Paperbacks

The slow train to Waterloo is quiet, with the rush hour just past, and all the city types at work by now or on a faster route. I sit with one foot on the raised plinth beneath the window, looking out. London is muted and colourless, the streets blurred by drizzle and mist, tops of buildings softening into low cloud, brick dampened into sepia.

Alice has pulled out. I’d half-expected her to, it happens too often now, so I find myself heading for an art exhibition, though Alice is the one who knows about art.

I’ve learned to make the best of things. I’ve read up on Pierre Bonnard, how sometimes all the colour and choice of the world could overwhelm him, and he’d just stay indoors. The burden of sensibility – so much seeing, so little respite from one’s responses.

His wife, Marthe, too – always bathing, cleansing herself of what? His unrelenting gaze? And between them, the accumulation of so many tiny domestic rituals: the claustrophobia of marriage, he the observer and she the observed. It’s as if I’m travelling towards what my own relationship might once have become. The thing is, I would have welcomed it.

A year ago Alice came back to me. I accepted her, gratefully, but how could it be the same? The day she moved in again we’d talked late into the night then had careful, tentative sex, the sort you have when you know you’re handling something fragile. When I woke early the next morning she was already up, and I could hear her showering. She’d always been slow to rouse from sleep in the past. I could see new patterns lay ahead.

A few people begin to move towards the front of the train as it slows into Waterloo. I stand and pull on my rucksack. When the doors open I hear the voice of a busker, just the high notes, echoing up from the concourse. The first time I heard Alice singing, to herself without knowing I was listening, I was astonished by the purity of the sound she produced – clear, distilled and seemingly effortless. So different from the broken sentences that just trail off when we try to speak in any depth. It occurs to me how rarely I hear her sing now.

I turn left out of the station, cross the road and walk along the passage beneath the railway bridge, then towards the steps leading up to the Southbank. The air is moist, cool and freshening. I climb the steps and, entering the foyer of the Festival Hall, buy a coffee. There are few people around at this time, and sitting at a table by the plain, broad windows overlooking the Thames, I momentarily relish the fact of being alone, separate from not just everything around me, but from the usual structure of my life. Unlike most of London this morning, my time is my own.

I wonder what Alice is doing as I sit here. ‘Out of sorts’ can mean so many things. I’ve never discovered how her relationship with Mark ended. She’s vague about it, perhaps trying to spare my feelings. It was a shock to see her go off with someone older, into a ready-made home, a ready-made future. I hadn’t expected her back, but I hadn’t moved on either. There would have been no surprises for her on her return, nothing she wouldn’t have recognised in me, or the place we were about to share again.

Early on, in the first few months when we were new to each other, it occurred to me that if I’d had any artistic talent she would have been my muse. Even now I never tire of looking at her or thinking about her, even if, increasingly, those thoughts cause me pain. It’s the small, casual things that always come to mind. The frown of concentration as she spreads butter and jam on her toast, like a child who’s been told to do something properly. The clean ballet line of her instep as she points her toes to pull on her tights. The silent, involuntary movement of her lips when she reads. It’s obvious why other men would want her.

I finish my coffee and step out of the foyer onto the damp paving, then down the wide concrete steps that lead to the waterside pathway. A fine rain has set in again, and the river is dull grey, with small dabs of sage where it reflects trees on the far bank. A couple of barges struggle west against the ebbing tide.

I remember walking here with Alice, on our way to having a ring made – a time when I or perhaps both of us were thinking towards permanence. Unfortunately, unlike Bonnard and Marthe, time crept over that idea and stifled it. A few days after she moved back in I’d found some jewelry I didn’t recognise, stuffed away in the back of a drawer. I felt bad about that, like an intruder in my own home. I wasn’t looking deliberately – we hadn’t settled back into her spaces and mine, and I could guess she’d hidden the pieces to spare me. But I wished I hadn’t seen them. It made me think of everything else that must have passed between her and Mark.

Finding myself beneath Waterloo Bridge, I see that the long trestles of books we both like to browse haven’t been set out yet. Alice has a thing about old Penguins and Viragos – buying them, ritually cleaning the covers, writing her name and the date on the flyleaf, and arranging them in some private system of her own. I thought of the morning when she unpacked them again and returned them to the shelves I’d never filled in their absence. I know there are gaps in her collection. Perhaps I’ll have a look for her on my way back.

Just before I reach Tate Modern a long, untidy snake of teenagers speaking loud Italian seems to appear suddenly, and I realise I’ve been lost in my thoughts. I pass them, involved in each other, unnoticed and glad to be so.

I enter the huge atrium and follow the slope down towards the stairs. It’s one of the things Alice and I have always felt the same about, if for different reasons. Neither of us use lifts – I like the exercise, she hates the constraint. When I reach the entrance to the exhibition, I inadvertently pass both my ticket and hers to the woman holding a scanner. She scans one and gives the other back to me, and for a moment I think I see pity in her expression.

Alice introduced me to galleries – I’d never been before. At first I found the ambience disconcerting, like suddenly being plunged into a new climate. It took a while to adapt to the library stillness, the etiquette of avoiding other’s sight lines, the paradox of shared experience and private absorption. But now all of that seems natural – like a distillation of the day itself.

And now, here is Monsieur Bonnard, flooding each room with colour, with Mediterranean light, with the peculiar accumulation of intimacy in his paintings, full of scenes antithetical to a grey morning in an old city.

And here too is Marthe, again and again. Bathing, of course, and just doing ordinary things, still young in body even when the years would have stacked up, all her daily rituals laid bare: what was once simple domesticity now public property. I wonder if she’d felt exposed when she saw those paintings hanging on the wall of a gallery.

In a different way I’d felt exposed when Alice left. Before that, so much had been contained within the plain walls of my flat. Outside I could pretend, but by going she robbed me of that. There was nothing I could hide by pretence. It felt like a rape of the spirit.

The thing about Marthe, I begin to realise, is you never really see her face. Her features are always blurred. Perhaps this was Bonnard’s way of preserving her mystery, for himself, for others. Or perhaps there was something he just wasn’t willing to share. I could understand that. Love, unchecked, will always try to possess.

I walk from room to room, each space with its own distinct theme, its own manicured depiction of a span of life. Reaching a series of later paintings, I think at first they’re simply landscapes, colours melted into vagueness by a Mediterranean sun. But when I look closely I see Marthe, hidden away like camouflage, both ensconced in the landscape and subsumed by it.

I bend forward to peer at her image, and for a moment see Alice in her place, as if she is, and always will be, part of everything I know. Maybe that’s true. Perhaps, however things turn out, once a relationship goes beyond a certain point we only imagine separation. Perhaps we’re always entwined in ways we’re not given to understand.

I drift on and find myself in a small room containing a single screen. Bonnard, and Marthe, filmed in black and white, suddenly alive and vital, there in front of me. The film is silent, and I watch them moving around, rowing a boat, on a castle rampart, gesturing animatedly. Strangely they seem no less distant than in the paintings.

After about an hour I come to the final room. It contains a display case mainly filled with letters. Alice would linger to read them all, but by now I’ve seen enough, and begin to make my way out. I walk down the stairs into the big, echoing atrium, carrying images I know will take time to disperse. Outside the building it’s still raining gently, still grey, but with lunchtime nearing there are more people around.

The tide has slowed on the river to my right, and now, without being changed in any other way, it seems gentle and beautiful. I pass a seated busker playing flamenco and reach in my pocket for coins. He looks up and nods as I drop them into his guitar case, and his eye contact focuses me back into my immediate environment. I realise I’m hungry and quicken my step. I also realise I feel different, as if I’m carrying new possibility in my heart. As I approach Waterloo Bridge I remember that I’d thought to look for some paperbacks for Alice. There was something about wandering around those trestles, all the books neatly ordered into categories, that pleased us both, that was easy for us to share.

Browsing, I pick up novels by Willa Cather, Antonia White, and J. D. Beresford, all in good condition, but used enough to suggest they’ve been an intimate part of someone’s life. That’s just how Alice likes them – a concert ticket as a bookmark, a printed name and date, even the odd underlining, as long as it’s in pencil – all things she looks for and, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, cherishes. I pay for the books, feeling sure she’ll be pleased. Moving on, I buy a sandwich to eat on the train, and make my way back to the station.

Travelling back, the carriage I’ve settled in is almost empty. I think about Bonnard and Marthe, how much substance their lives must have gained from all those paintings and sketches. Perhaps they foresaw that in years to come people would view them and reconstruct their story, guessing in the spaces between paintings. Perhaps the memory of others is as near as this world gets to permanence.

As these thoughts run through my mind, I begin to see how I’d got things wrong, hoping for some private, discrete world, a sort of utopia consisting only of Alice and me. Privacy conceals, and so does discretion. Things have been hidden that should find light. I feel the books in my hand and know I want what Bonnard and Marthe had, some tangible evidence of the accumulation of events, some linear record of what Alice means in my life. I imagine an archive, photos, diaries – a means of rendering transient, elusive moments substantive, even sharable. Perhaps Alice wants this too, perhaps it’s why she collects old books, putting the date and her own signature beneath that of the former owner, adding the moment of where and when she’s bought them to the hinterland of their gently timeworn pages. Perhaps I’ve stumbled on a new way forward. I can hardly wait to see her.

The moment I turn my key and open the door I know she isn’t there. Somehow I’ve always been able to sense that. I hold in my disappointment, she’s probably gone out for some air – some afternoons she’ll abandon her laptop to wander round the local market. We can talk when she gets back.

When I enter the kitchen, it’s as tidy as I’ve ever seen it. I put the books on the work surface and walk down the hallway to the bedroom. I can see the carpets have been freshly vacuumed. The bed has been made perfectly – sterile, like a bed in a hotel. All her things are gone from the cabinet on her side. I slide open the mirror door on the wardrobe, and see her clothes are gone too. Walking round the other rooms, everything is pristine, as if tidiness is a form of compensation for the abyss she must know she’s left behind.

I go into the living room and sit down. I know that a note, not really explaining, not really apologising, will follow. Past experience tells me that’s what I can expect. I look around the bleak, denuded room. Every trace of her seems gone.

And then I see she’s left her books. I find myself staring at their carefully ordered spines. Why would she leave them? Why ever would she leave them? Unless to tell me that the past is nothing more than a different life, lived in a different time.

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story ‘Breath’, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published in Cōnfingō, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story ‘The Violet Eye’ has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. His website: https://www.polyscribe.co.uk. His Twitter: @polyscribe2.

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