No 8 - Winter 2001
If I make certain things clear, perhaps there is a way for me to end all this. I will not profess my innocence because I am not innocent. Sometimes I wake and think I might be, but daylight deludes many people and I am no exception. However, as I understood it at the time all was well with her. There seemed to be no doubt on this point. Obviously if I’d known the real seriousness of her condition I’d have kept her at arms length. Quite the contrary, she assured me everything was fine.
“I’m untouchable,” she said. “Nothing can stop me, not now.”
Of course, people are not the best witnesses when it comes down to their own life, but she had just passed some important professional examination with flying colours, and I had no reason to think her statement - in its very boldness, even arrogance - a fiction. She held various job offers. There was the possibility of her leaving the country to start a new life. Her euphoria was perfectly understandable. There are, without doubt, moments in time when you feel anything is possible. I’ve experienced this myself, once or twice. The future opens its jaws and seems a place without dread or threat. A place where living can begin again. Someone, a relative I think, once said as much to me. These were almost his exact words. He’d just undergone major surgery and recovered fully. He insisted it was time for him to live again and when, two years on, after a protracted illness which stripped both his flesh and his dignity, he died, I became convinced his words were no more than a warning, meant for me personally. For a long time afterwards I felt uneasy with bold predictions of success. The feeling persists with me to this day. It’s more a thought than a feeling, a hard and vicious thought that sweeps through the room and bears its talons in the night. Sometimes I wake, if indeed I ever really sleep, drenched in a sweat I mistake for its blood.
“Be careful,” I said, “or you’ll delude yourself a god.”
She laughed, perhaps not understanding the full meaning of my words (she was drunk, and didn’t generally drink a great deal).
“Don’t worry, my feet are still on the ground,” she said.
It was some months before I became involved with this woman. I was not in love with her. She may have been in love with me or not, I don’t know and she never mentioned anything of this nature. I kept my own rooms and saw her sporadically.
I visited her house on the outskirts of the city. She never once visited me and this arrangement seemed ideal. It kept my home silent and intact and saved me the horror of witnessing her image retrace itself over things, long after herself had disappeared. There never was any question of us moving in together. She may have been married and she certainly knew other men.
She was a writer. Most of her friends were also writers or artists or people of that kind. In general I did not mix with these people, finding them too exaggerated for my taste. They sat well into the night, talking about vague collective “projects” and generating “capital”, comparing their relative chances of success. To me, they seemed to be fighting against something unseen, like a swimmer in a riptride. I grew insanely bored and drank too much on these occasions. I made a fool of myself several times and some of Elizabeth’s friends took a dislike to me. They never said anything to my face, but this goes without saying. Much of their time was taken up breaking apart people who were not lucky enough to be around. After a while, I only visited when I could be sure she was alone.
Elizabeth wrote cheap romances. They appeared in various magazines and she maintained a steady income from them. They merely served to finance her “work” as she put it. They were a means to an end and she would not be doing this all her life she insisted.
“You have to live and pay the rent,” she said. “You have to keep the wolf from the door, just like anybody else.”
Occasionally, to kill time, she read me these romances or fragments from them (she never allowed me access to her real work). She knew the plots and the words off by heart, so much so it seemed to me she was reading them blind. In these stories people found one another and lost one another and found one another.
Sometimes people were dead when you thought they were not, although usually the reverse was true. Personally I found the stories inoffensive, but Elizabeth often became violently upset after reading them (I believe this was connected to the pills she was taking). She would scream and try to hit me. I fended her off without too much difficulty. I think she might have once threatened to kill herself, or maybe me. Either way, she went so far as to get hold of a knife from the kitchen. She stood these, her face turning into itself.
“Do it,” I said. “Who knows, maybe it’s for the best.”
I certainly said something along these lines because she collapsed in a chair, sobbing tears that turned to laughter, then back to tears. I took the knife from her hands and for a second - it was more than a second - believed with total sincerity I would use it myself. I may have even placed the knife vertically in my mouth, its tip pressing the flesh of my palate, because she uttered something indecipherable - some word, a breath of disbelief or maybe sly encouragement. Suddenly, as quickly as it came to me and before I could act upon it, this instant of decision passed and I became capable of thinking again. (When it was over, many months on, I discovered that Elizabeth’s sister had in fact killed herself at a young age.)
Details were difficult to come by, but I believe a man was implicated in some way. The town she grew up in was small and people tended to close ranks. I did not raise this issue with Elizabeth directly and I will not speak of it. I do not believe in crucifying people for the entertainment of others, as so many do. Besides, such stories count for nothing. We build them into myths and cover our tracks like the animals we are.)
We met each other many times after this incident. During these meetings - and each would feel as though it were our last - Elizabeth seemed more alive than I had ever seen or imagined her. Such transformations are hard things to fathom, perhaps the hardest. She spoke about herself as though the daylight did not frighten her anymore. The way she spoke terrified me. My head became a fist.
“Envisage where you want to be in two years,” she said.
“Set yourself a goal.”
Her statements meant little to me although they were very much in vogue back then, amongst the educated classes. The rest of us struggled on as before, getting rid of our days in the latest way available and edging around oblivion, but those who saw a future certainly wanted to grab it by the throat with both hands.
At the time, I myself began to suffer from a strange kind of paralysis. Even the most basic decisions - to eat, to drink, to go out, to stay in, to work - became impossible for me to perform without extreme mental and physical effort. Consequently I felt drained virtually all the time. Although Elizabeth begged me, I did not consult a doctor (I’d had run ins with the medical profession in the past).
I started to suffer from headaches, stark pains travelling at some speed, straight across my forehead. These pains threatened to tear my head in two. I put them down to eye strain, caused by working in the dark and spending most of my life there. Occasionally my muscles went into spasm. This usually happened at night, in the moments before sleep. My limbs would shake uncontrollably for a second and I could not tell whether this violence stemmed from some obscure internal reflex or my own mind. I may be willing this fit upon myself I thought, and gradually the difference between the fit and my wish for it, its mere idea, became indistinguishable (ideas, themselves hard to define, have always struck me with a physical force anyway). Soon after, the fits started to make me feel better, not worst. Then they stopped altogether and I returned to myself.
Elizabeth suddenly became terrifyingly active, as though she was not in control of her own movements of mind (her doctors later produced a word for this condition). She dashed from place to place, visiting friends and discussing forthcoming events. She met countless new people, and each time smiled a smile that broke like glass across her face. Behind this splintering facade, I recognised the insanity of the things closing over her. I could do nothing. She filled in blank moments with telephone calls telling other people, people she hadn’t spoken to for many years, her “good news”.
She fell apart and I said nothing. I’d seen people disintegrate before and took no pleasure in witnessing it happen again. Consequently I saw her less and less. She stopped phoning me - aside from one important exception - and eventually we were reduced to chance meetings. Perhaps she was bored with me or - and this amounts to the same thing - felt chronically uneasy in my presence. I am not the easiest of people. I freely admit this. Many accuse me of a certain irresponsibility and waste, concerning what they call my “talents”. They cannot put myself and my life - most obviously my line of work - together very easily, and so spend most of the time wondering what I am thinking or more exactly hiding, and how I can continue to survive.
“Wake up,” she said (she was becoming very agitated, I think she may even have shook me).
“Which century are you in, for Christ’s sake?” I’m just living my life to the full.
There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, you never know, you might die tomorrow.”
I could have pointed out the contradiction but didn’t. She did this herself. Each time she spoke, smiled, moved in the slightest, her face became tighter, as if her own skin were about to suffocate her. And, like the dog that jerks backward to bite the wire on its throat, each time she pulled away from me my grip on her became more relentless and secure.
It was around this time we held our final conversation. Don’t ask me the exact date. Elizabeth telephoned me drunk. She was lucky to catch me in my room. I had called off work sick that particular day (the paralysis I spoke of never quite left me).
“Is that you?” she said.
“Who else is it going to be?”
“Good,” she said, “I want you to listen to me.”
She told me some things, things I will not repeat at any price.
“So you see,” she said. “Nothing can touch me. Not now. Not even you.”
“Are you still there?” she said when I did not reply. I knew silence killed her. I knew a silence she could not stand.
“Fuck you then,” she said bitterly.
A few moments after this she put the phone down and I listened on for some considerable time.
I never saw Elizabeth again. They rented her house to a young family and she moved south with her work. Sometimes I stood by the gate, watching children play in the garden and gather leaves together in bundles and hurl them toward each other. The children were curious and, I think, a little frightened of me. I soon stopped hanging around there, as my figure started to arouse a great deal of suspicion in that neighbourhood. I’ve never had much trouble with the authorities and I don’t want this to alter now, not at my time of life.
Occasionally her picture appeared in the newspapers. She became notorious in certain London circles for a while, before she disappeared for good. At the time of writing I have no idea where Elizabeth lives, if indeed, she continues to live. Nevertheless, a piece of me feels I will come across her again. This is a strange feeling, impossible to explain but usually true. I’ve experienced it once before, with a friend - nameless - that I lost contact with some years ago. He went to college, met a woman and married. He got what Americans would call a regular job, with prospects for advancement. His wife became pregnant and he loved her. He was happy and safe and building a life that fitted him as perfectly as his own grave. One morning he showered and shaved as usual. He straightened his tie and ran a wet finger down both eyebrows. He took his grand-father’s old service pistol from the bottom dresser drawer and loaded one bullet. Sat on the edge of a large white bed, staring in a vanity mirror, he spun the chamber three times for luck, placed the gun to his head, fixed on my eyes and the trigger. I smiled and nothing happened. This little ritual, I know, has happened every morning since. He goes through it alone. His loved ones know nothing. His son, then unborn, is now growing and speaking. He carries on as normal, as if nothing is going on or going wrong in his mind and maybe it isn’t, but one day I firmly believe his luck will change. I believe nothing is so certain.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The