Domina, page 1
Letter from Author
To the Countess, with thanks.
I only wanted to get it over with, but I forced myself to go slowly. I closed the shutters at all three windows, opened a bottle of Gavi, poured two glasses, lit the candles. Familiar, recognisable, comforting rituals. He set down his bag and removed his jacket slowly, hanging it on the back of a chair, watching me. I raised my glass and took a sip without speaking. His eyes played over the paintings as I let the silence between us lengthen until he fell into it.
‘Is that an . . . ?’
‘Agnes Martin,’ I finished for him. ‘Yes.’
‘Thank you.’ I kept the small, amused smile playing on my lips. Another pause. The thick stillness of Venice at night was broken by the sound of footsteps crossing the campo below, we both turned our heads towards the window.
‘Have you lived here long?’
‘A while,’ I answered.
The cockiness he had shown earlier in the bar had vanished; he looked awkward and painfully, terribly young. I was going to have to make the first move, obviously. I was standing, holding my glass with my elbow crooked across my body. We were two steps apart. I took one, holding his eyes with mine. Could he see the message there?
Run, it said. Run now and don’t look back.
I took the second step and reached out to caress his stubbled jaw. Slowly, still keeping his gaze, I bent forward to his mouth, nuzzling him, letting the sides of my lips brush his, before his tongue found mine. He didn’t taste as bad as I’d expected. I pulled out of the kiss and drew away, throwing my dress over my head in one movement and dropping it to the floor, followed by my bra. I brushed my hair off my shoulders, drawing my palms slowly over my nipples as my hands fell to my sides.
‘Elisabeth,’ he murmured.
The bathtub was positioned at the foot of the bed. As I held out my hand and led him around it towards my Frette sheets, I felt a stifling wave of weariness sigh over me, an absence of that which had once been so familiar. There was no rage left in me, nor any flicker of desire. I let him get on with it, and when he was done I sat up with a giggle in my voice and my eyes all starry. I couldn’t have him dozing off. I flopped forward on the dampened sheet, dropping the limp condom with its sad little weight of life onto the floor, and reached out for the hot tap.
‘I feel like a bath. A bath and a blunt. Shall we?’
‘Sure. Whatever.’ Now we’d fucked he’d lost his manners. ‘You wanna do those pics?’ I’d managed to dissuade him from taking selfies when we’d had drinks earlier. He was already fumbling in his discarded jeans for the sodding phone; it was a miracle he hadn’t tried to Instagram his own climax. I’d forgotten, for the few moments he’d humped away inside me, what a total dick he was. This suddenly felt so much easier.
‘Snap away, lover. Just a second though.’ I trotted naked to the dressing room and scrabbled in a drawer for a packet of Rizla, pausing to connect the Wi-Fi scrambler as a precaution. No more real-time updates for him. I added some cold water and a dollop of almond oil to the bath and opened the heavy antique linen press for a couple of towels. The sweet scent of the oil rose around us in the steam.
‘Hop in,’ I said over my shoulder as I busied myself loosening the tobacco from a cigarette. My Hermès scarf, the turquoise-and-navy Circassian design, was knotted around the strap of my handbag. I crossed behind him as he eased into the water.
‘Just getting a light,’ I murmured. ‘Here.’
I put the joint between his lips. There was nothing in it, but he’d never know that. While he inhaled I got the scarf round his neck and pulled it up tight beneath his ears. He choked instantly on the smoke, splashing his hands into the deep tub. I braced my feet against its edge and leaned back against the bed, pulling harder. His feet flailed in the water, but there was no purchase on the oily porcelain. I closed my eyes and started counting. His right hand, still absurdly holding the sodden roll-up, was straining to grab at my wrist, but the angle was wrong and his fingers merely fluttered against mine. Twenty-five . . . twenty-six . . . Nothing but the anaerobic fizz in my muscles as we struggled, nothing but the deep rasp of my own breath through my nostrils as his body thrashed. Twenty-nine, this is nothing, thirty, this is nothing. I felt him weakening, but then he managed to work a finger and then a fist between the scarf and his Adam’s apple and catapulted me violently forward, but the release sent him under and I twisted over the rim of the tub, getting my left knee on his chest and pushing down with all my weight. There was blood in my eye and in the steaming water, but I could see bubbles popping at the surface as he thrashed. I let go of the scarf and reached blindly down for his face and neck. He was twisting his jaw, the yellowed overbite snapping at me. The bubbles stopped. I slowly got my breath back and my face relaxed from its rictus strain. I couldn’t see his face through the pinkish milk of the bathwater. I was gingerly easing my pelvis forward when the water slopped up in a wave just before he reared up at me. I fell against him in a straddle as his head strained desperately upwards. I managed to take him under again with my elbow, then manoeuvred myself so that I had one leg on each of his shoulders. We stayed like that for a long time, until a teardrop of blood from my face plopped into the bath.
Perhaps it was the clarity of that one, tiny sound. Perhaps it was the mist of almond oil in the swirling steam, or the cooling scurf on the water’s surface. That cold afternoon, that endless silence, that first dead thing under my hands. The fault-line inside me split into an engulfing crevasse, and with a force that seared the breath out of me, I was there. Time was suddenly compressed, the past condensed and returned to me. I had left her so long ago. She had never been part of the life I had told myself, but I was seeing her as though for the first time. Numbly, I reached again into the deep water, but I found only a stranger’s flesh. This had been necessary, although I couldn’t now remember why. His hand bobbed up and I paddled the fingers with my own, a watery little tune. It might have been a few minutes that I watched the ripples, it might have been an hour. By the time I came back to myself, the water was chilled.
When I eventually hauled him up from underneath me, his eyes were open. So his last sight on earth would have been my gaping cunt.
His slippery skin was pinkish, puffed out like new bread, the lips already tinged grey. His head lolled back; in the candlelight his throat seemed unmarked. Gripping the side of the bath, I climbed out, legs shaking. As soon as I’d let him go he slid back under and I had to fumble for the plug beneath his bobbing hair. While the water drained, I hunched in one of the towels. When his chest was clear, I rested a hand against his heart. Nothing. I rolled up from the waist and stretched. The floor was soaking, the rim of the bath smeared with blood and specks of tobacco. More hot water to clean him down.
I peeled back enough of the towel to expose his face again, bent in and whispered in his ear.
‘It’s not Elisabeth. It’s Judith.’
Eight Weeks Earlier . . .
While I dressed, I played Cole Porter’s ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, the Ella Fitzgerald version. It made me smile. I had turned the bedroom of my flat in Campo Santa Margherita into a dressing room, lined with glass-fronted Molteni wardrobes, my shoes, bags and scarves, and dresses and jackets always companionably visible. That made me smile too. The flat was on the piano nobile, looking out over the square with its ancient white-stoned fish market. I’d taken out a wall in the drawing room to form one broad space, with the bathtub positioned at the foot of the bed on a thick green marble plinth, in front of one of the three arched windows. My bathroom, lined in antique Persian tiles, had been installed behind the dressing room, in what had once been a stairwell. It was one of the many joys of Elisabeth Teerlinc’s home. The architect had grumbled about supporting beams and permits, but in the nine months since I’d arrived in Venice I’d discovered that the wages of sin make an awful lot of things possible. I’d hung the pictures I’d acquired in Paris – the Fontana, Susanna and the Elders and the Cocteau drawing – and added another modern piece, a small untitled Agnes Martin in white and cloud-grey lines that I’d acquired through Paddle8, the online auction house in New York. My other French pieces had joined me too, with the exception of the headless corpse of one Renaud Cleret, which remained hammered down in an art depository near the Château de Vincennes. Whatever the architect thought, I did occasionally worry about leaks.
The handwritten invitation for my first show was tucked into a corner of the mirror. Elisabeth Teerlinc requests the pleasure of your company at Gentileschi Gallery . . . I scanned the words yet again as I fastened up my hair. I had done it. I was Elisabeth now. Judith Rashleigh was less than a phantom to me, barely more than a name on the unused passport which lay in my desk drawer. I smoothed my hand over the neatly ordered rack of dresses, relishing the slither of jersey and the supple weight of good silk. I’d chosen a fitted inky shantung Figue dress for the opening, fastened at the back with tiny turquoise and gold buttons like a cheongsam. The deep colour of the fabric glowed as it twined under my fingers. Standard gallerist severity was the look I’d gone for, but somewhere deep inside me a baby unicorn was tossing its mane. I gave my reflection a slow smile; Liverpool was a long way away.
One of my mother’s short-lived jobs had been as a cleaner near Sefton Park, the confident Victorian enclave of trees and glasshouses near the centre of the city, three buses from our estate. One day, when I was about ten, I realised at the end of the school day that I’d forgotten my key so I went to find her.
The houses were huge; masses of red brick and bay windows. I pushed the bell several times but no one came, so I nervously tried the door, which was on the latch. The hallway smelled of wax furniture polish and faintly of flowers, the floorboards were bare around a bright square of rug and the space between the doors and the wide curve of the staircase was filled with shelves of thick, heavy-looking books. It was so quiet. Once I’d shut the door softly behind me, there was no hum of tellies, no staccato bawl of couples fighting or kids playing, no revving engines or scrapping pets. Just . . . silence. I wanted to stretch out and touch the spines of the books, but I didn’t dare. I called again for my mum, and she appeared in the tracksuit she wore for going cleaning.
‘Judith! What are you doing here? Is everything all right?’
‘Yeah, I just forgot my key.’
‘You gave me the fright of my life! I thought you were a robber.’
She rubbed her hand wearily over her face. ‘You’ll have to wait. I’m not finished yet.’
There was a big chair at the bottom of the stairs with a tall lamp beside it. I put the lamp on and the room condensed, gleaming around me, so calm, so private. I shrugged off my school backpack and set it neatly under the chair, then went back to the shelves. I think I picked the book because I liked the colour of the spine; a zingy, shocking pink with the title picked out in gold. It said Vogue, Paris, 50 ans. It was a fashion book, reproductions of women in extraordinary clothes and jewellery, their faces perfect masks of make-up. Slowly I turned a page, slowly another, entranced by the rich, delicate colours. One picture showed a woman in a bright blue ballgown with huge skirts, racing through traffic as though she was running for a bus. I was enthralled. I turned and looked, turned and looked. I wasn’t aware of how much time had passed until I realised I was starving. I got creakily to my feet and was putting the book carefully on the seat of the chair when the door slammed open, startling me, making me look crouched and guilty.
‘What are you doing here?’ Sharp, a woman’s voice, with an edge of fear in it.
‘Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m Judith. I forgot my key. I was waiting for my mum.’ I gestured vaguely towards the door that had swallowed my mother what felt like hours before.
‘Oh. Oh, I see. Is she not finished?’
She indicated for me to follow her down a passage to the back of the house, which opened into a big, cosy kitchen.
Beyond the table was a sofa whose bright cushions had been tumbled to the floor to make room for my mum.
I thought I’d seen the wine bottle on the floor before she had, but the resigned tone of the lady’s voice soon told me that this wasn’t the first time. My mum must have pinched it from the fridge.
‘Jus’ havin’ a little lie-down.’
I was a freezing coal of shame. The lady marched over to the sofa and helped mum to sit up, firmly but not unkindly.
‘We’ve spoken about this before, haven’t we? I’m sorry, but I think this had better be the last time you come, don’t you? Your daughter is here.’ In the emphasis she put on the word, I heard that she was sorry for me.
‘I’m sorry, I was just . . .’ Mum was dragging at the tracksuit, trying to right herself.
‘That’s fine.’ More tightly now. ‘But you had better leave. Please fetch your bag and I’ll get your money.’ She wasn’t being a bitch, that was the thing. She was embarrassed by what she was doing, and that controlled, professional voice was meant to cover it, to push us out onto the street where we could keep our nastiness to ourselves.
I went back and stood by the door with my schoolbag. I didn’t want to listen any longer. As the lady handed my mum two twenty-pound notes she must have seen my eyes pull back to the book.
‘Why don’t you take it? A present?’ She bundled it at me, not seeing me anymore. She gave it to me as though it was nothing.
‘Fucking snobby cow,’ my mum was muttering as she hauled me to the bus stop.
When we eventually got back, she gave me her key and got off first, at the stop by the pub. I thought anxiously of the forty pounds. We wouldn’t be seeing them again. I did myself beans on toast and took out the book. The price on the inside cover was sixty pounds. Sixty pounds for a book, and the lady had just given it away. I put the book carefully under my bed, and looked at it so often that in time I knew the names of the photographers and fashion designers by heart. It wasn’t that I wanted those clothes, exactly. I just thought that if you were the sort of person who had them, you would feel different. If you owned things like that, you could choose who you wanted to be, every day. You could control your inside with your outside.
I gave my tall heels a rub with their shoe bag before I stepped into them. Maybe the only thing Elisabeth Teerlinc had in common with Judith Rashleigh was that she didn’t employ a maid. Becoming Elisabeth had taken so much more than an expe
Even that was only the beginning of Elisabeth’s demands. For a while, when I’d landed a job at a prestigious London auction house, I’d believed I had made it, but I had no money and no connections, which meant I was never going to rise further than departmental dogsbody. So I took a night job in a hostess bar, the Gstaad Club, because surely a better suit and a nicer haircut would make it come right? I was disabused of this touching belief when I discovered that my boss, Rupert, was involved in a faking scam. He’d taken less than five minutes to show me the door. One of the club’s clients, James, had offered me a weekend on the Riviera, and from there things had become a little . . . untidy, for a while. Though ultimately highly profitable, since I’d located and sold the fake that got me fired, and used the money to set up as an art dealer in Paris. Admittedly there had been a few casualties. James hadn’t made it back to London, though that hadn’t been entirely my doing. And neither had the dealer from whom I’d stolen the fake, Cameron Fitzpatrick; my old school chum, Leanne; Renaud Cleret, an undercover policeman; or Julien, the conniving owner of a Paris sex club. Relocating to Venice as Elisabeth Teerlinc had been a practical necessity. Not least as I wanted to avoid the attentions of a certain police inspector, Renaud’s colleague, Romero da Silva. It had taken quite a lot of polish to obscure all that. But Elisabeth’s façade had become pretty good, its gleam reflecting only what people wanted to see. It’s true what they say – in the end, it’s what’s on the inside that matters.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes