The Value Of Everything (short story)

I’d never done anything like this before and while I was almost certain that it was what I wanted, keen optimism dwindled as the hours passed. I felt guilt yet somehow I was still sat there in a hotel suite, slurping red wine like it was a Japanese tea-drinking ritual. Only with less inner peace.

I counted it again. It didn’t feel like money anymore. The notes were just paper shapes. Their value had ceased to be and no matter how neatly I stacked them on the bedside table, all I could see were crushed leaves ready to go in a child’s scrapbook. I inspected one of the notes between my finger and thumb, turning it and bending it like it was clean underwear fresh from the dryer. They were far from clean. Metaphorically I mean. The same could not be said for my underpants

I walked around the room taking in the new sights and smells the way you do when you visit a friend’s home for the first time. You look at the photos on the mantelpiece; the bargain bin artwork on the walls. You sit down on a couch made from some unfamiliar material. You decline all offers of hot drinks and ceremonial biscuits, because you’re just the epitome of politeness. God, why did I book such a fancy room? Dark, wood panelling? Electronic blinds? Two bedside lamps? What the hell was I thinking?

Looking around it didn’t feel like a hotel room. It felt like a culmination of forty hours spent at work so I could afford this evening.

So what was I doing there? You should’ve asked my wife. Actually, probably not. She’s the very last person who needed to know my reasons for being there. And her mother. Both of whom are not so much capable of murder as they are one wrong move away from creating a real life revenge film. Ever seen Hard Candy? Good, you know where I’m coming from.

It’s that old cliché I’m afraid: you reach a point in your life where you think ‘is this what it’s going to be like from now on?’ You have every control over your own destiny yet there you are contemplating dangerous questions. So you end up sat on the edge of an expensive king size mattress, confessing your sins to a bottle of Shiraz and waiting for the escort you hired.

I reached over to the money again and counted it some more like it was a magic trick. One hundred and fifty exact. Just paper with squiggles and patterns. And it was no longer mine. By contrast one hundred and fifty pounds was comparatively cheap for an escort. Obviously I had to pay any last remnants of my dignity as a down payment, but still it could have been worse. Worse? While my wife sat at home with the foreknowledge that I was away on a colleague training scheme, I was moments away from handing over enough notes to spread out into a rudimentary period drama fan. Which, given the sweat oozing from my forehead would have been a handy device to have. So how could it possibly have been worse given what I was about to do?

So what of my wife and the tragic circumstances I found myself in? I loved her, of course. I wouldn’t speak of her with such frequency if I didn’t. Our years spent together were boring but happy. There were no real sudden events that lead to my being sat on a feather-stuffed duvet with the only thing stopping shame from emanating out my pores being the clothes on my back. We were childless, thankfully. That somehow alleviated a small portion of the guilt. And it was a choice thing. Neither of us had broken genitals or anything. Her mother, however, did have a tendency to call my ability to father a child into question. Sometimes during meals. Other times at less appropriate locations. The venue didn’t really matter to her.

‘Raisin prick’ I believe was the expression, somehow implying that as the years added up and I ceased to rear her a grandchild, my genitals would somehow give up and shrivel inwards like a piece of dried fruit.

No, my shame sprung from a realisation I think a lot of couples have eventually: detachment. With ever increasing demand to work more hours from both participants, the evening couch cuddles became less of a way to unwind after work and more of a liaison that required prior booking and the crossing out of important dates in diaries. We both swanned off with barely a text message to warn the other. The irony being that I began to suspect she may have been seeing other people behind my back. Who marks important meetings in their diaries by dotting their i’s with cute little hearts?

My thoughts were, somewhat thankfully, interrupted by a knock at the door. It was gentle but purposeful, like a loud whisper that’s meant to be discreet yet public. I looked over at the money I had unwittingly fanned out on the table. With a new tremble in my limbs, I tipped the rest of the wine into my mouth not bothering to savour anything but the sour taste of this moment. I was glad I’d bought two more bottles.

As I approached the door I had images of seeing my wife in a boob-tube stood on the other side, her diary in her hand and a list of male names crossed off with me on the bottom like the last pick for a school football team. My hands now clammy I reached for the handle and released the door from its frame. There, out on the hotel hallway, with fishnet attire and a mini skirt so vinyl-looking it could have sported a white label, stood she.

“Jennifer?” I gasped.

My mother-in-law.

The space between us didn’t seem real. It was as though a two-way mirror had been placed between us and neither of us were aware that the other was looking at the other. Our expressions were empty. We had seconds to come to terms with this new scenario and I had neither the wit to scramble for an innocent excuse, nor the vocal skills to express it. Her dangling jaw suggested she felt the same. All we could muster was the shaky exchange of each other’s name.

“Clyde?”

The exchange was pointless. We both knew exactly who was staring who in the face. Jennifer looked up and down the corridor. Not a soul in sight. Not even our own which had, by now, already been condemned to a new circle of Hell.

“I…didn’t…” Jennifer began. “I mean. Is this…?”

“I don’t…was it you who…?” I continued. “Oh…shit.”

The word pierced Jennifer’s face and she recoiled. I’d never sworn in front of her before, but given the circumstance, I may as well have written it on a piece of paper and stuffed it into her cleavage.

“Language!” She said.

This was an odd but familiar response. Contextually it made sense. We both knew what was going on. She knew why I was in the hotel room and I knew why she was knocking on my door.

“Well, shall I come in or not?” She asked, not smiling.

“Are…you sure that’s a good idea?”

Her shoulders dropped and she glared at me like a librarian.

“Clyde,” she said, “I’m a middle-aged women in a mini skirt standing outside a hotel room at ten o’clock at night. Yes, it’s a good idea.”

“Good point.” I said. “I have wine if you want some.”

“God yes!”

She walked over the threshold and I discreetly closed the door. For some reason I put the chain across. Who was I protecting? Also: ‘I have wine’? Why the hell did I say that? What was my plan now?

Jennifer sat on the edge of the bed, still warm from my own cheeks. She took her shawl off revealing more shoulder than I’d ever thought I’d see on her. Seeing a woman in low cut tops and high rise skirts is a tremendous image. To see it on the mother of your wife is curious and equally confusing. By all accounts this should have been the ultimate male fantasy, possibly even the beginnings of a good porno. But arousal was nowhere to be seen so embarrassment took the wheel.

“Bottle’s empty.” She said, nodding at the wine that was no more.

“I bought more.”

I reached down the side of the bed into a Waitrose shopping bag and pulled a bottle of red out. The body was wrapped in a gold thread and was nicely chilled to room temperature. Expensive wine. For the last woman on Earth I expected to see in my hotel suite. I uncorked it and poured two glasses, carefully balancing the measurement between good host and not wanting to inundate her with a memory erasing amount of alcohol. I handed her the glass and stood opposite her.

She finally broke the ice:

“So, how long has this been going on?”

“This is the first time, I swear.”

I gulped some wine wanting oblivion as fast as possible. Was it good tasting wine? I couldn’t tell you. It could have been pony dung for all I knew. The details were lost on me.

“What about you? I asked.

“Eight years.”

I held my glass still, half tipped and centimetres from my lips.

“Eight years?! You’ve been doing this since before me and Claire were married?”

“Yes.” She replied.

Her tone said nothing emotional. It was a simple fact.

“But why?”

Jennifer twirled her glass and contemplated the colours in the liquid. I knew she was a keen wine enthusiast. Until that night I never realised how well wine and fishnets paired together.

“Money,” She said,

I began to relax into it a bit. Suddenly I was feeling less guilty. This was my first encounter of this kind and I hadn’t even done anything yet. Obviously the intent was there, but I hadn’t actually gone through with it. Here, however, was my mother-in-law: part-time call girl for eight sodding years.

It wasn’t what she did or her reasons. It was how completely out-of-character this was for her. When you think you know a person after so many years, you never see them as anything other than the memories you have of them. This wasn’t Jennifer the Escort. This was Jennifer the 54-year old estate agent. She read Phillipa Gregory novels and grew tomatoes in her greenhouse. Jennifer the Call Girl was her superhero alias; saving men everywhere from staying true to their morals. Ethics aside, it just didn’t make sense for a woman with a good career and wads of cash to be doing this.

“Why do you need money?”

“You can never have too much.” She said. finally sipping her wine.

“Does Paul know?” I asked.

Paul was her husband. AKA my father-in-law. AKA probably the most oblivious man on the planet.

“It was his idea.”

Or maybe not.

“What? Why?”

“He fancied a summer home. Maybe in Spain, he says. Personally I’d like something in Florida, but he’s always had his eye on somewhere a bit more Latin. And you know how much he loves mainland Europe anyway. He’s even considering taking Spanish lessons in the ev-”

“-Wait, wait wait. He knows you’re having sex with other men for money and he’s okay with this? All because he wants a summer home?”

“I’m not a prostitute, Clyde.”

“What the hell do you call this then?!”

I don’t know why but I gestured to the whole room around us.

“I’m an escort. Difference is night and day.”

“How?”

“You pay for my company, not my body. I meet people and we have an evening together. If the two of us decide to have sex, that’s between two consenting adults. Nothing illegal about that.”

She sipped some more and stood up to meet my gaze.

“Now I have to ask you why you hired me in the first place. Something tells me you don’t have a spare cinema ticket going or a reservation at a posh restaurant. Does Claire know?”

Claire. AKA my wife. AKA her daughter. AKA the woman with the most justifiable reason for murder in the world.

Everything had been turned. I was now the guilty party. This was a woman with years of experience in confronting men like me. She could smell the shame on me. Big, wet patches of shame soaking the underarms of my shirt. Also some flatulence.

“Please don’t tell Claire about this!” I said from my new position on both knees. “Please! Please! I love her and I don’t know why I’m doing this! Please don’t tell anyone about this! I swear I’ve never done this before!”

I stood up and walked over to the bedside table, tears welling. I took the fanned out money and swung it around until it wafted Jennifer in the face.

“Here.” I said. “Just take this and you can go. We don’t need to do anything. Just please promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to her.”

My echoes died. Had I been shouting? I wasn’t aware. Jennifer coolly took the money from my hands and counted out each note.

“One fifty.” I said.

“I can count.”

She folded the notes up and held them in her grasp. Her other hand came up and touched me on the cheek. She was cold.

“I’m not going to tell Claire.” She said.

“Really?”

“Look I know you love her. But I’m not stupid. I know you’ve been distant with each other recently. You want female company and I get that. I am in no position to judge anyone.” She said before adding, “I can’t say this is your proudest moment though.”

“I know.”

I watched as she counted fifty pounds from the bundle and put it down her top. She handed the rest to me.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“Discount.”

“I don’t get you.”

“Look, I want money. And you want to keep this a secret.” She smiled at me.

I looked over at the door. The chain across it had taken on a more sinister look. There’s a fine line between privacy and prison.

“Your choice.”

I gulped both the wine and my Adam’s apple.

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