The silence ate up every ounce of space, pressing its weight against her thoughts in the constant reminder that they only ever echo around inside her own head. When she did find the company she craved, her desire was to escape. Her supposed friends seemed so self-assured, happy in their own bullshit, unaware how in one day, their cosy rug could be pulled out from under them.
She took a mouthful of tepid coffee and opened the letter. Mandy was lonely. During the divorce she'd given up her rights to the house, let Malcolm stay in it. She didn't want to be reminded.
Perfect Match Dating Agency. Mandy realised the key to her future success was to build up her confidence. A few of the friends she and Malcolm shared kept in tenuous contact, obliged by some awkward sense of duty she thought, but socialising with couples was not having the desired effect. They always dropped her off first, to avoid tricky conversation, and they denied they'd known all along. None of them visited, usually arranging to meet in a pub, except one time when Nicky brought round some curtains,
"This place'll look great you know. I'll get Jerry to help you with the wallpapering."
He still hadn't, so Mandy stopped asking and gave the place a quick emulsion.
She didn't tell any of them about her experiment, could already see the bewildered looks in their eyes, the faked on smiles that were partly a sneer,
"Build up your self-esteem with sex? Did you see that on TV?"
Mandy had only ever been with Malcolm. No-one's sex life could have been worse; a quick grope and a thrust from behind one morning every couple of months, minor small talk and no foreplay. The only person ever to give her an orgasm was herself. Now she was thirty-six and single in the middle of what was supposed to be her sexual peak. She looked at the sheet of paper,
Richard 39, 5'10", red hair, brown eyes, social worker. Seeks friendly female for drinks and possibly dinner.
There was a phone number.
The dreary ping from the microwave told Mandy her macaroni cheese was ready. She ate quickly. Malcolm's mother always complained of his having to eat microwaved food,
"A man should be able to rely on his wife for a good meal. Malcolm's health will be sure to suffer."
Stupid bitch, thought Mandy. It's probably her fault he's the way he is.
She had made the call from work while David, the funky new manager, was busy cracking bad jokes to his young secretary.
"Hi is that Richard?" said Mandy, continuing to key in shipment numbers to the distribution centre,
"Hi there, I'm Mandy, I got your letter from Perfect Match. Would you be free tonight?"
Mandy congratulated herself, she was direct and to the point. Take control immediately, that's the way to do it. They agreed to meet at seven thirty outside O'Neill's in Sauchiehall Street.
The suspenders and wonder-bra had been a good investment.
Malcolm had no imagination for lingerie, though she'd tried. One night she even waited, in heels and a Basque, for him to return from work. An open bottle of wine and box of chocolates lay on the table,
"Do you prefer soft centres...or hard," she'd said in her best sultry voice when he entered the living room. Her hand lightly traced over her belly down to her inner thigh,
"You look nice", said Malcolm, "I'm going to take a shower before gym. Oh, and soft centres, save some sweets for me."
Richard would be Mandy's third date. The first had been Chris, a slightly balding and overweight bank manager in a suit. They had gone to a Tapas bar. He was friendly and polite and she managed to keep the conversation moving by bombarding him with questions like a chat show host,
"So have you lived long in East Kilbride? Where would you most like to go on holiday...?" Anything was good that diverted attention from herself. She didn't want her dates getting too familiar. When he leaned forward to kiss her at the end of the night, Mandy'd flinched, turned her face so the kiss landed on her cheek. She heard Chris sigh then gripped by a sudden burst of anxiety, the fear of going back to that dreaded silence with nothing having changed so overwhelmed Mandy that without really knowing why, she laid her head on his shoulder and curved one arm round his back. She slid her hand down till it reached his buttocks and began to squeeze gently, kneading the flesh through her fingers. His breath became heavier,
"That's good," he whispered, and as he grabbed for her breast she pulled away.
"Sorry" Mandy shouted over her shoulder, running down the street towards the station. At home that night she remembered how his hot breaths became rapid on her neck, pleased at how she'd made him want her. Next time she would be more adventurous.
Mandy turned the bedroom light on. She pulled a black, knee-length PVC skirt and floral print blouse from her MDF wardrobe, and pulled them on over her wonder bra and stockings. Applying some dusky rose lipstick in front of the mirror, she drifted into a reverie. The images of that September morning nearly a year and a half ago still flashed through her thoughts like an unwanted re-run of the same film insistently playing itself over and over again. Returning early from her parents' home, she'd walked up the driveway of her and Malcolm's two-bedroomed semi-detached oblivious to the finer details of her own life
"It's me", she shouted, putting her key in the door. No reply. Music drifted down from upstairs, a springy calypso rhythm she didn't recognise,
"Malcolm are you in?" following the music, she climbed the stairs and opened the bedroom door. For a few seconds she thought she was in the wrong house. The bright morning sun had brought out the calico of the walls. The room looked fresh, the sheets so white. Malcolm was lying on his back and under the cotton cover a hunched shape moved around between his legs. Mandy had never seen his face that way. His eyes were closed and his head lolled slowly from side to side, a smile played about his quivering lips and he let out short gasps and moans as waves of pleasure rolled over him. She stood freeze-framed in the doorway for what seemed like an eternity then uttered,
"Malcolm?" Her tone rising.
Malcolm's eyes flashed open and he shot upright, "Mandy!"
The mound under the sheets tore them back and turned to Mandy.
Tom was Malcolm's co-worker and gym partner. They were on the same sales team. Fuck, he'd even been round for dinner. She'd cooked for him!
"Eh...I'll, I'll just see you later... maybe..." he exited tactfully as the raging argument ensued,
"You've got to believe me Mandy, the last thing I wanted was to hurt you," the white sheet trailed behind Malcolm like a wedding train as he ran down the stairs after her.
"Hurt me! My whole life of the last eight years has been a lie and you want sympathy! Just how long were you going to make a fool out of me?" She eyed the scissors on the kitchen table but decided he should have the plates thrown at him instead. They wheeled through the air and crashed above his head like exploding supernovas. The only thing tempering Mandy's screaming and violent urges was the utter hopelessness of her situation.
"I wanted us to work, I had to try, needed to be really sure," Malcolm gesticulated with his left hand.
"You know it's still being unfaithful. Whatever you want to call it and whoever, male, female. I want a fucking divorce." Mandy pressed a palm against her forehead.
"You can have it. It's probably a blessing in disguise."
"Who for? I thought all along it was me, that you couldn't stand to be near me," her arms flailed around her ears like a preacher on an evangelical roll, "and the shit I put up with from your harridan witch of a mother", the words spat like mini tornados from Mandy's tongue. She stomped through the living room, imitating the shrill, clipped tones of her mother-in-law, "Malcolm was such a clever boy, Malcolm needs healthy food, aren't you leaving it a bit late for children Mandy? She'll love never having to share you with another woman. I just can't believe you've done this to me! Did you ever even fuckin' love me?"
He went to hold her, "I'm so sorry Mandy, really."
"Don't touch me! I need to get out of here."
She remembered how the skin round her eyes felt raw for weeks.
Her second Perfect Match was John. He was five years younger than her, a biochemist who still lived with his parents. They arranged to meet in a bar near the university. He was nice in an immature way. He waited for her to make all the first moves, so Mandy chose a table and ordered drinks. She guessed he had the unfortunate view of women as meal-providers and washing machine operators on account of his never having left the family home. But she liked the feeling of power she had over him, sat close as her chair would allow and assumed the role of chat show host again,
"So have you always been a science man?"
"Well I love being in a laboratory."
Then, smiling at her own stroke of genius she asked in a low tone,
"Would you say then, that chemistry and biology are inextricably linked?"
She reached one arm under the table and placed it on his thigh, massaging her hand over the muscle, then the bulge under his trousers till she felt it grow tight and large. John's eyes widened and he gulped.
"It's Ok", she whispered, "Let's go outside". Round the back of the pub, she pressed him against the wall and unzipped his jeans.
"Do you.. think.. this is a good idea", he stammered. Mandy caressed his cock in her hands then lowering herself down, took it in her mouth. She wanted to excite him, make his head spin; hear how much he wanted her.
"Oh god" he sighed.
Then, when he laid slouched, shirttails and soft flesh lying exposed in the open crotch of his trousers, she said, "I have to go now."
"Go? Where? Will you phone me?"
Mandy, of course didn't phone. She couldn't bear the thought of him turning up on her doorstep with a bag of washing.
John, though, had increased her confidence. The theory was working, she thought. Mandy was gradually beginning to feel in control, powerful, sexual. She checked her reflection in a shop window and ran fingers through her wavy, auburn hair. A redheaded man wearing black jeans and a cream jacket was standing outside O'Neills.
"Richard?" she asked, stepping forward.
"Yes. You must be Mandy. Lovely to meet you," he held out his hand.
"You too", she smiled. Shall we go inside?"
Richard insisted on buying the first round. Mandy ordered a vodka and coke and he got himself a pint of lager.
"So have you been on many of these dates?" asked Mandy.
"You're my second," said Richard. "The first went really badly. My date went to the toilet and never came back."
"Yeah, you have to watch out," laughed Mandy, and softly gripped his thigh, "there's some real weirdos out there."