It started on Jessica’s wedding day, I think.
Although much of that day has been erased from my memory, along with great swathes of my life before.
So perhaps it didn’t start then, merely accelerated.
Now, what little I can recall has become increasingly blurred, even spectral.
Occasionally however, nuggets of clarity loom out of the fog and, ’Aha,’ I think, as if a great floodlight had suddenly clicked on, ‘So that’s how it was.’
I do remember Jessica's wedding, and Jessica herself. How could I not!
Clara and I were astonished when we received an invitation, not merely to the ceremony but to the reception afterwards. We certainly hadn’t invited Jessica to ours, or her 'boyfriend', now groom. We arrived late because I couldn’t decide whether to wear a plain black silk tie (smart but dull, too funereal?) or my multicoloured expressionist cravat (flamboyant and fun, but too frivolous?). Eventually Clara chose the cravat or we might have missed the service altogether. Even so, by the time we arrived the church was absolutely packed and we had to squeeze in amongst some fat people on a pew towards the rear and I was obliged to perch on Clara’s knee. The service was already underway and I stared over the heads of the congregation at the back of Jessica’s distant head, veiled behind curtains of white lace topped by a white flowerpot, thinking how it could so easily have been me standing there alongside her. Life has become as changeable and unpredictable as the climate. Only last year Jessica and I were lovers. Now here I was married to Clara, who I hardly knew six months ago, watching my ex marry a stranger.
As far as I could see her husband-to-be was considerably shorter than her, but handsome, distinguished and good looking. Quite like myself actually. We were about the same build and height: the top of his head, bald like mine, on a level with Jessica’s elbow. Perhaps it was this similarity in our appearance that made him look eerily familiar although I was sure we’d never actually met because he’d entered Jessica’s life after I’d departed. Naturally though, I couldn’t help wondering if she’d spoken to him about me. His name must have been on our invitation, but I’d forgotten it.
‘The groom,’ I whispered out of the corner of my mouth. ‘What’s his name?’ Clara pretended not to hear me and was no help whatsoever.
The service ended and, a ridiculous and retch-inducing gesture to my mind, the groom stood on tip-toe and pouted his lips as she bent down to kiss him. The couple then disappeared into the darker recesses of the church to sign registers and so on, while the congregation shuffled its feet and waited. After a while they reappeared to process slowly hand in hand down the aisle. Now that I could see the groom’s face from closer-to I remained puzzled. I both knew him yet didn’t know him. Strange: he resembled me and Jessica resembled Clara. As if on the rebound we’d both found look-a-likes. Anyway, once they’d gone past Clara and I eased clear of the pew and slowly shuffled after the grinning newly-weds. As we passed them at the church door I looked up knowingly at Jessica and smiled, mouthing my very best wishes.
She smiled back at me and said, ‘So glad you came. I adore your neckwear. Suits you. But then it would. I gave it to you.’
I'd forgotten that. Clara looked daggers. I covered my embarrassment and ignorance of the new husband’s name by turning to him, taking hold of his hand and shaking it vigorously.
‘Congratulations old chap, you’re a very lucky man,’ I told him. ‘Jessica is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful woman.’
‘I know,’ he said.
I thought he must be thinking, if Jessica is so triply wonderful, how come you didn’t marry her yourself when you had the chance? I was asking myself the same question. If I recall correctly, Jessica and I had come within a smidgen of marriage when our relationship arrived (as relationships do) at that ‘All or Nothing’ crossroads. After a bit of prompting one Summer evening after we’d made love on the conservatory floor among the flowerpots, I’d admitted that I loved her dearly and was not against marrying her per se, but doubted whether our relationship was solid enough to sustain married life together, long term. I would, I said, need to give the question some thought. To my surprise she leapt up and flounced out, slamming the door behind her. I considered my options: should I chase after her or should I not? I didn’t. The moment passed. It was all over between us.
After that I was sadly single for... hardly any time at all actually, before Clara, as if she’d been waiting to strike, appeared on my radar like a large heat-seeking missile. I’ve always been attracted to large, commanding women and I was immediately love-struck, indeed awestruck.
Though remarkably similar to Jessica in many ways, Clara was considerably more assertive and it very quickly became inevitable that we would marry. Clara saw to all the arrangements and only a few weeks after we first got together our wedding took place in the local Register Office. It was a modest affair – certainly compared to Jessica’s lavish do – with two or three friends and close relations and a champagne reception afterwards at the Savoy. But it was what we wanted, Clara anyway, and who was I to argue? Neither of us was in the first flush of young love after all, and Clara was keen to keep a tight hold on the purse strings. Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, I’m sure we did.
Perhaps a word of explanation: ever since I was a child I’ve suffered from indecision. I believe this is because I’m exceptionally perceptive and can always see perfectly viable alternatives, good and bad, in any situation. Confronted with a dilemma that calls for decisive words or action, I invariably find myself considering competing options at such length that I frequently wind up saying or doing nothing. Mother, who breast-fed me to the age of six, once told me that even as a baby I never could decide whether to suck on the left nipple or the right one. Perhaps that’s why I have always been drawn to tall, strong women. Like Clara, for example. And like Jessica, except that unlike Jessica, Clara never allowed my uncertainties to spoil our enduring relationship. One evening after a couple of bottles of excellent ’68 St Emillion and a particularly whole-hearted bout of love-making, as I lay stretched out on my hand-knotted Afghan, exhausted and exhilarated, luxuriating in the warm glow of logs flickering in the inglenook and Clara’s armpit, I was unable to refrain from declaring, ‘I do love you, Clara. Let’s keep on doing this forever.’
I must have meant at intervals, with suitable periods of rest and recuperation in between. I’m sure I didn’t mean continuously and for the rest of our lives. Nor, I am sure, did I actually intend a proposal of marriage. Clara, however, interpreted things differently.
She leaned down to kiss the top of my head and said, ‘Yes, let’s.’ She jumped up, took me in her arms and swept me off my feet. And to this day she has never let me go. I do love Clara, she is a joy, but she has made me very tired.
After Jessica’s wedding ceremony but before the reception we were obliged to stand in the cold among the gravestones while the photographer busied himself organising people and the wet grass soaked through our shoes to our socks. At least there was decent champagne. I helped myself to several glasses and was wondering where to put the empties – it seemed slightly disrespectful to dump them on someone’s tomb – when Clara and I were approached by an extremely slim woman with large orange hair and a black and white striped outfit (she reminded me of a road crossing beacon) who introduced herself as, ‘Belinda. Jessica’s younger sister. Remember?’
I do like it when people do that, you know where you are with them. At least you know who they are. And for that I was grateful, because although I imagine I must have met her before when Jessica and I were together, and her appearance was memorable, even allowing for the fact that she must have changed her outfit and/or her hair-colour for the wedding, and that my memory is not what it was, without her openly identifying herself as she had I wouldn’t have known her from Eve. It didn’t matter though, because there was no need for me to say a thing as she chattered away as if we were old friends. Perhaps we were, who knows? I nodded and hmmed and soon lost track of what she was talking about. Looking over her shoulder I noticed a woman standing to one side of the throng, alone. She was very tall and attractive and extremely well turned out, quite like Clara actually (Jessica too) although rather more mannish. She too looked familiar but I couldn’t for the life of me think of her name.
‘Who is that?’ I said, pointing at her.
‘Oh, that’s you-know-who,’ Jessica’s sister said. ‘She came with whats-his-name. Very nice chap. One of Jessica’s exes. There are an awful lot of Jessica’s exes here. Jessica doesn’t have many friends so she packed her side of the church with them. They’re all nice chaps. Most of them rebounded onto new partners after Jessica. They got invited too.’
She looked at Clara. Clara looked at the sky. I looked for the woman I thought I’d recognised but she appeared to have disappeared. I decided that I almost certainly didn’t know her anyway. In fact, looking round, I realised I didn’t really know anyone. I looked at them and they were all becoming increasingly indistinct. Even Jessica, to whom I had formerly been very close, apparently. Then I realised that I’d probably got it wrong. It wasn’t Jessica’s sister Belisha or whatever her name was, or Jessica or her new husband or all these people who were fading. It was me.
From that moment I became convinced that I was labouring under, or more accurately living in, a cloud. Not a particularly frightening or unpleasant cloud, but a cloud nonetheless. A cloud of unknowing as someone somewhere once called something of that indeterminate nature. Although I’m sure my mind was largely elsewhere – there’s always a terrible lot of inconsequential blather at these functions – I conversed with at least one of the other guests and toasted the happy couple many times. As far as I can remember the rest of Jessica’s wedding day passed without further incident and nothing memorable to report.
At some point Clara nudged me and looked meaningfully at the door. I thought it was too early to leave but didn’t argue the point. I never do, and to be honest I was happy to be led away. In this life it’s important to know yourself, and I knew, at least I knew as soon as Clara pointed it out to me, that I’d had more than my share of champagne and conversation for one day. On the way home Clara entertained me with some of her amusing anecdotes. I’m sure I must have heard them all before but one of the greatly under-appreciated benefits of a bad memory is the ability to laugh as loudly at the umpteenth hearing of a funny story as it was the first time. So, with Clara driving and talking, and me lounging in the passenger seat chuckling contentedly, we rolled on home in happy companionship. Jessica and her wedding was already disappearing into the mist that constitutes my past and I was looking forward to resuming our normal daily routine at home.
Every morning after our breakfast during which neither of us speaks – we are not morning people – Clara goes and sits in her chair and reads, while I head to my office (actually the spare bedroom, I have my desk in there) to continue working on my memoir. I have been writing my memoir for rather a long time, in fact more years than I care to remember, or am able to. When finished, published and released it will enable me to publicly ‘set the record straight’ as it were, for the benefit of a worldwide audience, my family and my children. Of course, what with climate change and one thing and another, the future of the world is currently in some doubt, never mind the future of publishing, and nobody reads anymore, and I don’t have any children, but even so ... I live in hope that my pearls will be appreciated, and I keep on keeping on. What else can one do?
Writing my memoir is so absorbing that it has become something of an obsession with me. I struggle to remember a time when, apart from the odd excursion to go to a shop or a wedding for example, I did anything else. Indeed, I have spent such a significant part of my life writing my memoir that I’ve started to think that I should include in it several chapters about the writing of my memoir itself. My art has, in effect, become my life, and my life, my art. It’s utterly fascinating and...
A few days later when Jessica’s wedding had been all but forgotten, I was in my office (the spare bedroom) staring blankly at the wall whilst trying to think of something to write on the sheet of blank paper on the desk in front of me, when Clara (my wife) popped her head round the door and said there was a woman at the front door downstairs come to see me.
‘Who is it?’
‘Didn’t say. Are you expecting anyone?’
‘Not that I’m aware of. I don’t know a Frances, do I?’
‘She seems to know you. One of your exes perhaps?’
I went down to find a tall attractive woman on my doorstep. She was wearing a black business suit with padded shoulders and trousers, her dark hair was clipped short and she looked for all the world like a well-fed and successful businessman, apart from her abundant chest. She seemed vaguely familiar and it occurred to me that she looked not unlike Clara, if Clara had got herself up to attend a gay fancy dress party. I couldn’t think how I knew this person but as soon as I appeared she broke into a huge smile, leaned in to shake my hand warmly in both of hers and kissed me. On both cheeks.
‘How absolutely lovely to see you again,’ she said.
I smiled at her in agreement although that ‘again’ puzzled me: I hadn’t the slightest idea who she was. However, her greeting seemed genuine and was so affectionate that I immediately thought we must have enjoyed some quite significant ‘interactions’ together in the past. But when or where or what form they might have taken, I couldn’t begin to recollect. I’m quite well known, at least locally, and one of the penalties of celebrity is that I sometimes find myself talking to people who know me, or at least know something about me, when I know nothing at all about them. As a result I’ve become adept at handling the sort of one-sided conversations that ensue. Sometimes I think I must know the person but simply can’t name them or place them, and I have to manage the conversation until recognition kicks in, as it usually does, eventually.
On this occasion however, my gently leading questions, my careful probing, drew a complete blank. My mind raced, but search as I might there was nothing I recognised about this woman that gave me any clue as to who she was and how she knew me. It even crossed my mind that she might be a salesperson conducting some sort of subtle exercise in pretending to know me and then, having lulled me into a false sense of acceptance, inveigling me into buying an outrageously expensive vacuum cleaner from her, out of friendship. But I dismissed the idea since she never once commented on the state of my Afghans, and she wasn’t carrying a suitcase. Although I had a strange feeling that I must have met her before, she remained a complete unknown and I felt increasingly lost and, I have to say, light-headed.
She filled my doorway blocking out the light as she chattered on enthusiastically, for all the world as if we were old and intimate friends, even perhaps as Clara had suggested, old lovers. Over the years I have ‘known’ quite a few tall women (and married several) but so far as I could bring them to mind this woman wasn’t one of them. As she spoke all I could hope for was that my non-committal responses would not betray my ignorance and that soon the light would come on and I’d recognise her. But I was clearly not responding to her as fulsomely as she expected. I started to see perplexity lining her forehead. Yet what could I do? I could hardly say, ‘Look madam, I don’t know who you are. Please tell me your name and how I know you.’
I felt I ought to know her, and for that reason I felt a strong urge to invite her in. Once or twice she made a sort of lunge forward as if she expected me to stand aside and admit her, but I stood my ground and wouldn’t let her pass. I didn’t dare, because I’d already exhausted such conversational gambits as I had at my disposal. Nods, smiles and agreeable noises only go so far. Beyond lies serious embarrassment.
Although her effusive greeting had seemed to me at first to be an over-the-top error on her part, as she prattled on I started to realise that the mistake must, in fact, be mine. Nothing that she said meant the slightest thing to me, but she was so certain of some mutual history we shared that I became less and less sure of anything myself. Several times she mentioned my memoir and I wondered if she was a potential reader. Perhaps I could ask her to write down her name and address in order to send her a publication flyer at the appropriate time? Yet that would be admitting my ignorance which was something I clearly could not do. She referred, approvingly, to how fit I looked and I agreed, telling her I had lost weight. Indeed I was still losing it, even as she spoke, and was aware of feeling lighter and lighter, minute by minute. Not merely a lightheadedness brought on by puzzlement, but a wholesale physical as well as mental diminution. I started to worry that I was becoming such a lightweight that I might float upwards and even disappear out of sight. At last, as if surrendering, I held up both of my hands in order to interrupt her flow, grabbed hold of her hands in mine, and gripped them as firmly as I could.
'I'm awfully sorry but I’m afraid you’ve caught me at rather a bad time,’ I said. ‘I really have to go. My wife, you know. Her uncle has died. An urgent appointment. And I’m really not feeling well today. Sickness and diarrhoea. Asperger’s. Vertigo. A man thing. You understand. But I promise you, I’ll be in touch again very soon, and then we’ll arrange to get together, you know, properly.’
A look of extreme disappointment passed across her face. Her massive body slumped, as if I’d hit her with the most terrible news, like her beloved cat had been run over or something, and I feared she might cry. She started to shake and her vast chest wobbled alarmingly.
‘But I thought ... we had ... today ... how disappointing ... oh dear ... you have my number?’
‘Yes,’ I lied. At this she brightened and roused herself. She opened her mouth to speak and for an awful second I was afraid she'd resume her animated burbling.
‘Sorry,’ I said, as sincerely as I could, releasing her hands and stepping back into the house.
‘Well in that case,’ she said, ‘I suppose I’ll just have to come back another day. Promise me you will phone, won’t you? Ever since our fascinating conversation I’ve been so looking forward to working with you.’
‘I know,’ I said, nodding and smiling. Working with me? I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. We smiled and waved to each other as she toddled off down the drive, then I went back inside and closed the door with a huge sigh of relief.
My wife appeared and said, ‘Has she gone already? Wasn’t that the woman who was going to help you with your memoir?’
‘The one you were talking to at Jessica’s wedding.’
‘I never saw her before. Did I?’
‘Well, you were deep in conversation with her all through the speeches. Sitting next to you on the other side? Since you had your back to me the whole time I never spoke to her myself. Surely you remember.’
‘No I don’t. Why didn’t you remind me?’
‘She wasn’t interested in talking to me. She seemed to think you’d be expecting her and I thought you’d be sure to ... are you all right?’
‘Fine. A little faint, that’s all. I’m sure I’ll be...’
We were interrupted by a knock on the front door and we both looked round as it opened. Mrs Somebody walked in, all smiles and coo-ees. Our next door neighbour is a close friend of my wife’s and is always popping round, barging in unannounced. I’ve told her she spends so much time here she might as well move in with us (and in idle moments I like to picture how it would be with the three of us sharing a bed, although of course I haven’t mentioned this to my wife, yet). The two of them usually drink coffee together, sitting or standing with heads so close they look like Siamese twins, and chatter away on all manner of subjects far beyond the limits of my comprehension or interest. I greeted her with a brief smile and left them to it. I was feeling somewhat flummoxed by the events of the day so far. All I wanted was get back to familiar territory, my office and my work. I went upstairs holding tight to the rail. I was so light by now that I went up three at a time and my feet barely touched the stair treads.
In my office I donned my ‘writing gown’, a loose-fitting white dressing gown with a hood that wraps right round me and hangs to the floor. The chair cushion hardly dented as I collapsed onto it, my mind a total blank. I’d completely forgotten what I was doing before that tall anonymous woman on the doorstep interrupted me. I sat and pondered, or rather, not pondered, simply sat, thinking nothing, staring into nothing. I was feeling so light and detached that I undid my belt, looped it round the arm of my chair and re-fastened it, to anchor myself. I seemed to recall someone once saying that lightness of being was unbearable. This was certainly an extremely odd sensation but not unbearable. It was certainly strange, but not even particularly unpleasant. Indeed, I felt as if not only my physical weight but all the travails and troubles that had weighed me down all my life were quietly leaving me and fluttering away. I would end up flying free, able to look down on the world and everything in it with a glorious, ethereal detachment. I held my fingers out to either side of my shoulders and fluttered them like wing-tips. I became aware of something behind me and glancing over my shoulder saw that the desk-light was throwing an elongated shadow of my head and upper torso onto the wall, complete with fluttering wings. The great long shadowy wraith hovered there like an owl and I couldn’t help laughing aloud to myself with sheer pleasure as I sat in my chair luxuriating in both being, as well as projecting, this wonderful trance-like apparition. I was me, yet at the same time somehow outside and separated from my physical body, existing in a sort of joyous limbo-land. A halfway house between this life and whatever might come next. I was roused from this delightful revery by the sound of two female voices in conversation.
Unhitching my belt and rising from my chair – by now I was so light I all but floated from it – I crept to the top of the stairs, crouched down and listened.
‘He’s always been,’ one of the voices was saying, ‘a distracted type of person.’
The other voice laughed, ‘I know. Everyone calls him the absent- minded professor.’
‘Do they?’ the first voice replied. ‘Yes. Well he’s always been a bit that way.’
I suddenly recognised the voice: it belonged to my wife although oddly, in that moment I couldn’t remember her name or anything about her except that, like everyone else, she was much larger than me.
‘But recently,’ the voice continued, ‘he’s become so very much vaguer than he ever was. He’s lost a lot of weight, as you know, but he’s also lost, how shall I put it? Substance. I’m still immensely fond of him but he’s become so insubstantial it’s almost as if the man I married, small but solid and loveable, is hardly here with me any more. I find myself living with a phantom.’
I felt like a naughty child overhearing something he shouldn’t. I couldn’t help it, I pulled my hood over my head, raised myself up so they’d be able to see me and laughed out loud. At least, I intended to laugh out loud. But it wasn’t laughter that came out of my mouth. It was an altogether stranger sound.
‘Woo,’ I cried. ‘Woo. Ooo.’
c Anthony Dew. 2016. This story won a runner-up prize in the Fish International Short Story Competition, July 2016.