The following piece is from our August/September 2011 issue.
A Short-term Overseas Contract
A Filipino is clearing debris from the pool when Linda steps outside into the oily black evening. A group of businessmen wearing thawbs are talking around a table and the sweet scent of Arabic tea wafts through the humid night. The silver sea lies like waves of syrup at the end of the sandy beach.
She did not intend to eavesdrop on Kitson’ conversation at the bar, but the need for air conditioning has made the nights claustrophobic. Back in January, when she first arrived, she would spend the evenings with her colleagues exploring Abu Dhabi’s souks and restaurants, but now in July the heat makes it impossible to go out on foot. And in the middle of a dull conversation about fibre-optic cables and conduits, sitting with the other engineers in the Intercon bar, she has overheard Kitson say that he is leaving. She could not hear the reason he gave, but for months there have been rumours of redundancies.
She would be sad if Kitson left. Kitson is a marketing man with broader interests than most of the other engineers, and she has spent many evenings in the bar with him while his wife is away on shopping trips in Dubai. With Kitson she often stays up late into the night, until the water of the swimming pool becomes as still as plastic and the lights of construction sites blink in the distance. They talk about everything from Chomsky to Cheney, from Darwin to Derrida. Their relationship is not physical, and there is nothing about Linda’s appearance consistent with that of femme fatale. A divorcee not long turned thirty, she is aware that her attempts to dress in expensive clothes often result in a hotchpotch of items that do not match. Her fondness for tight skirts does little to hide her slight spare tyre, and the bright colours she often chooses accentuate the spider veins on her cheeks. Her curly hair, which she has taken the trouble to dye blonde, has been cut in a boyish shape that she suspects does her face no favours, and yet she is confident that she is the only desirable female amount her workmates, because are no other female engineers on the project.
She notices that Kitson sometimes avoids her when he is entertaining salesman in the bar, but she also knows that he never leaves at the end of an evening without speaking to her, and that when she laughs with her easy giggle, with its edge of worldliness, he holds her gaze for longer than usual.
She had confided in him about all kinds of things. She is not sure how it started, but she began by lamenting about her job and then moved on to more personal topics. She complains about the sexist behaviour of some of the managers. After a fling with one of her other colleagues turned sour, she cried on Kitson’s shoulder, telling him many intimate details and seeking reassurances. Kitson was kind, he flattered her and told her she was not to blame, and later she began to tell him about her family, early life growing up on the outskirts of York. She has talked about the ex-husband, twenty years her senior, whom she met at work and who made her older than her years until she finally persuaded him to separate. Kitson has listened patiently to all of this. But if he ever tries to point out there might be a link between her past experiences and current angst, she laughs him off.
‘I’m an engineer,’ she says. ‘I don’t believe in any of that Freudian stuff.’ And she sulks for a while and then charms him again with some whispered confidentiality.
Turning back towards the hotel she sees Kitson coming down the path towards her, waving, calling out that he has something to tell her. She frowns but does not say anything. They fall into step, progressing slowly along the decking towards the landing bay.
‘I should have told you sooner,’ he says, ‘only this heat is destroying my brain.’ He strokes his short brown beard. She is desperate to hear his news but hesitates to ask. He starts to talk about the heat and how he tried to play tennis earlier but found himself light-headed from the sun.
‘The heat can do that.’ She is deliberately laconic, but still gives nothing away. He starts telling her some bizarre stuff about a dream he remembers from when he was a child, laughing as if he has not noticed her mood. ‘I even feel tempted to tell you what the dream was.’ He leans towards her and she can smell his cologne, like the scent of the airport gift shop. ‘I dreamt that my mother wanted me to straighten the blankets on my bed, but when I picked them up they were so heavy, I couldn’t lift them.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ She confronts him at last. ‘I heard what you said in the bar. You’re going away, and you didn’t even tell me.’
And without showing any surprise he touches her arm lightly and says she had better come back with him to his flat.
His building is a cool oasis. These enclosed man-made spaces with air conditioning are all that Linda can tolerate. From a subtly lit corridor they enter the apartment, take off their shoes and pad over the polished wooden floor. She has been here before, to a cocktail party. Kitson and his wife live a typical ex-pat lifestyle from their flat on the Corniche. They have a large house back in Surrey and a son who attends a boarding school. They have lived in this rented apartment for several years and until today Linda has always assumed they will go on living here for as long as she is around. The apartment is like something that might be photographed on the pages of an in-flight magazine. It has a gulf-view window stretching across the far wall above a pair of black leather sofas. There are works of art on the walls, including a painting nearly five feet wide depicting a camel race, with the faces of the riders blurred into sand dunes.
He puts on a CD, and while he goes into the kitchen she walks around in her bare feet. A fuchsia pink sweater hanging on the back of the door reminds her of the last time she saw Mrs Kitson. She takes the sweat off the hook and brings it back to the sofa, where she puts it on. It is made of angora and is soft to the touch.
‘Where’s your wife?’ she asks when Kitson returns.
He tells her she is in London, and that he will join her there tomorrow. ‘She prefers London, I think, to the Emirates.’
‘And you?’ She takes the glass of wine he is holding out to her.
‘I prefer to escape.’ He sits down next to her on the sofa.
‘So you’re not glad to be leaving?’ There is piano music coming from the speakers. Linda leans back into the sofa and closes her eyes. She feels Kitson kiss her on the cheek. Opening her eyes she feels him taking hold of her hand.
‘It’s going to be dull without you,’ he tells her.
‘You’ll have your wife’s company.’
‘Linda, to be honest, I find you more interesting.’
As he says this, her mouth turns up in a smile, but then she lets go of his hand.
‘Even so, you’re going away.’
‘It’s only for a month.’
She gives away her surprise with a gasp. ‘So you still have your job here?’
‘What did you think?’ She does not answer, and when he tries to her hand back again she backs away. ‘You thought I wasn’t coming back?’ He tries to move closer but she stands up.
‘Don’t let’s spoil things, Kitson.’ She never calls him by his first name.
He does not persist, but refills her wine glass and asks if she would like different music. She says she does not mind either way. She tells him she is thinking she might not renew her contract at the end of the year but might go somewhere else – Australia, maybe. He says sure, the economic situation is better there, but how does she know she’d get a visa, and she says in that case she’d go somewhere else, it’s not about the money; she wants the experience of travel. He puts his hand on her shoulder but she reminds him about the couple who ended up in jail for something extra-marital. He laughs, in a way that does not mean he finds it funny, and he walks to the other side of the room. As she watches him she is attracted by his sense of unhappiness.
He glugs his wine. ‘I’ve met women like you before.’
‘Women like me?’
‘You’re a tease.’
She feigns astonishment, but he persists.
‘You flirt with me but have no intention of following it through.’
‘You’re imagining it.’
‘It’s because you can’t handle this business on your own. When things get tough you need someone to protect you, and you felt safe before the economic crisis but things have changed and you’re scared. The work is nasty, no one trusts anyone else in this business, but that’s the way it is. What did you expect?’
‘You’ve got it wrong. All I want is to be independent, autonomous.’
Kitson laughs. ‘But there are rumours of the job losses, and who knows what’s happening from one minute to the next. Sit down.’ Despite his patronising tone she does what he says. ‘You’re stuck in this profession now your husband’s gone, and there’s no way out except onto the landfill of unemployment. You have to come to terms with it like the rest of us.’
‘You mean like you, stuck here earning money to meet the demands of your wife and son>’
Kitson does not look pleased at hearing this. ‘Let’s not fight.’ He fetches another bottle of wine and sits down beside her. ‘When I was younger,’ he tells her, ‘this was the kind of life I dreamed of, but now I’ve got it, I’m not sure I like it.’
‘My parents had great dreams for me too.’
He stares at her for a moment. ‘Is that my wife’s sweater?’
She has forgotten she is wearing it. She strokes it against her cheek and then against his. Isn’t it beautifully soft? Will you buy me one, when you go back to England next week? I’ve never had one like this. You know I always get cold in the air conditioning.’
He sighs and tells her the colour does not suit her at all, but he promises he will find her a sweater just like it.
‘If you’re cold let me fetch you a blanket,’ he offers. He goes into the other room and comes back with a quilt. ‘You can stay here tonight,’ he says, and she sees in his face that she can trust him.
They stay on the sofa all night, drinking wine and talking from time to time. When she begins to feel tired she sits with her legs up over his thighs and later they lie on the sofas like two sacks of sand.
‘I remember a dream from when I was a child,’ she tells him, almost falling into sleep. ‘We were flying, me and my mother and brother and sister. We were looking for my father, and when we found him the others went down to the ground to get him, but not me. I kept on flapping my arms.’
He does not reply, and they drift into silence. When the sun rises and they open their eyes in the discomfort of clothes worn all night, Linda goes to splash her face. When she returns he has brought his suitcase from the bedroom and is checking the pages of his passport, then he reaches for the jacket of his suit over the back of the chair.
She does not wait to say goodbye but heads for the door of the apartment, and as she closes the door behind her she sees him lugging his heavy suitcase into the hallway. It is much too heavy to be carried easily and he huffs and strains as he lifts it, but she does not try to help him. She heads down the stairs to hail a taxi from the street.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.