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Like a taut rubber-band

    It was only two weeks ago that she had gone to the Cumbene's. It seemed like an age. Still very early, for a Sunday morning. Jillian had given up all hope of rest, and decided to rise and shine: or to rise at least, and continue with her study. There was no sense in lying in bed, achieving nothing except to make herself miserable. Bleary with lack of sleep, she went and stood under the shower, changing it from warm to cold and back again, until she felt that she had been jolted into some semblance of alertness.
   She shampooed her hair again, but still not feeling either clean or rested, stepped out and dried herself. Looking at her face in the mirror she realised that she would have more questions than she could cope with unless she could hide the ravages, so she blow-dried her hair, as she had the previous evening, and put on enough makeup to disguise the damage, at least from the casual observer.
   After a night of thought, turning her problem with Keith every which way in her mind, she had finally admitted to herself that her bump and grind had only postponed matters. Keith might be maladjusted, but he was also very intelligent, and that meant adaptable. She could depend on him to change the rules again and set up some new scene. She had now lost the element of surprise. Last night's shock tactic had worked well for her, but it wasn't going to work twice.
   Right now he's furious, frustrated, impatient, enraged. He may even be angry enough to risk hurting me physically, even though it might lead to disclosure and the end of his chances to put me under longer-term humiliation. He can probably hold grudges for a very long time. I think Chris was right, there is a large chunk of retribution there. So, unfortunately, I can't depend on him calming down if I just keep out of his way. He might even decide waylay and abduct me.
   I've got to live without fear. He lost the initiative last night. Now I've got to hold it. See him, soon, in public, and hose him down. Chill him out. He'll come if that's the only way he can get to me. I hope.
   He needs professional help. But I can't let anyone else know. So I'm stuck with him until I scare him off, drive him away.
   So Mum and Dad have to think that he's lovely, that I can't keep my hands off him, and that I'm going to be seeing a lot more of him. I wouldn't be surprised if he forces me to move in with him. Once he's recovered from last night's shock tactic. This is a mess. In the long run I might come to see prison as the better alternative, but in the meantime I want to keep my options open, and see what I can manage with my own resources.
   Expecting her parents still to be in bed, she tidied her room, went downstairs with a book, made herself a breakfast, and read as she munched, at the kitchen table. The sound of the refrigerator door made her look up. "Good morning, Dad. I didn't hear you come down."
   "You go on reading, Jillian, I didn't mean to disturb you."
   She closed the book. "No, I wanted to talk to you. Are you going to have some breakfast?"
   "Yes, I'll join you. Is that tea fresh?" He sat down opposite her. "You are looking quite lovely this morning. Perhaps a little tired, but then, you had a late night, I expect. What do you want to talk about, Dear?"
   "Yes, I did have a late night. We went to that revue at The Wharf. It was brilliant. You would have loved it. Mum too. You should try to get to it. Really. We were having such great fun, we went on to Kinsella's for some jazz and dancing, but it was far too loud, painful even. There was no way you could hear yourself think, let alone have a conversation, so we went back to Keith's unit for supper. He's got an outstanding view."
   "How can he afford that?"
   "Sheer, short-term luck. The place in front has been demolished for a new building, and until that's finished he's got a million-dollar position, for peanuts. But not for long, though. The new construction is well under way. So we sat and enjoyed it while it's there, and had a cup of coffee and a chat, then I got a taxi home. It didn't seem fair to drag him all the way out again, and he had paid for everything else. It was the least I could do."
   "And I think perhaps I'm going to be seeing a bit more of him. I know that might be hard for you and Mum to understand, and I'll not bring him here in the meantime, but he's nice to me, and intelligent -"
   " - yes, he's got quite a brilliant streak, there's no doubt about that."
   "And he's quite a strong character. He knows what he wants, and right now he wants me." Truth is best, she told herself. Stick to the truth, but be selective.
   "This is a new side to you, Jillian. What about Chris, then?"
   "That's just it, Dad. I've been waiting for the right moment with Chris, for years, it seems."
   "Not seems, Jillian. It actually has been years."
   "Yes. That's it. Years. And nothing. I thought I loved him, but I never felt enough to push me that extra step. I was always a girl with him, never a woman, not even a young woman."
   "And with Keith you feel something different?"
   "Oh, yes, you could put it that way. My word. They are so different I wouldn't know where to start telling you about it. Totally different. And I feel totally different about them. I could never feel for Chris the way I feel about Keith, and vice versa. Never in a thousand years." It's marvellous how you can twist a story any which way, while sticking to the bare truth, she thought. Say what you like about Keith, when he talked about the court system he got that part right.
   "You sound as though you've fallen hard."
   "Well, nothing's happened yet, but just being with him I've learnt things about myself, even in the few hours last night, just in the way we talked together, that I might not have learnt in half a lifetime. It has been a total blast. No sex, just a peck on the cheek - truly Dad, nothing more than that, except we did have one dance at Kinsella's."
   "You don't have to tell me your private life, Jillian. That's your own."
   "That's just it, Dad, there is nothing to tell. It was a weird experience. Fascinating. If he asks me out again, and I believe he will, I think I'm going to have to accept. I hope that doesn't make too much of a problem for you and Mum."
   "I'll deal with your Mum. It sounds as though you are really smitten by Keith, for his own sake."
   "I wouldn't say smitten, Dad."
   "Fine. Not smitten. Regardless, you go out with him, by all means. We'll think later on about how we deal with our part of it."
   When they had finished eating, her mother still had not appeared. "Is Mum coming down, do you think?"
   "She lay awake for a while, wondering how you were getting on with Keith. I told her you were nobody's fool, but she couldn't settle until she heard you come in, she said. I was out like a light most of the time."
   "Oh, Dad, that's a shame. Is there anything I can do to make it easier for her?"
   "Just keep a level head on your shoulders, make sure your studies aren't affected, and still be her Jilly. She loved shopping with you yesterday. I haven't seen her so happy for a long time. She was delighted with how self-assured you had become. I don't know why she wasn't able to reassure herself with that knowledge after she had gone to bed. The gremlins of the night, I suppose."
   "I won't neglect her, Dad. I promise. Nor my studies."
   "That's my girl, oops, you're my adult daughter."
   "Oh, Dad, you are a tease."
   She cleared the table, washed the dishes and put them away, then went back to her room and continued with her study.
    An hour later there was a tap on the door. "Jilly?" It was her mother.
   "Mum? Come in." Jillian turned from her desk, gestured to her bed. Her mother sat down, facing her.
   "Your Dad says you had fun last night, and you intend to continue going with Keith."
   She looks quite miserable, Jillian thought. "Mother, you're not happy about this, are you."
   "No. No, I'm not."
   "What is it, exactly, that you are worried about?"
   "I don't trust him. Keith. Whether he is innocent or guilty of fraud, or not. I don't care about that. I think he's got a bad streak. Cruel. You say he's changed and is polite and considerate and helpful. I'm afraid that's just a veneer and you could get a terrible shock, and even be hurt by him, some day, perhaps when you least expect it."
   "Yes, Mum. I hope you are wrong, but of course that is always a possibility with anyone, until you know them well enough to be certain of them. Are you afraid that something would happen to me that I couldn't deal with?"
   "Jillian. Oh, I love you so much, Darling. I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to you."
   Jillian saw tears come to her mother's eyes, and went over and sat beside her, putting her arm across her shoulders, their heads close together.
   Her mother smiled at her, wanly. "You've changed, this last week. You aren't so compulsive about your study, and yesterday, shopping, was a huge treat. I feel I can talk to you now as I used to when you were small. That's silly, isn't it, now that you've suddenly grown up so much all at once?"
   Jillian gave her mother's shoulders an extra squeeze, raised her eyebrows and smiled.
   Her mother smiled back, a little more happily. "You seem more confident, somehow. More capable. Maybe I don't need to worry. You feel you can cope with Keith, don't you?"
   Jillian nodded. Said nothing. Kept her eyes on her mother's face.
   Her mother looked back, with dawning understanding. "Yes, maybe you can, at that. You're nobody's fool now, are you? You've really changed a lot, haven't you? You already know about Keith, don't you? I have confirmed your own opinion of him, haven't I. What I said didn't surprise you at all."
   She looked keenly at her daughter. "You know exactly what you are doing. You've got your own reasons, and you won't be swayed."
   "Well, I'm doing my best, but I'm playing it by ear. He won't injure me but he's a real problem, one that I've got to solve alone. Oh, boy, I'm learning fast."
   "Oh, yes, Love. I can see that. I have no idea what's up, and you're happy to leave it that way?"
   "I have the best Mum in the world. And she loves me and trusts me. What more could a girl ask for?"
   "Oh, Jilly, do be careful - I know, you will be. You will come to me any time you need my help, or your Dad's, won't you?"
   "Of course I will, Mum. And maybe we can go shopping again in a few weeks?" She smiled as she took her arm from her mother's shoulders.
   "Oh, yes, let's do that." Her mother smiled back. They both stood up, Jillian going back towards her desk as her mother went to the door. "Join us for morning tea?"
   "Come down in an hour, then."
   An hour later, pleased with what she had achieved at her books in that time, Jillian joined her parents on the porch. The harbour was already crowded with the fleet of Sunday yachtsmen.
   Her father looked at her and smiled. Mother has been talking to him, she thought. I hope they are both easier in their minds. I wish I was. I have no idea what to do. Play it by ear. Until I know more I don't have any other option.
   She took the cup her mother passed to her, and they sat in companionable silence, finally broken by the sound of the phone, ringing in the room behind them.
   . - Jillian got up to answer it.
   "Hello, it's Jillian."
   "Hello little Jilly. You're in trouble, little Jilly. Deep trouble. You shouldn't have done that, little Jilly."
   "Oh, Keith," she spoke clearly. She needed her parents to overhear her. "How lovely of you to ring. I had such a good time last night. What are you doing today?"
   "Your parents don't like me, do they? Oh, you're good, little Jilly, but I'm better, little Jilly. My little Jilly. What do you say to that, eh?"
   "Not this evening, I've got early lectures tomorrow."
   "Quick thinking. Now, you listen to me. Fuck your lectures. You get over here right bloody now, for as long as I say, or you will be in so deep you'll get it up your nose."
   "Oh, that would be lovely. The pizza place on the Finger Wharf? Just the day for it. Twelve thirty? Book a table in your name so I have somewhere to sit in case my bus gets in early. See you then."
   She hung up. Let's see how he deals with that. It's a game for him, like chess. I just don't know his rules. Until I do, he's not going to get me alone again. He loves this game, and unless I withdraw from it he will keep my secret.
   "Jilly, you'll have to get moving if you are going to catch the city bus."
   "Yes, Mum. Keith wasn't very clear about his plans. I might have dinner with him, too, but I would be coming home straight after, if I did."
   "You go off and get ready, then."
   "Yes, Mum."
   She went up to her room, changed into one of her more demure dresses, damped her hair and drew it back into a pony-tail, wiped off most of her makeup, put on short white socks and flat shoes, picked up a purse and cardigan, and went down to the porch.
   "My word," said her father, "you look as is you had just stepped out of the Wizard of Oz."
   "It's that young look again, Dear." added her mother. "Perhaps some lipstick though? And maybe a necklace or brooch to soften it. It's not you, not any more."
   "Mother, you are a genius. Actually, I want it to make a particular statement."
   Her mother nodded. "Like yesterday?"
   "Yes, Mum. Exactly." She kissed her mother on the cheek.
   Her father looked at them both, obviously puzzled.
   "Girl talk, my Love," his wife told him, smiling.
   Jillian kissed him too, then left for the bus stop.
    When she arrived at the restaurant it was only twelve fifteen. Keith was already seated, a glass on the table before him. She joined him and sat down. With a demure look, she ordered a Pernod and lime, and when the waiter had left, looked at Keith, and waited.
   "Oh, very clever, little Jilly. very clever." He had a broad smile. "You are going to be such fun."
   "Not if I can help it."
   The smile became forced. "No. I'll not forget last night in a hurry. You won't pull that on me again. I see that you've decided on a different tack today. Just as well."
   Jillian continued to look at him. She felt that her face was blank. She couldn't think what to say, so she said nothing. So far, so good. Now what?
   "I wanted you in the flat with me."
   They both knew that. There was still nothing she could usefully add. The silence grew, private, between them only, the sounds of the restaurant around them, almost empty this early, and the shrilling of the seabirds outside, merely a frame for her unspoken words.
   "You disobeyed me."
   She lifted her head slightly, kept her eyes on his face.
   "I won't tolerate disobedience."
   She lifted one eyebrow very slightly.
   "Don't you give me any of your crap!" He almost shouted. The barman turned to look across at them. Keith caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. He shrugged. The barman went back to polishing the glassware.
   More quietly, "If you won't play, I'll tell. It's that simple."
   She nodded, very slightly. Then she pushed her breasts forward as she had the previous night, and made the start of a gesture to cradle an imagined head against them, before quickly sinking back to her previous demure pose.
   "You BITCH!" He leapt to his feet, knocking over his chair. The waiter came around the end of the bar, winding a towel around his fist. Keith spread his hands apologetically, picked up his chair and sat down.
   "Would you like to order your food now, Sir?"
   Jillian smiled sweetly at the waiter, and picked up her menu. Keith scowled as he looked at his. As they were ordering, other diners arrived and were seated nearby. Jillian knew that Keith would have to be more restrained now, and she less inflammatory.
   She was becoming much more aware of his weaknesses and limits. Where she could hit him, and how hard. He was learning about her strengths, too. But not her weaknesses, perhaps. Would that put him off the game? She sat quietly, watching him. How long could she keep him losing points before he withdrew and betrayed her? What moves would she have to concede to keep him locked into the game? She decided to sacrifice a pawn.
   "You hate me." Quietly.
   He looked startled. "No."
   "Think about it."
   "No. I love you."
   "You want my body?"
   "That's not love."
   "It's what I know of it." She knew that, but it was nice to be leading him there, too.
   "You don't like what I am. You think I'm haughty. How could you love that?"
   "I can ignore that."
   "No you can't." She let her face go blank, lifted her head slightly, turned it a little to look over his shoulder at the boats moored against the wharf outside.
   "It's no use playing games with me. You can't win. You must do what I say. I know your secret."
   She ignored him.
   "Don't you ignore me."
   She wondered how he experienced her silences. Did he feel rejected? Neglected? Spurned? Diminished? Still, she watched the boats. One of them was casting off. It would soon be sliding away, out into the more open water, where it could hoist its sails and move freely on the wind. She wished her life could be like that, too.
   "Damn it, you pay attention when I talk to you." A forced whisper. as firmly as he could without attracting attention.
   She looked back at him. "I'm haughty. You hate it."
   "Yes. Yes, you win. I hate some things about you."
   "All of them." She looked at the boats again.
   "Don't you dare do that again. I'm warning you."
   She continued to look at the boats. He moved his chair into her line of view. She turned her head the other way and watched the barman.
   "That does it!" He started to rise. Heads turned towards them. He moved his chair back to its place and sat down again, said nothing. Glared at her.
   "Have you got your mobile?" She had turned to look blankly at him again.
   He reached into a pocket, drew it out. Looked at it. Looked at her, baffled. "Yes, why? What about it? Do you want to make a call?"
   "You don't have to leap up and shout and storm off to call the police. You could do it quietly, almost privately, here at the table. Had you forgotten that?"
   Slightly shaken, he put the phone back in his pocket.
   Their meals arrived. They ate them in silence. The waiter came to collect the plates. They both ordered coffee.
   She waited until they were alone again. "We have plenty of time."
   He was sarcastic. "I thought you had to get your sleep for an early lecture?"
   "I'm twenty-one. You've got fifty good years with me if you play your cards right. What's the rush?"
   "I want you now. Now."
   "No, that's juvenile thinking. You're a small boy. You need instant gratification. If your toy doesn't work the first time, you smash it."
   "I can smash you."
   "Yes." She fell silent again.
   He didn't answer.
   "Would you really give up a whole lifetime of fun, torturing and tormenting me, all day, every day, just because this afternoon wasn't working out? Where is it written that all your plans are perfect? You make mistakes. We all do. You need my help. You said we were in this together. It works both ways."
   Now he looked dejected. She waited for him to absorb it all.
   "What's your plan?" she said.
   "What's your plan for me, once I'm bent to your will?"
   "I don't know what you're talking about."
   "No, I don't think you do. Were you going to do sex, over and over and over till you couldn't any more and I was in agony? Sex doesn't work that way. Once or twice, and then you'd sleep and be at my mercy. You'd need me to resist in order to hurt me. And I wouldn't resist, not that way. Or you would need to get a dozen of your mates in to help you." She watched him. Watched his eyes.
   He just glared at her.
   "But you're the man," she added. "You don't need help, do you? And in any case, you don't have any mates, either."
   "You leave my mates out of this!"
   "That would be easier to do if you had any."
   "What are you driving at?"
   "Oh, do pay attention, Keith. I mean that you are lonely. You say you want me. Actually, it's need, not want. You need me. You hate me, but you need me, and it's eating you up."
   "I don't need you. I don't need anybody." Behind the eyes was a small boy.
   "It must be dreadful for you, having your father in jail. Did you always work where you could be close to him, or was my Dad just lucky?"
   "I'm getting on fine. Keep your nose out of my business."
   "Okay." She started to rise from her chair.
   "You sit down right now."
   "And keep out of your business?"
   "Have nothing more to do with you?"
   "Yes. No. Stop it, please stop it. I love you and I want you. Now."
   The waiter arrived with the coffee.
   "You want me in your flat with you, this afternoon." It wasn't a question.
   "You're wrong."
   "What!" Heads turned to him again. He quietened down. "What do you mean, I'm wrong?"
   "You don't want me. You want what you imagine I am. But you've been exposed to me several times. And you've hated it. Every minute of it."
   "I love you."
   "You hate it when I mock you. You hate it when I argue with you, worst of all when I win. You hate it when I ignore you. You're an opportunist. You didn't pick me, I fell into your outstretched hand. If you had a choice of blackmail victims you would have chosen anybody else. Anybody at all. Any body, even, just not mine."
   "No, no, I've always wanted you. You're lovely, beautiful. I dream about your beauty. I want you."
   "Do you dream about the real me, as well as the Barbie Doll? About what I really say and do? Are they dreams too? Or are they nightmares?" She watched his face. I think he had a bad night, last night. Good. So did I. Serves him right. "Think about the real me, now. One word answer. What you really feel for me. This me, giving you the hard time. What do you feel - quickly now - love or hate?"
   "Good boy, now we're getting somewhere. I'll come back to your flat now, see what we can get up to. I've only got white knickers on today. I hope that won't disappoint you too much."
   "Forget it."
   "Oh, Keithy-boy. I thought you wanted me, loved me, had to have me, now. Now."
   "Shut up and let me think."
   "Too late. Try again next week."
   "You heard."
   "What do you mean, Too late, try again next week?"
   "Keith, wake up. You don't want sex with me at the moment. You don't want to listen to what I've got to say. You hate me but right now you can't think how to hurt me suitably. You'd love to turn me in to the cops but you're not yet ready to end the game - you hope you might get better at it, given time. Am I telling you lies?"
   "No." He looked puzzled, angry, dejected, furious; in turn and all at once.
   "I'm not walking out on you, but we both have to keep on living while you work out what to do, isn't that true?"
   "Go on." Surly.
   "So, I'm suggesting we adjourn the meeting. Go back to our separate homes. We've kept each other's secrets for two weeks already. I can manage to do that for another week, and we can meet back here, same time next week, and you can tell me how it's to be. You will have had time to think through it by then."
   "You're setting me up. You're going to trick me. I'm going to call the cops."
   "Fine, but why don't you keep that for this time next week, if I haven't turned up? In the meantime, if you want us to keep the game going, you are going to walk me to the taxi rank. And pay my fare home. I've come here at your order. The least you can do is cover the costs. Or you can drive me, if you want to chat some more." She lifted her chair back quietly, stood up, walked out into the sunlight and waited while he paid the bill.
   He came out. Looked at her with hatred, and walked on without her, along the wharf, toward the street. She stood where she was. His steps slowed. He stopped, looked back. She remained standing, a slight smile on her lips. He gestured for her to come to him. She turned slightly, watching a man coiling the ropes on a nearby boat.
   "Jillian." Imperious.
   She ignored him.
   "Come on, Jilly."
   The man coiling the ropes looked up, looked at Keith, turned to look at Jillian. Saw that she was watching him. He smiled and waved. She waved back.
   Keith walked back to her. Grabbed her arm. Gave it a tug.
   She didn't move her feet. She was pulled off balance. She started to fall against Keith.
   "Oh, for goodness sake. What's wrong with you, you stupid bitch?" He was whispering. Looking round, embarrassed.
   Another one to me, Jillian thought. She looked him in the eye. "If we are going to pull this act off, we have to stay in character. You the perfect gentleman, and me - whatever you tell me to be next week. In the meantime, you really do need practice at staying within your role. Let's try that affectionate stroll again, shall we, down the wharf to the street? You quite blew your first attempt."
   She thought he was going to explode. He held his breath and went red, but he said nothing, held her arm gently, and as she began to move, walked slowly by her side. As they passed, she waved to the man on the boat.

Copyright © 2003 Peter Leon Collins
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