Displacement activity has been at a peak. Mainly in the form of going out running and being on Facebook.
Over the last three weeks, I have been writing a story. My mind has gone to pot. I forgot to go to someone’s funeral on Thursday and feel embarrassed. I got the time of my daughter’s horse riding lesson wrong and so lost the money for it. I cried.
But I do have a draft of my first ever proper story. Here it is.
An Angel To Watch Over Me
Rae is the first, and possibly the only, person ever to experience me as a corpse. She looks up at me and her gaze adjusts, as if she is looking up into the light, even though the March smeary sunlight shows as much enthusiasm for entering Mrs Trapp’s Coffee Shoppe as a potential Shopper of Coffee might show if Mrs Trapp had decorated the front with the cross of the Black Death.
Rae folds her book up and puts it on the table.
‘I thought you were dead,’ she says.
‘You could have fooled me.’
I’m not dead. Hugo Bains is dead, but I am not. So kill me. I sit my decidedly unwraithlike form down opposite her.
‘How are you?’ Short words. The ghost of Hugo Bains is uncharacteristically nervous.
‘OK, considering. You look… healthy.’ She gives me a little twisted smile, which makes my heart melt.
‘There’s no stress in being dead. Although health related benefits aside, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s very boring.’
‘On your beach? It must have been terrible.’
I wasn’t on the beach, I was inland, but I don’t quibble. Inland, outland, either way, Thailand offered me cheap anonymity, and I was familiar with it, having lived there for nearly a year with Stella when we were young.
‘Oh, it was terrible,’ I say, ironically, Rae and I recognise ironic together, the curl of her mouth, the rise of my eyebrows. ‘But it’s surprising how bored you can get on a beach when you’re by yourself. I missed you.’
‘I know. And you’re sorry.’
She stares back at me with mirror polished glassiness, reflecting back all the words I wrote to her in my emails. In response, she was alternately incredulous, furious, lachrymose. Now I am waiting for anger, tears, something. But all I have is the knowledge that she wouldn’t be here if she didn’t feel something for me still.
‘Yes, I’m sorry. It was the wrong thing to do and wish I hadn’t done it,’ I say. ‘But once it was done, it couldn’t be undone.’
The funny thing was, the act of it was not difficult. The arranging of an escape hatch by James, the disappearance I staged, the drama expertly played by Stella in the aftermath, these were not difficult to achieve. Stella probably even had the most difficult role, the grieving widow, who knew that she was no such thing. I imagine it helped that the difficulties in our marriage had been an open secret amongst our friends for many years. If Stella was somewhat contained and philosophical in her exploration of grief for a husband she no longer loved, it would have been understandable. Not that she ever told me. Only she and James were there to know what happened after I died.
‘You could have told me,’ Rae says.
‘No, I couldn’t have told you. No-one knew. Only Stella, and her lover. The man she said could help us. If you had known, it would have been too much of a burden.’
‘It was a burden not to know. And how could you think that it was up to you to decide for me whether it would be a burden or not?’
‘I wanted the best for you. As I did the boys. We didn’t tell the boys.’
Rae knows how deep it was with the boys. Instead of bringing our marriage to an end, Stella and I had skirted around our finishing with arguments, with affairs. We did not stay together for the children, who were not even children by the end of it. We stayed together for us. Neither of us could bear to imagine our lives without them. You could say that a stubborn, symmetrical rigidity kept us locked together, and Rae locked out.
‘They still think you’re dead?’ Incredulity pierces Rae’s voice. ‘When are you going to tell them? How are you going to tell them?’
‘I don’t know if I can.’
‘But that’s mad. How can you not?’
‘They’re settled now. It was terrible, but they got over it. How could I fit back into their lives again? Michael’s engaged. How could I choose to introduce myself to his wife? And his children, when he has them? “The granddad who never was?”’
‘Jesus.’ She shifts in her seat, but when she stills, some of the tension has left her body. ‘Maybe you’re right not to tell them.’
My heart chills at the thought of not telling them, not seeing them again. But even more chilling is the thought that Rae thinks this is a good idea.
‘Honestly? Knowing what you did is a horrible feeling. It’s not anger and it’s not sadness, but I feel this twisted spent-ness inside me. I thought I was through it, and then you returned. And I had always thought that was what I wanted, but of course when you did, it wasn’t. Even if you felt it was your only choice, there’s never only once choice. There’s no justification for you putting me through what I went through. You can’t imagine how terrible it was. Most people will never even know how terrible it is, to love someone who is not theirs to mourn.’
She takes a spoonful of coffee and puts it in her mouth. Then she puts the back of her spoon, which must be hot, against her cheek. She is silent and I look away, listening to her taking deep breaths. We should not have met here in the open, as if this were a first date with a stranger, to be held in a safe public place. We should have met at hers, where I could have held her if she’d needed me to. But she did not invite me and I did not like to ask.
‘I want to make it up to you,’ I say. ‘Just tell me how and I will. We can be all the things we were before.’
She sighs. ‘Hugo, we can’t be what we were before.’
‘We can. We had something special. Something amazing.’ Rae and I had an understanding that ran in currents between us. The memory of it washes over me in waves. ‘Tell me what I need to do to make it all right.’
‘It’s not that. There’s nothing you can do, because I’m a lesbian now.’
I stifle a bark of laughter at this unexpected new direction. Is this what the checked shirt over white vest is about? The scrunch of blonde hair at the nape of her neck? I’d put it down to the gap of five years, that she doesn’t look as pretty and fresh as she used to. Fair enough; nor do I.
I think that she would not have described herself as a lesbian five years ago, when she arched her back and clutched at the headboard, gasping so hard it sounded like she was about to die. When she was lost in the close of her eyes, mouth open, crying out as if I’d touched the core of her, or when she was tight in the curl of my arms, telling me that no-one had ever made her feel the way I made her feel.
‘Since when?’ I ask.
‘Since a couple of years ago.’
I itch to point out that technically, she’s got to be bisexual, at least. Instead I ask, ‘So… are you in a relationship?’
‘No, not at the moment.’
Perhaps I can convince her that this is a phase.
‘There’s nothing to stop us being friends,’ I say. ‘I missed you as a friend. I missed you as you.’
We sit for a while together, not quite knowing what to say, not quite knowing how to leave. Around us, toddlers with untidy hair and rashy mouths squelch at ice creams, and their mothers bawl nonsense into their mobile phones, bringing into question the truism that with age one acquires wisdom. An old man is involved in a noisy altercation with a woman behind the counter, who is showing all the assertiveness that you would expect from the real Mrs Trapp, about the bill he has just received for his “fancy coffee,” refusing to hear her explanation that an Americano is just as plain as a cup of coffee can be.
‘If I could, I’d like to see you again tomorrow,’ I say. ‘Would that be possible?’
‘I’m going to Church tomorrow. It’s Good Friday.’
‘The day after, then. Saturday.’ I am careful to keep my temper, even though it makes my skin prickle, Rae and the Church. All those hours I’d spent arguing the futility of religion to her, its patent untruths, which she would never, for all her cool reason, even attempt to answer. Just statements, in that maddening tone, too low for me to reach under and overturn.
‘I’m seeing friends on Saturday.’
‘Then Easter Sunday. No, wait! Church again.’
‘Sunday’s all right.’
‘Why is Sunday all right and not Friday?’
‘I like Good Friday. Apart from that, I’m not…’ She shrugs. She can’t be bothered to finish her sentence. ‘Anyway. It was nice to see you. But now I must go.’
She pulls precise change out of her purse, enough for the coffee she has drunk and the cake she has eaten, and leaves it on the table.
* * * * * * *
After Rae leaves, I find the money for my own drink, give her five minutes, and then walk down the parade towards my car.
I have to admit that the parade works hard for its living being the exact quaint mixture of functionality and simple stony charm that any tourist would be happy enough to see in return for putting up with the fact that it is so damn cold up here. Compared with the city, the half life of shops is interminable. Even I remember the tiny library, the butcher, the fishmonger, the grocer, the off-licence that still stocks a selection of DVDs from that time I visited with Rae. We stayed for four days in the cottage owned by her family, high up in the hills above the town. Although we enjoyed simple pleasures like open fires, cooking and eating river caught trout, and witnessing the consternation caused by the one-off mystery of a mango in the town’s greengrocer, it was the only time we ever came here together. There was not time in our lives to visit the same place more than once.
I cross over the road and walk along the municipal park, tufty green grass fenced in behind another stone wall, and iron railings. I am reminded again of Rae in the bed in the cottage, holding on to the iron posts, the weight of my body pinning her down. I remember the way she wrapped her arms and legs around my body, as if she were clinging on to me to stop herself from falling. Do women do that together, I wonder?
I park up in the caravan park and let myself into the shambling building that sidles the length of the boundary fence. The room I have taken here is cramped and old fashioned, with green carpet, embroidered floral cloths and shiny dark wardrobes, varnish worn down to the grain. But it is close to Rae’s cottage and because I imagined there was a possibility that we might spend the day together, and then the evening in the local pub, I wanted to be in a position where I could wave myself casually off and walk back to my place.
I lie on the bed. Springs adjust beneath me. I am tired and I want Rae next to me. I waited for her those three years in Thailand, where the heat of the sun was too perpetually wet to warm me through in the way that the warmth of Rae’s body next to mine had. It was the thought of returning to her that had kept me going, those three years when I was in hiding.
I am not sure now, why it was three years. We’d decided when we were planning, Stella, James, and I, that three years would be a suitable time for me to lie low before returning to a new life. Three years would be enough time for people to forget me, and enough time for me to regroup and decide what I wanted.
I went along with it. Under my skin was lodged the idea that I needed to bear it for what I’d done to Stella, dragging all that we had into the downfall of my businesses. There were other routes she could have gone down, after my confession, involving blame and criminality, but after she’d raged and cried at me for defrauding her of her share of the house, she chose another. She voiced what I had been thinking myself. What if I disappeared? Ducked away from my debts and swam away, to reappear as a different person somewhere far away?
We never even mentioned giving in, co-operation and tax advice. She understood that I could never have borne the shame of bankruptcy, the stigma of failure. I would have died rather than that.
And so we talked. No body presented all sorts of problems, of course. How to dispose of one, even in theory? A volcanic accident was too unlikely, mere disappearance too open ended, and any solution even hinting at vats of acid far too illegal. But an accident on the shore… well, that’s not unheard of, is it? He liked to take his walk by the sea, every day. There was no weather that would stop him from going out. Only the weather that took him out for good.
My body was never found. I assume it was eaten by sharks, or eddied into some whirlpool beneath. Those who knew me never had to suffer the distressingly tasteless joke that the sea plays, giving up bodies by floating them calmly back to the surface, to lodge in a cove or on a shore, as if it had been gently pillowing them home all along.
Even as I was being dragged into the currents, I was flying over the sea, not quite believing what was happening to me. As I morphed into another person, I dreamed of Rae, imagined that she was sitting by me, telling me jokes that only she and I would understand, reflect my self back to me in the darks of her eyes. I dreamed that she was touching down with me, that she held my hand as we bumped over hours of terrain, travelling the path that James and Stella had mapped out, that I might reach my destiny and fulfil my part. She was there when I made friends, but failed to keep them, with the invisibility of no past. She was there when I ate and drank on street corners, went to the movies, when the experiences went straight through me. Never one to walk before, I walked, and saw the earth, and she was there to see it with me.
But there were many hours of darkness, each day, when she was not there, and there was never a night I didn’t regret my decision. If you had asked me three years previously, this is what I would have said I’d wanted. Money, with no stress. No shame. No failure. In my eyes, this constituted the closest thing to the successful life, minus just the one thing, which I would return for.
At night, I used to think of Rae’s strong arms, her healthy fertility, the golden glow of her skin. I was doing this for Rae. I was doing this for our children, those future beings who would have strong bodies and quick minds. I was doing this for a quiet life in the countryside, where Rae liked it best. That would suit me well, too, living out my days, where I would be noticed only by the people I wanted to notice me. And she could work, or not work, depending on which she preferred. I thought it would be better for her to work. She was that sort of person, needing both the stimulation and recognition that work provided. I, of course, needed neither.
* * * * * * *
Green blades rise between the huge jagged tombstone teeth.
They say religion is good for you. The church double doors open and disgorge a determined knot of the hearty middle aged and the bent but spiritually lively elderly, and Rae.
‘Did you enjoy your service?’ I ask.
‘Yes, thank you very much.’
‘I know we said Sunday. But church is finished now, isn’t it?’
I offer her my arm and she takes it. In contrast to yesterday’s lumberjack outfit, she is wearing a frock coat and high heeled boots, her blonde hair piled on top of her head, so that I can imagine that she is my wife, and that I am walking her home.
‘How does all this square with your religion?’
‘You. And girls.’
‘It doesn’t. I don’t bother trying to make it.’
‘Isn’t that rather hypocritical?’
‘It’s only hypocritical if you say one thing and do another. When have I ever done that?’
I try to think of an occasion, but fail, although I’m sure there must be something.
‘I never said I believed in it,’ she says. ‘I just like being in church sometimes. Good Friday was always my favourite service. It’s the heart of it, the meaning of it. It was always my favourite. Those words: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Do you know the story?’
I tell her I know the story. You don’t get as cynical as I am about religion without having been force fed it as a child. Mary Magdalene, looking in the tomb for the crucified body of Jesus Christ. Crucifixion, of course, being a horrible death, hours of struggling not to drown in one’s own bodily fluids, one’s own body condemned to never again being a source of pleasure, only the weight of it a pure torment. If I loved someone, I am not sure that I could have borne the uselessness that I would have felt at seeing their body afterwards, the agony of being powerless to save them.
But Mary wanted to see him. She imagined, I suppose, that in her own way, she could do something for him, or maybe quell a need in herself to go through the motions of doing something for him.
Mary arrives at the tomb and finds that the stone at the mouth of it has been rolled away, and that it is empty. She sees a man, who she thinks is the gardener, and entreats him to tell her where he has put the body. It is only when he approaches her and calls her by her name that she realises that it is him, that the man she thought she had lost has come back to her.
‘I would have gone to get you, wherever they’d put you, wherever you were.’ Rae squeezes my arm, drags a little on me. ‘I would have followed you down into Hell, if I could have brought you back. And I never understood what it meant to feel those words, before I met you.’
Trees rustle briskly, shivering with the circulation of sap, their canopies suffering the involuntary indignity of dripping sad tears onto the ground beneath. The grass springs green, but it is still cold. We cannot stay here.
‘Do you want some lunch?’ I ask her, kindly. I hold onto her arm tightly.
There is no cafe today, as it is Good Friday, so we drive out to the pub near the caravan park.
When we open the door, onto heavy air and red patterned carpet, we are faced with a web of backs, strung together with a familiarity barred to me.
‘Rae!’ The barman hoists a wave over the heads of the beery regulars between them. They part and enfold her, leaving me standing by the door. I sidle into a chair at a dark table scratched with pale etchings.
Rae returns with two pints. She pushes one over to me and smiles. She rests her cheek on her hand. She is really looking very pretty, much prettier than yesterday. I was shocked by how gaunt she looked. I allow myself to imagine what it must have been like for Rae without me. Maybe it is that which caused her looks to fade. I could help her to get her looks back. I would smooth the etchings of the last five years from her face, and she would smile the way she used to, and she would be happy, with me.
Rae asks me where I am living, and I tell her about life beyond the tube map in South London (“like being in exile”) and describe what it feels like not to work.
When I returned to England after three years, I found that James and Stella had decided that this was a decent length of time to have waited, and got married. I was a single man again. I had an identity, but no traceable history, without which finding work was out of the question. I had my share of the insurance pay outs, professionally laundered to a snowy white by James, and which, due to the size of the mortgage on the house, was considerable. Stella and I had bought and borrowed during the times when the banks asked no questions; whatever one sows, that he will also reap.
But I found that to have no way of expanding one’s life beyond one’s fixed income is somewhat depressing. I battled despair. I wanted Rae.
From the time I had died, I had watched over her. I had all my photos of her still, which I would sort through and catalogue daily. I inserted her into Google boxes, and found her Facebook timeline. I followed the success of her professional, jovial self on her business website. And finding her Twitter feed was like mainlining heroin, like joining my soul with hers once more. Her ups had me celebrating with her. Her downs had me convinced that she was secretly pining away for me.
But when I had returned, I was suddenly afraid of her reaction. I despaired. I struggled to forget her. That would be the best, wouldn’t it? As it had been for the boys. I frequented singles nights, where I pretended to be a ghostwriter and revelled in my anonymity. I even had a short relationship with a lady who thought that I was perfectly nice, and then became frustrated with me for being perfectly nice.
I couldn’t face any more singles nights after that. She’d told me that I didn’t see her as a person, the lady. I was unable to tell her that she knew nothing about not being seen as a person.
I skim over these problems of no past and no future to Rae.
A waitress brings us a slab of a burger, and a mountain of chips each. I don’t get so hungry these days. The heat of Thailand melted my appetite, and I am not as active as I used to be when I was working. But Rae eats, and so I eat, and I enjoy it, because I can sit here watching her enjoy it.
‘I could live in a place like this, you know,’ I say. ‘No-one would be interested in who I used to be. There would just be the present. Hill, birds, sky, peace.’
‘You were never interested in that kind of thing before.’
‘No? Well, now I am. I live in the present.’ And on a fixed income, it would be nice to think about living somewhere with lower rents than London. ‘How about you? Will you retire here some day? Or with your business, you could do that anywhere.’
She puts down her fork. ‘No, I’m never going to work here, or live here, or retire here.’
‘Sure, sure.’ I backtrack, fast, smiling and although she does not smile, she picks up her fork and starts eating again.
The pub is getting even more crowded now. A group of bikers has made a noisy entrance and are pushing their way around the bar, and around us, brushing up quite close to Rae.
‘Hell is other people,’ I say.
She frowns. ‘That’s not what that means.’
‘No?’ Rae always hated any invasion of her space.
‘It’s about the Other,’ she says. ‘About the way you can never get away from how other people see you.’
I am not sure what she is talking about.
‘I’ve got away from how other people see me,’ I say. ‘Nobody sees me now.’
‘And do you like that?’
I wonder whether she is upset that I have not counted the fact that she sees me, and I feel anxious. And my first reaction to not being seen is that it’s far worse than being seen. But I cannot let her know that.
So I say, ‘It’s freeing. Yes, I find it liberating.’
I am free from my wife, free from the burden of work and free from all other impositions on my life. I will be free, when we have finished our meal, to return to my caravan park room, and then to my life just across the city from Rae. With each mouthful that I eat, I am freer.
‘While we’re waiting…’
She looks up and I realise that she is thinking of the minutes we have until the end of our meal together. Perhaps coffee will postpone the inevitable ending. But after coffee, she will go home and I will go home and when will we ever see each other again?
‘While we’re waiting to find other people,’ I say again. ‘We could… you know. See each other. Like we did before. We understand each other, and it would be something.’
‘Hugo, I’ve told you. I’m a lesbian. I only see women.’
‘But we had something, didn’t we? We could take up where we left off.’
‘But Hugo, it’s not a question of taking up where we left off. I’m a different person now. I’ve changed.’
‘Why? Why have you changed? You were lovely the way you were before.’
I subside, exhausted. My burger and chips sit greasy, heavy and ridiculously unsophisticated inside me. Rae, by contrast, looks as if she could run a marathon.
‘I need you, Rae. I love you so much. I need someone to understand me. So if it has to be just friends, then it will be just friends.’ I am a broken man.
‘Oh, Hugo.’ Rae takes my hand. ‘Yes, we can always be friends. I am very fond of you. Despite all you’ve done. It doesn’t bother me now. I realised that last night, after the shock. I didn’t feel anything against you at all.’
‘It’s better than being hated,’ I muse. Her hand is warm, and my newly warmed blood flows to my heart.
I am in with a chance.
‘Your business is doing well, isn’t it?’
It’s the right thing to say. Her face lights up. ‘Yes, it’s flying. The best thing I ever did.’
‘I’m glad,’ I say. ‘Do you remember when you were starting out? How unsure you were of whether it was the right thing to do?’ I’d been with her at the beginning, when she was nervously wavering about leaving her big corporate job looking after trainees, to strike out with her own training packages.
‘Just about! It seems such a long time ago. But it was the right thing to do. I’m glad I listened to everyone.’
‘I think you’re amazing,’ I say. ‘And I do love you. Platonically and non-sexually, of course. Can I tell you how much I love you?’
‘Yes, so long as you remain platonic and non-sexual.’
‘This is just about the most platonic and non-sexual you could ever be.’ Purity was one of the things Rae showed me that I never knew existed. She was so earnest about her work, so passionate. It was never something that I would be able to understand. But it was something that touched the core of me.
‘Do you remember the first big contract you got?’
She laughs. ‘Do you mean that funny training contract for the chicken plucking factory? I never could understand why they wanted me to help them all communicate better with each other.’
‘It was good, wasn’t it? It helped set you up.’
‘It was a help, yes.’
‘That was me,’ I whisper.
‘What do you mean, that was you?’
‘It was one of my companies.’ Back when I had been expanding so fast I could keep up with all of the fingers I had in all the pies. Fingers in the dyke, before the water gushed through. At least something good came out of the wreckage. Something lasting.
‘Why the hell did you do that?’ she demands. Her forehead is furrowed, her mouth twisted.
‘Rae, why not? I loved you. I wanted to help. You were working so hard, believed so much in what you were doing.’
‘How much was it? I’ll go and look it up and I’ll give it back.’
I tell her how much it was. She goes pale, the way I used to feel my life paling towards the end, when I realised how I’d miscalculated the risks I’d taken.
‘You don’t need to give it back,’ I say. ‘Never ever. You deserved it.’
‘Who are you to tell me what I deserve?‘ She is speaking so loud that even in this noisy pub, people turn round to look at us.
Rae senses them.
‘I think I should go,’ she says.
‘But when will I see you again? I love you.’
‘You don’t understand, do you?’
She gets up, walks to the bar and pays the tab.
I will give her a day, with her friends, and then I will go and find her on Sunday. I am still not really sure what went wrong, between me wanting to show her how selflessly I loved her, and this. But I will make it up to her.
For now, I need a drink.
The bar is quieter now. I walk over and wait while the girl finishes pulling a pint of something amber coloured for a couple of gentlemen next to me, who both look as if they go in for competitive beard growing.
‘A pint of Stella, please,’ I say. And then, when she doesn’t hear me, I repeat it a little louder.
She still doesn’t notice me. When a couple walk up to the bar and order a pint and a glass of white wine, I see red. I’m done with this place, and I don’t care what happens next.
‘Excuse me!’ I shout. ‘I’m trying to get served. I’ve asked politely, but been completely ignored. I may have done something to upset you, but that was never my intention, and as your paying customer, you could politely acknowledge me and let me know my mistake. Now are you going to serve me or not?’
She looks up. She can’t be more than sixteen years old. She has a soft brow, a cupid’s bow mouth and sad eyes, and she looks right through me.
After that, I know that I am never going to get served again. And I leave and walk out into the open air.