Pearl was heavily built and short. People said she cast herself willingly before swine. She was the sort of woman who seemed to invite that titillating speculation about what it would feel like to press various parts of your anatomy against, or even into, various parts of hers.
She had a steady gaze which held you in contempt and seemed to say that if you got the old man out, even if he were standing strictly to attention, she would not be overly impressed. What titillated Jacobson was the thought that she would take it, nevertheless, in her stride, or in her hand, and deal with it efficiently, and without emotion, judging her pleasure, rather than surrendering to it. The thought of being used like that thrilled him to the core.
Rumour in the hotel was that Pearl, who was said to be living out her wild years late in life, following the eventual disintegration of a long standing but too early marriage, would offer relief, of various sorts, to any of the young waiters who were in need.
She can speak with her mouth full in five languages, the handyman said, with a grin.
The handyman kept a tin of heavy duty glue which he sniffed to help him through the day, and at night smoked dope he bought from a man he met at a motorway service station, and drank from bottles of filched spirits he traded with the night porter.
It's possible that Jacobson wouldn't have thought of Pearl in that way, but she had put the idea into his head by telling him that he was too old for her, and that she liked her men vigorous. After that Mae West moment Jacobson became unable to think of her in any other way. He was not comfortable though with the image that the handyman's joke evoked. He did not like to think of Pearl on her knees before anybody, and when he thought of her in relation to himself, he always pictured her as the one standing.
The night of the staff party the hotel was empty and the restaurant closed. If any of the rooms were unexpectedly used before dawn, the housekeeping staff would be perfectly capable of putting them in good order before the next day's guests began to arrive.
Jacobson was standing in the bay window of the lilac sitting room. He looked out through his own reflection towards the front door, where he could see a fat old woman whom he did not at first recognise. It was Pearl. She had lost her aura of confidence. The handyman was leaning close in towards her, his face dark in the orange wash of the porch lights.
Jacobson took a walk to the front door. The handyman, who had already upset several people on the dance floor, was trying to strike a match, but he was holding the box the wrong way round. Pearl, who held an unlit cigarette in slightly trembling fingers, looked towards Jacobson, as if she were really happy to see him.
Let me, Jacobson said, producing the lighter that he always carried in case any of the guests should require a light. He flipped it open, sparked a flame and held it out towards her. She took his hand and drew it closer, and touched the tip of her cigarette to his flame, which flowed towards her as she inhaled. She smiled and stepped back a pace.
The handyman, his mouth hanging open, his face flushed, stood with the matchbox and the unstruck match in his hands. He turned to face Jacobson.
Wha' the fuck are you dooin? He said.
The lady needed a light, Jacobson said, standing motionless beside him.
I was dooin tha', the handyman slurred. Jacobson smiled. The handyman looked at the matchbox, reversed it and struck the match, which flared between them. It was a still night and the flame quickened and burned with a steady glow. After a hot October day, clouds had thickened from the west, keeping the heat in, but not bringing rain. There was neither moon nor stars, and the three of them stood in the harsh glare of the porch lights, which shone down from the corners of the little pointed roof. The handyman swayed slightly, and the flame shimmied its way along the matchstick until it kissed his finger end.
Fuck! He shook the matchstick to the gravel at his feet. Jacobson could see Pearl, out of the corner of his eye. She was holding the cigarette to her lips between upraised fingers. She seemed shorter than usual.
I need a drink, the handyman said, turning awkwardly and moving unsteadily between them, into the warm tunnel of the hallway.
Can I get you a drink? Jacobson asked, when the handyman had gone.
Wine, Pearl said, please.
When he got back, she had finished the cigarette and was leaning against the wooden supports of the porch. Light from the lamps caught the curls of hair at her neck, and shadows slipped down her dress, stroking her calves, and kneeling at her feet.
I brought you white, Jacobson said, holding up the glasses, which he carried, one in each hand. Red for me, he said.
She reached out for the red.
The genuine pearl dissolves in red wine, she said. I thought you'd have known that.