It was too narrow to be a balcony, and insensitive friends had cured Alex of calling it one, but there was room enough to stand and lean on the railing, a drink in his hand. The city’s skyline was visible from the thirteenth floor, and those same friends lapped up the view, but mostly Alex saw other blocks, the windows of others who dwelt up in the sky. What he really liked was standing there listening to the distant growl of traffic, safe in the knowledge that he had left the city behind for the day, and was free of its storm of regulations.
He drained his glass, and stepped back into the room. He walked to the hallway, stared at the bathroom door. “Elena.” He tapped on the frosted window. “Are you going to be long in there?” He called his wife’s name again, and melancholy streaked through him. He remembered calling her name in a different way, not in enquiry, but in what passed for men of his time and place as love, in the days when he hadn’t felt afraid of the passions in his blood. The hissing of water made a secret of his wife’s answer. Alex stood there trying to make it out, but then, like a dog spoken to kindly, found himself comforted, if only fleetingly, by the cadence of words holding some promise. He went back to the living room and sank into an armchair. His hand wandered down to a loose thread along its flank, and he curled it around his finger.
The hair at the base of his skull rose, and he was taken by the feeling of being watched. He took a look around the room, was startled by the sight of a round-eyed man in need of a five o’clock shave, tie undone and shirt-tails escaping. A needle tickled Alex’s insides as he realised that the figment he saw, distorted in the fairground mirror of the television set, yet essentially true-to-life, was himself.
The alchemy of steam and cosmetics began to pervade the room, and he greeted Elena with an anxious turn of the head. She was going out to play bridge, he remembered, was busy getting ready for the weekly event. It was an occasional annoyance to him that he couldn’t play. He knew every other popular card game, and it enraged him whenever he was told that that was exactly the problem: bridge wasn’t just a card game, and his failure lay in daring to approach it as such. He thought of Elena’s painted talons moving carefully over green baize, clashing with the red suits.
“Nice day?” Elena called over his shoulder. He saw her in the television, standing behind his armchair, fingers held up before her like those of a surgeon prepping before using the knife.
“Not bad.” He saw her blow on her nails, knew that they were out of action for the few minutes it would take them to dry. All the same, he held his glass up and said, “Get me a drink, will you.” He sensed her hesitation become irritation, and then subside.
“In a minute,” she said firmly, and then she walked past him and sat on the sofa.
Elena was wearing only a towel, wrapped around her waist. She was in good shape for her years. Alex was troubled by a spark of proprietary pride that prompted, nevertheless, just a glum stare. Elena responded to it brightly, saying, “Are you well?”
He nodded slowly, his tongue touching his bottom lip, said only, “You should put something on.”
“I’m going to.” She blew on her nails. “You don’t think I’m going out like this, do you?”
She began to talk about her day at work. Alex grunted responses as she itemised the various shortcomings of people he knew only from her chatter. In fact, he reflected, he could easily have told her the very things she was telling him. At last, she got up and took his glass, and he was reassured by the sound of tinkling ice.
“Well, no news?” she asked, as she brought his drink, “How was work?”
“Not bad.” He waved a hand, dismissed as best he could all the people who spent half an hour in the shop not buying, but looking. “You know, same old thing.”
Elena sat down again, this time armed with a brush and mirror. She made elaborate adjustments to her hair. “Same old thing,” she echoed.
“Looking.” Alex said it almost to himself. “Just looking. Do they think I get commission on their looking?”
“What?” Alerted by the change in Alex’s voice, Elena looked up.
“I wish,” he said carefully, “you’d go and put something on. I’ve told you before. It’s a…bad idea to walk around the flat stark naked.”
“I’m not stark naked.” Elena picked up a corner of the towel.