The Belly of the Whale

Over Christmas 2017 I wrote two additional stories for the Denholm section of Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018). Both of the stories focused on Denholm and his wife Joan, and I felt that they brought out new elements in Joan’s personality. I sent them to my editor Sarah Leavesley, to discuss including them in the manuscript. We had a long email exchange, but in the end it was felt that it was too late to risk changing the manuscript – we might, in hindsight, regret altering Joan’s role at the last minute. It was decided that it would be more prudent to publish them separately. So, here’s the first of the two stories, in which Denholm pays a visit to Joan’s loft space. I’ll publish the second later in June.

 

The Belly of the Whale

Indecision creeps higher with each step up the spiral. Above him, a dark square, through which (if he’s quiet) the undulating moans of whalesong can be detected. It’s not often he braves this staircase; its wrought iron curls seem to tighten blackly round him as he climbs. No matter that it’s only there because Joan refused to seek planning permission, and insisted, insisted (against his advice) on claiming the loft space as a room of her own. No matter that invitations to this sanctuary are as grudging as they are rare. Now, he thinks, is surely a safe time – now, when candlelight and incense-fumes have lulled her towards good humour.

Above him, Joan will be spread-eagled on her mat, supine yet strolling along a sun-blissed beach, feeling the sand between her toes, beguiled by the spill of the love-struck surf. At last, her pulse will have slowed, her breathing will have lengthened, and, in this mode, she’ll be more likely to welcome him ascending the iron steps in order to talk, in order to confront the gap between them.

He waits at the entrance – waits for the whalesong to die, and for Joan to emerge from the humpback’s belly. She must waken, but not waken too much – a certain drowsiness will aid his agenda. He’s almost unmanned by the billowing aroma – ‘Deep Forest’? ‘Wild Grove’? – he never remembers. He studies the ribs of the roofspace (once devilled by damprot), and runs his hand over the flooring (no further trace of dead ladybirds). The stair creaks under his foot. A sudden shift in the dark. Denholm? Who’s there? The voice is tense, hard-edged, a barrier awaiting him. He stiffens, neither inside nor outside her zone, doubting his mission, his head claimed by attic darkness, his body by the landing below.

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