‘Red Meat’, by Kate Whiteside, was first published in MIR11, Kate also has a story in MIR12.
Diana is practising not being here. Her hands are pressed together and with her wrists they form a little archway across her stomach. She is still and silent, made of almost nothing, and what there is seems like it may be coming undone. She stands in the large, yawning hallway, looking at the door to Number 17 as if it were a person. She imagines what will happen if she knocks.
The door will not open quickly, as if the person inside has spent several moments with their eye against the peephole, unsure of who it is they see. This person, another woman, more substantial in presence and form, will open the door. Her feet will be bare, her hair perhaps slightly askew, and the expression on her face will say, “I was not expecting company.” Music will be playing softly behind her, and a stale, smoky heat will belch out of the flat into the cold hallway.
“Yes?” she might say.
“Yes?” Concern flexes Janice’s brow.
“It’s Diana. Diana Luther.”
Janice will back up and let Diana into the flat.
Diana supposes the flat will be nice – what she knows of Janice leads her to believe that Janice must be a woman of considerable fortune and considerable vice. There might be trinkets collected from all over the world: things to cause outrage like figures of people copulating carved from rhino horn, or bras made of clam shells draped delicately over the back of chairs as if they’re fresh out of the wash and might conceivably be worn, and have been left there by accident. Diana understands that Janice is a beast of a woman, and hairy in a way that rivals most men; there might be a pot of wax heating in the bathroom, or a lady shave on charge. She must hide these things during her sexual conquests, but if she is startled, Diana may glimpse her in her natural habitat. It might appear that Janice, in a flagrant disregard for the rules of femininity, does not often cut her toenails, and Diana will see this when Janice offers her a seat and sits opposite her with her legs crossed.
“So, Diana. It’s nice to finally meet you properly. Can I get you a drink?”
Diana thinks that she’ll only request a water.
Diana will have to say no, as . . . well, she doesn’t smoke.
Diana stares at the gold 17 on Janice’s door and traces the number with her eyes as she tries to comprehend what might happen next. Her lips move slightly as she tries to get straight in her head what she might say.
“It’s nice to finally meet you properly, too.”
No, Diana wouldn’t say that. She couldn’t. Besides, she’s met Janice more than once; only Janice keeps forgetting.
“I hope you don’t mind me barging in on you like this. I mean, I hope it’s not an imposition. You don’t look like you’re expecting company.” Although Diana isn’t brave enough to say this last part.
“No, it’s fine!”
Janice is a plump woman, the kind of woman who looks fertile and whole and grounded all the time, vigour pumping around her large frame, emitting an unreasonable amount of warmth.
Diana knows that whatever happens after she knocks on the door, she mustn’t cry.
“So how long have you lived here, Janice?”
Janice lights a cigarette, or perhaps she’s already lit one and, if so, she rests it on the ashtray. Diana can see beads of sweat forming on Janice’s brow. Perhaps, despite the apparent confidence, she knows why Diana is here and she’s nervous.
“Days. Months. Or maybe years. I may have been born here.” Diana doesn’t know what the answer to this question is.
“It’s a lovely flat. It really is.”
As Diana says this, she looks at whatever is the centrepiece of the room – a coffee table, a rug, an architectural chair – and she sees Peter sitting on it, nude and flushed with the thought of Janice and her buxom warmth, overflowing with her light and good humour.
“Thanks. I do what I can! I’ve picked up so much from all over the world, it’s a wonder I’ve anywhere left to put it. It’s getting cluttered in here, these days.”
“Well, I know you’re away a lot. In fact, I met you at the Hastings’ a year or two ago. You’d just got back from a trip then. You were telling a story about Chile, or Morocco, or somewhere else exotic. Something about a coconut.”
“A coconut? Oh, that must’ve been Thailand. They don’t have coconuts in Chile or Morocco. In fact, if you look at a map of the dispersal of coconuts, you see they only grow on the left- and right-hand side of the world, not down the centre or very far north or south. They only grow on the world’s love handles, I always say!”
Diana will laugh, nervously, though the joke she sees Janice making is exactly the same joke she heard her tell at the Hastings’ that night a year or two ago.
Janice is aware Diana has finished her water, and after a few more niceties she hurries her out because she has to get ready to entertain in the evening; or because she needs to pack her bags since she’s going to a party on the moon and must be at the spaceship no later than six, and wants to pick up some champagne on the way.
In her mind, she knocks again.
“Hello. It’s Diana Luther. I met you at the Hastings’ a year or two ago, and I’ve met you a few times since then. Can I come in?”
“Diana Luther? Yes, come in.”
This time Janice turns her music off. The flat is similarly hot, and has a colourful, worldly aesthetic. Is Janice flushing?
“It gets so warm in here. I keep it warm to encourage other women’s husbands to take their clothes off.”
Diana and Janice both disappear. Outside the door, Diana thinks again. She imagines knocking once more. Her fingers twitch ever so slightly as she tries to imagine how it might go this time, as if she is playing the conversation on a piano.
“Hello, Janice. It’s Diana Luther. I don’t know if you remember me. Can I come in? I’m sorry if it’s an imposition.”
“No. . . Do come in.”
Things are different this time. On the mantelpiece Diana sees a coconut with a straw coming out of it and a pair of sunglasses on the bridge of what would be its nose, alongside all the other artefacts from the big wide world.
“That coconut,” Diana begins. “That’s very sweet. I always say something about coconuts and love handles, only I can’t remember it right now.”
“It’s OK,” Janice offers, “I know what you mean. It’s my joke.”
“Of course it is.”
Diana walks the length of the living room, holding off her impression of Janice until she can think what happens next. Dutifully, Janice stands back, like a dog told to stay.
“Shall we take a seat?” Janice says.
That’s it. Taking a seat means Janice can’t rush Diana out. If Janice offers her a cigarette this time, she will take it and try to pretend to smoke it.
Sitting at the table, Diana has time. She must use it, she must disguise her shaking hand and her phony cigarette-smoking and she must calculate from second to second what it is that she wants to say.
“So, would you like anything to drink?”
“Oh. Yes. Just water, please?”
“Just water? I’ll pour myself some wine if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t. May I have a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke,” Janice says. “Sorry.”
“You don’t? I could have sworn you did.”
“Oh, just socially, sometimes. Food and drink, those are my vices!” she says, pulling down from the cupboard a bottle of red wine and slapping her thigh. The noise seems to reverberate around the flat, as if she were made of iron underneath that layer of flesh.
“Actually, I’ll have wine too. Is it too late?” Diana sees that Janice has water in a glass already. Janice goes to pour it away. “No, wait, don’t waste it.”
Janice honks with laughter. “Waste it? It’s only water, sweetheart. Have some wine.”
“OK then. Thanks.”
Janice fills the glass to the brim and gives it to her. Diana picks it up, awkwardly.
“Never trust a woman who doesn’t drink!” Janice says as she lines up her own glass and pours a substantial amount. “I used to say, never trust a woman who doesn’t drink beer, but then I developed a taste for wine. I also used to say, never trust a woman who doesn’t eat red meat, but then . . . well, I plumb went right off steak for years.”
Diana runs her thumbs over the bowl of the glass. “I don’t drink much, really.”
“Yep, I used to love steak, but then I was with this little bastard who didn’t eat red meat on account of his heart, and so I stopped eating it too. You know how it is.”
Diana makes a little noise of recognition.
“So then when I started eating it again, it just didn’t taste the same. I mean, I don’t care about my heart, but I fucking hate that little fella now, and every time I put a bit of good red steak in my mouth I think about him and his heart. And well, that just ruined it for years.”
“You must be sentimental.”
Janice swigs her wine. “No, it’s not that. Besides, I’m back on steak these days. You can’t let some pesky member of the opposite sex do a number on something so good. Ah, wait . . .” Janice pushes her thick body up from the table and snatches up a bag from somewhere else in the room. “I think I might have a cigarette, actually . . .” and after a few moments’ fussing, Diana has a sad-looking cigarette in her hand.
“Perhaps I’ll smoke it later,” she says, and puts it down in front of her. “I don’t eat red meat, really. Just fish, and a little chicken.”
“Well, that’s OK. I bet your heart’s in finer shape than mine!”
“Maybe.” After a few sips of her wine, she’s become meek, quiet and tolerant. Diana knows this is what will happen if she says yes to any wine.
Diana, outside Janice’s door, decides not to say yes to any alcohol.
Janice takes another glug of her wine, her throat moving unattractively up and down as it runs down her gullet. Diana sips at her water.
“My Peter likes red meat. Though I guess he eats less of it since we got married.”
Janice smiles at her, continues smiling and looks at her glass. “Your Peter. Is that right?”
“Well, I live here alone. Nobody’s food and drink habits to be worrying about except mine.”
“You have a lot of company round, though. Don’t you?”
“Oh yes. Plenty!”
Diana can see Janice entertaining a crowd of people and exclaiming, “Wife? Married? What on earth would trouble me about that? Besides, I’ve not even met the woman, and if you are going to shack up with a cheat then you’d better suppose you’ve got it coming,” and drunkenly shouting, “Chin chin!” to which everybody laughs and tips their drinks down their throats. Diana shrivels when she thinks of her weight on the world versus Janice’s. She has so carefully cultivated being pretty and thin that she forgot to be funny and interesting, and she hates Janice for this.
“I guess you have to give them what they want. When they come over.” Diana sees Peter again, naked in the middle of the room, drinking as much wine as he wants and eating a bloody post-coital plate of rare steak and bacon.
“Something like that,” Janice says. She is looking at Diana intently, which is not a surprise, seeing as whatever happens next is of Diana’s making.
“Well.” Diana takes a sip of her water and begins to thumb the side of the glass, as if something is stuck on it.
“I bought those glasses in Paris,” Janice says.
Diana sees a maker etched on the bottom. It says “Janice’s glass”.
“I see,” Diana says. “You’re a big traveller, no?”
“Oh” – Janice waves the recognition away with her hand – “it just fills the time, you know.”
“You’re not in a relationship?”
“Don’t you ever get lonely?”
Janice smiles at her. “Never. As you said, I have all the company I need.”
“You don’t have a husband, though.”
“I’m not one for marriage.”
“Not even a boyfriend?”
Janice continues smiling. “I guess I’m not one for that either.” Janice drains her glass. “It’s a funny thing, actually.” She twists the lid from the top of the wine bottle and begins to pour herself more. “You’d think I’d miss it, or want it, but I don’t. But I can see how someone like you might think that.”
Diana can feel herself begin to blister from the inside out. She is losing control again and the idea of Janice is too big for her to get a harness onto and rein back in.
“‘Someone like me’. Is that what you think of me?”
Janice is still smiling and holding Diana’s gaze. “Of course. You got married and got a baby and such. But where is your fun? Who, Diana Luther, actually are you?”
“I never imagined I’d be up against someone like you. Ever.”
Janice spreads her hands wide and purses her lips. Her underarms sway regally. “You need to get some more red meat in you.”
“Is that your secret?” Diana takes another sip of her water.
Janice drains her glass again and fishes on the counter for the bottle. Her fingers are pudgy and the pads of skin splay out around the bottle as she grips it. Diana looks at her own fingers, so sharp and cold, like the hands of a china doll that no child would want to play with.
“I’m more real than you even when I’m not real.” Janice rounds on her and snarls. Diana shouldn’t have got Janice drunk.
“Back up a second, please.” Outside the flat, Diana holds her temples as she tries to put the pieces back together.
Janice starts to laugh at her, starts to twist from side to side in glee, before, finally, she rears up and swallows her whole.
Diana leans against the door. She rearranges her sleeves, lifts her wrist but doesn’t knock. Instead, she presses her hand on the varnished wood and thinks what may have happened this time if she had.
The door opens immediately.
“Janice. It’s Diana Luther.”
Janice looks concerned. “Luther?”
“Yes. Well, Diana Luther.”
“I thought it was Hannah Luther? Peter’s wife?” Janice says.
“Hannah?” Diana says. “No . . . not Hannah Luther.” Diana hasn’t said Hannah’s name in a while.
As she goes in, the heat in the flat this time is old, like the hours-old fug of radiators turned on for a set period of time earlier in the day. Perhaps turned on for an hour to heat up the bathroom before a shower. The smell of cigarette smoke is faint, as if somebody smoked just one cigarette a long time ago. The flat is not as grand as the hallway suggests. There is also a plate of food out on the counter. And a coconut on the mantelpiece.
“Oh,” Diana says. “That’s nice. Like an ornament. Where’s it from?”
Janice closes the door quietly behind them. “That? It was a gift,” she says, looking at neither Diana nor the coconut.
“Oh. Well. I suppose they’re hard to come by. One must go to just the right parts of the world.”
“Really?” Janice says. “I don’t know where they grow. I can’t remember who the hell gave it to me. In fact” – Janice picks up the coconut – “I think I should get rid of it.” She thrusts it towards Diana. “Don’t you?”
Diana flushes. “I don’t know. I thought you said it was a gift?”
“Yes. I did say that.” Janice looks down at the coconut in her hand. “Well, what should we do with it, then? Do you want it?”
“No, I . . . I’ve got nothing to carry it back in.” Diana imagines herself walking through her own front door with the coconut and setting it on her own mantelpiece.
“Well.” Janice rolls the coconut between her hands. “Maybe we should just put it away. So neither of us can see it,” and Janice opens a cupboard and puts the coconut inside.
Diana stands in the middle of the room.
“Well,” she says, “it seems a shame not to display it, doesn’t it?” She opens her handbag and stretches it to test its length and width. “Perhaps I could fit it in here.”
“Yeah?” Janice says, and a smile plays with the corner of her lips. “You want it?”
Diana wonders if Janice is making fun of her. “Yes. I’ll take it home. Like I say, it would be a shame not to display it.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Janice is still smiling as she helps Diana fit the coconut into her bag. After they get it in there she struggles to close the clasp, and the whole bag looks bloated as if it has just eaten a large meal.
“Hmmm,” Diana says, as she puts the bag on the floor. It’s now too awkward to carry on the shoulder, though the coconut is lighter than she expected.
“Take a seat,” Janice says.
Diana sits at the kitchen table and smooths her hands along the top. She can feel how rough it is, even through her gloves.
“Would you like some water?” Janice says.
Diana takes a minute to study her. She is slimmer than Diana remembers. Her hair is also pulled back into a bun this time, just like Diana’s is.
“Yes,” Diana says. “Thanks.”
“You can take off your coat.”
Diana doesn’t want to embarrass Janice by implying that the flat is too cold. She takes off her gloves then wonders where her empathy has come from – why does she not want to embarrass this Janice? Before she has time to think, she has taken off her large coat and gloves and is shivering in the chair. Her expensive coat and gloves look out of place. In this sparse flat, the heavy brown fur commands more presence than most of the pieces of furniture.
Janice puts the glass on the table so that Diana has to reach for it. She takes a seat herself.
“So?” Janice says, waiting.
“So . . . we met a year or two ago, at the Hastings’, I believe. You’d just got back from a trip.”
“Ha!” Janice snorts. “Yes, I remember the Hastings.” She narrows her eyes at Diana. “I remember you.”
“Oh,” Diana says. “I didn’t think you did. Well, I thought it was impossible.”
“Impossible? Impossible how?”
“Well, I’m Peter’s wife. That’s how.”
Janice takes a sip from her own tumbler of water. “Well, that’s relatively obvious. Judging by your surname. It makes it so easy to distinguish people’s wives.” This Janice is so dour. And Diana can’t imagine wild parties in this flat. Now Diana just sees some people sitting around talking about what an awful business stealing other people’s husbands is. In fact, didn’t Diana used to live alone in a place like this?
“I remember you having a good sense of humour. That’s all I really remember,” Diana says.
“You’re the one that doesn’t drink, aren’t you?”
“Yes. ‘Never trust a woman who doesn’t drink beer’ and all that.”
Janice rubs her thumb over her chin, looking for hairs. “I guess people think you’re self-righteous.”
“Gosh. Do they? Is that what people think when you say you don’t drink?”
Janice takes a huge gulp of her water. “Yep. I expect so.”
“It’s not that at all.” Somehow, Diana’s eye has turned back toward herself.
“It seems like that. There are so few pleasures in this world, and so little time in it.” Her voice rings around the cold, empty flat. “Why deny yourself any of them?”
Diana feels a sting in her chest. She brings more water to her lips. “I’m scared you might be right.”
“Do you think this water tastes metallic?” Janice says.
Diana looks at her silvery reflection in the glass. Janice holds hers up to her face so that one eye looks huge and bulbous. Diana takes another little sip. “Maybe,” she says.
“I keep meaning to have words with the people who maintain this place. Water tastes dire. I can’t be feeding myself that, let alone anyone else.”
“Well,” Diana says, and pushes the glass away from her, “perhaps I’ve had enough.”
“Sure? Aren’t you thirsty? I thought you might be parched, seeing how it seems like you’ve got something to say.”
Janice is trying to rush Diana.
“Well,” Diana says, and smooths down her skirt, “I do have something to say.”
Janice looks at her expectantly.
“Perhaps I do need a bit more water.” But as she reaches for the glass, Janice knocks it over.
“Don’t go drinking that. It’s poison. Weren’t you listening, Diana Luther? Are you stupid or something?”
Diana’s bottom lip begins to quake and a huge dam of sadness bursts within her.
“Peter . . .” she begins. “He’s all I’ve ever had that’s mine.”
“That’s not true. Now you’ve got a coconut.”
“I shouldn’t have come . . .”
Janice points her finger at Diana. She’s been getting thinner and thinner this whole conversation. Her face starts to remind Diana of her own. “That’s right. You shouldn’t have come.”
Diana starts to get up. She sees the plate of food on the counter. It is raw meat. “Perhaps I should go. Besides, it looks like you’re about to eat.”
“Not yet. My mother always swore by letting meat come up to room temperature before we eat.”
Diana reels. “We? Peter . . . Is he here?”
Janice laughs. “God, you’re funny. I could use your second opinion on the metallic water, you know. You could be my witness, of sorts. Wouldn’t it be great to find someone with some money and be able to get out of here? Well, you should know.”
“Please,” Diana says. “We’ve got a baby now.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” and a baby’s cry streaks out between the thin silence of the two women.
Diana is dizzy. She looks into the peephole and sees herself looking back. She turns without knocking and walks away.