It was exactly one year to the day that Lewis Dowling’s then partner, Kara, finally succumbed to the incurable cancer that had eaten her inside out, little by little, for the previous two years. But Kara was far from his mind on this bright, sunny evening. Lewis Dowling was thinking about the black tights the young woman was wearing in front of him as he made his way down to Aldwych to catch his bus back to Stoke Newington. Lewis Dowling had been drinking in Soho for most of the day; he had worked up a hunger.
He was thinking about how she would look underneath her clothes; wearing nothing but those black tights. She wasn’t particularly attractive, her hips were too wide for his taste and she limped a little, which he found rather odd but appealing all the same. But those black tights she was wearing, those wonderful delicate fibres caressing her soft skin underneath, especially around her arse, hugging her calves and thighs - he wanted her, he knew that much.
Kara, who often would dress up for him in expensive lingerie herself, once told him that the sole reason men liked to penetrate women wearing tights was because somewhere, deep down, they wanted to, or imagined they were breaking-in a virgin for the very first time. Kara told him that although it was an obvious power-trip, underneath the masculine posturing, grunting and licentious braggadocio the man committing this particular pleasure was returning to something primordial and base, something, in fact, beyond pleasure. Something that he didn’t understand, a common theme that had been repeated over and over throughout our evolution. Kara had enjoyed the subtle complexities of sex more than anything else.
He didn’t realise this but it could be said that by watching this woman in the black tights he was, somewhere deep within, linking back to those intimate moments with Kara, and subconsciously he did, in fact, miss her: each of those numerous times she allowed him to tear slight holes in the sylphlike, tormenting material clinging around her arse and crotch just waiting for him to poke his searching fingers into; the first little droplets of desire before the rampant, physical ripping asunder, as he guided his prick inside her. Or maybe he had finally moved on, and he wanted to transfer all he’d learnt with Kara on those long nights together before she became ill. Either way he was still looking at the black tights glistening in the late sun on the woman just up ahead from him.
He had to follow her, there was no other option. He wanted to know where she was going; he wanted to speak to her, and he wanted to get his hands on her, to hear the faint cleave of fabric. She stopped suddenly to look in the window of a restaurant and then continued on her way. He altered his pace accordingly. She stopped for traffic, even bending down to look in her bag, the round curvature of her arse-cheeks near bursting through the expensive tailoring of her black pencil skirt, and all the while he hung back, casually like it was the most natural thing in the world, watching those black tights grip her incredible form. He imagined slowly peeling the black tights down, halfway across her largish arse, kissing each cheek, caressing the silky texture between her legs, the pale skin underneath getting hotter and hotter.
He imagined the conversation they would have:
I’ve noticed for some considerable time now that you’ve been following me, why have you been following me?
I like what you’re wearing…
Do you now?
Yes, very much so…Especially your tights…
Yes, your tights…
They’re just normal black silk tights…
That’s exactly what I like about them…
Is it now?
Yes, it is…
Well maybe you’d like to join me?
Maybe I would…
Where are we walking to?
My flat of course…
He watched her tail-end wobble with each step, the repetitive sway from left to right, gravity forcing each hunk of flesh downwards, generating each ripple of pleasure within him like a stone being dropped into a clear lake. He was quite amazed really, the walk down to Aldwych was a busy one and not one other person had noticed her. He was alone consumed by his lust.
He once followed Kara along the street without her knowing; it was in the first few weeks of their burgeoning relationship, he had seen her walking along Wardour Street in Soho. She was wearing beige figure-hugging trousers and a black jacket that complemented her average-sized frame. Rather than run up to her he decided to follow her. She walked with a purpose, stopping only for a coffee and some cake from Bar Italia. She never once looked up from what she was doing, the task ahead - whatever that was - to observe those around her, atomised in a world of her own volition and thinking only of coffee and cake. In that moment she seemed untouchable. He liked this. He left her as she stepped onto a No 38. He saw her that very evening, as arranged, they spent the night together in his old flat on the Essex Road, this was before he’d confessed his feelings of love for her - Kara never found out about him following her that afternoon in Soho, he never thought the need to tell her. He wanted to keep that image of her to himself.
The woman wearing the black tights began to slow down, anticipating the lights near the Sicilian Arcade in Holborn. Lewis Dowling hung back, keeping one eye on the road and the other on the black tights gently embracing the back of her legs.
He imagined what he would do to her once he was inside her flat (he would do exactly what he used to do with Kara): first he would look around her bedroom, observing the things she had filled it with, he would instinctively want to know where her underwear draw was situated; once this was noted he would look through it as soon as she left the room. He would rub the silky fabric through his fingers. When she returned he would make polite chit-chat, inching closer to her all the time, then he would calmly ask her to lie on the bed. He would gently straddle her and slowly unclip her skirt, he would pull it gently down her legs and drop it onto the floor by the side of the bed. Then he would stare at her legs, her thighs, the backs of her knees, her calves, her feet, her arse cloaked in the thin, silky, teasingly transparent material of the black tights. He would slowly caress her thighs, squeezing; he would slap her arse cheeks playfully, delighting in the faint wobble of flesh, he would do this a number of times until the skin began to redden a little. He would tease the fabric near her crotch, testing its strength and durability. Then he would tear a hole, a tiny little hole, the sound of it would send shivers through him, a little sign of the paroxysms to come. He would poke a couple of his fingers into the hole, he would begin to prise it open, further, wider; she would not make a sound. She would stick out her arse, wiggle it, and then . . . he would tear the tights open in a frenzy, whilst undoing his jeans, frantically, desperately ripping the black tights asunder. He would begin to pull her knickers aside, yanking them violently. His prick would be hard and he would bask in the electrifying friction caused each time it touched the shredded fabric. He would force it up her. He would pump furiously. And then it would be over.
The traffic was busy. The pavement was busy too. Everywhere was busy. He walked down to the corner of Tavistock Street and Wellington Street. There didn’t seem to be a break in the traffic, it trundled along in both directions (which was odd, he thought); cyclists weaved and wended in and out of lines of black cabs and cars and white vans, whilst the multitudes on foot waited patiently, and impatiently, for gaps in the traffic to finally cross the road towards Exeter Street, Aldwych, Strand, Savoy Street, south towards the river. This they did from every conceivable angle.
He had caught her up now and was standing beside her waiting for a rare break in the choking traffic. He could smell her faint perfume, he inched closer to her, slowly, and the little finger of his right hand touched, gently brushed, hers. Skin touching skin. She didn’t notice it was that brisk. Electricity shot through him.
He couldn’t speak to her though, not yet, not by the side of the road, near the gutter and the cars, the fumes. So he waited beside her for a gap to appear in the traffic. It seemed to take an age. Her scent began to engulf him, surround him, linger around his neck, his lips, under his nostrils - he began to shiver quite uncontrollably. He thought she could see him, sense his fear - but she couldn’t, of course.
Kara had once told him that she liked the way his cheeks reddened when he was nervous; she liked the rather boyish aspect of this. She once asked him about any peculiarities and idiosyncrasies he liked about her, it took him a while but he eventually told her that it was her patience he loved; nothing more and nothing less. He couldn’t remember exactly what she said, something about being certain there was nothing idiosyncratic about patience. But he did remember one thing if ever pushed: we all have to wait at some point in our lives, she would say, just some have to wait longer than others.
Suddenly a gap appeared in the traffic and she darted out into the centre of the road. Lewis Dowling had missed his chance and as soon as another gap appeared he would dash out to the centre of the road too, just like she had done. It was then that he would speak to her. Cars, fumes, it was too late to worry about that. Of course, he didn’t quite know what he would say (probably something obvious about the traffic), but at least it was a start. He didn’t have to wait that long for another gap it turned out . . . and then Blackness. Nothing. Not even the distant flicker of a memory like people used to say happened. Not even a faint image of Kara. Nothing.
For those around him, of course, including the woman wearing the black tights, it was the sight of the Ford Transit van hitting him full on that occupied their collective thoughts. They watched as his limp body was flung mercilessly into the air. The white Ford Transit van screeching to a halt. They watched as his head hit the bitumen with a damp thud, splitting like an egg shell, brain and blood and tooth splattering the van like Cherry Blossom falling from a tree, chunks of cranium scattered across the double yellow lines, his left foot, bereft of its shoe somehow, sock hanging half off, twitching. Of course there were the ubiquitous screams that accompany such dreadful moments, the momentary pandemonium, the disbelief, but there was also an eerie calm in the air, a feeling that everything had stopped, like a clock on a wall or a wrist noticed by its owner for the very first time - that extraordinary age before it is fixed again.
Forty-seven people attended Lewis Dowling’s funeral. Old friends mostly. Most were thinking about Kara, wondering if she was present, watching over his coffin, safe. Even the atheists amongst the assembled mourners fleetingly entertained this peculiar thought before joining the rest to think about their own mortality, their own funerals: who would be there? What would people say? Who would cry first? How would they react? The usual vainglorious, and all too human, thoughts that enter the mind at such events. Most, if asked, would agree that Kara would be quite distraught if she was alive and sitting amongst them, dressed in a Whistles black jacket and trousers, a white handkerchief in her hand, dabbing her eyes as she is consoled by her mother. Most thought it quite sad that she wasn’t alive to be at his funeral.
None, as it were, gave Lewis Dowling a second thought really, as his coffin rolled into the flames. Not even on the most important day of his life. They were far too busy living their own lives; some had to get back to work, others had to sign on, pick up children from school, some were even beginning to wonder who would be staying on for drinks at the buffet provided at his favourite pub in Hackney after the flames had turned his bulk into ashes. All had other things on their minds.
'Cruel Work' is an extract from Lee Rourke's short story collection, Everyday, which is published on Social Disease this autumn.