This is a short story called "Pestle, Mortar, Camisole" that I wrote long before Bed
was published, after an argument in a supermarket with my then girlfriend. Remember, the family that shops together, doesn't stay together.
÷ ÷ ÷
The flesh had slunk from her face in stop motion. Imperceptibly it had mottled and pocked and segued. And now she was a courtroom sketch of the woman he had married. Her neck was wound with tight wrinkles like the shrunken skin on a grilled aubergine. Once a week they did the big shop, his chance to examine the contours twisting like maggots around the mouth as they queued. He pulled the trolley from its metal conga. She walked ahead, list in grip, thinking about how her husband had changed.
His back she'd cherished when he'd stretched now seeped and stank and creaked. The endearing piglet snore had become the grumblings of a boar too big to pet. His eyelids now resided half-mast, as if in a permanent semi wink. But she still loved him just as he loved her. He reached for plates on high shelves. She found his socks.
The supermarket was anthill busy, everyone preoccupied and directionless. There was no space for order. He remembered how he'd suggested many years before that they perhaps come on a weeknight, when it is quieter. She had greeted his suggestion with considerable scorn. Saturdays were when they banked, or brought presents, booties and bright noisy-buttoned plastic for the grandchildren of friends. Why, she'd tutted, would they come in to town twice in a week now that the traffic was as bad as it was. He'd slammed the door and detoured purposely on his return with the dog from the vets. It annoyed her when his dinner fell cold. He'd lie in bed that night, his view the turned back of an angry lover, too aggravated to sleep until he did, when he snored repellently.
She picked up the papers; he picked up the lottery tickets. Same supplements, numbers and meeting place. The machine, when it worked, worked beautifully. As she bent over the potatoes he un-tucked her pink elasticated vest from the seam of her off-white knickers and she smiled. She chose the nicer scotch eggs, the ones he liked, rather than the cheap ones.
The cheese counter's funk still fought the scent of bread in her nostrils, but the monolith's insides, free of shadow, were the times changing. The self-scanners beep was a metronomic electric insect. Jams and preserves migrated, making way for wines not just from France or California but Peru, he noticed. The meals she made had expensive equivalents bred outdoors and yellowed by gobbled corn. And now they sold clothes. Passing the clothes made him pregnant with the dull weight of dread. She would tardily flick through the tights like they were summer reading, the discounted underwear section both beach and library. And then, he murmured, right from the pip at the centre of the old fruit of his chest, she would buy nothing. She couldn't find her denier. He avoided eye contact with the eager assistant offering cheap car insurance and wondered what place she had there, by the under wired bras.
The camisole was the blue of petrol on eel skin and hung ruffled as a cape where he remembered the biscuits once sat. When he saw it, it moved him, kneaded his nape, made him feel like a smoothed massaged spine. Intricate lace, woven fingerprints, rode the bosom, dipped and linked. Straps, as thin as melted caramel dangling from a chin, surfed the shoulders. A clean satin expanse, smooth like wet shells, rested over the belly. It frilled atop the thigh, only just beneath the lining of the panties he noticed, sneaking up to and lapping at the curve of the bottom that filled it. It was glorious and firing.
The coat hangers clanked as she tossed them into the trolley and rattled across the bottom like a stick on a prisoner's bars. He touched her on the shoulder. She jumped.
"Dear," he said, "you should get this for yourself."
"What?" she said, her mind already on Wednesday's supper and the cakes for the book club.
"It's a camisole."
"It's nice," he said.
"Have you gone mad?" she said, already steering their load towards the self-raising flour via the fennel seeds and bay leafs for grinding. He pinched her elbow between thumb and forefinger as if to turn her off by a hidden switch.
"What?" her spittle crackling like friction on his hot cheek.
"Seriously," he said, "you should get it, treat yourself". With his other hand he rubbed it, remembered seams hitched over taut flesh, thighs between his, risks and juices. She grimaced, pointed tongue clicking inside her cheek, dolphin sounds. A pause, and then "please".
"Camisole" she said, "is a clinical term for a straitjacket. Anyway, we need things for the kitchen. A blender..."
"We've got a whisk!"
"I'll fix it!" the shouting muffling the announcement of very special offers.
"And the toaster is on its last legs," she said, turning, walking not stopping.
"No it isn't."
"It is" she said, the two words a high speed full stop, "and we need a pestle and mortar. I can't make paste with a broken whisk."
He watched her disappear, enveloped by the bustle, a swarm of trolleys, baguettes as aerials. He was still holding the hem of the camisole in his left hand. It felt like soothing, slippery gel on his tough old skin. It wasn't his legs that clamped shut on contact with the mattress, he thought. The blood was still mustered when it needed to be, the veins still swollen, the root still firm. It wasn't him who didn't think of it, didn't nestle his hard self in the cleft at the bottom of her back as she pretended to sleep. Holding the side of her breast, his fingertips increasingly pinned under them lip of it, no longer expecting reciprocation, pleasuring oneself in the company of her fake slumber as the sun pricks the blinds.
She found his favourite shaving foam, the one that didn't irritate his skin, and turned to tell him she had, but he wasn't there, the crowd having swallowed him. She felt as she did when she kissed him goodnight on his cleanly shorn chin, him watching television over her shoulder. He didn't notice when she brushed her chest against his strong arms in the kitchen, or tickled gently like a cat's tongue does a toe the back of his hand with the soft palm of hers as he reluctantly sat through soap operas he secretly enjoyed. It was in his eyes not hers, she thought, extinguished desire. No camisole, she muttered to herself, would be able to dress that up. She laughed alone at the joke she felt she'd made.
As he drove her home, the hot car a can of steam, she listened to the radio. He remembered how he'd concertinaed her knee-length skirt until it rumpled under her belly button, held her by the bare bum in his hands rigid as scaffolds, how they'd fucked against the back garden wall of the pleasant countryside pub in which she was working the night they met, making it home an impossibility, her back bobbled pressed hard against the pebble dash, his furious ejaculate slugging through her insides, neck bitten and rounds cupped.
He turned his head, saw her loosened jowl. She hummed along to Abba and was reminded how they used to dance. Normally he'd ask her if she wanted to vacate the car before he reversed it into the garage because it offered her more space, not to mention kept her clothes clear of grease. This time he didn't and they both noticed it was odd. She struggled to get the bags, heavy and stretched like the pockets of an aged snooker table, out of the boot and the thick fug of dust. They didn't even talk until long after the preparation of the evening's meal had begun.
The ingredients were all ready, the herbs, thyme, parsley, all still potted, a forest with the soil all crumbs on the kitchen counter. The cider was ready to boil and reduce, the créme fraiche to thicken it, two knobs of butter. The skin she'd sliced from the two pork chops, scored with her sharpest knife, lay like discarded foreskins on the chopping board, the oil in the oven heating quickly for crackling. In this new recipe there was much to do, plates to spin before they were eaten from. She called her husband from the living room where he listened to the questions but not the answers of a quiz show. The pestle and mortar were ready, the salt, fennel seeds and bay leaf needing grinding to an oil for spreading on the pre-griddle pork. He entered, half-smiled, took the sturdy porcelain wand to the bowl and began.
"Did you remember to buy loo roll?" she said.
"Yes," he said, sighing. "In the bag by the bin cupboard."
Winding her finger round the bags plastic ribbons with a tug, its contents spilled at her feet, all shiny guts. Atop her slippers lay the camisole, resplendent like a fairytale princess cursed with the fever of sleep. He didn't turn, but ground and ground, the bay leaf tearing, the pestle grinding like threatened teeth. Louder still.
"What's this?" she said.
"It's that camisole," he said. "I thought I would treat you."
And he still didn't turn but he ground and he ground and he closed his eyes the remaining half way. He imagined her hands now sliding around his rotund belly, her kissing his shoulder blades through his shirt, teasing at the buckle on his belt to undo it, prodding it softly like the tongue of a tortoise an onion. Her finger sliding underneath the waistband of his boxer shorts and holding him with a familiarity so genuine, it was as if what she'd grabbed was hers that he'd borrowed it and she'd temporarily forgotten. But nothing. And he ground and ground and ground until the cream of the mortar was a muddy green sludge.
She stood with the camisole in the middle of the kitchen, the space between them elongating as he rhythmically churned his arm as though she stood on a conveyor belt as he pumped the lever. Her eyes were wet, her cheeks soon ruddy with embarrassment, and for all that she could remember what it was they had, how to make it begin she had completely forgotten.
"But our toaster is on its last legs," she said.
The mortar tinkled in a sharp white drizzle like bits of smashed skull over his bare feet, the pestle the white of his knuckles. He bled over her new carpet, the paste staining the worktop.