The cautionary note on Maria’s record was plain enough.
No exclamation point or any other modifier.
Just that. A succinct alert, short but informative.
I think about those signs you see on beaches sometimes: Clothes may not be worn beyond this point. It doesn’t worry me, though. And I suppose it’s good to get the heads up.
What it doesn’t say – and which, in the end, is vastly more relevant – is that Maria likes to live in the dark.
‘Mind yourself,’ says her husband, John, a large, wild-haired man who holds the flat door open and makes an arch with his arm for me to duck under. Leaving the well-lit shared hallway to enter their grotto of inky black is something of an act of faith, only made possible by the thought that John surely HAS to be standing on the floor and not hovering like a malevolent angel over a chasm.
I feel my eyes widen as I struggle to adjust. The absence of light wouldn’t be so bad if the place was clear. As it is, I bark my shins a few times and stumble over – what I take to be – a mobility scooter, a box of junk and either a grandfather clock or a coffin.
‘Careful,’ says John. ‘D’you need a little light there?’
‘Would be good.’
‘Okay then.’ He snaps a switch, and a few, long seconds later a tentative orange glow emanates from a silk covered lamp.
‘Energy saving,’ he says.
Still, it’s better than nothing, just enough to illuminate the room in front of me where Maria is waiting on the sofa. At least naked she’s easier to make out, the mass of her large pale body accentuated by the square of white muslin she’s draped over her middle. She’s like the Venus of Willendorf, on the sofa, with a remote.
‘Sorry, pet,’ she says, putting it to one side. ‘Have a seat.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll keep moving if that’s okay.’
I think about the torch I’ve got in my bag, and wonder about getting it out.
She shrugs, adjusts her square, then stares past me into the vast plasma TV screen opposite. I’m guessing the TV was on until recently, the images now fallen back into the magical place from whence they came. I look into it, too. It holds the faint image of her naked body, a phantom, caught in the depths of a scrying mirror.