The Jewel of the Orient
It was raining, a fine drizzle that could only be picked out against the sullen glow of the streetlamps, their pumpkin brightness glaring into the dark. Beneath the lights, reflections of orange diffused across wet concrete. It glistened with moisture that pooled in little eddies, black rivulets trickling towards the drains. I was sitting at the desk in my bedroom, looking out from the first floor flat of a terrace in the Pennines. It was positioned in a narrow side street which rose from the main road leading down to the centre of the village. On my first visit I had pictured mill-workers wearily trudging home to pots of steaming broth and pale mucky faces at the table. Taken with this image, I told the letting agent I intended to move in the following month. But now I was here, there was something claustrophobic about being crammed in on top of each other, rising up the hill in a stack of stone and slate.
A skinny white cat darted across the street, ears flat against the shower that was fast becoming a downpour. I watched it climb the steps to the front door of the house opposite, and it mewed to be let in, its call a strange harsh sound. Within seconds the door opened a fraction, and a long, slender arm extended downwards in welcome. The cat shot past, and the door closed.
I had seen her around the past few days. Moving tends to mean you spend a lot of time out on the street... to and fro, to and fro. She’d nodded at me one morning as I was tackling my book collection. No words were exchanged, and I could see from her frame that she wouldn’t be much use to me anyway. So I nodded back and carried on with my labours, trying to look manly as I lifted a box and carried it inside, imagining my shoulders to be broader than they actually were.
The following day we met, by chance, in the local shop, a faded general store with a freezer full of ready meals, a poor selection of wine, and postcards at the till.
“You’ve just moved in, haven’t you?” she said. Ten out of ten for observation, I thought. “Yes,” I said. “Is there a pet shop around here?”
“Oh! What have you got? A cat? I’ve got a cat. He’s called Freud.”
“Ah, a cat with depth,” I said, starting to flirt though in truth I thought it a ridiculous name. She laughed.
“Yes, he’s quite something...So? What is it? A cat or a dog?”
“Fish, actually. Siamese fighting fish.”
“Oh, ok...” She seemed intrigued. It was a great chat-up line, with the right girl. ”I haven’t seen you move a tank in.”
“No, the tank went in before I did and the water has been settling. The fish are gradually going in, from smaller containers. They fight, you see, especially when they’re stressed. You can’t keep males together, so mine are all female.”
I was very worried about my fish. It had taken years to build the current community. I worried about water temperature, fin rot and aggression. In 19th century Malaysia people bet their homes on the outcome of sparring matches that could go on for hours. The King of Siam was a great collector and sanctioned the fights as something of a national sport. I kept all this to myself.
“No males…interesting,” she said. “Your very own underwater harem. Well I don’t think they do fish food in here and the nearest pet shop is about 15 miles away...maybe they’ll eat each other, if they get hungry. Anyway, see you around.” She paid for her milk and left. I found her a bit strange, but that didn’t stop me wanting to fuck her.
She lived at No 9 and as the rain intensified I looked at the ferns in her front garden. They were clumped along the steps to the front door, and had taken on a prehistoric sheen in the streetlight. I rolled a pencil up and down an A4 pad of paper. I was trying to write. It wasn’t happening, and I wondered why I had positioned my desk by the window. A movement in the bedroom opposite mine caught my eye. I remembered why. She came to the window and closed the curtains. She must have seen me but she didn’t give any indication that she had. I felt inches from her. The curtains were ivory and almost completely transparent. I didn’t know why she bothered. She stretched and yawned, then lay on the bed on her stomach, her bare feet playing with each other as she leafed through a magazine. Her hair fell over her shoulders, meaning I couldn’t see her cleavage like I had done the night before, when her hair was tied back.
She read for a while and then slipped the magazine to the floor and rolled over onto her back, rubbing her neck which must have stiffened with the awkward posture. I imagined my hands on her skin. I rearranged my legs beneath the desk. She was wearing a vest top and no bra beneath it. Her hand traced over her stomach as she lay, staring at the ceiling. What was she thinking about? After a while she sat up and with her back to me, slid the top over her head, revealing the long, elegant sweep of her spine. Her hair tumbled out of the vest and cascaded down her back, feathery like the fronds of freshwater plants. Heteranthera Zosterifolia. Star grass.
“Turn round...turn round,” I thought, unable to look away, unable to move. She stayed cross-legged on the bed with her back to me, dressed in only a low-slung pair of faded joggers. She was the kind of woman who looked extremely sexy in beaten up leisurewear.
“Infinitely fuckable,” I thought, my palm moving along the ridge in my jeans, my fingers hovering at the zip.
She turned round after a few moments and sat facing me. My hand fell still. Between her breasts was a rude and clamorous scar. It ran in a straight line from her sternum to below her navel. I felt insulted by its presence, outraged that it should have marred such perfection. Its red, welt-like prominence was clear enough to make out behind the thin veil of the curtains, which also failed to shield her eyes. She was staring across at me, watching for my reaction. I stayed at my desk, and stared back at her. My hand, concealed from her view, was still at the top of my flies. She brought her hand to between her breasts and rested her fingers at the top of her scar.
I felt uneasy, but I was transfixed. I ran my fingers down the length of my zip. She ran her fingers down the length of her scar. I traced a finger back up my zip. She traced a finger back up from her navel to between her breasts. My fingers tweaked the zip fastening. She pinched the top of her scar. I started to undo my zip. She started unzipping her skin. My hand stopped, hers continued. As she moved her fingers down the red trail on her abdomen, light beamed forth until, on reaching the end of the scar it was as if a door had been opened, just slightly, leaking light from within. As her scar opened wider it became a shaft that bisected her bedroom window and shot out into the darkness of the street, catching the raindrops in its path.
Freud jumped on the windowsill. He sauntered through the beam, tail aloft, and sat at the other side, facing it. He stared intently into the swirl of light. Freud’s owner stared at me. I stared back at her, then at what was coming from her abdomen. Brightly coloured fish started to appear in the light, swimming in air as the rain fell, the frill of their fins fanning out in an invisible current. Freud raised his paw and batted them this way and that. They moved as one, flashing their iridescence in the steady stream, shining blue and green, orange and red. B. Splendens. The Jewel of the Orient. Siamese fighting fish... my Siamese fighting fish. I looked over at the tank in my bedroom. It was empty and the light was out. When I looked back across the street, Freud had gone and the room was in darkness. His owner was nowhere to be seen. I looked down at the tarmac of the pavement in front of her house. The only light now came from the streetlamp, and I could just make out flickers of movement in the eddies and rivulets as my beautiful jewels rolled and gasped in the gutter.
The Jewel of the Orient first appeared at The Front View, and went on to be published in Best British Short Stories.