Jude was already hot under the collar when he arrived. Sweaty rivulets ran down his bullish red neck. They had the pungency of onions fried in rancid butter. Furiously, he tugged at his too-tight waistcoat, furtively snaked a fat finger around his wet collar. His new leather belt bit into his belly. He walked across the dangerously polished floor; a corpulent sausage overstuffed. He felt such a spectacle. His new shoes squeaked his discomfort. One slip, Jude knew, and it would all be over. Overhead, the disco ball turned erratically, like a drugged-up dervish spinning ecstatically. It hummed an ominous undercurrent. Dizzy, he stumbled and wondered if he was feverish. Perhaps it would have been better if he had stayed at home, away from it all. The pulsing red and orange lights splayed fingered warnings on his black jacket. Stop! Danger! Take Care! The air was fuggy; layers of cheap scents, the heavy-handed spraying of boys’ deodorants. Jude fought back an impulse to push forward his fat arms, to swim through the sweat of it all.
On his arm, drooped his wife, Mary. Elegant as always, her bright smile was fixed with lipstick. She teetered on her high heels, with their ties that criss-crossed up her ankles. Jude steered her to the table, his hand gripping her elbow hard. He hurt her now as he so often did, deliberately, callously, a smile plastered on his face. Rigid, she stared ahead, wanting the charade to be over. As synchronised lovers, their moves well-practised, they sat down with her school colleagues at the table seeded with tiny LED bulbs that flickered on and off like so many rumours. Rose petals floated in bowls of water and gold paper hearts, punched out by the school committee ladies glittered on the white cloth. His romantic flourish of pulling out her chair and smoothing her dress fooled no-one. It was, thought Mary’s colleagues, destined to be a long night with this buffoon. She taught at the girls’ school and he at the boys’ and they saw through his façade as they always had.
As they sat, the other staff moved down the table away from him. Surely they could have sat elsewhere, they all thought.
The tension was palpable. Mary murmured politely about the girls’ dresses, the boys, who paraded past proudly, with a special girl. She envied the girls, so sure in their love. Beneath the table, she repeatedly pleated the tablecloth, her feet twisted together, the knots on her shoes tautly binding her, a stranglehold on her skin. She had asked Jude to help her with her shoes earlier and it was he who had trussed her up. She felt like a rolled lamb roast, tied in string. Squeezed there between her husband and Mrs Browne, the Head of Mathematics, Mary was trapped. A large bruise on her thigh throbbed hot with the weight of her colleague’s generous buttocks. She drew tight her voluminous skirts, suddenly aware that they had fallen over Jude’s legs, heavy, wide apart beneath the table. He sat, his meaty shoulder turned away, looking for someone, one huge paw resting between his legs. They all knew who he was waiting for.
Then she arrived. Lila. Jude’s colleague. Her blue dress had a cleavage into which a man could dive and be lost forever. Her dress, sequined and ruched, grabbed greedily at her frame; winked in collusion with the disco ball. She stood, biding her time, one leg thrust from the sharp slit in her dress which darted to her knicker line. Her shiny black shoes were made for dancing but not with her husband. Across the room, she saw Jude and he saw the challenge. He adjusted his bulk; puffed out his chest, and sat upright, his shoulders squared. To Mary, he seemed like a lone silverback gorilla. All brawn and bravado. His large blunt forehead followed Lila as she collapsed into the only seat left empty. She was, Jude thought, already tipsy.
Next to her, the principal half-turned. A deep flush stained his face as he took in her breasts, that quivered obscenely like panna cotta on a plate. He felt a sudden pricking in his groin, an unaccountable desire to touch her flesh. His wife stared hard at Lila. She, too, knew the rumours and had long ago taken Lila’s measure. Had found her to be wanting. She knew that with Lila, he was always on his guard. The air between them was electric with things not said but which could be. There was a stalemate between them. Secrets perhaps.
Now, she watched him talking to her. A simple man, he had always found small talk difficult, preferring the banter of a rugby locker room to professional or formal conversation. Then, multiple meanings sometimes slid past him, became slippery eels that wound fast around him. She knew, from the way that he had squirmed in on himself now, that he was nervous; his eyes bulged, and a small trickle of saliva pooled around his bottom lip. Across the room, he saw Jude, his eyes fixed on Lila, drinking her in. He half-raised his hand in greeting, in recognition of a fellow feeling. It was, he knew, the thrill of the chase, of lust, of hunting. The two men sat. They locked eyes and horns. Both knew that the night was still young and that there was sport to be had.
The meals came, platters of roast vegetables and slabs of rich meats, covered in sticky glaze that dripped from one’s fork and then fell to form small beads on the pristine tablecloths. The drops bounced like mischievous mercury spilled from a chemistry bench. Jude guzzled his food noisily. He reminded Mrs Browne of taking her grand-children to feed kunekune pigs. Like them, he tossed the food down his maw, spraying those next to him with spit and spilt food. His yellowed teeth jutted from his flabby lips from which emanated the smell of decay. She shrank away from him as best she could. She felt sorry for poor Mary, of course she did. Nobody knew why the two of them were still together, not with all the reasons to tear them apart being so apparent.
Mary ate her food slowly. Deliberately. In her long-tapered fingers, perfectly manicured with blood-red nail polish, she held tightly onto her knife. She dissected her meat into tiny rectangular chunks. Her long blonde hair curtained her face as she built up a small pile of fleshy cubes. One, two, three, she silently counted. A slow meditation, a drifting away from the present. From the humiliation of it all. Afterwards, people would say that it was then that they saw the end coming, but it is easy to know it all when all has been exposed.
Across the room, the principal ate pedantically. First, the vegetables, from which he picked the peas, one at a time. He threaded them down the tines of his fork like so many beheaded staff heads on pikes. He left the meat until last and then savoured it. He rolled each small chunk around in his mouth, enjoying the slow drips of the juices down his throat. On one side of him, his wife chatted desultorily with some of his staff. Her words were small stabs into a wall of indifference. As she persisted in small talk, she could hear her voice quavering, betraying her. She had long known that her husband felt nothing but hatred towards her. Feeling him livened sitting next to Lila, sensing his hand, warm and quick, rubbing up and down his thigh, she felt old. Old and humiliated. She saw herself as perhaps he saw her – saggy breasts and a slackened belly. Miserably, she pushed her food around the plate, adjusted surreptitiously the thick bra strap that gouged her shoulder.
On the other side of her husband was Lila. The alcohol had made her more garrulous than usual. Finally, the desserts arrived. Meringue nests with thick clotted cream spilling out of their centres, sticky date puddings and fragile brandy snaps that one could never eat with ease. Suddenly, Lila pushed back her chair which squealed jarringly against the floor. Muttering her apologies, she rushed towards the bathroom. Jude, the principal noticed, had also left the room. His wife, Mary, still sat at the table, poised, her palms pressed together, whitened fingertips compressed, two pink splotches appearing on her pale cheeks. Her cream chiffon dress was illuminated by the coloured strobe lights. She sat, fractured by the alternate lines of dark and colour, as though she were a suffering saint in a stained-glass window. Around her, people shuffled in embarrassment; they too had noticed Lila’s empty seat. Mrs Browne patted Mary ineffectually on the shoulder. Married for over 20 years now, she too knew the loneliness of marriage and that the myth of happiness, of love ever after was simply that: a myth, in which women had to play their part. She had learned a long time ago now how to shoulder the blame and to turn a blind eye. To lie in bed and to do her wifely duty while making up shopping lists in her head. Stoicism was an important virtue for a woman.
The two women sat, each in her own thoughts. Across the room, the principal’s wife sympathised with Mary, who sat craning her eyes, counting down minute after interminable minute of Jude’s absence. She had met her only once before at a school function. Then, they had stood, backs hard up against the servery, both cradling hot cracked coffee cups, while the male staff had talked over them, carving out their conversation with adroit exclusion of the women. She had noticed then the way that Mary would, almost imperceptibly cower when Jude moved towards her, an angry welt half-hidden by her blonde hair. Social propriety had stifled her from asking questions, but now, she wished that she had.
Then, there arose a concerted hum of boys’ voices, a long drawn-out moan like a runaway train. Through the throng now crowding the entrance way, rushed Jude, pursued by crowing boys. He had one shoe missing, and his waistcoat was falling off, trailing buttons. His ripped tie was a red slash against his exposed neck. With the rage of a cornered cattle beast, he spluttered profanities. Around him, schoolboys derided him, caught as he had been with his trousers at his knees, one fat hand pawing at Lila in the men’s toilets. In his arrogance, he had forgotten that they had been watching him for days. That there were photographs. That the humiliation that he had meted out on them in the classroom had not been forgotten and that justice would always be served.
Behind him, Lila slipped into the room, her dress still rucked up at the back. It exposed her flabby naked bottom, pocked with cellulite, dimples like focaccia dough left to rise. Thick streams of mascara stained her face, left a Rorschach inky blot on her breasts. Her legs splayed and buckled beneath her and she fell, mottled legs twisted, one breast flopped onto the wooden floor, her face grimaced.
Above the mocking mob of boys and the staff at the tables, gyrated the pulsing disco ball, its throb and thrum at the end of its chain beating down on them all through the oppressive suffocating air. The strobe lights pierced through the crowds, stretching orange and red lights into the corners, seeking out secrets, probing for answers. Jude stood, caught in their bright glare, a rabbit in headlights. The lights sent their stripes striding over Lila who still lay, crumpled, a shell of herself on the hard floor.
Mary looked over at the principal’s wife, who nodded, almost imperceptibly. She felt the warm reassurance of Mrs Browne’s hand and steeled herself. It would be, she knew, now or never. She stood up, the sharp cold knife firm in her hand and made her move.
About the Author
Lynda Scott Araya lives in beautiful Kurow in the South Island where, along with her husband, she co-owns a heritage B&B. With a background in education, she has taught in diverse settings including secondary schools,
at tertiary level and in men’s prisons. Passionate about writing, she also advocates for mental health and suicide awareness.