32-year-old Archie struggles to stretch the apron strings spanning between his strict rural Catholic community and the hedonistic lures of Brighton. Temptation, guilt and lies ensue as he searches for the truth.
Gladys’s purple-rinsed curls bounced enthusiastically as she shook her head stubbornly.
"Sorry love, a Victoria Sponge simply will not do. We have three of those being made for the sale already. Could you not make us a lovely carrot cake, or better still, a coffee cake? I know your mother has a brilliant recipe - she made such a gorgeous one for us last month." Seeing Archie's reluctant face she changed tack. "Come on, love, the church roof isn't going to fix itself - not everybody is going to want a Victoria sponge. Just get your mother's recipe from her. You're a brilliant cook, love, I know you'll produce a masterpiece. I'll just pop you down for the coffee, there's a good chap."
"But Gladys, I don't know h-"
"Oh be so modest darling. I know you'll do a great job. Let's not make things difficult, eh? There's a good lad. Brilliant, well I'll see you Sunday, coffee cake and all. God bless, love." And with that she was off, her lilac stirrupped leggings leaving no wobbling to the imagination. With a shudder, Archie closed the door, trying to shut out the disturbing images seeping into his brain. He supposed he'd better go and beg that recipe off his mother. He'd go the field way instead of the road and give Tessa a bit of a run in the meantime. Archie unhooked the lead, still retaining the musty smell of new leather, which hung on the pegs between his winter coat and his football shoes, tied neatly at the laces so that they'd come undone with ease. He played every Sunday down at the club with Martin. It had been his mother's idea to play football. It would help him with what Mother called his 'little problem'. "Get some of that frustration out", she'd said. He enjoyed it, he really did, but he couldn't say it had really helped. Not at all. He zipped up his navy fleece, pulled on the bobble hat Mother had made him for his last birthday - not the last word in style, exactly, but it was warm and it so delighted her to see him wearing it. It wasn't as if there was anybody around here in front of whom he could lose street cred.
The Northerly wind stung Archie's cheeks rosy and ran up his nose as he ran across the field away from Tessa, who loped along after him - or more specifically, after the jingly soft Hermit the Frog clutched in his hand. He stopped, bringing his right hand up in a strong over-arm throw, letting the momentum fling the toy even further for his run-up, and jangle to the wet grass about twenty yards away. Tessa sprung enthusiastically forward, her tail whipping from side to side in a flurry. Seconds later she was back with Archie, her gums bared in delight. Archie mock-snatched it from her and heard the deep growl emanating from her tummy as she yanked back again, a second, third, fourth time... until she could resist no longer. A joyful, high-pitched bark escaped her mouth and Archie, who had been pulling really quite hard by now, fell back, bum landing in the mud, laughing on the floor.
"Silly dog," he told her, ruffling her golden head. Tessa looked back, panting hard, into her master's dark, thick-lashed eyes and curly black hair, now whitening at the temples - his mother called it 'an established silver'. 'Do it again', she thought at him. 'Again, again!' But Archie had different ideas.
"Come on, Tess," he told her, sticking Kermit in his pocket and hooking her lead back on. "Time to go see Mother. Whinging old bag," he added, not meaning it at all.
Mother's house was right next to the Vicarage, and built of the same uneven, roughly ground grey stones, with parts of the cementing falling into the immaculate flowerbed below, where geraniums had lined the now frost-coated lawn. It winked and sparkled at Archie, reflecting the dubious winter sunlight. A waft of sausage and eggs met Archie's nostrils as Rose flung the door open, her plump red cheeks elevated towards her kind dark eyes so like her son's as she met him at the door.
"Hello sweetie, I didn't think I'd be seeing you until church tomorrow, but come in, come in - I've got far too many sausages for one person. And it's not as if Dad’s going to come back and eat them.” There was no trace of sadness in her voice as she mentioned the father of her only son. She lived a happy existence in Goose Cottage, a name that Archie joked suited the ‘silly old’ occupant it housed. In fact, Rose O'Sullivan was a very sane woman, with plenty of activities that kept her busy: Church - of course - , bingo, the soup kitchen, the seat on the county council, and the Open University course in theology. This was the only rebellious streak in Mother; the quiet yet tenacious disagreement with the inclination that only men in the Catholic Church should be priests. In fact, Archie agreed with her. She was a spiritual woman, certainly, who attended church and did good deeds, who went to confession and said her Hail Marys, but more than that, she could sit with Archie and talk about his problem, his affliction - the very bane of his life.
"Ma, Gladys wants me to make a coffee cake for the cake sale tomorrow. I don't even like coffee cake - you've got to help me!" Rose's face softened as she considered the look of desperation on her son's face.
"Silly boy, don't let them push you into what you don't want to do - you're too kind, you know that? Now, let me see what we have here," and as Rose flicked through the tea-stained mish-mash scrapbook of recipes, Archie felt normal, as if the Devil had never touched him.
The sky was beginning to darken as Archie returned home, freshly baked cake in hand. Formidable towers of black loomed and the wind was howling enthusiastically, now edged with a damp that was infiltrating Archie’s fleece and sticking his eyelashes together. He stuck the cake in the fridge and, grabbing a towel from the laundry and rubbing it vigorously over his head so that it stuck out in every direction, stripped off to his boxers, pulling on instead his toweling robe. Breathing satisfaction, he cracked open a beer, put his feet up, and wriggled his bum into the seemingly bottomless softness of his favourite chair. He flicked on the television – from The Box, Beyonce Knowles shimmied, scantily clad and swelling, across the screen. Her sugar pink frosted voice emanated from the television, caressing and exciting him as she rubbed up against thin air. Archie quickly flicked the channel. As he did so the information box popped up at the bottom of the screen, displaying the time in bold white letters. 17.28. Buggeration! (Sorry Lord, sorry…) His meeting was at six, and the drive into Lincoln was at least twenty minutes long. Abandoning his beer and his comfy chair, Archie rushed upstairs, leaping three at a time throwing on the closest clothes at hand and grabbing his keys.
It was ten past six when Archie, dishevelled and breathless, entered the church hall. The hunched circle sat, listening to a large ginger woman with a smattering of angry acne stutter through her problems. He smiled apologetically at the glances from the other members of the circle and took a seat.
“So then after work I asked him where he was going. He said ‘home’ – well obviously – but I said ‘come home with me’. Well actually we didn’t get as far as home. I pushed him up against the window of my car door and, um, unzipped his flies. He was too drunk to do anything about it and so I… you know… and afterwards he passed out and threw up over my car. I feel so dirty, but I just couldn’t help myself. I shouldn’t work in bars…” she stopped, choking on the tears threatening to spill over.
“There, there Amanda. Very good. Well done for admitting to us what happened. Now, why do you think you did it? What was your motivation? A greasy haired alcoholic in your nice little Ford Fiesta. Why would you do that?” probed the mousy-haired woman chairing the group.
“I d-don’t know,” sobbed poor Amanda. She was crying in earnest now. A blubbery, blubbering mess under interrogation of her low self-esteem and lower standards.
“Do you think it’s linked to a deep seated need to feel accepted? Loved? Validated?” asked the group leader.
“Y-yes…” admitted Amanda uncertainly.
“And did it make you feel any of those things?”
“N- not really. I felt… disgusting…alone – nauseated really,” Amanda managed.
“Amanda, you must realize that you are loved. The community are here for you, and, more importantly, so is Jesus. You must know this, Amanda. There is no need for intercourse when you realize you are part of a spiritual network. Now let’s all say a prayer for Amanda. Pray that she realizes how special she is to our Lord and Saviour.” Obediently, the group shut their eyes and held hands. After a second, Archie let his eyes re-open, to find Sadie’s on his. Beneath her heavy purple lids her black eyes smiled at him, before allowing her tongue to flick, almost imperceptibly over her front teeth before wetting her thin lips and biting on her lower lip, releasing it gradually. Without consciously allowing it, Archie bore his teeth slightly in a fleeting snarl, and the heat that was so familiar to him rushed over his being. He looked away and knew what would come later, and his momentary desire was given over to a rasping guilt.
After two hours, ten stories of degradation and an awful lot of group prayer later, Archie shrugged his coat on, feeling thoroughly depressed. Was he so worthless he had to sit here surrounded by any number of sad acts, all entertaining their own fucked up disorders that epitomized in one sinful, awful act, for two hours every week? Couldn’t he just stop? He felt immersed in helplessness; he was grasping to some branch of sanity only for it to break and for him to spiral down into his pit again. He pressed the button on his keys and his car bleeped orange, and made his way over to it.
“Archie, wait!” Sadie’s voice echoed over the near deserted car park. “I go the same way as you – fancy giving me a lift home?” This was their cover and Archie knew she meant far more than a lift.
“Sadie, I can’t keep doing this,” he muttered to her as she approached him.
“It’s too risky,”
“I’ve got condoms, silly,” she remanded, as she let herself in to the passenger seat of his car, knowing that was not what he’d meant.
“A lift,” he said as he got in behind the wheel, “that’s all.”
“Fine”, but as he pulled out onto the main road she had already removed her leather jacket and was caressing her small breasts beneath the thin mesh top she wore. He was transfixed – her nipples poked out from beneath it and she rubbed them between her fingers then with her right hand reached down to his crotch, smiling knowingly. “As I thought, big boy,” she grinned. Pulse racing, Archie struggled to concentrate on the road, knowing he could not hold back for long. The pressure of her hands, lips and nails against his skin wound its way beneath garments and by the time Archie could find a lay by his vision was half blurred and every part of him was stirred into a dizzying readiness was happy to contradict everything in which Archie believed. Before he knew it her lips were applying expert pressure to him and an epic battle was occurring inside him.
“Why do you even come to those sessions?” Archie managed, fruitlessly attempting resistance.
She looked up and wiped her mouth.
“Same reason as you – I can’t seem to get all the love from the ‘Lord-Our-Saviour’,” she mimicked mockingly, antagonistically. “He just doesn’t…. fill the hole. Know what I mean, you filthy boy?” For a split second her words galvanised his resolve and he was repulsed by her.
“Get off me, you blasphemous bitch,” he replied, his voice low and cold.
“Oh come on, as if you don’t know what I mean” she whispered, removing her top, baring her skinny, body, luminous in the moonlight. “Come on baby, like you’re not there with me on this one. Mother Mary just can’t suck it like I do…” Fury, desire and aggression exploded inside him and in one sharp movement he had pinned her to the car window, one hand over her mouth.
“Don’t you fucking dare. Say. Another. Word.” And with that he unzipped her jeans and bit, hard, into her breast and removed his boxers.
“That’s right baby, fuck the pain away,” she said, and he slapped her around the face, at which she laughed before giving herself over to sighs and then screams as he - hating himself- did so, deafening in the restricted space of the car.
Oh God, oh God – why had he gone into hotel management? Archie sipped his cappuccino and looked away from the slender, tanned girl rubbing one flip-flop clad foot up and down her calf. She couldn’t be older than seventeen. Christ, what was he playing at? (Sorry ,Christ, sorry…) He got back to his paperwork, forcing his mind onto figures and dates and times, and for a few moments Archie felt in control of his life as he totted up the total takings of the hotel this month, and matched it against the payroll. Even after mortgage, payment to the National Trust on which the hotel was built, utility bills and wages, the hotel had still made enough profit for a new spa area. Or an extension on the restaurant. He’d put the idea to Patrick. He glanced up. The girl was retying her bikini top and for one second the top fell, cascading over the white, secret place beneath the tan line. For a millisecond, just a flash of brown further down. Turning away from her friends to recover the situation, she caught Archie’s eye and a burning flush spread from her cheeks to her ears and down to her chest. An embarrassed half-smile escaped Archie’s lips and she returned it – before swishing her long blonde hair over her shoulder and resuming conversation with her friends. This was too much for Archie, who folded his legs determinedly and resumed his gaze on the page, failing utterly to concentrate apart from inappropriate visions blazing across the white page.
“Archie – Archie!” a distant voice called. “Archie!”
“Yes, yes…” he was lost now, a tiny denim miniskirt riding up a tanned pair of legs which opened obligingly. He shook his head, determinedly forcing the memory to dislodge, to respond to the faint waft of talcum powder that preceded Irene the receptionist. Irene was in her early sixties, her hair curled neatly to just below her ears. Her diamond earrings winked and glimmered in the tasteful light that fanned out against the magnolia wallpaper. She was the sort to scold you for not tucking your shirt in and automatically straighten you tie, but would take you off for a ‘nice cup of tea’ if you seemed low. The latter had never in anyone’s memory ever been described by her as anything but ‘nice’.
“You alright, duck?”
“Yes, yes – fine thank you Irene. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Martin wants to see you in his office.’”
“Now?” She nodded with a brief smile, and strolled away.
Archie opened the door for a woman passing out of the managerial suite where Archie and Martin’s offices were. No unauthorized personel were permitted into this part of building so she must be a staff member, but Archie did not recognize her. It was strange, because she was obviously in a position of power. It was not only the smart black suit and pencil skirt that implied this, nor the killer heels or the scarlet lipstick – it was something in the look in her eyes that suggested that she knew the world very well, and how to wrap it around her little finger. But there was something contradictory of this in there too - a defiance of the mediocre and the conventional, a refusal to be tamed or categorised. As Archie looked into the gold-flecked brown eyes, he felt a wild excitement, mingled with a foreboding springing straight from the part of him that spoke with his mother’s voice. One word, he caught. One single word: ‘trouble’. She smiled demurely at him, again contradicting this feeling he got from her, and walked past him, but she must have felt his baffled eyes on her as she moved away, tucking her dark red shock of curls behind her ear and letting one corner of her lips raise, giving her the air of somebody who had him sussed. Yes, he thought, his initial suspicions were confirmed.
Baffling thoughts of this woman were still playing on his mind as he laid his hand on the polished brass knob on the door of Martin's room which positively gleamed, reflecting the light of the overhead chandelier and the affluent, competent nature of the way Martin ran things. Entering the room he plastered what he hoped was the professional smile of someone In Control. However, whatever sort of smile it may or may not have been slipped from his face when met with the serious expression in Martin's eyes. Martin was 43, with a shock of still vivacious red hair, a crooked nose and broken front tooth that should have made him look thuggish but instead, mixed with the easy way he moved, his infectious laughter and deep, humorous eyes, his girlfriend (who was at least ten years younger than him and beautiful, with thick black waist length hair and a lilting Irish accent to boot - and yes he had, y'know, before - ) said gave him a 'sexy quirkiness'. Some men had all the bloody luck. Still, he was a good boss and a better friend. Nevertheless, a stream of panicked thoughts ran through Archie’s mind. Had Martin caught wind of Archie’s affliction? Had he saw him looking at the legs of young girls? Worse still, had he heard him in the toilet, relieving himself –reliving and reinventing his contact with them? Perhaps he had spotted the little pink tissues imprinted around the edges with the words ‘Milton Hotels’ into which he’d shuddered and tried to discreetly hide. No, they got flushed down the toilet… unless… not that one time in the office. Surely not. But he’d figured it out somehow; he was getting the sack. And it wasn't difficult to see why. Who wanted a dirty old pervert as their right hand man? Archie was almost relieved the day had finally come when he no longer had to pretend to be coping, to be right.
“Archie, I need to have a serious talk with you. You may not be working here for much longer. I may have to let you go-“
“Martin, whatever the reason, I want to fix it…” To his surprise, Martin laughed.
“Archie, I mean… with your permission – no, only if you are entirely happy with it… oh I’m saying this all wrong. What I mean to say is, you’re not getting sacked. You’re an excellent assistant manager. Which is why you’re being given the opportunity of promotion – yes, come in. Oh, hi Karen. Find the ladies’ ok?”
“Yes, fine thank you Martin.’ Karen smiled and looked politely on at the exchange happening before her in silence. Archie swivelled in his seat. It was the woman from the hallway, in the office, looking scarily important.
“Promoted?” asked Archie. “To what? You’re not retiring are you?” Martin gave an enormous laugh, throwing his head back and slapping the table.
“What are you trying to say, mate? Bit past it am I, you think?” He shook his head, apparently attempting a straight face. “Perhaps I am, perhaps I am… Lord knows Marissa seems to think so – ‘lazy git’, she called me on Sunday afternoon when I was reading my paper in bed. ‘Can’t we go for a walk or something? Or is your arthritis playing up again?’ Hah! Very funny… doesn’t she know Sunday’s my only day off? Oh sorry Karen, Marissa’s my partner. It’s what you get from hitching yourself with a spring chicken – pain in the backside sometimes, even if she is gorgeous. Anyway, where were we?” Archie, monumentally relieved at this stream of entertained consciousness, felt back to normal with his old friend.
“Memory fading, old man?” Archie teased. Martin leaned over the desk and punched him in the arm.
“Oi, don’t you start! Oh yes I remember – how can one get promoted from assistant manager if the manager is not leaving? Well, that’s why we’ve got Karen up. Where are my manners? Karen, Archie. Archie, Karen.” Archie stood and shook her hand.
“Pleased to finally meet you. I’m assistant manager at Milton Brighton, and my boss, Mr Campbell – for the six months I’ve worked for him I’ve never heard anyone address him as anything else; he’s not big on first names, it’s a lovely change to have that up here, though I believe his name’s Frank – has been taken ill and has rather tragically” – she delivered this word with the upmost insincerity – “been forced to retire early. Well, I’m the acting manager for the moment, but the board of directors have decided I’m not” – she lifted her hand in a mock aside at which Martin chuckled heavily; these two seemed to have developed an immediate affinity – “sufficiently qualified or experienced to run the hotel myself. So I need a supervisor, and over email they appealed to all the hotels in the chain. Martin here –“
“Though it would truly grieve me to see the back of you,” he interrupted earnestly.
“Martin nominated you.”
“So, what do you think?”
Archie looked from one grinning face to the other, and never clearer had he ever heard his mother’s voice, as if she was standing next to him: ‘trouble’.
“Archie, love! Oh, brilliant coffee cake, that looks lovely. Well done, lad, I knew I could count on you! You know, personally” – Gladys leant her head towards Archie’s conspiratorially – “I think you’re cut out to be a baker, duck. I know you run that fancy hotel and all that, I know the money’s good, but there’s no greater satisfaction than producing a perfect cake is there, love. I dare say there ain’t. And yours are always perfect. Might help you get a wife and all… good-looking, God-fearing lad like you, it’s a crying shame we’ve not seen you hitched yet. I’d marry you meself if I were thirty years younger. Now make yourself useful and go and put that down with the other cakes, there’s a good lad,” she patted his cheek, “the service is going to start in five minutes, I’ve still got so much to do…” and with that she bustled off, her Sunday best navy clashing endearingly with her favourite lime woollen sweater.
Archie felt a sudden rush of affection for this bossy, funny old lady, her self-importance defined by the organization of Sunday cake sales, and her only remaining family two ageing tabby cats, Sindy and Barbarella. He would miss this little community, the routine. The reassurance that people loved him… Of course they could never know about his problem, but they were so proud of him. He didn’t think he could remember a single person in the village until him who had ever made it to university, let alone hotel management.
By the time Archie and his mother got home, Archie’s hangover was beginning to kick in.
“Would you like a drink, love?” she asked him.”Some wine?”
“A coffee would be lovely,” he consented.
“A coffee? Are you sure? I got that Spanish cabernet you like.” Archie struggled with himself – force the wine upon himself and avoid admitting to Mother that he had the world’s biggest hangover, or gratefully accept a cup of coffee and nurse his screaming headache. The hangover won.
“Maybe with my dinner, please Ma. I may have drunk a little too much last night.” She cast a suspicious glance at her son.
“Oh yes? What was the occasion?” He hadn’t said anything to Mother yet, and it looked as if he couldn’t put it off for much longer. He fiddled with a stray thread on his chinos, rubbing it between his sweaty fingers. She wasn’t going to like this.
“I might be getting promoted.” Annie was delighted. She flung down the tea towel she’d been checking the chicken with.
“Oh Archie, that’s fantastic,” she cried. “What to? Manager? Is Martin retiring? He seems a little young to...” Archie chuckled.
“Don’t let him hear you say that, Ma. He’s received enough of that. No,” he took a deep breath. “I would be manager, but... not at the Lincoln hotel. There’s a position in – in Brighton.” The silence that hung between them like a fog was cut through by Annie.
“Oh, well... wonderful,” she said, her voice unnaturally high. “What an opportunity!” But her voice trailed off, exposing the doubt they both knew she had. “Brighton – an exciting place...”
“Mother, please stop,” he interrupted. “We both know what sort of a place Brighton is, and with my... problem...”
With the initial pretence gratefully diminished, Annie rushed to her son, her eyes shining. “Whatever you do, Archie, I’ll support you, you know that. But I beg you to consider the consequences of such actions. The Lord is merciful, he will forgive fornication if you repent – but darling, if you go to Brighton you’re asking for trouble.” There we go, coined in one, Archie thought wryly. Suddenly irritation boiled in him and he closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
“Ma, I’m thirty two. Do you not think I’ve realised this? And I know you think I wouldn’t be able to control myself, but Mother... really, I would. I’ve been going to sessions for over a year now, playing football every Sunday. Really, I feel much better. And Mother, I need to try. I need to live away from home. I’ve never been further South than Manchester without you! It’s pathetic.”
“It’s not, love. You need me – you have a problem, and I’m so glad you came to me about it. Between us we’ll muddle through it, I’ll never judge you – never leave your side. You need to solve this before you can move on.”
“Are you sure, Mother?” he asked, and as he said it, he could feel her, ever-present, ever-looming, drowning him with love, suffocating him with sympathy. “Are you sure it’s me that can’t move on, and not you? Absolutely definite it’s me who needs you and not the other way round?” Annie recoiled as if he’d slapped her. She closed her eyes and silent tears made pink tracks through the powder on her face.
“Oh, Archie, no. Of course I love having you here with me, you’re my precious, darling, wonderful son. I’m so proud of you and what you’ve achieved... but you’re sick, sweetie. And with God’s ever-redeeming grace, we can heal you. One day you’ll be strong, but now... oh, I don’t know, Archie. I don’t think you’re healed. Not yet.”
“I am!” he insisted. Well, not quite, but.... he could be. And how could he just let Karen go like that? A flash of her shaking her mane of curls out and singing along to ‘Living on a Prayer’, her silhouette framed by the moving circle of fuchsia light, making her look like a goddess forced a small smile on his lips.
“And if you’re not?” Annie insisted. “If you commit a sin – or sins? If you get scared and run away, unable to cure your addiction... if you end up just like your father?” these last words had tumbled out of Annie’s mouth apparently involuntarily. Her mouth clamped shut, her gaze unfocussed. With forced dignity, Annie straightened, turned and left the room.
Karen had laughed when he told her, her face almost immediately softening in apology. He didn't know why he had told her, except that her face, as well as being beautiful, was also honest and understanding. But as soon as he said it, he'd regrett
"Oh, sweetie, you've never really seen the real world, have you? Do you know how many people I've slept with?"
"N-no..." Archie said, his tequila-induced vision zooming in and out of her scarlet lips.
"Neither do I!" she laughed. "But more than a couple at any rate. And there is nothing wrong with that. It's natural - you're an adult, Archie, you have... urges."
"The Devil wears Prada," he muttered, not entirely sure what he meant.
"Actually it's Primark," Karen had giggled. "Archie, it's not sinful," she insisted. "You're not hurting anyone - it's natural. Is that really your biggest doubt about Brighton? Oh come here, you big old blouse - you're sweet, you know that?" And with that she'd pressed her body into his, her arms tight around his neck, her hair surprisingly soft in his face. Pulling back, she looked at Archie more seriously.
"You have until Monday to decide," she said, her eyes wide and kind now. "Think about what I've said - I really thought these would be celebratory drinks of some kind... you'd be a fantastic boss. Remember your mother's opinion isn't the only one out there. You're entitled to your own, as well. Brighton's a fun place - it would do you good. I'll see you on Monday." And with that, she'd given him a kiss on the cheek, and sauntered into the night, hailing a taxi back to the hotel.
The changing room smelt of testosterone and adrenaline. Archie stripped and stepped into the shower, letting the hot water wash over him, feeling the mud and sweat fall away from his body. He squeezed the almost empty bottle of shampoo onto his head and scrubbed it into his hair, blinking rapidly as it trickled into his eyes.
"Good game," Martin's voice echoed into the tiled interior. "Still on for a pint?"
"Definitely," Archie replied, but his cheery voice belied the panic rising inside him. He had made his decision; against the nagging voice in his head begging him to reconsider, his mind was made up.