Notes from the Night
by Louise Beech
I dream sometimes of strangling Cassanby with his black silk tie. He looks a little like you ten years ago (perhaps, if I were pushed to analyse, he’s heavier in the face and stomach, and definitely somewhat taller, but the lazy swing in his walk and the loose-handed mannerism is you) and that only intensifies my loathing of him, because it makes me miss you more. I have to smile with clenched teeth (and jaw muscles!) when he chews gum after sucking wetly on this ghastly fat cigar, which he only smokes after red wine; then he always takes me to the latest show at the Palladium, and for dinner and drinks at Embassy London, before he drives us to his home (which I’ve told you is beautiful, much like the ones I drew as a child and dreamt of having!) and asks me to unfasten that wretched shiny tie, wrap it around his limp wrists and tug on it until the skin chafes, remove his trousers, and penetrate him with a dildo that looks oddly like the pink Play Doh I had as a child...
Valery shakes the snow-globe, sets it on the desk and—while the spiralling storm settles into calm—closes the notebook, marking her page of half-written letter with a perfume sniffer stick, and unclips her hair, unfastens her blouse, unzips her skirt, and lets them fall to the floor with a synchronised whisper. Within the glass dome flakes settle on the plastic New York skyline, like white ash after fire. Valery touches the silk stockings on the bed, garments that she will roll up her legs and clip onto matching suspenders in order to go and tend Dr George Cassanby for two hours, for which she will be paid five hundred pounds, perhaps an extra fifty tip if he climaxes twice, and a box of chocolate liqueurs that she will give to carer Jean ‘for her sweet tooth.’
The doctor was Valery’s first ‘date’ and has been the most demanding, despite having specified to the agency that he required only ‘companionship’ and the ‘occasional evening out.’ November, three years ago, he opened the doors of his Georgian home in Regent’s Park, invited Valery into an imposing hallway and then the lounge, where she half-expected cameras to be assembled or chainlike devices to be dangling from walls, and was relieved that there were only comfortable chairs and a coffee table littered with numerous editions of Capital Doctor. Observing the advice of colleague and long-time call girl ‘Pam,’ she’d chosen another name, Violetta, and offered it softly as Dr Cassanby removed her borrowed coat. Concealing nerves with words, she told him that her father picked it, after the courtesan in La Traviata, ‘because it was the opera where he first saw my mum and fell in love with her, even though she was picking her nose behind the all-colour programme.’ Then Dr Cassanby handed Valery wine in a crystal glass and reminded her that the ‘real’ Violetta Valery had died of tuberculosis, a disease that while now controlled was still one of the most deadly in the world. She died singing; it was the line from a childhood note, but Valery couldn’t dwell on such things while wearing too-big fishnet stockings and wondering how one initiated sex for the first time with a paying customer. She needn’t have worried; Dr Cassanby told her, as one might instruct a dog with a stick, to remove the dress and then her underwear, which she did, stumbling over the buttons near her breasts and blushing as she peeled off the simple black briefs she’d bought at Marks and Spencer’s for the occasion. Cassanby told her he was going to suck her nipples for twenty minutes and then she was to take his cock in her mouth. Valery prepared a note to her father while performing exactly as Cassanby requested. Dear Father, I often wonder what it might be like to abandon my life and travel to all the cities you visited while I was growing up; to see first-hand the Hong Kong skyline you described so acutely, to see the Golden Gate Bridge appear out of mist, to find myself—in awe—at the feet of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, to walk the cobbled streets of Prague instead of spying them through the glass of my newest snow globe... It was a note that she would later put down on paper, one that survived many edits and scratched out words, and was delivered.
When she was small Valery’s father James wrote notes to her while roaming the world. She didn’t call them notes because they were brief (quite the contrary) or formulaic; she thought the word note sounded more poetic than letter, that a note might be something a fairy would leave under a pillow; and also there were so many. James didn’t write these notes while in India or China or Russia and send them via the mail, as was done in the nineteen-eighties. He penned each one before departing the family home for Heathrow airport. One for each day he was absent. One for each evening he couldn’t tuck Valery in. One for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, through to Sunday, and over again, depending how many weeks he was gone.
The lion-embossed sheet always commenced Dear Valery; occasionally James wrote Violetta in jest and crossed it out so that the secret epithet was still visible. The note would then take some such form as, Tonight, while Cecilia makes the hot chocolate and you read the next chapter of ‘Danny the Champion of The World,’ I will be in New York. It’s a marvellous place—the trees are lit up even when it’s not Christmas and the shops never close. When Cecelia turns off the lamp, look up into the night sky and see those stars staring back—can you see the words there? New York is my world tonight, but you are my home, my anchor.
Valery picks up the first stocking; in slipping the sheer nylon over flesh, forming a second - blacker - skin, she begins the real transition from day-carer to night-worker. She would rather finish writing, or talk to her father for a while, but longing is fruitless when there are stacks of bills in the desk drawer, papers far less eloquent than cherished childhood notes. Regularly, the invoices arrive in the post, sometimes two or three a day, often stamped with Final Demand, and Valery has no sooner exhausted one cheque book than the next one is half used; all the noughts and pound signs make her vision blur. As she takes the second stocking from the bed – it’s snagged, too much for last-minute disguise with clear nail polish - the phone buzzes and she answers, hoping that Dr Cassanby is dead, but he isn’t, just ill. Gina, the owner of London Angels Escort Services, describes Cassanby’s bout of ‘explosive diahorrea’ and they talk for a while about new client Simon who is ‘a little shy and morbidly obese,’ so someone ‘sensitive’ who does GFE like Valery might be perfect for him. After hanging up she flops on the bed, one stocking on, topless, exhausted, which (she muses) is odd when there isn’t a client fastening his trousers nearby, and which is absolute bliss, and absolute misery.
Valery always swore she’d never kiss anyone she didn’t love. When she was fourteen and the ‘shyest girl in 3G’ she discovered the joy of French kissing with Jonathon Foster, behind the bike sheds. When they should have been studying Modern Irish Syntax in third period English, she told him (before blushing furiously) that she must have been born to tongue rather than talk, whatever the language, French, Irish or the Italian her father was learning for his next trip. If someone had predicted that one day she would similarly kiss a seventy-two year old man who liked to have his nipples pinched so hard one of them became infected, and who gave her three hundred pounds in mismatched notes, she might have cried. Yet, alongside a picture of her in pink underwear and pigtails, Valery’s online London Angels ‘resume’ lists that she indulges in DFK (deep French kissing), GFE (the girlfriend experience), A (anal sex), sex in all positions, CIF and CIB (come on face and come on body); but not CIM (come in mouth) or BBBJ (bare back blow job.) Agreeing to French kiss clients, Valery discovered, meant more business, repeat business, and that meant the bills were paid sooner, and she could work fewer hours and be home during the day. What she found harder than kissing was eye contact. After a threesome last Tuesday with coked-up Frederick Lee (an investment banker from Liverpool) and colleague Tara, the girls shared a cab home. The girls had kissed and caressed one another while Frederick bounced on the hotel bed in his diamond-patterned socks. Tara lit a cigarette, blew smoke out of the cab window and commented that Valery was only now ‘opening her eyes.’ Valery conceded, as snow began to drown the oblivious shoppers on Oxford Street, that she might be willing to kiss as though she loved, touch as though she cared, but she could not extend the pretence to her eyes.
With an unexpected night off to her advantage Valery removes the snagged stocking, puts on flannelette pyjamas, resumes her seat at the desk, opens the note pad at her half-page of writing and, with a quick glance at the clock (metaphorical hands mark the moment as eight-fifteen,) continues the note to her father… Last night I was with Ethan, the guy who stinks of garlic but makes every effort to conceal it with Armani aftershave. He even puts it on his penis. I smell it there. He likes to call me Tinkerbell (how I long to fly away sometimes) and I have to dance for him until he’s hard, and then he can only stay hard if he fucks me from behind while biting my back. It doesn’t hurt as much as you might imagine; or perhaps it once did and I have forgotten. I come home and I bathe and bathe and bathe so that I can get warm and then try and sleep. I told you, I think, that when I first saw the advert for the agency, and Julia (who hasn’t spoken to me since) dared me to call them, I don’t think she thought I’d go ahead with it. Neither did I. But the money. God, the money. I can make in a night what I made in a week at that damned office. If you saw the bills, and I’m glad you don’t, you’d understand. There’s the mortgage, debts that seem to grow not shrink, the running of a house this big, and there’s… well, you don’t need to be concerned about that. At my interview with Gina (my first in a room with leopard-skin wallpaper) she told me that ‘enjoyment of sex is not a prerequisite for the job, nor is being good at it, though that helps – the only necessity is desperation.’ You’re as far away now as you were then, father, but at least these notes bring us closer. As your notes to me always said, (and here Valery pauses, chewing the pen and idly stroking a strand of buttery hair, recalling the exact line), ‘You know that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming? That's where I'll be waiting.’ Wasn’t that from JM Barrie? Peter Pan? What a shame you had to grow older, father, you always said it was your greatest fear….
Like the line in the Moody Blues song (which Valery listened to when her father was away Summer 1987 and Jonathon Foster confessed he preferred kissing Jane Spencer because she let him ‘touch her naked breasts’) she has more ‘letters I’ve written, never meaning to send’ than notes she has shared, and tonight’s is one of them. Valery scrunches it up and aims at the mesh bin near her feet, missing completely. The paper on the floor un-scrunches slowly, opens, undresses. Valery’s father doesn’t know what she does. She wonders how many pages describing nights in black satin, endured domination and resisted submission, and rape that can only be shared with the wall and a pretend father, have been torn up before an honest note was prepared. Wrap the cover around you, be warm, be safe, dear Valery, and keep out the world; now she must make it ‘safe’ for him.
When she was twenty-one Valery left university with an MA in English Language, a measure of cynicism thanks to a failed relationship with the Head of the Biology department, and the knowledge that her father James part-owned the largest chain of strip clubs in the world. Best friend Sue worked in Spice London and said she was ‘surprised’ Valery never knew. Voted ‘most exotic in the world’ by Strip magazine, there were Spice clubs in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Amsterdam and Moscow, to name the ones that received ‘*****’ from Curve magazine. Girls at Spice have won Miss Pole Dance most years and the Las Vegas club is proud to be home to the oldest stripper in the industry, eighty-four year old Medusa, who can still give herself a toe job. Valery’s mother never admitted to others what her husband’s job entailed (preferring to say that he was in ‘property’) but she liked the lifestyle it afforded them too much to surrender her marital status, and loved that she could read Mills and Boon novellas all day, and lunch with other socialites, while their only daughter Valery was privately educated and cared for by three nannies. Dr Cassanby’s wife travels too. The world has a lot to answer for.
Valery opens the drawer and takes out a batch of notes tied with red string, feeling as she unwraps them that she is opening her father’s life. At night, when she is clean and the flakes are still in their glass world on the desk, she writes the real note, the note she will make sure her father gets. First she opens one of his, for inspiration. Dear Valery, (no crossed out Violetta in this note) Have I ever told you that a city landscape is misleading from the air, especially at night? When a plane touches down in a new place, the scattered lights give no indication who lives there, what happens there, no clue of its history, its culture, its battles won or lost. An airport is a gateway and the city it opens onto is cold to a stranger. Can you imagine then how I miss home, you? I wish you didn’t know the truth of my travels. I wish we could still pretend that I’m Peter Pan or Santa Claus. I fear that you see me differently now. I didn’t choose this sordid industry, this world where image precedes heart, but I was seduced by the possibilities, the money, the opportunity to give you the best education, the best life, and I’m not sure I have. I try and protect the women in my clubs, imagining their fathers somewhere, worrying for them, disappointed in them, in what they do. But we’re not what we do, are we? We’re what we dream of doing. The note is more than ten years old, yellowed with time and touch, and now Valery responds. Dear Father, When we landed in New York, and I was eight and you’d let me join you that one magical time (I think Cecilia was ill), I pretended all the way that you were Peter Pan and I was Wendy. So for me New York looked like Neverland. My friend Pam says it’s a sordid, seedy place, but I’ve not been since, and will forever see it as sparkling lights and whizzing colour and glitzy banners. Father can you see my world that way if I confess something to you? Can you pretend that I am the lady in the fur coat who, in Times Square, gave me the gold-wrapped sweet and had beautiful white hands? You said she was a real lady, the kind who drank tea with one finger raised, but I know father, I know now what—who—she was. Love Violetta. She crosses out the name so it can’t be seen, writes Valery, and decides to deliver the note by hand.
The house is quiet, like Piccadilly Circus at four am once the night-workers have departed and before the day-workers arise, when even the birds prefer the sky. Three doors along from Valery’s room, past the third bathroom that her mother called ‘the china garden’ and she never knew why, past the study where as a child she read Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis until dawn, is a room where the world lives, sleeping.
In Central Park the leaves were dying. You permitted me to run free, after I begged you to let go of my hand, ‘just this once,’ because I ‘wouldn’t go far’ and I ‘could only fly when I was alone.’
Vases of jasmine and stargazer lilies barely dispel the urine aroma, framed photographs of cities only accentuate their distance, and in a large bed near French doors Valery’s father James is sleeping. Soft curtains sigh secrets in the draught; Valery knows them all. Ten years earlier, at forty-eight, James was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a hereditary condition that causes damage to nerve cells in the brain, and premature death. Friends suggested that the sudden loss of his wife (Valery’s mother suffered a huge heart attack while swimming) and bankruptcy (James sold his share in the clubs and squandered the money on grief-suppressing activities) were ‘an influence’ in his ruin; doctors conceded that, although unlikely, the onset of the disease might have otherwise occurred later in life. Bed-bound for more than a year, he cannot swallow and—despite Valery paying for the best speech therapist in London - has not spoken since June, when he expressed dislike of her blouse. Sometimes, in startling moments of clarity, his eyes beseech hers, and she wills him to indicate what he wants. The light fades before she can read the words there. Carer Jean stays with James when Valery works at night (she left only half an hour ago with three boxes of Valery’s chocolates), nutritionist Molly oversees a diet designed to aid his swallowing and build weight, and physiotherapist Dave provides manual therapy. The rest of the time Valery is there. She reads him Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis. And notes from the night.
You laughed when that dog—I think a St Bernard—barked at me, straining on its lead, the owner laughing, and I ran back to you, the leaves flying away from my feet like stones from a galloping horse.
Valery pulls the cover over her father’s chest and tucks him in. In the Arabesque chair, with her head on the bed, she falls asleep, only stirring when the rustling of sheet breaks into dreams of autumn in Central Park. Dawn is coming. Her father is waking. He is moving. His hand touches her hair.
When I buried my face in your jacket (I can still smell the musky lining) you patted my head, said that he was a rescue dog and he was just protecting his park and his leaves. I asked ‘what about me’ and you said… you would protect me.
James puts the pillow on his face. Valery thinks he is confused. He peers over the padding. She shakes her head no. ‘Free me’ say his eyes, and they are as light as postcard pools. She shakes her head no. But there is no such word as no when you are paid to be yes; Dr Cassanby released Valery’s left nipple from his mouth and reminded her of this, blood running down his chin, staining the numbers on the bills in her mind. He took her hand in cruel grip, put it over his mouth, unshaven chin scratching her hand like gorse bushes, and she knew the game. James, with more strength than he has shown in months, touches Valery’s fingers. His palms are like paper. Cold note paper. Still bloody, Cassanby wrapped the silk scarf around his cock, tightened it, tugged it, while Valery suffocated him. Time and again she considered stopping his breath for good, stealing his air until there was no more, but he paid her double for the asphyxiation game. He liked to play cheat; but in his eyes she imagined defeat every time. Valery’s father holds her hand as he did when she couldn’t cross the road alone. He takes her with him now, not waiting for the cars to stop, and puts her reluctant fingers over his, over the pillow, over his face, but not his eyes. She still says no, wordlessly. Cassanby inhaled air like a drowning man surfacing sea, panic, relief and desire staining his pupils, panting, smiling. Valery’s hand was still inches from his mouth, like she might slap him, but it was he who slapped her, twice, before throwing her onto the bed. James presses Valery’s hands into the pillow, showing her what she must do. He lets go, as he did when she ran across the leaves. In his eyes she sees the colours of the world, gold of desert, red of sunrise, blue of sky. Not the world he gave to her in his many notes. Not the world that stole him. His world. Her own reflection. Home.
Dear Father, when the lamp is turned off, look up into the night sky and see those stars staring back—can you see the words there? The night is my world, but you are my home, my anchor, and now it is morning.
He dies singing.
* * * * *
"Notes from the Night" won the Glass Woman Prize in 2009.
Louise had been writing since she could hold a pen, and before that it was all in her head. Her debut novel, How to be Brave, was released in 2015 and was a top ten bestseller and a Guardian Readers’ pick. Second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, is out now and longlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker Prize. Maria in the Moon will be released in 2017. When she was fifteen she bet her mother ten pounds she’d be published by the time she was thirty. Her newspaper column started when she was thirty-one. She still owes her mother the money.