I wasn’t trying to get into anything serious when I responded to the ad. I mean – I was serious, but I was serious about not being serious. My boundaries before had always been collapsible, prone to falling like a domino line, but not this time. In fact, that was the first thing I told Russell after he’d opened the door of his handsome semi-detached, welcomed me in and taken the coat from my shoulders:
‘I’m not looking for anything serious.’
He nodded curtly. ‘Good. Me either.’
‘I mean that. I’m not just saying it for effect.’
‘Me either.’ He said. Then he reached out and took the bottle of white wine from my hands. It was £5 and still wrapped in a Sainsbury’s bag. He cracked the lid open and asked me if I wanted a spritzer. I raised my eyebrows, unaware that we were still in the 2000s.
‘Is that what she’s drinking?’ I asked.
Russell nodded as he opened the fridge which was tall with a shiny oak finish so as to look like cabinets. Very unfashionable to appear to have a fridge.
‘Yes. She’s not supposed to drink so she just drinks spritzers instead.’
‘Lemonade or tonic?’
‘I’ll have one too.’
The glass, when he handed it to me, was wet with condensation. He made one for himself as well and then took me for a tour of the house. All the furniture was oak like the fridge and the walls were painted burnt cream. It looked as though it hadn’t changed from the day he bought it. The only object of note was a tall bulking thing standing in the corner of the living room, covered in an assortment of towels and shawls.
I approached it for a closer look and reached out to lift a corner of towel, but Russell stopped me.
‘Sorry. That’s Janet – our parrot. I’d show her to you, but I’ve just put her to bed and it’s a fucking ball ache to get her back to sleep.’
Fucking ball ache. I looked at him and smiled. His fingers played uncertainly on the stem of his wine glass.
‘Is she upstairs?’ I asked.
‘Yes.’ He said. ‘She’s getting ready. She’s nervous.’
‘No. Well. I’m a bit excitable. Yourself?’
‘A mix of both.’
He smiled and we stood for a moment. Me beside Janet, him leaning but not quite sitting on the arm of the sofa.
‘Shall we go upstairs?’ I prompted.
‘Yes. Okay. Let’s.’
There were no lights on upstairs and so he led me into the darkness. I’d slipped my heels off at the door and so the carpet on the steps prickled between the thread of my tights. In the closeness of the stairwell Russell emanated a strong soapy scent that I didn’t mind. It was particular enough as to smell expensive. I was glad I couldn’t smell myself because I had a habit of going heavy on the perfume when I was trying to make a first impression.
The only light on the landing came from another room, the door left slightly ajar. From there came a pinkish glow and the sound of RnB music. Through the crack I could see a mirror, and in that a view of her brown legs as she stood, barefoot, preening. She bowed to get a better look at her eye makeup, and she caught sight of me in the reflection. Her face was heart-shaped and her eyelashes dark. I must have looked odd, peering in from the darkness like that because she gasped and turned and closed the door on me. I was glad she didn’t come out because I could be quite annoying in front of beautiful women. Hyperactive. Impulsive. Especially when caught off-guard.
‘Ava, this way.’ Russell said.
He led me instead into a wide bedroom with a large double bed taking up the centre and sweet window view of the suburban street below – but very little else.
‘This is your bedroom?’ I asked, wondering if they slept separately. For some reason this seemed to make sense.
‘Guest room.’ Russell said. ‘Your room if you decide to stay the night. And I practise in here, too.’
‘Is that alright?’ Russell asked, putting down and then picking up his spritzer. I took a slug of my own drink and then shook my head earnestly.
‘No, no, it’s great. I was just expecting…’ I waved one vague hand through the air.
‘Fairy lights? Crystals? Hippie shit?’ Russell finished. Now he shook his head. ‘People always say that, but that stuff is really just all for show. Looks good on television. I prefer a cleaner, simpler environment. Like a dentist or a chiropractor.’
I sat on the bed and stared at Russell while he stared back at me.
‘I’ll just go get Mabel.’ He said, then disappeared into the hall, leaving me to stare about the room instead. It was nothing like how I had imagined it would be when I read their ad. I would have appreciated some hippie shit actually, a little incense, or even just a couple of tealights. Instead, we were going to do this in an IKEA display.
I sat and wished I’d insisted that he wake up Janet.
The door creaked and Mabel entered, alone. I looked her in the eye without flinching or swallowing.
‘Where’s Russell?’ I asked.
‘I sent him to freshen up,’ she said. ‘He’s nervous.’
Then she came and sat beside me on the bed, folding her legs beneath herself. They were golden brown and covered in hairs. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t usually shave mine, I had just thought that was what they wanted. Instead, I stretched them out long and wide in front me and invited her to stare.
‘He said that you were nervous.’ I told her. She was dressed pretty similarly to me in a kind of dressy navy romper – which was nice because I hadn’t exactly been sure what you wear to this kind of thing. I’d gone with a skirt that was actually shorts and a nice blouse. Sophisticated but also – mobile.
‘I am nervous. But not as nervous as him. Have you ever done something like this before?’
‘No. This is new. Have you?’
‘Yes – he’s always practicing on me. Though usually alone.’
‘Do you like it?’ I asked.
She laughed. ‘I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. It’s not always seamless, of course. The first woman he brought here was so irritating. We didn’t even get through it because she was just so defensive. A mood-killer. Edith.’
‘Always women? Never men?’
‘Even in his general practice?’
She leaned back and curled her neck to look up at the ceiling. Payback for my legs.
‘Well, most men aren’t really interested but also – women are more giving. We can be open if we want to be. And we’re more intense when we first meet each other.’
I snorted and pulled my legs back in.
‘It’s not a sex thing.’ Mabel said.
I raised my eyebrows. ‘The ad said ‘sensual opening’’
Mabel rolled her eyes. ‘That’s just how he talks. He wants it to be sensual, but it never is. Even when it’s just me. He’s too scared to make the suggestion and I’m not about to do it for him. No… It’s more of a kind of fluid experience. But it’s safe. You’ll enjoy it.’
I nodded and wondered if I asked, would she let me smoke out the window, but Russell returned before I said anything. He shut the door and pulled the curtains closed. Then he stood before us at the end of the bed, shoes still on, spritzer full again, glass smeary in his hand.
No one said anything and so I said, ‘Right.’
Russell laughed, ‘Right.’
‘Where do you want me?’
He arranged Mabel and I so that we were sitting back-to-back on top of the bed, our shoulder blades touching uneasily behind our clothes. Then he reached out with two dry fingers and closed my eyelids for me – something which I would have been happy to do for him had he asked. He pressed play on a speaker and a bonging sound began. Then he put those dry fingers on my shoulder and ordered me to focus on my breathing. I resisted the urge to open my eyes and check if Mabel was focussing on hers.
‘In through the nose and out through the mouth.’ He reminded us with every breath.
I found paying attention to my breathing to be quite an uncomfortable feeling, like noticing your tongue in your mouth or the way your toes touched in your shoes, but I persisted anyway. I leaned back into Mabel’s shoulders which were loosening into mine as well. Then Russell switched tack and ordered me to think of my thumbs. I couldn’t tell if I was mad or relieved that this wasn’t a sex thing. I also wasn’t entirely sure that it wasn’t. My thumbs seemed to tingle as I gave them the attention of my breath.
I became so invested in my thumbs that I forgot about Mabel’s buttery shoulders, and then so invested in those that I forgot about my thumbs – and so it went until my brow was knotted and the bonging was so deeply buried into the air that it may as well have been coming from my own ear drums. It was a strange thing to experience. Russell’s voice hitched as he pressed down hard on my shoulder. I realised it was entirely within my own control whether I wanted to become hypnotised or not. Russell would have no idea if I was pretending. I decided why not.
Russell turned my hands and pressed them into Mabel’s so that our thumbs were locked together. A hypnotic sensual experience with a capable young couple. I had definitely thought I was coming for a threesome. Her thumbs were my thumbs were her thumbs were mine. Russell’s voice had fallen a tone lower. His nervous pacing steps making little squeaks on the floor.
Then Mabel spoke. Though without opening my eyes I knew she had not said anything. Instead, I could hear her voice in my head as if she were murmuring into my ear. It was as though she, her thoughts, her thumbs, were now my thoughts as well.
‘Should we fuck with him?’ She asked me.
I paused, breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth while I tried to decide how freaked out I was. Her tone was so casual reverberating around my head. As if she was used to walking through open doors.
‘Why would we do that? Is he terrible?’
‘I think he’s about cum in his pants and all we’re doing is touching thumbs.’
To prove her point Mabel groaned, just slightly, and Russell gave a tight excitable cough.
I snorted. Audibly or not, I couldn’t tell.
‘He’s nervous,’ I said.
‘Too nervous.’ She replied.
I couldn’t get over her voice. It was like thick cream paper. Monogrammed and wry. I paused for a moment. Rolled my eyes around behind my eyelids to try and gauge whether or not my spritzer might have been spiked. But I could remember watching the lemonade bubbles rise as he poured my drink for me. Anxiety rose and flattened as I tried to work it out.
‘Am I hallucinating?’ I asked her.
She shrugged but it was just a thought. ‘In a way. He’s a really good hypnotist.’
‘Can he hear us?’
‘No. He thinks we’re in a trance.’
‘Does he think he’s controlling us?’ I asked.
‘More or less.’ She replied.
She was so casual. That was more unnerving to me than the idea that she had climbed inside my head. There was no lilt of alarm in her voice – if anything she seemed more comfortable now than she had sitting with me, talking on the bed.
‘This has happened to you before? You’ve… reached out? Like this?’
‘Just once. With Edith. But we didn’t chat much.’
‘Are you sure it’s not you who’s hypnotising us?’
Her sigh ricocheted around my skull.
‘I thought it was, but I can’t do it unless he does his whole build up. I tried going to another hypnotist, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t get myself to care. Remember to keep listening as well.’
I tuned back into the world where Russell was asking me, not for the first time, to hum. I could almost hear him frowning as I failed to meet his command. Men were always describing me as wilful, and they never meant it kindly. I hummed forcefully and added a little groaning sound for good measure.
‘Nice,’ said Mabel.
‘Thanks. Are you his girlfriend?’ I asked.
‘You don’t seem to like him much.’
‘Well, why are you here?’
‘Nothing serious. I got divorced.’
‘What? How old are you?’
I said, ‘exactly.’
I could feel her spine coiling up against mine.
‘He is terrible,’ she said.
I hummed as if to drown out her transgression.
The back of her head knocked against my shoulder. I could imagine the way her neck looked bared up to the ceiling.
‘Terrible like he thinks he’s one of the good ones.’
‘Every girl he hypnotises he pretends to forget her name. If I mention her again once she’s gone, he’ll make me describe her as if he doesn’t remember.’
‘How do you know he hasn’t really forgotten?’
In our head, we both snorted.
‘What else does he do?’ I asked.
‘When he’s picking his clients from the ad, he won’t pick any tall women or fat women or women with big breasts or women who are browner than me. Once a woman with down’s syndrome applied and he laughed.’
‘What’s wrong with women with big breasts?’
I continued to hum. I had low impulse control – I guess that was how I had gotten myself into this situation. If you told me not to think of something, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of it. Leaning against each other’s backs we began to slowly press upwards as Russell, a mosquito buzzing in my ear, ordered us to stand. She was right – I did have the urge to slap him away.
‘Well. What will we do?’ I asked. The mattress bucked beneath my feet, but I felt surprisingly steady. Mabel behind me was the perfect support.
‘In a moment he’s going to make us hug,’ she told me, ‘and then he’s going to tell us to connect. Then once we’ve connected, he’s going to tell us to start humming words. Just hum whatever you think of. The idea is that if we’re in this deep enough then we’ll say the same word. He might even ask us some questions. All you’ve got to do is say what I tell you to say.’
This didn’t seem like a spontaneous plan to me. ‘Right.’
Sure enough, a moment later he had us hugging – but instead of wrapping our arms around each other, Russell told us to keep our thumbs connected. It was less of a hug and more a sort of nuzzling and a sort of holding hands. He kept telling us to deepen our connection which seemed only to mean he wanted us to press our breasts closer.
‘I want you to connect to each other – but I also want you to connect to me. When you feel like you’ve connected with me, you can begin to speak. Don’t hold back. Just say what you sense.’
Mabel fed me each word before we started humming them. We pulled out all the consonants – made it look miraculous – but really, she was directing the whole scene. It started out innocuous enough, red car, aubergine, toothbrush. Russell asked us to really concentrate and then the words began to shrink.
‘Tiny… cocktail… sausage.’
I could hear Russell beside us beginning to fluster. ‘Uh,’ he said.
‘Pussy willow.’ We hummed.
He shuffled his weight from foot to foot and I could hear his shoes against the floor as if he were wearing two mice instead of nice leather wingtips. The smaller we went the squeakier Russell became.
‘Focus.’ He commanded. ‘Focus. Don’t just say anything. Connect with me. What do you sense?’
The words came faster.
‘Shrimp.’ We sang. ‘Stubby pencil. Pincher. Worm.’
‘No, that’s wrong. Breath deeper. Sense me.’
The bed bounced beneath our feet. I could feel Mabel’s power coming to a girthy head. Her hands broke free and she ran them like electric down my back. Fucked up my hair.
‘Look at his feet.’ She whispered. ‘He’s wearing size fours.’
‘CHOAD!’ I cried, then startled when I realised that my body had gone senseless. I couldn’t feel Mabel, her thumbs, or her voltaic bristle on my skin. I was suspended in the air with the bonging, and the ringing whine of my voice. I seemed to have said choad… alone? I didn’t realise my knees had gone weak until I felt them fall onto the bed.
‘How long did you say you’d been together?’ I asked Mabel.
‘Two months.’ Russell said flatly.
‘What?’ I panicked. Kept my eyes close.
‘Mabel.’ He sighed.
I felt the mattress shift as she bent to drape her arms around my shoulders.
‘She’s cute, right? Isn’t she cute?’
Silence. Bong. Silence.
‘Mabel.’ Russell said.
‘Mabel.’ Mabel mimicked, tone perfectly nasal.
I couldn’t help myself. I cracked. Laughter shot through my nose and my shoulders caved in. I giggled like I was having a fit. I tried to at least cover my face, but the noise was unmistakable.
‘Sorry.’ I gasped. ‘Sorry.’
Russell used flat palms to push me onto my back as Mabel bounced off of the bed.
‘I told you you’d like it.’ She murmured in my head as merciless laughter continued to pour out of my face. I felt the door blow shut as she left, then a minute later the RnB track started up again.
My eyes were still shut but they were streaming with tears.
‘I’m sorry.’ I said to Russell, who was wilting somewhere above me.
I didn’t think he was going to reply but then he said ‘It’s not the first time that’s happened. When Edith came…’ but he stopped himself before telling me anything more.
‘Why does she stay with you?’ I asked.
The back of my eyelids glowed in orange. ‘I’m asking.’
A shuffle. Almost, the heat of his breath.
‘Loneliness,’ he said. ‘And we make each other better. I’m a different man than before I met Mabel. I’m improved. And I’d like the think that in some strange way, she’s been improved by me too.’
‘Do you really think I’m flat chested?’
Russell didn’t answer. Instead, he turned the bonging off and began to lead me through a wind down exercise. You will feel very good when you leave this place. You will feel relaxed, recharged – powerful even. You will feel strong and fulfilled in a way that has always escaped you.
I thought about staying the night, but I felt enough pity for Russell that in the end I decided not to. Instead, I had a quiet cup of tea with them in the kitchen, took what was left of my Sainsburys wine and left.
I did get to meet Janet, though. She was perched on Mabel’s shoulder when Russell and I came downstairs. As he walked through the door, Janet turned her head and opened her beak and squawked:
But I might have misheard. She might have said cuckoo.
About The Author
Genevieve Jagger is a queer writer and artist from Scotland. She loves language, confined spaces and blinking every 3-4 seconds. Her short story, Lena & Valerie, is due to be released by Expat Press in June of 2021.
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