Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
Finally he was doing it – leaving Helen!
He supposed it was a day to celebrate – a day to shout with joy at the freedom he could almost taste.
But somehow he did not feel like it - at least not yet. It seemed inappropriate somehow. And he was tired – so tired. Years of weariness piled themselves on in his head and he felt their pressure in his body, his muscles almost collapsing beneath the cold weight of them.
He remembered now, almost with a bittersweet aftertaste, the first time they had met.
He could still see that very first turn of her head, the whirling shock of fire to his senses at the sight of her long auburn hair. It billowed and rippled in the golden flow of the lights above and he had longed to bury his face in it, crush it to his lips. He had been seized with the insane desire to wrap the length of it around his throat and his physical arousal had come instantaneously with the image. He recalled too, his own mental blush at his thoughts and how his eyes had shot furtively from face to face of the friends he was with for fear that one of them had noticed his descent from macho hero to worship.
He laughed – a sad, dry laugh at the memory.
All too soon the physical desire had ensnared him from that first contact to the prolonged, grovelling courtship.
He had been a willing slave, which Helen had realised only too well. She had teased and tantalised with her body, her perfume, her ability to lead him so far and then no further.
He recalled with a sense of shame that seemed as fresh as yesterday, his abject submission to her demands and what, as time progressed, were virtual orders. He had given up his friends, ‘totally unsuitable for a man on the way up’ – virtually cut his family dead -‘you need to rise above your roots James – I’m sure they understand; they only want the best for you too’; his passions, football, darts – ‘really not the sort of interests for a man in your position looking for promotion – you should take up squash or tennis, mix with a better class of people.’
The loss of these things still pained him. He had been a good footballer, might even have become a professional.
The most maddening, enraging thing was that she had been right.
They were unsuitable for a man with ambition – tennis and squash had meant that he did rise through the ranks of the Company, admittedly slowly, but surely. Never had Helen been so smugly complacent as the day he had told her he was to be the new District Manager. Her expression implied that it was she and she alone who had accomplished this achievement.
‘Perhaps she had’ he thought to himself. He would never have done it without her. He would have settled into a nice steady income rut, Saturday night with the boys and the tele.
She entertained beautifully; said all the right things, charmed the important people with her conversation and looks and all that as if it was somehow instinctive, as if she had never come from a family not far above his own. She had been quite ruthless about keeping her own family in the background, dragging them out only on suitable family occasions, murmuring to them how to behave.
Shame really, he had liked her father a lot. Her mother too – she didn’t say much but had been really sweet. They doted on her and never resented her quietly insulting instructions but only smiled and did as she said. Still, she hadn’t had to worry about their behaviour for too long.
Three years after Helen had married him they were dead.
Killed in a car crash on the way home from one of the few occasions they were allowed to attend at his house – wiped out instantly by a foreign French lorry.
A brief fluid filled his eyes and he drew his hand across them.
There was no holding her back after that.
Things became less and less muted.
He was never right.
She told him constantly ‘ Why do you never really listen to what I say – why don’t you ever get anything done right the first time – what kind of man are you or are you a man at all?’
He still cringed inside at the scorn he could hear in her voice.
He berated himself even now at his stupidity in believing ‘it was just her way’ for so long – that she really loved him underneath it all.
It took nine years to realise that had never been the case – nine long, empty years climaxed by the most devastating event of his life.
He drew in his breath sharply.
He wouldn’t think of that – not yet – not for a little while yet.
He remembered instead his only moment of triumph both with a faraway distant revulsion at his enjoyment in it and the still voice that told him how often he had paid for that moment.
They had been married for four years.
He had longed for a child, something he could love that would be his own, something that would love him back – give him some warmth and joy that he knew he had had once, but that seemed to have long fled the barren waste he called his life. But she hadn’t wanted one.
‘They get in the way of a career James, we’ll wait ‘till you’re more settled – when the moment is right.’
He had gone along with her as usual until he realised suddenly, one night at the Company’s Christmas Dinner; watching her eyes light up, watching her laughing into the face of Ralph Erskdale the General Manager, watching the provocative way her mouth shaped itself almost into a kiss as she spoke to him, watching the way her fingertips lightly moved up and down the material of his sleeve – suddenly he knew – she never intended to have a child – at least not his child.
He had never seen her look at him like that, never enjoyed that fingertip gesture, never had her mouth shape itself like that for him.
Why, why had she married him?
He worried at the question all evening, helping his mind think with liberal quantities of the free scotch available. By the time they left he was drunk.
He was never normally drunk. Never dared to be drunk. She knew he was of course and had covered his tracks for him gracefully ‘James is so tired from all his hard work these last few weeks, we really must go home now. Such a shame, such a wonderful party.’
She had smoothed the way of their exit touching, patting, smiling, kissing as they reached the door. They were all sorry to see her go. He knew he was just an adjunct really.
She drove them home in stony silence, competently, as she always did everything.
She had said nothing at all.
Her very silence was a reproach in itself.
He had watched her undress, shower and sit at her dressing table, brushing her hair. He had felt sick and drunk, deprived and angry all at the same time. The sight of the slow brush, brush, brushing of her hair; the flaming mass rippling and moving, running through her fingers both aroused and enraged him at one and the same time.
Her eyes caught his in the mirror as he stood behind her and the contempt he saw in them hit him like a jet of cold water. He knew she despised him. She despised him so much she could not be bothered to tell him. She knew he already knew.
He had screamed at her, a sound of anguish alien even to himself. He threw the glass he was holding at the mirror, smashing it into a thousand silvery shards, cracking and magnifying her image over and over.
He hardly remembered reaching for her, tearing her gown off her body, throwing her onto the bed and pounding into her flesh with his own, pouring his pain into her.
He remembered she had offered no resistance, merely lying there her eyes wide open staring into his. He could not remember the completion of the act or how it had felt but he always remembered her eyes and what they had told him.
It was the last time they ever made what passed for love.
It was the last time he thought he had ever loved her.
He passed a tremulous hand over his brow.
So much, so much he had missed out on.
He had been going to leave her then.
Start again on his own. Go back to some sort of normal life; stop chasing the prizes he had never really wanted.
For a month he had considered his options; laid plans about which way he would make his escape. Disappear quietly into the night, divorce her and give her all she would want. Go home to his parents – would they even want him after his tacit acceptance of their disappearance from his life? – try and get back with his old mates – he had no idea where any of them were now. Or perhaps he would emigrate; go someplace new, a different people, a different world.
For a month, a whole month, he was really going to do it.
Then all contemplation of escape came to an end.
Helen told him she was pregnant.
She told him in a tight-lipped manner, very quietly, very formally – almost as if it was a press announcement.
She folded her hands and waited.
His brain had crumpled under the weight of her news. Running around like a rat trapped in a room of huge circular corridors. No matter where it ran, it always came back to one inescapable fact.
Helen was pregnant, pregnant with his child, his baby, his flesh and blood, his, his, his.
He had looked at her then and smiled – knowing that his triumph showed, helpless to stop it, not even wanting to. He had said all the right things, made all the right noises, all the right gestures.
She knew he had won something. She had had the sense to be gracious about it even if only temporarily, but as she looked away from him he had seen in her face that now she hated him – now he had trapped her and she hated him. For a heartbeat he had wished the look of scorn when she despised him back in her eyes – he could bear that better than the hatred.
He knew then she would never forgive him, never let go and would make him pay and pay. That look of hatred had tempted him to run for it even then – but he knew he would never leave her – never leave his child.
All the long months of her pregnancy he had tended her every wish, her every desire. She had been quiet, acquiescent, accepting. It was the best time of their marriage. It was also the worst.
He never looked directly into her face. He was afraid if he saw her hatred for him there he might strike her. He wanted to safeguard the child. It frightened him that she made him feel this way.
They sat in the evenings beside each other in separate armchairs, watching television, being very polite to each other. He was glad of the nights he had to work late. It relieved the strain.
And then, and then there was Bonnie.
They called her Arabella – or rather Helen did – but to him she was always his Bonnie. He adored her. He loved her. He held her. She was warm, she smelt of baby and soft wet flesh, she cooed, she gurgled, she dribbled on him and he loved her. She batted him with her small fists, clutched his finger like a demon, smiled at him and slept in his arms.
He walked her up and down, rocked and rocked her when she had colic; he slept on the couch with her when she was teething. He caught her when she lost her footing when she began walking, he loved her, he loved her. He was able to blot out Helen’s fierce mockery of him ‘Daddy’s girl, you do so well I always knew you were a ‘Mama’s Boy’ – you should have been a girl, Lord knows you’ve never been a man, never been a man for me.’
He ignored the hurts, the slights and refused to let them into his mind, refused to let them sour for one instant the relationship with his daughter. He loved her, loved her and tried and tried because of Bonnie to love her mother but she would not have it – did not want it – threw it back at him, taunted him, ignored him, spat at him, derided him.
But none of it mattered. He had Bonnie. His beloved Bonnie. He loved her and wonder of wonders when she reached the age of three and spoke to him, she loved him too. She told him so. ‘Daddy I love you, Bonnie loves Daddy.’ Her gentle, soft brown eyes lit up at the sight of him, her chubby hands held him, pulled him, tugged him, dragged him, led him here, there, everywhere. He was full. His life was full.
His work prospered because he was so happy. Things were easier to cope with. His wealth grew, his possessions grew and his love for Bonnie grew.
He knew all during this time that Helen was remote, engaged in pursuits of her own, interests that were not his. He did not care. He treated her with respect, deferred to her, agreed with her, even with her terrible opinions of him. She had given him Bonnie. She was to be cared for. He did not mind if she spat on him daily so long as there was Bonnie. He saw less and less of her. When he did they were either coolly polite or she was rude to him.
He smiled through it all.
He bent double, hugging himself, breath coming in short, sharp gasps through his teeth. He could feel a keening inside his stomach. That day, that terrible, terrible day.
It had been such a bright day, a sunny day, a blue-sky day, a good day at the office day. It was a well done day, a time to remember day, a summer’s day.
He had been winding down, getting ready to go home when the call came.
That incoherent, strangely unlike Helen; not like Helen, telephone call.
He could barely understand what she was saying for the first five minutes, couldn’t take it in, thought he was having a nightmare or that she was having a nightmare. Then it began to permeate his consciousness. He couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it.
He hung up on Helen in the middle of the incoherent, sobbing, hysterical re-telling. He replaced the receiver very slowly back on its rest, careful not to let it make a sound, break the spell. As long as he kept things quiet, calm, careful it wouldn’t be true. Couldn’t have happened. Wouldn’t have happened.
He sat at his desk and picked up Bonnie’s photograph. He studied it intently, tracing the lines of her face with his finger, gently, gently. His two hands gripped the sides of the frame and clenched until he could feel it begin to break beneath his fingers. He released it and laid it precisely on the desk in front of him. He gazed at it fixedly. He could hear someone moaning and turned to tell them to be quiet. There was no one there. He was the one moaning. He began to panic. Why was he moaning? There was nothing wrong, was there? He gave a long lost cry. Just one. The tears ran down his face. He sat there in his chair; tears on his face long after the time to go home had been and gone.
He wanted to leave Helen then.
He was going to leave Helen then.
There was no longer anything to keep him with her. No need to endure her sniping, her derision, her hatred. He could go now, anywhere he wanted, do anything he wanted, with anyone he wanted.
He was going to go, he was.
It was just that he seemed to have this lead weight around his feet, around his heart, around his mind. It was just that Helen was so quiet, so red-eyed, so sick, so trembling, so ill.
He pitied her.
He felt sorry for her, he nursed her, he held her.
She cried, she beat him with her fists. She called him names, she slept in his arms.
He couldn’t leave here like that. He would wait – wait until she was better. She was never better. She got over it but she was never better.
By the time she was over it he had looked in the mirror and saw that he was older. There were lines, there were grey hairs, and there was despair. He thought disinterestedly that his eyes looked like the eyes of some of the fish he had caught in those long ago days – dead, flat, detached, almost resigned. He still functioned, he still prospered, he still made money, and he even made the next promotion. Perhaps they had felt sorry for him, given it to him as a sort of consolation prize.
His harsh laugh became a cough as he stood upright and smoothed his hair down. He turned and faced the door.
He could go through it now – go for good.
Once before he had almost gone through a door for good. He sighed and a half smile lit his face a little. His body fell into a more relaxed posture; his eyes took on a brighter light.
Yes once before he had almost made it through the door. He had wanted to, how he had wanted to – desperately, determinedly, most definitely.
It had been two years after Bonnie’s death.
He had become even more silent. Helen had become even more vitriolic.
On occasion she drank – more than was good for her. On several occasions. But she was never drunk. Her beauty now possessed a brittle quality. A fine, dry almost arid look about the eyes and mouth. Her eyes looked as if they never cried. He of course knew that they had, but they did so no more. Her sarcasm had reached almost unbearable limits even for him.
He turned ever more inward upon himself. He stayed later and later at work. Anything to escape the hollow narrow existence his world had become. He knew that he should leave Helen. She was well now, she didn’t want him, didn’t need him and he knew he was shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller.
He wondered with some amusement if he might actually disappear altogether. He was quite sure he would welcome the event.
And then, then just by chance; a chance meeting late at night.
As he was leaving work he almost fell over one of the office cleaners.
A smooth, calm, middle-aged face, framed with soft black hair, the odd grey streak that only seemed to add to its attractiveness. She smiled at him, almost a grin, which harped back to youth, showing the fun loving girl she must have been, the generous woman, she still was.
They had chatted and laughed over the near mishap. They had gone for a coffee. He had admired her smooth white porcelain complexion and began to love the small lines that indented themselves around her mouth and eyes. Began to watch for the eyes to crinkle in merriment at what he said, enjoyed the touch of her hand on his arm as she spoke. She was a very tactile person and he had not been touched with affection in years. He felt warm; he was moved by a feeling he could not name.
Hours later he knew it had been excitement – tinged with hope.
They were together for nearly two years.
It was easy to meet after hours.
She refused to give up her cleaning job and Helen no longer cared where he was or what he was doing.
His body throbbed with a sensuality he had not experienced before. He felt young again. She was soft, her body folding him into her. She responded, she laughed, she loved him. She told him she loved him. And he – he felt the first tentative beginnings of an emotion he thought he had buried with Bonnie. He told her about Bonnie and she hugged him and held him and crooned to him while he cried in her arms.
They made love many times.
She told him about her family, her children, her husband.
She would never leave him.
He had been a miner. He had the miner’s disease. He could no longer make love. It tired him too much. He would die eventually – but it would be a long, lingering time.
He pleaded with her. They could go away, start again, but he knew she would never leave her husband, knew she would never allow him to destroy his own life. She was happy the way things were. He went along with it. He didn’t care. He could not give up the warmth in his life. He could not be cold again. He would die. So they had loved each other and carried on.
Helen found out. Inevitably.
He didn’t care whether she knew. He only cared about Irene.
Because he cared about Irene, Helen could win.
She threatened to blast Irene’s life, destroy Irene’s husband’s peace of mind. He knew what that felt like. He could not allow that to happen to Irene. He asked her terms. He capitulated. He gave Irene up.
The loss was terrible.
He wandered for months paying no attention to anything. He knew he was being carried at work. He no longer cared. He crossed roads without looking. He wanted to die but lacked the will to do anything about it. He never stayed late at the office even though Irene had now given up her cleaning job because she couldn’t bear to see him. He never went anywhere. He sat in the chair and watched television. He was polite to Helen. He could hardly bring himself to talk to her. He couldn’t bear to look at her. He knew she was handsome still. His dispassionate eye told him that. He wondered from time to time idly whether she had ever been unfaithful. He thought it unlikely. She was simply not made that way. She could never surrender to a situation like that; she would always have to be in control. His loss of libido troubled him, but he did nothing. He took to wearing cardigans under his suit jackets because now he was always cold.
One day as he stood in front of Bonnie’s grave he knew he had to leave Helen. Had to leave her otherwise he would die and then who would look after Bonnie’s grave? She would have been sixteen by now. He wondered what she might have been, what he might have been, what they might have done together. He went home that day to tell Helen he was leaving.
He waited until they had dined. He opened his mouth to tell her and she told him as he drew breath that she had cancer, that there was treatment, that no one knew if it would cure her, that there was hope. She told him very matter of factly and very calmly but he could hear for the first time the edge of fear in Helen’s voice.
He tried again to say he was leaving her but the words never came.
He said all the right things, he made all the right gestures, he soothed her, he held her, he stroked her hair – he even kissed her. She let him do these things.
Beneath the thin jersey of her dress he felt her shoulders tremble.
He watched her. He took her to and from the hospital for all the various treatments. He watched her hair fall out – he watched it grow again. He endured her terrible rages. He tried to cheer her during her periods of rigid apathy. He comforted her; he let her hit him when she raged against her situation. He watched her beauty diminish, and then fade altogether. He watched her age; he watched her pain.
One day she lay in his arms her face temporarily relaxed with the painkilling drugs, her skeletal hand reaching up to shockingly stroke his face.
‘You’re a good man James, you were never a clever man, not even a good lover, but you are a good man.’
He did not know whether to laugh or cry at her words. He said nothing.
It was the last time she spoke to him with any degree of sanity.
He drove her to the hospital.
He watched the doctors and the nurses.
He watched the machines.
He watched Helen disintegrate.
He felt nothing.
Nothing at all.
He was alone now.
He heard behind him a slight murmur and movement at the entrance doors.
Out there was sun, out there was life; out there was an endless array of possibilities. Choices beyond measure. Anything and everything he could possibly desire and it was all his, all his whatever he wanted.
He took two steps forward and stopped.
He was conscious of a distant sound in his head, a distant feeling in his body, a distant shockwave coming closer and closer, ready to envelop and enfold him completely.
He did not know what this was, had no real recognition but he knew the sound was getting louder and the feeling was getting stronger and as his fingers reached out to trace the inscription on the plaque and his eyes absorbed the words ‘Helen Marron, Beloved wife of James Marron 1943 –1993’ it came to him that if he opened his mouth, if he examined the feeling he would know beyond doubt that the sound was one great scream of grief.