Men are nasty.
Emily Green wrote it on the blackboard. Men are nasty.
She stepped back and asked herself a question. What’s so nasty about them?
‘That’s easy. They think with their dicks and regard women as lower than the beasts of the field.’ She turned to face an empty classroom. ‘Here endeth today’s lesson. Class dismissed.’
The door opened. Mr Henderson stuck his grey-crowned head in. ‘Are you all right, Miss Green?’
Miss Green! There it was. That detestable word – Miss!
And what exactly have I missed?
‘You’re meant to be on playground duty.’ Mr Henderson made it sound like a death sentence. Chalk dust drifted from the lapels of his corduroy jacket.
‘Do you know Alex Stirling, Mr Henderson?’
‘Head of Games? Of course.’
‘We’ve been having an affair.’
‘That’s none of my business.’
‘He has a tiny penis.’
‘What has he said about me?’
‘The children will be finishing their dinners. You’re needed in the playground.’
‘I bet he’s said I’m frigid. They always say that when they can’t satisfy a woman.’
‘Miss Green – ‘
‘Stop calling me Miss Green! I’m thirty six years old! I deserve to be called something other than fucking Miss!’
‘Your drinking hasn’t gone unnoticed, Miss Green.’ Mr Henderson backed out of the room. ‘You need to sort yourself out. Before it’s too late.’
Emily stabbed at the blackboard with her chalk. Men are nasty.
‘Write that out a hundred times,’ she told herself. ‘Then maybe you won’t be so quick to forget.’
To Emily, the playground was The Zone. A place beyond normality where different rules – social and physical - applied.
But so mundane, she noted as she patrolled the playground perimeter. You little brats think it’s all new, don’t you? You think you’re iconoclasts reinventing the world. But it’s the same old world it’s always been and always will be. The games don’t change – only the players.
Emily wanted to smoke. She’d walked out on nicotine two years ago and had felt guilty ever since. As if she owed the tobacco industry a debt of gratitude for turning her lungs black.
I am just so drunk.
She stared into the distance. Beyond the wire fence defining the limits of the playground, the school cricket pavilion stood on the edge of the playing field as it had since before the First World War. Despite being off-limits, a small group of children – mostly boys – had gathered on its veranda. Their collective attention was focused on a hat box held like a votive offering by William Howard, the terror of the third year.
Look at you. Barely out of shorts and you think you’ve got it sussed. Well I’ve news for you, little man. I see through you and your kind.
She imagined sporting a cigarette between her lips while all around her were crying Miss! Miss! You can’t do that! It’s not allowed. It’s bad for you. Antisocial. Borderline criminal. Definitely no way to get a man.
As she sucked on her imaginary cigarette, the Ghosts of Smokes Past descended into the underworld of her lungs, tugging at the tangled fibres of her anxiety.
Neurotic bitch! The parting words of Alex Stirling as he stormed out of her flat came back to her. I am not neurotic. All I want is a good smoke, a glass of wine and quality time on my settee lost in the simplistic plot of a trashy novel.
‘Enough!’ Emily marched onto the playing field and – with the single-mindedness of a cruise missile – homed in on the pavilion.
‘No way!’ screeched one of the children.
‘Awesome!’ exclaimed Rosie Valencia, a precocious thirteen year old not generally given to acts of disobedience. She backed away from the hat box. ‘Does it bite?’
‘Yes,’ said William Howard. ‘It bites.’
Thomas Downs held his hand over the box and all went quiet. Six pairs of adolescent eyes dared him to proceed.
‘Go on,’ said William. ‘Or are you chicken?’
‘I don’t care if it does bite. I’ve just had a tetanus jab.’ The boy’s hand went into the box – and almost immediate shot back out again. ‘Yow! That hurt.’
William spotted Emily. Startled, he slammed the lid on the hat box and walked towards the playground.
The children froze.
‘Come here William Howard. And bring that box with you.’
Men on their way to the gallows had shown less trepidation than William as he turned and shuffled back to Emily.
‘You are without doubt,’ Emily told him, ‘the grubbiest, most deceitful boy I have ever had the misfortune to know. What do you have to say to that, William Howard?’
The boy mumbled.
‘And what unmentionable horror will I discover lurking in yon box, I wonder?’
‘Please, Miss, I found it on holiday.’
‘Oh yes. Your famous mid-term jaunt to foreign climes. Greece, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes, Miss. Lesbos.’ William sucked his cheeks in to keep from laughing. Others, not so guarded, gave vent to sniggers.
‘Very well, William. Let us see what treasure from antiquity you have for us.’
‘Open the box.’
A sly look crossed William’s face. With a magician’s flourish, he removed the lid.
‘What the - ?’ Emily’s breath caught in her throat.
Brown eyes stared up at her from a grizzled face. They were eyes that spoke of dreams and wisdom and a life lived to the full. Beneath them, a patrician nose pointed to lips so dry they resembled leather.
It’s a waxwork, she told herself. A split second, later the eyes blinked and the lips twitched. ‘Where did you get this, William?’
‘It was in a cave.’
‘How does it work?’
‘Work? I don’t understand.’
‘It’s some sort of robot. There must be wires and microchips and things like that.’
‘No, Miss. It’s a real head.’
‘Don’t be absurd!’ Emily checked her anger. She knew she was drunk and knew she was mad at Alex Stirling. It would be wrong to take it out on William Howard. Strict she might be, but she prided herself on being fair. ‘You should know better than to bring something like this in to school. Give it here.’
‘You’ll get it back at the end of term. In the meantime, you should all be thankful not to find yourselves with detentions. Now get back to the playground, the lot of you!’
Emily drove home with the hat box on the passenger seat.
Whenever she stopped at a traffic light, she found herself wanting to open the box and inspect its enigmatic contents. Only an implacable sense of dread forestalled her.
With her fling with Alex Stirling at an end, she had nothing in her life that wasn’t humdrum. Nothing except a mystery in a hat box. And if she looked too closely, the mystery might unravel and become humdrum too.
As she stepped through the front door of her flat, she was struck by how small and grim it was. She recalled the nights Alex Stirling had spent there. Then it had been cosy and bijou – a proper love nest.
My life, she thought, hurrying into the living room and placing the hat box on the coffee table. A quarter of a century dedicated to the noble profession and what have I got to show for it?
Unable to bring herself to answer the question, she drew the blinds and switched on the floor lamp. After opening a bottle of Beaujolais and putting on a Barry White CD, she settled onto the settee with a glass of wine and a bonk-buster novel.
She was twelve pages into the book when the CD finished and she realised she hadn’t taken in a single word. Irritated, she tossed the dog-eared paperback aside, took a swig of wine and glared at the hat box.
‘Stop staring,’ she told the unseen head. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to.’
She almost laughed at herself. The old eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head routine worked fine on schoolboys, but it was hardly likely to be effective on a mechanical head.
Emily put down her wine glass and placed the box on her lap. Although she didn’t want to know the truth about its contents, not knowing was driving her crazy.
‘Here goes.’ She lifted the lid and dropped it on the coffee table. For five heartbeats, she stared straight ahead. Then she took a deep breath and looked down.
Eyes which she would later say were as deep and blue as the Aegean, gazed up at her. The mouth formed the vaguest of smiles.
Emily found herself in awe of the unknown craftsmen who had made the head so realistic. Its lips moved in soundless imitation of speech.
‘I wonder what are you trying to say.’
But of course it wasn’t trying to say anything. It’s just a model, she reminded herself. A sophisticated puppet. Probably made for some science fiction film.
The skin fascinated her. It was leathery and worn and spoke of a life on the high seas. She pictured it lying half-buried on a sun-drenched beach, caked in salt and algae, virtuality indistinguishable from driftwood.
Nervously, she reached down and touched the weathered cheek with the tip of her finger. The face twitched. Warm air caressed her hand.
Almost as if it’s breathing.
With that thought came an awareness of the softest of sounds. A gentle, melodic murmuring that made her think of grasshoppers and mountain streams. It had all the aching beauty of a bitter-sweet memory. Like the warm air, it seemed to come from the head’s mouth.
Emily bent down. The melody bypassed her senses. It filled her mind with wonder and warmth.
She caught a sudden movement in the beard. For a moment, she thought her imagination was playing tricks. But then the flea jumped again.
Next thing she knew, she was standing on the settee and her heart was going like a steam hammer. The head, having spilled out of the box, lay on the carpet staring up at her. It smiled.
‘Holy crap!’ Emily’s knees threatened to buckle. She hastily manoeuvred herself into a sitting position. Now the thought that had been burrowing into her mind ever since she’d first seen the head could no longer be ignored. Giddiness caused the room to gently see-saw as she finally confronted the crazy, unpalatable truth.
Until she’d emptied her bottle of wine, Emily was unable to formulate anything much resembling a coherent train of thought. Her attempts at reaching a rational explanation for the thing on the floor invariably fell at the first hurdle.
Staring into her empty wine glass, she focused on Greek legend. If William Howard could be believed – never a certain thing – the head had been discovered on Lesbos.
‘Lesbos... Lesbos...’ Wasn’t that something to do with Oedipus? Or Odysseus? From her youth, Emily recalled a paperback: A Beginner’s Guide to Greek Myths. It was part of her father’s meagre book collection which had mostly consisted of trashy thrillers. The cover illustration was a garish rendition of Perseus holding aloft Medusa’s severed head. One rainy afternoon when there was nothing on television except horse racing, she’d been bored enough to wade through the book’s turgid prose. Afterwards, she could remember little of the stories, but the black and white pictures had stuck in her mind. One especially: a woodcut of a severed head floating down a river.
Emily closed her eyes and conjured up the page in her mind. It took a few seconds for the caption to come to her. Torn from its body by the Ciconian women, the head of Orpheus drifts on the Hebrus.
‘Is that who you are? The Greek hero Orpheus?’ She recalled the book detailing how the women of Ciconia had lusted after him en-masse. He could have had the pick of them, but all he was interested in was playing his golden lyre.
Enraged by his indifference, the women got together and tore his head from his shoulders.
‘And who can blame them?’ Emily remembered wanting to do something similar to Alex Stirling when he’d ended their affair. ‘Only it wasn’t his head I wanted to tear off.’
But never mind that. What had happened to Orpheus’s head? Did it not end up on the island of Lesbos where the natives first worshipped and then buried it?
Emily took a deep breath. ‘OK. Let’s say you’re Orpheus. That may be crazy but – as Sherlock Holmes used to say – when you’ve eliminated every explanation that isn’t barking, you’ve got to take the least barking of the barking ones. So you’re a character from the Age of Heroes lying on my living room. Doesn’t matter how you got here, the point is here you are and you stink something rotten. Not that I’m blaming you. Who wouldn’t stink after spending thousands of years in a cave without bathroom facilities? But before we go any further we are going have to clean you up.’
Emily ran a bath. She filled it to a depth of about two inches, made sure the water was comfortably warm and then fetched Orpheus’s head from the living room. With tender hands she lowered what was left of the Greek hero into the bath and rested the back of his head on a sponge.
She noticed the water did not enter the gaping hole where his neck ended. She noticed too a complete absence of scarring, as if the head had been surgically removed rather than ripped from its body. But there was no way of knowing what had really happened. Back in the days of heroes, when the gods used men as their play things, anything was possible.
Orpheus sang happily as Emily Green shampooed his hair and washed ancient grime from his face.
Emily sang too.
In the bedroom, Teddy Timbo sat against the headboard where he belonged.
If there was one thing Emily knew she could never forgive Alex Stirling for, it was banishing her teddy bear from her bed.
‘It’s ghoulish,’ was how he put it. ‘Having that tatty old thing watch over us while we make love. A woman your age shouldn’t even own a teddy bear.’
And so Teddy Timbo had found himself in her underwear drawer, uncomfortably close to the foot long dildo Alex had tried to introduce into their love-making. In retrospect, she realised the banishment of Teddy Timbo was an act of petty vengeance. By rejecting his rubber phallus, she’d challenged Alex’s authority and Teddy Timbo had paid the price.
Emily lovingly lay Orpheus on the pillow beside Teddy Timbo. ‘You don’t mind sharing, do you?’ She spoke to both bear and ancient hero. ‘Plenty enough of me to go around.’
With his face washed and his hair and beard trimmed, Orpheus no longer looked like a denizen of Skid Row. Teddy Timbo, however, was as scruffy as ever. But that was Teddy Timbo for you and she couldn’t help but love him no matter how many times she had to replace his stuffing and sew his leg back on.
Emily lounged on the bed. ‘Are you both comfortable?’
Orpheus sang a melody like the scent of honeysuckle on a summer’s breeze.
Without knowing why, Emily found herself crying. Not even in her most hormonal moments had she felt so sad and happy at the same time. She was aware of an ache that had been there a long, lonely time but which she had been able to ignore until now.
‘Please stop,’ she whispered. But Orpheus kept on singing and Emily was glad he did.
Slowly, the ache evaporated and she found herself smiling. She pictured herself as a wood nymph, dancing gaily in a Mediterranean glade, at one with Nature and herself.
The music was within her. It trickled through her veins and caused her nerves to sing.
It commanded her to get off the bed and undress.
She had never liked removing her clothes in front of others. With Alex, she’d insisted he leave the room while she got ready for him. But the music reassured her. It told her she was a woman whose body was made to be studied and worshipped.
She met Orpheus’s gaze full on. As she unbuttoned her blouse, she swayed her hips. He smiled approvingly.
‘How long have you waited for this moment?’ she asked. ‘How many civilisations have risen and fallen since you last saw a woman naked?’
Her clothes were soon discarded. Then she danced for Orpheus, showing him she was all woman, his link to the Cosmic Mother. ‘I’ll be your comfort. Your friend, your lover, your nurse, your whore, your Helen of Troy. I’ll be whatever you want me to be.’
Orpheus sang a new tune. It caressed her with invisible fingers, traced the curves of her body, sought out erogenous zones whose existence she’d never even suspected.
He made love to her with his voice. It wrapped strong arms around her, breathed in her ear, brushed her lips.
‘My god,’ she murmured, pressing a hand over her sex. ‘I’m on fire.’
Emily could sense the heroes and gods of ancient Greece looking down on her, urging her on to new heights of ecstasy. Throwing herself onto the bed, she prostrated herself before her new-found love. She closed her eyes and pictured him with his body intact. She saw him sitting on a rock, the Mediterranean sun glinting off his olive-skinned body. She marvelled at the finely contoured arms that had helped row the Argo beyond the known world and back again. Then she pictured his manhood standing to attention and moaned.
It was getting too much. If release didn’t come soon, she would explode.
Given his condition, there was only one way Orpheus could provide that release. But dare she ask? She had suggested such a thing to Alex and his sharp rebuff still resounded in her ears.
Emily decided to throw caution to the wind. If Orpheus would not grant her this one special favour, perhaps he wasn’t the man for her after all.
With her heart hammering and her continued happiness in the balance, she straddled the head, giving Orpheus a full-on view of her womanhood. She studied his face for any sign of revulsion, but he just smiled and winked at her.
Emily lowered her sex to within an inch of the warrior’s lips. And still there was no sign of distaste on his part.
She was wondering whether she dared take that final, crucial step when she felt the tip of his tongue on the inside of her thigh. It was all the encouragement she needed.
Orpheus’s mouth played Emily the way his fingers had played his golden lyre. He knew exactly where his lips and tongue were needed, how much pressure to apply, how much to tease and when to release. Emily’s being dissolved. The serpent within her awoke and the fire in her loins reached to the far reaches of the Cosmos.
‘I am a goddess,’ she whispered. ‘Now worship me.’
The doorbell rang.
‘Oh shit.’ Emily didn’t want to move. She wanted to stay lying on her back, surrounded by crumpled sheets and the smell of sex. Next to her, her disembodied lover hummed a gentle paean of contentment. ‘It’s Alex Stirling – I know it is. The poor sap is here to beg me to take him back. Oh how funny is that?’
The bell rang again and she knew it would go on ringing, chipping away at her contentment with each sonorous chime. Best to get it over with.
‘Sorry, lover boy.’ Emily clambered off the bed and lifted the head of Orpheus to her bosom. ‘Can’t let him see you.’ She looked around for a secure hiding place and decided upon her underwear drawer. ‘You’ll like it in there amongst my panties and bras.’
With one hand she opened the drawer. As she gently placed her lover on a bed of silk lingerie with a bra for a pillow, she spotted something that caused her to shudder: Alex’s foot long dildo.
‘Should have thrown the damned thing away,’ she muttered. And she would have if she’d been certain it could never be traced back to her.
Well, she wasn’t going to leave her ex-lover’s sex toy in the same drawer as her current beau. That would be disrespectful.
The doorbell rang again. And again and again. Someone was growing impatient.
Emily gingerly picked up the dildo. It was almost as thick as her arm and she wondered how on earth Alex had expected her to get pleasure from it.
With a shudder, she threw it on the bed where it landed at Teddy Timbo’s feet. Then she blew her lover a kiss and closed the drawer.
‘Hold your bloody horses!’ She hurried through the living room and into the tiny hallway. ‘OK, Alex. You’ve asked for this.’
But when she opened the door, Alex Stirling wasn’t there.
The woman on Emily’s doorstep was a harpy in a denim skirt. She looked like she hadn’t smiled in years. ‘I want my fucking head!’ She raised a fist. The word HATE was spelt across her knuckles. ‘We can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way. Give me my fucking head or I’ll smash your fucking teeth down your fucking throat.’
‘Don’t you Mrs. Howard me, you thieving cow.’ William Howard’s mother barged past Emily into the living room. ‘Where is it?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Years of dealing with hormone-crazed adolescents had taught Emily to appear outwardly calm when her instincts told her to scream. ‘If you wish to talk to me about William, please book an appointment through the school secretary.’
Mrs. Howard took a packet of cheap cigarettes from her pocket.
‘I’d rather you didn’t smoke,’ said Emily.
With a sneer, Mrs. Howard produced a disposable lighter and lit her cigarette. She blew smoke in Emily’s direction then spoke in the icy, don’t-mess-with-me tones Emily had herself long ago perfected. ‘My bastard son snuck into my bedroom and stole something of mine and now you have it and I want it back.’
‘If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, it’s at the school.’
‘Don’t lie to me, bitch.’
‘Mrs. Howard, I want you out of this flat – now!’
‘Where is it?’
‘Get out or I’m phoning the police.’
‘Phone away. I’ll be gone long before they get here.’ Mrs. Howard looked around the room, a raptor alert for any clue that would lead to her prey. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been using my head for, you dirty cow. Who do you think trained it in the first place? Now where have you got it hidden?’
Emily involuntarily glanced towards the bedroom.
‘In there?’ Mrs. Howard flung open the bedroom door and went through.
Emily hurried after her. ‘Get out!’ She threw her arms around the woman’s broad shoulders and tried to wrestle her to the floor.
Easily breaking Emily’s grip, Mrs. Howard span round, grabbed a handful of hair and flung Emily onto the bed. ‘Now lie still or I’ll kill you.’
Afterwards, Emily could remember very little apart from hurt and rage. She saw Mrs. Howard opening her underwear drawer and then the foot long dildo was in her hands and she was on her feet screaming, ‘Bitch…! Bitch…! Bitch…!’
The first blow caught Mrs. Howard on the side of her head. She span round and stared at Emily in stunned disbelief. ‘Why you – ‘
Emily swung the dildo with all her might. She got Mrs. Howard full on the mouth, causing a sickening crunch of breaking teeth and bone. A fine mist of blood sprayed from the ruined orifice.
And Emily knew she couldn’t stop. The thought of someone using the ancient warrior as a sex toy was too much to bear. As she rained blow after blow on the intruder, she reminded herself she was doing it as much for Orpheus as herself.
Every collision between flesh and rubber filled her with joy. This was pure blood lust – raw, primeval and very, very satisfying.
Mrs. Howard went down. With her hands wrapped around her bleeding head , she tried to scurry away. But a blow to the centre of her back knocked the wind from her.
She whimpered and Emily laughed. And she kept on laughing and she kept on beating Mrs. Howard long after Mrs. Howard was dead.
The water gathering at Emily’s feet ran red with the blood of the late Mrs. Howard. Then it grew pale and pink. When the water cleared, Emily felt she had cleansed herself of a lifetime of heartache and disappointment.
Stepping out of the shower, she pictured herself as Boticelli’s Venus freshly emerged from the sea.
I have made love to a demigod – something no living woman has done for thousands of years. Maybe I’m not actually Venus, but I’m the closest thing to her there is right now.
In the bedroom, she stepped over Mrs. Howard’s corpse and threw on a flannelette dressing gown. She gave her hair a cursory towelling, feeling that as a man of the sea Orpheus would appreciate her hair being wet. Like one of those Sirens who tried to lure him to his doom.
Barefoot, she padded out to the living room. Orpheus was where she’d left him – propped up against the corner of the settee. He greeted her with a song distilled from the gurgling of mountain streams and the drone of a dragonfly.
She kissed him on the forehead. ‘Let’s watch a DVD. I have silent movies, so language won’t be a problem. Do you like Buster Keaton?’ Emily laughed and rolled her eyes. ‘What am I like? You’ve probably never seen a movie in your life, have you? But I know what you’d enjoy: Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks as a conniving, femme fatale. Shall we watch that, my sweet?’
A change in the key of Orpheus’s song said no.
Emily positioned herself on her knees before the DVDs piled beside the television. She read out the titles one by one. ‘Caligula…? Thelma and Louise…? Repo Man…? The Man With the Golden Arm?’
Each suggestion was greeted with a musical no.
‘A Night at the Opera?’
‘Carnival of Souls?’
Yes, yes, yes! The song of Orpheus soared like a mountain eagle.
‘OK, my sweet. I guess you don’t have to understand what’s being said to know what’s going on.’ She slipped the DVD into the player. ‘The Modern Prometheus. That was Mary Shelley’s subtitle, wasn’t it? Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.
‘Did you ever meet Prometheus? Or was he before your time?’
Emily did the necessary with the remote control and placed herself on the settee next to Orpheus. As they watched Universal Studio’s Frankenstein, Orpheus sang. His singing lent the film an operatic quality which intensified its impact. Soon, Emily turned the sound off to allow her lover’s song free rein over her emotions.
As the end credits began to roll, the telephone rang.
‘Will you excuse me, my love?’ Emily went to the sideboard. Even as she picked up the phone, she knew who was calling. ‘Emily Green.’
‘Emily, it’s me.’
‘You’ve called at an inconvenient time, Alex. I have company.’
‘I’ve been going out of my mind. Nothing makes sense any more. I need you Emily like no man has needed a woman before. And there’s no turning back for me. I’ve told my wife everything. My marriage is over!’
Emily’s loathing for Alex Stirling took on a new dimension. She had almost forgiven him for dumping her – it was, after all, an inevitability given her track record – but to turn his back on his own family! That was unforgivable.
‘Let me make it plain - ’ she began. But then Orpheus began to sing. The melody cautioned her to make the most of the situation. At first she didn’t understand. And then his plan took shape in her mind and she knew what she had to do. She put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to Orpheus. ‘But will it work?’
I am immortal, Orpheus sang wordlessly. And I have powers…
She spoke into the phone. ‘Perhaps we should talk this through, Alex.’
‘Yes!’ It was the cry of the shipwrecked sighting sails on the horizon. ‘Let’s talk. That’s all I’m asking. Together we can sort things out. I know we can.’
‘How soon can you get here?’
‘Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen.’
‘Good. I’ll see you then.’ Emily put the phone down and went to the kitchen. She returned with the sharpest knife she could find and placed it on the coffee table. ‘What else will I need?’
Wine to intoxicate him. A bucket for the blood. And a strong needle and thread.
‘And how shall I kill him?’
It would be fitting for him to die the same way as that awful woman. Do you think you’re strong enough?
‘With you at my side: yes.’
Good. Make sure you damage only his head. We want the body intact.
Emily took the foot long dildo from the table and sat beside her lover. ‘Shall we watch Pandora’s Box now?’
No. Let’s watch Frankenstein again. It’s most instructive.