A strange piece inspired by a genuine event.
So that was how it happened, was it? An oddly quiet way to go, Dawn. I always imagined you’d leave the world kicking and screaming, like we entered it. It’s suitably dramatic, I suppose.
It’s true you weren’t destined to last. Even Mum knew it. You could see it in the way she looked at you. Her eyes would go distant and hard, like they were freezing over. Did you ever notice?
I knew you were dead. There was no way you would have left me in peace for all these years if you weren’t.
For a long time I was afraid you’d show up again. I half expected you to turn up at my wedding. I stood at the front of the church sweating and shaking. Dad patted my shoulder with a wise grin, saying my cold feet would warm up again soon enough. But it wasn’t cold feet. It was thinking about how you’d wait until Marian was pacing down the aisle before then rise from one of the pews in a black hat to laugh and point and screech out everything.
But you didn’t. Of course you didn’t. You’d already been lying still and solid for two years by then, each cell meticulously stiffened and saved from rot.
Marian. My Marian.
That year I married Marian and bought a house with a little lawn at the back. There were clumps of daisies in the summer: small white islands in the grass like icebergs on a green sea. There was a tree and a shed to keep the mower in. Space for a swing set, Marian said, smiling. I smiled back and kissed her, though I knew there would never be any swings.
I’m supposed to fly out and identify you. They’ve sent me the plane ticket here: SWISS International Air Lines. Business Class, leaving tomorrow. They’ll pay for the hotel, too.
Marian thinks you’re an old flame, you know. She heard the message they left on the machine. I couldn’t find the words to explain. I don’t think the words exist. I saw her swallow tears and move to the hall cupboard to fetch a suitcase.
I’ll ring her later. I’ll find some plain, ordinary words that’ll parcel it all up. She’ll believe me. She will. Why wouldn’t she? I can make it sound like a normal story. Why have I never mentioned you? Why, indeed? Were we close? Can one half of you be close to the other, or are you all the same thing?
‘We fell out’; that ought to do it. It’s true, after all. We fell out of whatever we were in. Then you disappeared.
It’s easy to ignore an ache that’s always been there. That’s what the sting of your presence faded to, Dawn: an old wound finally allowed to close a little.
The logo of the airline is the Swiss flag, the white cross on red. The same red as the dye you used to put in your hair. You’d spend hours styling and I’d watch from behind a magazine, each twitch of your fingers arranging it ever so slightly more perfectly. Then you looked at me through your lashes as blew me a kiss and I had to look away.
You left the house and got on a plane, flew to Switzerland only to wander off the path and freeze to death. Why Switzerland, Dawn? Why on earth…? Did you go on SWISS air?
It will have been the first flight out, I suppose. You will have eyed the clerk up and down, flashed your streetlight smile and said ‘anywhere’ in that voice that made me do whatever you wanted.
I’m going to go. Of course I am. I was a fool to think I could live without you.
Mum died in your room, did you know that? She was hoovering it, though no one’s touched the damn place except her in years. That cranky old hoover that weighs a bloody tonne. Dragging it up the stairs finished off her little heart.
I hate planes. I thought you did too. Although it reminds me of when we snuck onto a train to Manchester that summer. Mum believed me when I said we were going to a friend’s to revise for exams. We’d laughed the whole way and you produced a six-pack of cider that you’d got by smiling at the man in the off-license.
Everyone stared at the noise we made but they would have stared anyway. We were used to it. We’d come to accept we were unusual, exotic, enticing: two versions of the same thing. You dyed your hair but it just made it look more yourself. When you cut it short like mine and started dressing like me, even I found it hard to tell where I ended and you began.
You saw a man watching from across the train so drew me in and kissed me, tongue and teeth and the taste of cider. I could feel his eyes on us as surely as I felt your eyes on him, even with my own shut.
The police brought us both home the next day, having spent the night in a Manchester cell because you’d screamed and wouldn’t let me tell them where we lived. You’d gone hoarse by the morning whilst I’d lain curled in the corner all night with vomit in my hair before I’d told the policeman the name of our village.
Mum’s frozen face, do you remember it? You must have seen it that time, the way the flesh of her jaw tightened and stuck as the policeman told her what we’d done.
I remember the sting ebbing to an ache. Six months, a year. You still didn’t turn up and it faded and faded even if Mum cried in the evening before she went to sleep. She’d heard our argument, she must have. I can pretend I’ve forgotten all the things I said to you. It was over thirty years ago and I’ve spent all that time forgetting so it’s a believable lie, even to myself. I meant it all, at the time and I’ve spent the rest of my life telling myself you deserved it.
It became a low, spreading ache. I bathed in its throbbing pulse and as time went on and on with still no word, it spread over all my skin and then down through my mouth and into my guts until it was all of me. When I looked in the mirror and no longer saw you…that’s when I knew you were gone.
I met Marian that very night. She had brown eyes and a soft, soft smile and she knew how to make hotpot and wanted to be a teacher. I sighed out a kind of last breath and settled against her warm breasts and let her lead me somewhere where love wasn’t torture.
You’d have hated Marian. You’d enjoy telling me that she was dull and grey. A cardigan in human form, that’s what you would have said. She’d hate you too, no question, although there’s very little capacity in her for such things. She would have managed it for you. And then she would look from you to me and she’d see the same red hair and lips and eyes and seen us as one and never be able to look at me again.
But who knows, you might still win. Here you are again and now Marian knows about you. I might have known you’d find some way to intrude, scratching your way in and refusing to stay buried. Because you never really died, did you? You’ve just been hiding under a thick layer of rocks and ice in my brain.
I haven’t heard you laugh for a lifetime but I can hear it again now just like you were next to me, ice-clear and fiery. It was the laugh you let fly at Mum when she caught us behind the shed at our thirteenth birthday party. It was the laugh you threw at me when I said I didn’t want to.
You found it so funny that I didn’t want to run away with you.
“Run away? What from?”
“From here, of course.”
You’re not an aunt, by the way. I worked and earned and built and bought Marian everything she wanted to try and make up for what she really wanted from me but that I wouldn’t give.
“Just think,” she said once. “A little bit of you, alive with us.”
But I already know two of me is too many.
I’ve spent a lifetime burying it but even now, a second’s lapsed control and I would feel again in my heart and mind and skin everything I shouldn’t when I looked at you and thought you were beautiful.
When Marian couldn’t understand I shouted at her. I caught my face in the mirror, teeth bared and brow dark and our insane red hair dishevelled. That’s what you must have seen the night you ran away.
Marian never brought it up again, though I saw it in her face when we walked past play parks and front gardens in the summer, teeming with sprinklers and happy faces and tiny limbs.
“Please formally identify the body.”
“Yes, that’s Dawn.”
Sign the paper, accept the patted back then I’m back to the hotel and, thank God, a mini-bar. Flying home tomorrow. Home to Marian. She’s bringing the Alfa and she’ll meet me at Birmingham International. She won’t say anything but wil just gather me to her like a child and hold me. I’ll breathe in her smell of violets and ease myself into her familiar shape and begin laying a whole new patio in my head.
But that’s tomorrow. Tonight it’s just you and me again. I’ve disturbed your sleep, just when you thought you’d got rid of me. Just one more night, Dawn, then I’ll spend the rest of the years left to me laying you to rest. I owe you that much.