As I watched Jason set the fire, that wave of alienation I kept feeling towards him floored me. The familiar question posed itself: what did he know that I didn’t? He didn’t say anything – and as I thought this I could hear the hostile crescendo in my voice. I leveled a brittle, accusing question:
“You know that it’s all started again don’t you? They’re blaming Elly that Becky’s died, and they’re blaming us that she, their suspect, has disappeared”
He knew I was blaming him. It came from somewhere. He turned his back, pushing the stick in his hand into the ashen papers. He should have talked to me right then.
“I’ll finish up here once the fire has settled down”. There was no drawing him. “Then let’s go for a walk. The dogs could do with a run.”
I agreed but without hope. There had been hundreds of times by now that we’d gone for a walk, with all the promise that that had held, only for it to be in fact just the walk. No movement through information and insights but the putting of one foot in front of the other. I began to see that this was it for him. There was no ulterior, extraneous point nor reward. But it wouldn’t do for me. Sometimes I wondered whether I wasn’t something like a pet dog to him, annoyingly pawing and pestering for attention but tolerated because just being ‘dog-like’ and as such unable to extend tolerance to him. In his eyes I couldn’t help it. As we booted-up ready my annoyance grew, until I was stopped in my tracks by a sharp stab of acid in my constricted belly. I cursed that I’d be struggling now for weeks with consuming pain. “Where would you prefer? The hill, the withies? It’s all pretty waterlogged, makes no difference.” It made a difference to me. I wanted a vantage point. “The hill” I answered, more curtly than I’d intended.
As we walked, the rasping and clipping of my boot soles as they hit undulations in the pitted road randomly punctuated my thoughts, which faltered in a different cadence, making my walking uncoordinated and unsupported. I almost fell several times. I needed some kind of flow to return to me; to be able to move decidedly in a definite direction.
The summit presented openness, overwritten by the worn paths that conditioned the walkers’ choices ever more strongly. I deliberately walked a virgin route parallel to the path Jason chose, clambering through the tussocks of course grasses and in and out of the ponds between. He either chose to ignore this or it didn’t register. The dogs loved the anarchy of my moves, running around me and out and back as if to say “hey look…we’ve conquered this side of the path!”
We stopped at the saddle, the watershed where springs emerged and diverged. It was completely natural to pause there, compelling in fact, and we both instinctively did so. As he began to move off my voice sounded: “I think we should separate, maybe divorce”. The words were biting. I had made no effort to prepare the ground. In fact, I wasn’t fully aware before I said it that this was going to be my direction. Looking back I do feel sorry that Jason’s feelings were such an irrelevance. He must have known that he, the person, was now not even within my horizon because he just turned and walked back down the track towards the village, calling the dogs to him. There was a void. I didn’t know what to do with it. I sat on a stone pedestal and stared away from my sadly receding family. Had I been preparing for this? Not such as I was aware. All manner of grievances were circulating round my mind though, to be voiced if Jason confronted me.
“You never wanted a daughter. You thought it didn’t show, that I wouldn’t be able to tell, but you were disappointed in us both. You’re such a bloody hero, or masochist, though, that you took it on, took us on, all for your precious bloody integrity”. He had confronted me and this is what came. So that’s what I thought of him; that his narcissism was so profound that he wouldn’t allow his unflattering feelings, his preferences, to impinge upon his perfection. He had none of the fragility of the narcissist though, his persona being so complete.
“That’s so bitter.” He didn’t try to swallow my poison, just observed it.
“Yes” I replied, my tone unmistakably accusatory.
So I had made some kind of a stand, but it was pretty confusing. It became a little more clear to me as the pain in my belly urged me on. The path I’d created with my accusations was being overwritten, deepened by repeated steps.
“When she was ill it was like an opportunity for you wasn’t it? You even acted as though I was ill too, to compound your fucking goodness. I’ve never seen so much energy in a person as you had then.” As I was listening to myself I recalled how I squirmed at his patronage, how he was cheered when I felt better in the way that you would be exhilarated by saving a drowning animal. Except that, unlike a dog, I begrudged my indebtedness.
After I’d deployed my grudges, my reasons for breaking us up, he left our house. He didn’t even take a bag with him. I doubted that, even distressed as he must be, he was any more vulnerable now than before. “I didn’t bait him for sport”, I reminded myself, “I was deadly serious”. And I didn’t feel guilty handing over my agonies, if that’s what had occurred, after all I’d had to carry them all for way too long, and this thought provided a momentary position of strength from which to exert myself: to get up, wash, move around, eat and sleep.
At home on my own, for the first time since the end of my first marriage, was not merely an experience of the absence of the others. I could have felt the oppressive deadness, which was definitely around waiting to be discerned, but instead my sense was more of the house murmuring and bothering me with its strangeness. When, after a week or so, there was a knock at the door, I hardly knew which direction to take. Even the decision to answer the knock didn’t carry my feet there in the automatic way that it should. I opened the door wide. With no need to shout over the barking dogs and restrain their eager surge towards the visitor, I was caught with vacant time to try and fill.
“Oh, hi!” I could only pass the responsibility back to the caller, Linda, to make sense of her summons to the door.
“Hi Cecy. Sorry to bother you babe”
“Jason isn’t here Lyn.” I reminded myself that she wasn’t really my friend after all but his, nevertheless she had done me the courtesy over the years of requesting my presence at parties and outings as though I was the object of her interest.
“Well I wondered.” She stroked her hair backwards in a gesture that inserted an elegant pause before she got to the point. “I saw him moving stuff into one of the empty houses on the hill. I think it’s the one that the forester used to have before he moved back to the village”. It was news to me but I didn’t want to allow Linda to inform me about Jason. Another missing conversation with him, and me left to be told. If it had been another person…but Linda! The emotional work that I’d exerted to accept her as benign had never really paid off. I’d begun to realise after Elly’s episode with Becky and Phil that with Linda I was throwing good feelings after bad. I wouldn’t have cast her as necessarily the bad penny, it could just as plausibly be me and my meanness or Jason and his credulity, but I was now certain that the friendship wasn’t on.
Linda’s charms at least though made it easy to be in her company, even with the queasy chemistry underneath. I invited her in. She perched daintily on the edge of the couch, and pleasantries over, continued: “I don’t think they’ve done anything about the damp problem in that house, so I don’t think its a great idea for Jase if he’s planning on staying there”.
I nodded. “Not sure what he’s planning just now.” The comment positioned me as uninformed and yet at the same time informed about things I wasn’t sharing. That would have to do. The effect was as I’d hoped, and Linda took my resistance as a sign of my private disturbance rather than a comment on the relationship between us.
“Well if you need anything babe you only have to ask”. She put a hand on mine as she spoke then glided away back to her car.
Linda had wanted to have children but hadn’t been able to, which had been somewhat of a problem for me when Elly was small. Jason would take Elly out with Linda when I was too busy to come, thereby doing everyone a favour. Elly formed the habit of Linda’s company and began to visit her and go out shopping and eating with her, and they’d go off to pop concerts until Elly’s tastes began to diverge. As I recalled them, the feelings were pushing against my composure, the composure of the spouse who ends the marriage and who holds the power. I learned after my first marriage that it’s a deluded state. There’s no power in it. The past never stays behind you, so even though I knew that the relationship I feared-for was nothing to do with Jason and me in the present, the threat of Linda depleted me. Please, I thought, don’t negate me so soon Jason. The feeling was reinforced when I discovered he’d collected his belongings when I was out.
I had gone to the shops, the town rather than locally. As well as groceries I bought all sorts of stuff: a breakfast set for one, comprised of separate pieces I’d chosen from the antiques and bric-a-brac place; a sheepskin rug; a bohemian coat. What I wanted couldn’t be articulated through these things but they were expressive gestures to counteract the constrictions being imposed by my paranoid imagination. They stayed in the bags, under the kitchen table, as I followed the trail of missing things around the house. All his personal things were gone. I sickened at the absence as much as my stomach had turned at his presence so often lately. He’d always managed to fill the house so that I squeezed around the diminishingly small spaces left unoccupied. At first I used to tidy up the objects and plug my ears to the encroaching noises; his telephone jocularity, radio blurb, the curses at his computer. Then I tended to sit passively in the stink of it, letting it bring what it would bring, which of course was hateful. He was just existing normally, but that knowledge hadn’t made the affront to me any less stinging, and so it was absurd that his taking himself away should augment those same feelings of encroachment. Surely I should feel liberated instead. My emotions never quite caught up with the pain, so although they occasionally neared expression the moment would be arrested and my face became stony rather than watery. I used to cry a great deal when I was younger and it was good to have matured in a different direction, but at that time I was aware that tears might have meant something new for me rather than the enactment of hopelessness that they had been before.
Instead of ferreting around in the groceries under the table I scanned inside the freezer for dinner candidates, and took out a pot of stew that had been repeatedly overlooked as too much for one and not enough to feed two. When the oven was hot I slid the pot carefully onto the middle shelf. Searing heat causing me to withdraw quickly. I’d caught my right hand above the thumb joint when it had touched the higher shelf. I looked at the blister for way too long to be able to do anything remedial with the bag of frozen peas. They were only ever used for this. Nobody ever seemed to want peas with their meal. Maybe it was because they were used for incidents like this, I thought, but it didn’t raise a smile. Looking at my hand I could see a deformity – a large bulge, like an extra joint, behind the main rather bulbous one connecting the thumb to the rest of my hand. I put the left and right side by side, and on the left hand I could see the merest hint of shape in the same place, but nothing like the extra joint that seemed to have grown itself on the right one. At first I wondered how a burn could mutate the hand, but with more careful thought I realised that it was because it was this deformed shape that I had caught it on the shelf. My mind had thought it knew how to manage my contact with the outside – with the spatial configuration of the oven for example. The mental map hadn’t let me down before. But my hand had changed. It wouldn’t take many injuries such as this to change the mental map, though, I thought. And that idea brought a pang with it. I didn’t want my body to change, did I? My right hand thumb had taken quite a lot of harsh mistreatment. It had always had a swollen joint since Elly was small. As a toddler she used to hold it to steady herself as she learned to walk, then when she no longer needed support she used to swing on it exuberantly. I was touched by her use of me this way – a bodily connection still between us. Although it hurt and I knew it was injurious in the long run, I let her because connection with her was more important than anything else in the world – even if it hurt. That microcosm of domestic injury cast a very long shadow, though. Jason’s body carried no such scars, and it was a natural depressive leap as I sat at the table, waiting for the food to heat, for me to think that Linda’s didn’t either. Linda had command of her body. She was youthful for her age. I ate the large pot of stew disconsolately, entirely within the knowledge that it was too much for me. Then I had some sweet dried fruits from the baking cupboard. Stuffed up.
In the morning my bloating had gone and I decided I’d not done too much damage. I took the new things from the shopping bags and began to realise that there was a nuance that I’d missed in my rehearsed victimisation. The novelty of my vantage point on the hill, with its revolutionary energies, had made an alteration in me that not even anachronistic jealousies and unbidden mutations could reverse. An image conveyed it – it was an advert that used to be shown on TV that ended with a young woman leaning against her car looking out to an open vista. If I remember rightly it was at daybreak or maybe sunset, and as she sipped from a coffee mug she appeared to have reached a contented truce with something. She was not alone, and could not be unhappy, with her coffee in her hand. Well for me it now felt more like, “you know what? You’re alright”. It was a shock.
I gingerly put on the coat and set the breakfast table for one, laying the rug under my chair. There was some damson jam at the back of the cupboard that I’d managed to save for myself, and there was even some butter remaining in its unhidden dish in the fridge. I had every intention of savouring the intense and the delicate alike: Darjeeling tea in porcelain, sourdough toast from the silver rack with each bite individually crafted from butter and jam, eaten with my feet pushed into the woollen rug.
Elly’s file was still on the window ledge. After looking at it through my breakfast and my lunch I lifted it down – heavier and bulkier than I remember. I found a cloth and dampened it just enough to allow me to mop off the mould but leave the file undamaged. Then I put it onto the table and opened the lid.