Published in Watching Women & Girls, a collection of short stories by Riposte founder and editor Danielle Pender, Window Display is the story of a woman reflecting on a past relationship with an older man
This excerpt is taken from Watching Women & Girls, a collection of short stories by Danielle Pender that explore how women and girls are looked at, look at one another, and look at themselves, and how living as an object can shape their passions, fears, and joys.
The man on the next table to Laura wasn’t saying anything interesting but you wouldn’t know that by looking at his lunch date. She was engrossed. Her eyes were locked onto his face, her arm mechanically delivered food to her mouth which she chewed and swallowed without tasting. She took large gulps of her white wine as he got deeper into his story about conference calls, diary clashes and difficult clients. She laughed so hard at one point that Laura couldn’t help but stare directly at the couple. The woman’s mouth was wide open, her head thrown back in religious rapture, her teeth were full of parsley. She punctuated the performance with a breathless ‘Ah, that was so funny’ and wiped her eyes with a napkin.
Was it? Laura thought. Was anything ever really that funny? How many times do you laugh so hard that you cry actual tears of joy? Once a week, once a month, once a year? It definitely doesn’t happen on a Tuesday lunchtime during a conversation about production schedules. She looked at her own lunch companion. A small, drooling child returned her gaze and dropped a teething toy onto the floor. Laura picked up the wet plastic ring and gave it back to the child without wiping it. Between them, a decaying compost heap of food had been picked at and randomly sucked, but not eaten.
Tuning out of her own lunch situation and back into the couple’s next to her she deciphered that they both worked at the same advertising agency and were sleeping together. Based on the man’s love of his own mediocre ideas, Laura guessed he was a creative director. His Japanese denim and rare trainers were an attempt to pass for mid-thirties but his receding hairline and sagging jowls placed him nearer fifty. The woman was young. From her plump skin and decision to wear high heels during the day Laura guessed she was mid-twenties. She was very concerned with schedules, a client called Raymond and whether it would rain that weekend. Her patchy make-up gathered in the folds around her nose and her mousy brown hair was cut into a style that made her look like her name was Louise. In the open bag at the young woman’s feet, Laura spotted a tester-sized bottle of Tom Ford perfume, a thin dirty purse and a strangled Glossier tube of Cherry Balm Dotcom.
‘She’s great. Very creative, kind of obscure but you know, I introduced her to all of the references that she used in that campaign,’ the man said, pushing his half-eaten dish away from him.
‘I saw that spot she made. She’s done so well. I didn’t know she’d worked in your team.’ The young woman tucked her hair behind her ears and decided that she was also done with her starter.
‘Yeah. She was straight out of college when she came to us.’
‘It was a couple of years ago. She was my protégée ... I’m like her Aristotle.’ The man grinned animatedly. Having already drained his own glass he reached over to swill the remains of her white wine into his mouth.
The woman balanced her fork very precisely on top her knife and asked, ‘You’re her, her what?’ Sounding slightly confused.
‘I was her teacher.’ His response was curt. ‘I’m like Aristotle, the teacher, and she’s Plato, my famous student.’
‘I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around, isn’t it?’ She paused. ‘Plato founded the academy that Aristotle attended, but I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.’
He sat back and wiggled a little finger into his dark, gaping ear canal. ‘You’re definitely wrong. I was listening to a Russell Brand podcast the other day and he referenced the whole lineage between Socrates, Aristotle and Plato.’
‘Ah OK. I covered it in my dissertation but maybe I’ve mixed them up.’
The waiter came in between the two tables to clear the couple’s starter plates and Laura missed how the philosophical saga ended. She thought about the similar tables she’d sat at in the past and how she’d diminished herself in ways that she was only just coming to understand. She thought about the opinions she’d suppressed in case older men thought she was silly. She thought about the disgusting food she’d eaten because the man she was with had said it was ‘the best thing outside of Tokyo’. It wasn’t. She thought about the jokes she’d laughed at that weren’t funny and the fact she’d felt it was her failing that she didn’t think Mark E. Smith was a genius. She thought about all the ways she’d shrunk or expanded herself depending on the man she was with and then she thought about Tom.
Laura first saw Tom when she noticed him staring at her reflection in the large front window of his restaurant. He stood behind her at the bar watching her in the glass as she sat at a table waiting for her friend Emma to come back from the toilet. Instantly irritated that she’d chosen to wear the bra that caused exploratory fat to poke through the back section like stray sausage links, she slowly straightened her body and scanned the menu to look busy, pausing on the steak but deciding on the chopped salad. It was dark outside. Opposite the restaurant the orange street lights bounced off the River Tyne as it crept by silently on its journey out to the North Sea. In the window she could see that her dark, heavy fringe was doing the weird thing it did when it got wet, she pulled the spare black hairband off her wrist and scraped all of her hair into a high top knot.
‘The toilets are fucking freezing in here,’ Emma said as she took her seat opposite and pulled on a leather jacket that held the stale odour of late nights in the inside lining. ‘What you done to your hair?’
‘Nothing, why?’ Laura replied, holding her hand to where her fringe had just been.
‘Nowt, it looks nice.’ Emma smiled, surprised Laura was drawing attention to the angular features and high forehead she normally tried to soften or hide.
‘It was just getting on me nerves. Here, the waitress is coming, what you getting?’
‘Ladies, are you ready to order?’ the waitress interrupted, standing alert with her pen and pad at the side of their table.
Still looking over the menu, with her peripheral vision lasered in Tom’s direction, Laura listened to Emma order the fish starter and chicken main and wondered if she should wear her hair down again.
Throughout their meal he stayed behind the bar. He chatted with friends who dropped in for a drink, he laughed easily with the customers as they came and went, and was kind to the waiting staff. Laura didn’t look directly at him but she tracked his every move and clocked how many times he looked at her reflection in the window. As she walked towards the door to leave he said goodnight from behind the bar and held her gaze. She held her breath until the cold air sweeping up the river knocked it out of her.
They started seeing each other almost immediately. She had called into the restaurant later that week under the guise of looking for work. He took her number, they went for a drink, but the job was never mentioned again. After that they saw each other two or three times a week. She’d ring him after she’d been out with friends and he’d come and pick her up or they’d meet at the restaurant at closing time. They went for dinner at places where she couldn’t normally afford to eat, he ordered for both of them and he always paid. He was forty-seven and she was twenty-six. The age difference was obvious to everyone else but they never mentioned it. She pretended to know what he was talking about when he referenced things like Spike Island and the Poll Tax riots. He played obscure new music in his car and he was always first with the latest tech so it never occurred to her that he didn’t know what she was talking about when she referenced details of her twenty-six-year-old life.
The first time they slept together he told her that he’d masturbated about her after he’d seen her in the restaurant. She made him describe the scenes he’d fantasised about as they had sex and he had a chaotic orgasm. She faked more orgasms than she experienced real ones. This had always been her experience of sex, she was just pleased that with Tom it wasn’t always painful. He bought her outfits he thought were sexy. They were tight, mostly a size too small, but they were expensive. Sometimes they were underwear sets, or something more specific and clichéd. She would look at herself in the bathroom mirror – dressed as a nurse, or a secretary, her long dark hair styled however the outfit demanded, her green eyes skating over the fiddly buttons and fastens – and suspect she hated them, but she was turned on enough by his desire to feel like she was having a good time. The sight of her in any one of these outfits turned him into a mess, he pawed her, licked her, bit her, his breath touched all parts of her body.
Laura listened to her friends complain about the boys or girls they were seeing, the endless rounds of dating games with no discernible winner, and felt sorry for them. Her arrangement with Tom made her feel sophisticated. He looked after her. He hired vans when she had to move flats, he knew about registering for council tax and which credit cards had the best interest rates. She felt secure. He bought her things. A new bike, a guitar (that she never played), artwork for her room in the flatshare where she lived. He presented these new gifts silently as she came into his house – they only ever slept at his house. She would make a fuss about how kind he was and give him a blow job on the stairs to show her appreciation.
On Tuesday afternoons he picked her up from therapy. Her therapist’s house was near his place at the coast, a forty-minute train ride from town. It was his one day off from the restaurant so he said it was ‘no bother’. The area confused Laura’s senses. On the surface her therapist’s street didn’t look any different to the suburban warren where she’d grown up twenty miles away but the air was different. The breeze brought with it a bleakness carried in from the North Sea. A damp, flat atmosphere that congregated in the spaces between houses, punctuated only by the squawks of greedy seagulls flying overhead. After each therapy session, Laura allotted twenty minutes to transform back into a presentable version of herself. Standing in the alley behind her therapist’s garden she’d let her body convulse with silent screams for ten minutes then reapply her make-up for the remaining time, practising the deep breathing exercises her therapist was pleased she was using.
After twenty minutes she’d re-emerge onto the pavement and wait patiently for Tom to pick her up. One Tuesday as they were driving to his house he joked that her therapist Diane was a ‘pub know-it-all’ rather than a trained psychotherapist with a PhD and twenty years of experience.
‘I mean, what’s it all for?’ he asked. ‘I’m not sure that all this talking is making you any better.’
‘Why does it bother you that I go to therapy?’ she replied into her lap.
‘It doesn’t bother me. I just think therapy can be a bit self-indulgent. What do you say to her that you couldn’t say to me?’
Laura opened her mouth but didn’t answer. If the conversation stopped there, things wouldn’t be totally ruined. If she didn’t reply he’d stay quiet too and when she looked back at the mental transcript of that moment it would be short, there wouldn’t be a gut-rotting monologue that gave him away. If she could control the situation with her silence she could pretend that everything was fine for just a little bit longer. Pushing her nails into the doughy part of her palms she looked out of the window as they drove past a mob of seagulls fighting over a dropped carton of chips on the seafront and mouthed a silent thank you when Tom asked if she was hungry.
Two months later Emma gathered all of their friends at a bar in town to celebrate her twenty-sixth birthday. They hadn’t yet hit the age when a birthday was more a source of anxiety than a cause for celebration; for them it was still a reason to drink shots with every round and the motivation to find more drugs when the first stash had been sniffed, swallowed or smoked. The bar was billed as a ‘live music venue’ which meant that the owners could disregard their responsibility to expend any energy on the décor. Whilst mentally debating what to drink next, Laura stared at a group of older women huddled around a small, sticky table nearby. They could have been thirty-five, forty-five, fifty-five. She couldn’t have guessed their age. To Laura, at that stage of her life, all women over the age of thirty looked and felt old. Not older. Old. She examined the women’s painful orange skin; their static, brittle hair; their polyester-mix outfits. She contemplated the creamy eyeshadow gathering in their oily, baggy eyelids and shivered. Emma trailed her gaze.
‘Look at the state of those lot,’ she said.
‘I know. Honestly kill me if I end up with one of those leathery faces and over-processed hair.’
‘It puts the shits up me seeing women like that, the one in the red top has cellulite on her arms. Like what the actual fuck? How do you even get cellulite on your arms?’ Emma asked, pulling down the wide neck of her jersey dress to reveal more of her shoulders and neckline.
‘I don’t know, from being a greedy bitch?’ Laura hugged her arms close to her chest.
‘Jesus,’ Emma said, chasing the last of her vodka tonic in between the ice cubes at the bottom of her glass. ‘Is that Tom with them?’ Emma recognised him from the photo they’d used to compare if he looked older or younger than her dad.
Laura tried not to seem shocked. ‘Oh yeah.’
‘Are you gonna go and say hello?’
‘You two are weird. I’m gonna get the drinks in, do you want another one?’
‘Yeah, gerrus a double vodka and diet coke,’ Laura replied smiling, still staring at the woman in the red top. Tom caught her eye and waved, she waved back, but neither strayed into each other’s territory.
She hadn’t expected to see him there. He said owning a restaurant made you antisocial so they never accidently ran into each other. He only ever came into town for work, preferring to stay at home near the coast, venturing only as far as the beach for a walk when he knew it would be quiet. It was strange to see him with people of his own age. They all looked tired, like they’d rather be somewhere else. The men had grey beards, red faces, and stood around in twos and threes holding pints above protruding guts. Tom was thinner and better dressed but something connected them all. Collectively they had the unhealthy aura of children who had grown up in smoking households. Years of passive smoking turning them grey and sickly. She’d never noticed this about Tom before but now it was all she could see.
At 9.37 p.m. Tom messaged her to say he wanted to fuck her in the toilet. She put her phone back in her bag without replying and took a sip of her drink. For the rest of the night, she kept her stomach muscles pulled in tight and acted out the part of someone having a good time. She didn’t notice Tom and his friends leave. At some point after 11 p.m. she looked up from her conversation and saw their tables full of empty glasses and drained bottles of house prosecco. Her stomach muscles relaxed and her shoulders slumped down. She checked her phone.
Get a taxi to mine when you’re done. I’ll pay.
She had another three drinks, watched a band she’d never heard before and had a line of someone else’s coke. In the toilet she ordered a cab, while Emma stood uneasily in front of the mirror wiping sweat and eyeliner from under her eyes.
‘I don’t know why you’re going there again. He’ll just make you dress up and jizz in your eye,’ Emma said, flicking water from the running tap into Laura’s face.
Laura looked at her friend’s gurning jaw in the mirror, she could hear someone being sick in one of the cubicles and wiggled her soggy toes, wet from the overflowing, blocked sink.
‘What else am I going to do?’
‘Erm, hang out with your mates?’ Emma replied, using her eyeliner wand as a physical exclamation point, steadying herself on the sink.
‘I’m going, my taxi will be here any minute. I’ll ring you in the morning,’ she said, hugging Emma from behind.
‘Aye well, I hope his old grey dick doesn’t fall off,’ Emma shouted after her as she pushed her way out of the girls’ bathroom.
Tom’s place was a grand, double-fronted house. A five-bed, three-bath hangover from when rich merchants controlled this part of the north-east. The exterior of the house still held some of its grandeur but inside it was rotten. The doorbell was broken so Laura kicked wildly at the bottom wooden panel of the front door. It opened immediately.
‘Alright, alright, you don’t have to kick the door in.’
‘That was quick,’ she said with her arm raised up against the door frame, hoping it would steady her.
‘I was just getting a drink from the kitchen,’ Tom replied empty-handed. ‘Do you want one?’
She dumped her bag at the bottom of the stairs. As she turned to face him, he pulled her close and she pressed her face into his chest, contorting her mouth to the side to allow in slivers of air.
‘You looked really beautiful tonight,’ he said as he kissed her head repeatedly in the same spot and gently smoothed down her coat. She felt stuck to him, stuck to that spot on the hallway floor. Tom’s comfort was moreish but it had started to sicken her: she had gorged on his feast of convenience but it had only led to more agitation. They stood silently for a long time before he peeled away to get the drinks and she eased her feet out of her scuffed black ankle boots that desperately needed re-healing.
In the living room, she sat on the sofa and sank back into the cushions. Her eyes trailed the room, studying the heavy cobwebs in the corners, the black damp that was rising up the single-pane window frame. Tom had mocked her flatshare for being ‘a studenty shithole’, but, looking around now, she wondered why she’d listened to him. At least her flat had double glazing and the boiler always worked.
‘Here you go.’ He handed her a large glass with a small amount of red wine in it.
‘What’s the point in these huge glasses if you only ever put a tiny bit of wine in them?’ she asked, holding it at eye level.
‘It’s so that you can smell the aroma of the wine. Swill it around in the glass. You’re supposed to enjoy the whole process, smell it, taste it, savour it. It’s not just about knocking back as much as possible.’
She replied something inaudible into the bottom of her glass and drained the contents in one gulp.
‘Did you have a good night?’ Laura asked as he sat at the opposite end of the sofa.
‘Yeah, it was alright, you know what I’m like. Standing around in pubs isn’t really my thing.’
‘Yeah, I was surprised to see you. Who were your friends?’
‘Old friends from years back. We used to all go raving together, now it’s just birthdays.’
He had told her numerous times about the old raves he used to go to in fields and disused warehouses. How it was all love, free parties, good drugs and proper dance music. She wasn’t in the mood for another nostalgia trip.
‘It’ll be funerals soon.’
‘Very funny. And where do you know your friends from, the youth club?’ he said, punching her leg forcefully as a question mark.
Without flinching she said, ‘Yeah some of them.’
They stared at each other. His eyes looked small and strained. His mouth was a half-smirk, stained with red wine at its edges. He reached for her foot and started massaging it, his hand moving higher up her leg to her thigh with each rotation of his thumb. She knew that they would have sex on the sofa, then probably on the floor and would finish with her bent over the coffee table. She wouldn’t come, and halfway through she’d remind herself to go straight to the toilet when they’d finished because she didn’t have time to go to the doctors for antibiotics that week if she got cystitis again. After five minutes of fumbling on the sofa, he routinely moved her onto the floor in front of the unlit fire. Maybe he thought it was romantic, a move he’d seen in a sexy thriller from the eighties and that he’d rolled out ever since. But rather than being a turn-on, it was draughty and turned her naked flesh purple. She thought about his bed, about how much more comfortable it would be to do this there. As he bowed his head and dribbled into the well of her neck she realised that for him this was comfortable, this was bliss: her body, her vagina, her silence was exactly what he wanted. He didn’t feel the cold. He didn’t feel winded by the weight of someone thrusting heavily on top of him. He probably felt weightless and absolutely divine. She tried to get into a comfier position but she couldn’t move his body enough and the stiff carpet underneath tore strips of skin off her back with every push. He dragged her over the coffee table, pulled her hair back and came manically. Panting heavily he fell on top of her making it impossible to catch a full breath. ‘Can you get off me please?’ She whispered as a tear fell across her face.
Watching Women & Girls by Danielle Pender is published by 4th Estate, and is out on June 23, 2022 but available to pre-order now