‘Ah sweetie, stop teasing.’
‘I’m not teasing,’ she said kindly but distantly.
Then a week later, feeling a little drunk and suddenly lonely sitting with his old gang in the pub, he had an urge to go home and hold her. Hold his own wife – a reasonable request, surely. Honourable and traditional. Maybe even hold her while lying down, like the old days. Lately his left ear had been playing up. A loud watery buzzing, which made hearing tricky – especially in crowded places like the pub. He found himself watching his pals’ mouths move, and tried to keep up by nodding and smiling. But after awhile he understood his smiles must seem inane; they probably assumed he was too drunk to talk. Maybe he bored them tonight. He’d been the soul of the party, once. Everyone had wanted to sit next to him. He gathered his coat and wallet and said goodnight, but no one noticed. Maybe he was dead now and therefore invisible and inaudible to them. Yes. That would explain a lot, and not be overly surprising. He was 79, with several strokes under his belt. He’d rehearsed dying and knew his lines so well they lived in his bones. The life was seeping out of his body every day, and the whole world was a party that sounded more and more remote.
He walked home slowly, anxious about falling again. Now he was outside, the ear noise was more noticeable and distracting. It sloshed around his head, but he concentrated on the pavement. Oncoming cars made his heart pound because for a few seconds he was blinded. He stood still until they passed. A simple walk he’d done a million times had become so challenging. But he managed to arrive home without falling or getting lost or having a stroke. All these were minor miracles and he entered his house feeling triumphant.
‘I’m home, darling!’ he called, with a snigger in his voice. His old swagger suddenly in his walk too – he was still, it was reassuring to note, marginally his old self. Home was the place to be. And there she was, sitting on the sofa watching the news. Wasn’t she beautiful still? Yes, he answered himself. Yessiree, he’d married a beauty.
‘Hello,’ she said without turning to him.
He sat in his chair, then moved to the sofa to be near her. Waited for her to comment, preferably to exclaim pleasure at his proximity. He turned to her profile, reached for her hand. That first time,half a century ago, he’d reached for her hand and she’d blushed. He’d grown two inches taller, a decade older, a million pounds richer, and he’d held her hand tighter. But right now she said nothing, just shifted and sighed. She did not take his hand, so his own hung mid-air looking foolish. He felt a rush of anger and grabbed her limp hand, which twitched at first like a caught beast, then settled into his own hand, seemingly content enough. Her fingers, however, did not curl round his – and he tried very hard not to mind this. She was old too. Perhaps she’d forgotten how it went with holding hands. It was a fact that some days every single damn thing felt limp and numb. Then a commercial about river cruises began and she withdrew her hand to mute the volume with the remote.
Oh, what did he care? He had lots of fish to fry, and the next morning he commenced doing just that. He opened his address book and flicked through, lifting the phone to dial. Emma Gundry? Hadn’t she claimed he’d given her herpes? Gorgeous Gloria! But wait, this was her old number, from her pre-divorce days. Why hadn’t she given him her new number? Ah, here was Helen McInnes. Hottie Helen. He rang her number and listened to the rings, all the time thinking about where he could take her for lunch.
‘Is Helen there?’
‘Can I ask who is calling?’
‘An old friend.’
‘I’m sorry to tell you…’
He hung up. Ridiculous. Why couldn’t people just keep breathing and being free for lunch? It was maddening the way they popped off silently, without fanfare or apology. It was downright rude, that’s what it was.
That night, after a silent meal of micro-waved shepherd’s pie, he drank two brandies quickly in front of the television. There was a soreness, a tightness in his throat, and the brandy helped.
‘I’m going to bed,’ he announced thickly. He hadn’t spoken for hours.
‘Good night,’ she said.
‘Aren’t you coming?’
‘No. I think I’ll stay up and watch the news.’
‘I’ll come to bed later,’ she enunciated loudly and slowly.
‘But you always come to bed when I do.’ He heard a whine in his voice.
‘I’m not tired yet. Good night.’
Her new politeness was hard to bear. Nothing to hang a fight on; no spit and fire in her at all. When he looked at her hard, she looked away. He could not remember when they’d last looked at each other properly. He shuffled down to the bedroom and felt like crying. And then, once under the cold duvet, he did cry. Silently and steadily, soaking the pillow. That was another thing old age had brought. Emotions like an adolescent. His skin felt thin, as if it had ceased being a barrier, and his feelings literally poured through it.
He’d spent his adult life pursuing romantic love, all the while needing his wife as a base camp. Flirting would have been pointless, without a loving wife to deceive. The last thing he’d wanted with those other women, were proper relationships. Obviously, romance was only possible once one was married, but there was nothing romantic about one’s own spouse. Too familiar. Other men’s spouses might be a source of romance, or sometimes a woman glimpsed on the other side of the street striding along with a wiggle in her walk. Basically, being married precluded getting what one wanted – and this deprivation was necessary for romance. A chronic low grade yearning for something he couldn’t possess. Always imagining how much happier some other woman could make him, while not for one minute wanting to be divorced.
It seemed cruelly ironic that someone as devoted to romance as he, could end up beached on this loveless headland. Not alone, but utterly lonely. Forget cancer, forget heart problems. Loneliness was the enemy, and he had no defences because he’d assumed it would never come to him. As it grew, he felt heavier and heavier, and more and more mute. Finally came the week he could not leave the house for his regular night at the pub. Gravity seemed to have an unnatural pull, and his tongue felt useless in his mouth. Yet the prospect of an evening spent not talking to his wife, or worse – having stilted polite conversation – was unbearable. So he went to bed before dinner, and there he stayed for six days, only leaving to pee, and occasionally make a quick foray into the kitchen for cereal. He loved his bed. Well, he had to love something, didn’t he? It was no good bottling it up, and the bed had been a good bed. All these years, decades, it had withstood the storms and silences of their bodies. It had a specific smell, especially now that he was never out of it. A kind of musty sweetness, permeated with the sourness of his disappointment. Could feelings have smells? Apparently yes. A little bit like a loaf of sour dough bread that had been soaked in salt water, then left to go mouldy. Hardly any fart smells because he ate so little now. Of course his wife farted occasionally, discreet little puffs he only noticed if her back was to him. He always smiled.
She didn’t seem to notice his new life style. She rose at the usual time, and retired at the usual time. He could hear the television going on and off, and the shower noises and toilet flushes kept the house from feeling empty. Yet it did, on a deeper level, feel as empty as any empty house he’d ever known.
‘Good night,’ she would say primly, almost shyly, if he made any movement when she got into bed. He found he could not return the salutation. If there was to be no sincerity, no banter, then there would be nothing. If she was dead to him, he was dead to her.
Sometimes while asleep, their bodies forgot and folded together as if they were newly weds. Sometimes they moaned softly, as if relieved or about to say something tender. But always, before regaining consciousness, they drew apart, so they each woke on their own edge of the bed.
On the seventh morning, very early, he opened his eyes and felt a sharp alertness. His battery was starting to over charge; his skin crawled and his muscles itched to be up and away. He rose and showered and dressed quickly, while his wife still slept. He felt young. She began to stir and opened her eyes. He couldn’t look at her, because she wasn’t his wife anymore – not really. She was a vacant nobody, taking up space in his bed. Maybe his misdemeanours over the years had finally snuffed out her devotion. Or she had dementia and couldn’t help it – was incapable of remembering he was her husband. She might have forgotten what the word marriage meant. Maybe she was literally not her self, for medical reasons. Well, he was not going to be her nursemaid. He found the suitcase under the bed and began throwing things in it. Socks, boxers, toothbrush and shaving cream. He glanced at her then, and she looked flushed and interested. She looked young now too. Pretty. Where were his glasses? He needed to think she was ugly and old and demented.
‘Are you…are you leaving me?’ Whispered.
‘No. Yes.’ His words came out croakily, as if his voice was breaking.
‘Oh. Ok. Have a good time,’ she said, and rolled over to face away from him. She yawned loudly, and within seconds was snoring.
After an extremely big breakfast, he returned to the bedroom. She was just out of the shower, and combing her hair with her back to him. Her parting was wonky, but otherwise her hair looked like it always did. She was wearing a long red kimono. She’d managed to stay slender all these years, and keep her back straight. Her hair had grown white instead of grey. It looked blond to him now, and he felt a disturbing vertigo, as he grappled for a moment in time. How old was she? Thirty? Fifty five? Eighty five? He had no idea.
‘Ok. I was a fool,’ he heard himself say, even as he reached for his suitcase, now closed and parked by the bed. Lifting it took great effort. His arm ached and he felt he was listing to one side.
‘Uhuh,’ she replied calmly, still combing.
‘I suppose I ruined everything.’
She turned around to look at him, her eyebrows only mildly raised in a question.
‘This case weighs a ton,’ he said, embarrassed now. It felt too late for this boldness, this honesty; out of character for him. And in any case, she was behaving as if she hardly knew him, much less cared about him. Who were they?
‘Who are we?’ He had no control over his own tongue. His heart began to thud in an unhealthy way. He reached for the energy he had earlier, the sense of a fresh start and endless possibilities. He couldn’t find it. She smiled. She had kept all her own teeth, and they only betrayed her age in a slight yellow-ness.
‘You don’t remember either?’ she asked.
‘I mean, we don’t talk like this, do we? It isn’t like us. For one thing, it isn’t like you to not care if I leave.’
She did not respond. In fact, her face had gone even more blank. But there was something in it suddenly, of her girl self.
‘You think I’m the king,’ he burst out pathetically. ‘You love me. That’s who we are. You love me!’
‘Did I love you?’
‘You don’t love me anymore?’
She sighed, smiled sadly and shook her head. ‘No. Can you please turn the heating off as you go? It’s too warm in here.’
But he found himself incapable of leaving. He couldn’t even leave the bedroom. With a sinking and astonished heart, he recognised the symptoms in himself – hadn’t he experienced this a hundred times before, with a hundred similarly aloof women? His stomach clenched, his heart hammered, his skin felt alive.
‘Listen, I think I…I know it sounds stupid, but there you go. I can’t believe it.’
‘Oh crap. I’m falling in love with you, aren’t I?’
His face was like a toddler’s thwarted of a desired treat – woebegone. She still didn’t know exactly who he was, but she laughed like her old self. After a minute, he couldn’t resist joining her. Within seconds, they were hysterical, swept up by a drooling, weeping mirth that ended with them collapsed on the bed. Their faces were so creased, it was hard to tell which extremis had taken them – joy or pain.
‘Tell me again,’ he wheezed. ‘Say it again.’
‘I don’t love you,’ she managed to gasp in between bouts of giggles. ‘I don’t know why that’s so funny. In fact, I don’t even think I know you.’
‘You angel!’ he cried. ‘I love you!’
© Cynthia Rogerson
Original illustrations: © Sian MacFarlane