The red of her dress sticks out from the grey like smallpox. It wraps her in tight swathes, and he can see the bones of her hips.
“How much?” he asks.
She stares at him, bruised eyes large, and then she looks him up and down and swallows hard.
“Okay,” she says quickly, and he knows that he’s made a mistake; she’s never done this before.
He pulls some food vouchers out of his pocket to show her. She reaches for them, and his fingers seem to clench over them before he can let go. She stares hard at the battered slips in the dirty light, and tucks them into the fringed and faded bag that hangs loose from her shoulders.
“Okay,” she says again.
She takes him to her apartment, walking through damp streets thick with garbage. Scum clings to his shoes and seeps through the thin soles as he picks his way past the shaking huddles and rags, pushing his eyes away. He doesn’t want to recognise anybody.
Her place is low and dark, but bigger than he expected. The bed squats in one corner, polished a hulking black, an old heirloom among the cheap stick-furniture. He takes off his jacket and folds it onto the card table. She won’t look at him now, and she turns towards the lamp.
First she unties her hair, staring fixedly ahead, and it falls so thin that it floats above her back. Sliding off her shoes, she pushes them under the bed. The stockings slip off, the lace of her underwear, old and mended but once fine. She pulls them off slowly and carefully, pale forehead furrowed as if this were the most important thing in the world. He shifts uncomfortably on the bed, loosening his tie over and over as she starts to undo the red dress. She’s left it till last, and as she pulls it over her head he sees the pale panels of her skin etched over with the shadows of her ribs. Now she drapes the dress over the lamp and the world is washed in blood.
The girl turns back to him, nipples glowing red, and the dim light stains across her breasts as she moves. She stands still, feet apart and hips thrust out but not looking into his face. It seems like the yellows of her eyes are staring at him more than her pupils. Now that he can see all of her he can tell how thin she is, how her flesh has shrunk around her bones, and how the purple marks that stretch around her thighs and ladder across her chest chase each other down shrunken skin. Her breasts are lank and long like old balloons, resting over her rounded stomach, shiny against the sharpness of her hips. He reaches out compulsively to touch the hair that coils around her navel, a dark line that runs from between her breasts and over her stomach to downy legs. He can see it standing up on her back too, the red light making the fine hairs shine copper. It is as if someone raked the hair from her head and pushed it down her body, spreading it thin to cover more ground. He runs his fingers through the fineness at her hips, and suddenly pulls her towards him.
“Not like that,” she says.
Holding him gently away from her body, she reaches down his pressed suit legs to his feet, her belly folding into creases as she bends. He sits on the bed without moving, rigid and upright as she slides his shoes off carefully with the same ritual and the same weighted silence. Nothing can break her concentration as she hooks her thin fingers in the holes in his socks and pulls them, the pink of her tongue gleaming at the corner of her mouth. The socks catch briefly on the layers of callous around his heels, and drop to the floor. She straightens and starts to unbutton his shirt delicately, her pimpled nipples wavering inches from his face. He looks away, and wishes that he still had his jacket. His eyes dart around the room and back to the door. She peels back his shirt, and the arrow of his chest is wasted, with corrugated ribs standing starkly out.
He’s shrinking back now, body closing like a hinge but her hand moves to the buttons on his pants and firmly tugs them open and down. His penis is limp and pale, raised halfway like a dead fish. It shrivels in on itself from a bed of patchy black hair. She reaches out in fascination to touch it, and he pushes away from her, dragging the blankets with him and caging his groin in his hands. They’re both the same age, he thinks, but he feels older, too old and thrown away.
“No,” he says. “We shouldn’t do this.”
“What?” She draws back and wraps her arms around her stomach, and in the red glow her eyes narrow in anger or fear.
“I need this. I’m hungry.”
“No,” he says again. “Take the money, I can’t do this. I mean that I shouldn’t.”
She looks at him for a long time, and her arms drop down. He huddles in on himself while she watches, the worm tip of his penis poking whitely between his fingers. Finally she wets her lips, flicking her tongue out once and swallowing.
“No,” she says. “I want this.”
His breathing sounds jagged, too loud.
“Ok,” he says.
She climbs onto the bed, breasts swinging and casting monstrous shadows. A fuzzy halo stands out around her body in the red light and she straddles him, feet hooked over narrow knees. She leans forward, nipples slapping against his naked chest, and he strains his neck to try and kiss her. She looks away, moving her hips into place and sitting up, with one hand wrapped around his penis. His body looks grey under hers, and his head falls back, neck trembling. His trousers are still twisted around his feet and he can’t move as she pushes him into her. Now she begins to rock slowly, the bones of her shoulders outlined in taut skin as she moves. He can see the stained glass cracks in her lips as they purse together, concentrating so hard her eyes half-close, her fingers gripping into his arms like talons. She moans, and it doesn’t belong to him.
He comes with surprise, groaning in embarrassment. She climbs off him and a thin sludge of seed runs down her leg as she walks to the lamp. She pulls the dress away so that he winces in the brightness.
“Get up,” she says. “You have to go now.”
He’s falling asleep and in the light she looks harsh, skull shadows in sharp relief against the paleness of her face.
“Go away,” she repeats. “Go away now.”
When he leaves carrying his shoes she has her naked back to him, facing the lamp and holding her stockings up to the light. She lets the mended silk slide through careful fingers, and stares at them as if she can’t see anything else.