousand miles an hour and circling the sun at sixty-six thousand. The solar system itself ploughed towards another set of stars at 44000mph and around the galaxy at 500000mph. To top it all, the Milky Way itself, he’d always say, was “loolapaloozing” its way across the universe at 1.3 million miles an hour. That was 5.8 million metres every second. Gloria was never sure whether she was supposed to be impressed by these numbers.
Distance might be what made their relationship but, while she’d admit that he was right to say that she was never in the same place twice (being now at least 5.8 million metres to the left), whenever she looked out of her downstairs window it was always Ishtar Close that stared back at her. She might be hurtling through the cosmos at unimaginable velocities, but to her mind she remained inescapably in Swindon.
He’d end their night-time conversations by telling her how much closer together they’d moved during its course. Last night, it had been 1.54 million miles.
Perhaps that was what bothered her about the photo: it set up an expectation that she couldn’t meet, at least in the short term. She knew that one day they’d be together, but that was so unimaginably far in the future that she didn’t tend to include it in her emotional calculations.
Placing the phone down dully on the plastic counter-top, she scooped up the sugar dragon – her usual gift to her first lesson learners – and dropped it back into the pan to crease back to flatness.
She hadn’t expected a naked cowboy.
That’s to say, when he’d suggested it last night, she did suspect that it would be a cowboy-related picture, rather than some sketchy photo. From their first exchange on the site – “Howdy, amigo!” – she’d accepted his desire to be seen as a Stetson-wearing maverick, the stranger riding into shot with the winds in silhouette against the hills of the prairie, a fleabitten donkey slowly turning a water-wheel in the foreground, a young boy watching with eyes filmed with fear – and no-one talking. It fitted him. He’d chosen it, just as he’d chosen this picture. So why was it upsetting?
Rain blinked on the window and against the security light of Number Six’s garage. Picking up the phone again, she dabbed at the photo with her thumbs, moving in and out, kneading it for threads of further detail. The smell of Mr Humbaba’s cigar began to push its way through the open vent into her downstairs. It must have been eight o’clock.
She could hear her friend Ellen, back in Beijing, hooting with glee: “You got a dick pic?!” she’d cry, both desperate for more information and automatically scathing. But it wasn’t like that.
She’d taken the sugar off the stove but forgotten that she’d done so. Now she’d have to chip it out of the pan. Or find another one. Her phone whirred.
“Did you like it?”
In truth, no, she didn’t.
“Ain’t I the handsome belvidere?”
Gloria lied that she was still upset from Mr Davies and that they’d talk tomorrow night. It’d be the first time that they hadn’t spoken in months.
The following day, Gloria’s one booked lesson cancelled. She’d been expecting this. It was one of her trophy sessions, teaching the wives of the businessmen learning Survival Mandarin even more basic Survival Mandarin; she wouldn’t be through the door before they were saying how young she was, how brave she was for moving to such a different country. Gloria found their wide houses, decorated with flailing blue, red and gold pieces of porcelain, uncomfortable.
They usually only lasted two or three lessons, these women. Sometimes, as with this lady, they wouldn’t even get to the first, finding something else more diverting in their life than a little linguistic novelty. Gloria didn’t mind: they paid for a course of ten hours upfront, and she was never offended when the email came regretting that it wasn’t convenient for their next meeting – some crisis of work or child or whatever it was these women did. They didn’t feel guilt at having overpaid for an hour’s company of the fat, quiet, Chinese girl. No doubt they were doing her a favour. Their husbands didn’t stick any longer, in general – but they got frustrated rather than evasive.
Gloria went to the Library instead. She needed to return the DVD of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ which she’d watched to try to understand The Great Attractor better. It was one of those films where the dialogue had been added after the shoot: the actors’ mouths didn’t match their voices. Some days, she wondered if people said the same of her. It did explain, however, how Clint Eastwood could speak so clearly with a roll-up between his teeth.
She’d used the library to do her research on The Great Attractor back in September when they’d first started messaging one another. Wikipedia informed her that he was a gravitational super-anomaly in the Lanikae supercluster. Apparently, even though we couldn’t see what he was due to our own galaxy getting in the way, scientists had calculated that he must have the mass of ten thousand Milky Ways and that our own galactic neighbourhood was being drawn towards him at the speed of 1.3 million mph. But Gloria knew that already.
She also used the Library’s internet to call her parents in Beijing. The flat in Ishtar Close lacked a landline and Gloria chose to phone her mother specifically from the library to stop the shouting. Her mother had a fear of Western Dating Sites, part of her general terror that her only child would meet a man who was Not Chinese and leave them to live in far-off Europe for the rest of time.
Gloria’s mother’s preferred method of dealing with the terrible freedom of her only child was to shout hoarsely and repetitively at her from 5103 miles away that she was putting on weight. She was. She had not told her mother about The Great Attractor.
The Library, with its air of efficient neglect, was Closed for Staff Training. Gloria walked slowly to the supermarket instead to buy chocolate bars and a new pan. She couldn’t really afford it, but in her head she equated both solving her new difficulties with The Great Attractor and calming down Mr Davies with the creation of a sugar goldfish. Mr Davies, as an important international business executive of Swindon, had a tank of tropical fish in his office; she hoped he’d like it. She’d buy a fistful of Cadbury’s Crunchie Bars; the caramel honeycomb was just right for the golden scales. And she could eat the chocolate.
As she walked home along the pavement of the dual-carriageway, the cumbersome pan in its plastic carrier bag knocking against her calves, she reassured herself that she hadn’t given The Great Attractor any hint that she’d wanted more – nothing, in fact, to warrant the strange photograph.
They’d tried to be honest with each other from the beginning. Once she’d glimpsed the truth of him, she’d asked why he’d chosen to make contact now? And why with her? Why not stay in the dark, out on the empty prairie amidst the blown straw of matter and the cobweb rope bridges between galactic arms? Was he lonely?
He wasn’t lonely. He had Norma. She was, he told her rather archly, almost as heavy as he was and hidden, like him, in the Zone of Avoidance. But whereas he was a silent enigma, Norma was prone to belching out excited radio bursts and hiccupping gamma rays, like some amusing maiden aunt given to drink and gossip at the saloon and earning a living by taking in work in the floor over the General Store.
Apparently, there were also the Huge Large Quasar Group, The Great Void and the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall close by, but they weren’t great ones for conversation.
No, he wasn’t lonely. He’d chosen to talk because “no matter where you ride to, that’s where you are.” Which, when she thought about it, wasn’t very helpful.
He’d chosen her because… why not? He knew it was a little unusual. Was the distance a problem? She’d said no at the time. She passed the Cantonese Take Away in the gap-toothed set of shops at the mouth of the Woodloes Estate. When she’d first arrived, eight months ago, she’d gone in, homesick for food and recognisable chatter. But the owners were from Hong Kong and they did not want to talk to her.
A month or so later, she’d started messaging a boy online who was also from Beijing, studying something in E-Technology at the University of Reading down the road. She’d enjoyed the fluency of their discussions, but when he’d started talking about direct rail links, she’d had to stop answering his emails.
Gloria was happy to hold the world at a distance, to brush and bob clumsily against it, close but not touching. There were the brief moments of fairy-light excitement as the phonescreen lit up with another message, but really that was all she needed. Anticipation was sufficient.
Walking into Ishtar Close, she thought of all the films she’d watched over the last few months; would the photo have fitted any of them? “Howdy, amigo,” The Great Attractor had said. Now, she knew that the proper way to a woman’s heart was to walk into a half-deserted town known only to the wind and the taste of the desert, the buildings thrown up in fragments like blasted trees, to find which was the saloon, swing in through the doors, walk up to the silent barman in his waistcoat and rolled-back sleeves, eyes following the soft crunch of your heels in the sawdust, and take a whiskey, knock it back and then, and this was the important bit in the film for you, then you turned and looked at you: to you, you alone in the whole town, would he give his words.
Her key stuck momentarily in the Yale lock. You didn’t say “Howdy, amigo.” That was for a friend. She backtracked in her mind: she knew he wanted only to be friends. He’d said early on that he was a man looking for men. “A dick pic from a gay gravitational anomaly who just wants to be friends?!” Ellen would screech tinnily from her screen. As she tried to force the bolt of the door, Gloria calculated that since she’d left the house that morning, she’d travelled 147.4 million miles towards him.
It’d been her maternal grandmother who’d taught her the skill of crafting the sugar people; 糖人 it was called. It was different to her usual two-dimensional painting: she had to add the third dimension by using a large molten lump of sugar and inflating it with a straw. It was less elegant, perhaps, but possibly more permanent than her febrile sticky strings of figure pictures.
Watching the caramel centres from the Crunchies dissolve into a pliable jewel, Gloria tidied her flat in preparation for her conversation with The Great Attractor. It didn’t take long. 1a, The Coach House, Ishtar Close, had been built eleven years ago as the boiler room for an extravagant communal ground-source eco-heating project, stuck onto the end of the row of garages to the back and side of the road. The system as an idea had been abandoned before the heat-exchanger had been installed and, eager to recoup costs, the foreman had thrown in a mezzanine, spiral staircase, toilet, shower and sink, and rented it out as single-bed flat, probably illegally.
Gloria liked it. She believed, rather hopefully, that the language company had rented it to remind her of back home. She’d been the only child on their floor. There were days in Swindon when she felt that she could open a door in the shower that took up her upstairs landing and step through it into another apartment where she’d find another door which led to another apartment and so on and so on, till she opened the last and stepped onto the floor of her own bedroom with her mother shouting at her that she was fat.
An added benefit of the heating system’s legacy was that her little space was thickly insulated and always warm. This too reminded her of home. There was one exception: the gap the absent duct was meant to have snaked its way through into the garages next door and which now only let in the smoke and mutterings of Mr Humbaba. She’d never spoken to him and made sure to be silent whenever he was nearby. From balancing on a stool that first night, she’d seen him come in at eight in the evening – that precise moment, according to his muttered soliloquy, when he could stand his wife’s petty-minded concerns no longer – sit in the folding camp chair at the centre of the concrete floor, smoke a cheap cigar with a look of disgust, read the Daily Mail with various accompanying explosions and righteous spittling, then throw it onto the pile of discarded paper all around him and prowl about for several minutes. He’d done that almost every night she’d been there.
Sometimes, Gloria heard shouting from his house, The Cedars. She knew that it was his house and that he was called Mr Humbaba because she’d seen his name on the electricity meter that nestled in the same cupboard as her own. He didn’t know she was living there. Because her door and window were around the back of the row of garages, it was quite likely that none of Ishtar Close knew she was there. If they saw her at all, they thought she was taking a short-cut across the fields behind, to and from the Cantonese Takeaway.
As she waited for the sugar to melt for her third attempt at the goldfish – the first was more of a meteor and the second was like an axe – she scrolled over the photo again with one thumb, the other hand absent-mindedly feeding her mouth with the discarded chocolate from the candy bars. She didn’t know what she felt.
You saw immediately, of course, that he was a cowboy. He had the hat with the dark bloom of sweat across the front and the broad brim in eclipse against the sun. And there were the boots – such boots! Boots of brown leather like old gourds, whirled with an inlaid snaking pattern of burnt blacks and greens, a block heel and pointed toe; just the thing to stamp on rattlers. Behind the ankles, the silver flicks of metal spurs winked, little barbed starbursts glinting in constellations of triangles.
In the photo, the cowboy was stood in the frame of an old barn door, nothing behind him but the darkness of the cattle pen. With arms outstretched, he held onto the sides of the empty doorway; there was a lightness to his being there. Heaps of straw lay about his feet and you’d think he’d been cleaning the barn out, what with that stamp of hard work on his brow, but for the fact that the rest of him was sweat-free.
Besides the hat and the boots, the cowboy wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothes. You couldn’t see his face, of course, hidden as it was by the broad brim of the Stetson. There was something to the fact that you couldn’t see his eyes that reminded Gloria that real cowboys weren’t meant to be direct. They looked away, spoke little, barely intruded, remained modest. “Talk low, talk slow, talk little,” The Great Attractor had told her. “Talk Barnum.” She’d had to ask him not to use so many idioms.
‘Aloof’ was the word, she thought. She’d heard it used by her learners to describe her countrymen. ‘Aloof’. A silly word to say.
But you couldn’t be aloof in no clothes. He might hide his eyes, but the rest of him was just indisputably there: sweat-free, almost hair-free, besides the trimmed dark stubble.
She tried to focus on the particulars. He had dark hair: she’d been told by The Great Attractor that most cowboys did. Blond cowboys tended to be Jackaroos, who were from Australia. It was a black and white photo, but his skin looked to be clear, like porcelain, and soft. That wasn’t right. His muscles as well, they belonged to a dancer: a gentle shadow on his broad chest, a lipped navel and long, delicate hands. If you were just looking at his body and ignored everything else, then you’d have assumed it was a portrait from the ballet. And was that a hint of studio lights?
The young cowboy had poise, she saw. An elegance. This wasn’t the rugged force she’d expected. She began to think it was a joke: a false cowboy dreamed up in some California photo studio; perhaps it was this Soft Porn she’d been warned about. That was it, maybe: was he sexualising their friendship? It was an odd situation; if anything, he was ‘all hat and no cattle’ already – it wasn’t as if he really was a cowboy. Ellen would know what to think.
The goldfish’s third impression proved satisfactory. She rolled the waxy brown ball so that it cooled a little, blew inside it with the straw to give it shape, then pulled at it with tongs, dragging out a mouth and eyes and gills, curling and flattening fins, above, below, at either side. And a tail. She blew a little more through the straw and the colour of the fish lightened, wriggling into life, ready to swim forever. Tomorrow, it would be stuck, vacant and immobile, on a shelf in the recesses of the Davies household she expected, swimming ever onward into a corner.
She placed the fish on her tiny table as a favoured guest. After a while, Mr Humbaba’s cigar smoke joined the sugar creation, thickening the water of its pool. It must have been eight o’clock. Gloria stirred some vegetables together in a pan.
Her phone chirruped.
“So, you don’t reckon I take a pretty picture?” The fish stared at her, eyelessly.
Gloria had been thinking about what to say.
“Did he have to be…” – present simple perfect or past perfect? She’d have to look that up – “naked?”
“I thought he was handsome.” Gloria agreed. But it was unnecessary. She wasn’t handsome, so why did he need to be? No-one else would know.
“Is that a fish on the table?”
“Are you changing the subject?” She replied, trying to mask her uncertainty with coyness. Even with her degree, it was difficult to pick up the nuances in English. Context, as with so much, was everything.
The Great Attractor didn’t reply. Gloria thought a little more. “How can you see what’s on my table?”
The phone chirruped again. “You didn’t think I was using no computer, did you?”
And he was there.
Without warning, the naked cowboy, The Great Attractor, there in her kitchen in three dimensions. The smell of the burnt caramel in the pan mingling with the sweet oily scent of his leather boots; Mr Humbaba’s cigar fumes undercutting the sense of flesh; the dancer in the hat, hands on each wall, hip pointed towards her table. There.
“Howdy,” he grinned, his perfect white teeth flashing. His voice was different to on the phone. Younger. And, beneath the hat brim, two eyes, dark and filled with stars, looking back at her in affectionate amusement.
Gloria didn’t know what to say. Or do. He was so tall: he took up most of the space in the kitchen. There was no way she’d be able to get past him – not without crawling over the top of the hot stove.
She checked herself again. Why should she want to get away? This body, the sound of his breathing, the downy hairs she could see against the horizon of his shoulders, these were no more him than the characters on her phone. This was just another line of text from her friend.
“It’s still not you, though, is it?” she said, still holding the spoon from the pan. The figure smiled, uncertainly. It struck her that Mr Humbaba might hear her. Well, what if he did? “This is no more you than that’s a fish,” she said, gesturing at the sugar creation sitting stupidly on the table.
“Does it matter?” His voice was low, drawn-out, the vowels bubbling underneath the surface of the sound. She needed to turn off the stove. It was still hot.
Gloria shrugged. “I didn’t think it did.” She moved the spoon from one hand to another, stirring the ghostly wafts of Mr Humbaba’s cigars hidden in the air. “This is me, though. There’s nothing more.”
A slow smile was being drawn across the cowboy’s stubbled face. “And if I could show you the whole?” His voice did not quite match the movement of his lips.
“What do you mean?” Suspicion caught in her breast. Something else, too.
The cowboy leaned down and close to her, his broad shoulders between her and the kitchen light above casting her into shadow. She could feel his breath on her neck. The brim of the hat took over the world. She fought an unexpected urge to run, to hit him with the spoon. He was her friend.
“Saddle up, sweetheart.” He murmured, his lips in a different time. “Trail’s callin’.”
The sugar goldfish silently toppled sideways on the table, a fin fracturing off under its own weight. Now it would only swim in circles.
Gloria rode then, in the company of The Great Attractor, along the long trail of the heavens, the little lamp of Earth soon lost amongst the scrubland between stars. As they rode, the great plain unwound before them and, as she grew used to the saddle, she saw the unspooling of the Milky Way’s arms, the blue and misty mountains to either side, the wide open road of pinks and reds and oranges before her with the glimmering lights far distant. She was smiling as the cowboy rode next to her, pointing out the towering mesas of the nebulae, and, off to the left, the great river of the bulk flow of solar systems toward Centaurus.
She had no sense of time nor speed. Her mount moved lightly over nothing, faster than a walk, in one of those gaits that eats up distance without thought. In the void between stars, a comet might tumble past their way, or they’d pass the iron remnant of some burnt-out sun. For the most part, they rode in silence. The cowboy smiled too, pleased at his companion’s enjoyment of the journey.
As the wind of neutrinos blew silently through them, she saw something a little way off the trail in the desert ahead; a storm perhaps? A cloud flashed pink and blue, jagged light cataracting down the skies beneath her. The cowboy followed her fascinated gaze. “Norma,” he said, raising an eyebrow and grinning. “Looks like she’s been listening to some holy-roller.”
“What’s beyond Norma?” She asked.
The cowboy shrugged lightly. “Who knows? Not my patch of prairie, I’m afraid.”
She would be able to see him soon. The real him. Her heart beat hard within her chest. Her mount broke into a canter.
In the garage, Mr Humbaba, disturbed by the sensation of an unexpected masculine presence, had added whisky to injury by supplementing his evening’s cigar with half a bottle of Teacher’s. A man who collected grievances, a man who suffered silently with imagined calumnies, a lonely man, he drank far more that night than he was used to. Why did he have that sense of another, here, in the space that only he inhabited? No-one came into his garage. The cigar – his wife wouldn’t have them in his house – smouldered over the piles of withered paper anger.
There was a moment, after the flames were past the point of control, but before they caught at the petrol cans he’d stockpiled behind the Ford, when he must have realised. He didn’t care. It would only be his garage that would be lost, and maybe the room with the meters in it, serve the utilities companies right. If it burnt its way through to next door’s garage, well, he’d told Number 16 about that faulty security light months ago, and it was still shining into his bedroom window like a bright bruise.
And so, Mr Humbaba, a lonely man, perished in the flames lit by his resentful cigar, fuelled by the whisky of despair, fanned by the righteous pages of the Daily Mail. And he thought he did so alone. The masculine presence that had hung strangely in the air that evening seemed to have dissipated. There was only the echo of a coughing from somewhere nearby, fading fast.
The clouds were thinning. Soon, The Great Attractor said, soon she would be able to see him. They just needed to pass through the dustcloud stretching between the Hydra and Virgo clusters.
Gloria held the spoon tightly in her hand, guessing, measuring how many steps further she would have to go before they could stand on the edge and look down at the thousands of galaxies flowing towards The Great Attractor in a cosmic Rio Grande, poised at the Edge of Greatness.
A thought occurred to her, dropping out of one of the stars around them. “If you’re a cowboy,” she said, turning to look at him, “then where are all your cows?” Where were the steers, the bulls of heaven?
The last few specks of planets drifted past them and the lights of gas giants separated before the darkness. The Great Attractor, grinning, turned in his saddle and gestured with his right hand, drawing her sight down, along the river, amongst the galaxies, following the great gravitational flow, finally, to him who was the deep.
Gloria tried to rear back in terror.
It was all about context. You moved from the great to the very, very small. From the great appetite to the very, very small soul. The universe was being consumed. Not attracted. Devoured.
“Never name a cow you’re gonna eat,” said The Great Attractor. His teeth flashed white against the darkness.
It’s always been about context. You realise that you’re probably 216000 miles closer to me after all that? Less if you’re a fast reader. More if you’re slow – though that’s not to judge. Gloria was a slow reader, but it was her second language.
T.A Barfield is an English teacher living in Brussels after stints of living in New York and London. He has had short stories published on three continents and been nominated for the Pushcart prize in 2018.