Read by Gloria Sanders
At the table, I stare into space and the man I am supposed to marry stares at the menu, umm-ing and ahh-ing and reading out options with a smug, happy inflection that implies he is a person worthy of the selection, and a voice that twists my stomach like the knot in the top of a bin bag.
I was sure then, that I was in love with him.
But now when he says, “Shall we go for the second red?” my heart has left the building. I have no answer because I am not thinking about the comparative palate of the Merlot over the Tempranillo grape, the slight ego-trip of not buying the cheapest, I am thinking that I would like to get up and run.
His beard is precise. His nails are clipped. He is wearing cologne for the special occasion. When I catch his eye, he smiles warmly. His name is James Grant Bailey and I have been sleeping with him for three years, living with him for one. He likes nice things — long walks in the autumn, subtle foreign language films, Newsnight, a lie-in on a Sunday. He drives an electric car and a hybrid bike. He calls his mother each week. Yes and to top it all off, he is capital G Good — his job and passion is to ensure adequate housing for the disabled and the elderly.
Possibly, he is flawless.
“I’m thinking — the coddled egg and smoked ham hock.”
he says, eye-grinning at me over the recycled paper menu, feet square under the table in shined black brogues. I try not to bite my thumb-nail. He is keen, hungry and brimming with good will. He is freshly pressed shirts and clean pants, folded tea-towels and bake your own bread, a white wash every Sunday. We are an independent, modern couple. He is nodding at the waiter.
“Yes, we’re ready — Emily?”
Then he is nodding at me, because ladies come first (always, every time, like clock-work). Derek our waiter agrees. Like visitors at a zoo, they look at me, but all I have for them is a stutter. In the end, I change my mind three times and order something I don’t like the words of.
“You mean the warm curried aubergine fritters?”James encourages.
So I have to repeat the ridiculous title, nudging it up like a late, crap birthday present, but it is met with relief from the waiter and a fondness that is not untinged with shame from James.
Wine arrives, glasses, bread, other people’s tables and conversations mirroring ours. We tilt our wrists and join the tradition: young professionals, not young love, met through friends, a clear match. We both like craft ale, Dave Eggers, black coffee, would never consider a new life in Australia. He likes psych-rock, I’m a Floyd fan, and when we screw, it’s not a catastrophe, so we keep on doing it — and other things.
Like saying, “Cheers!”
Cheers to our wise decisions — social, economic and gastronomic. Cheers to us! and our ability to commit.
Now think about how you’ll never fuck anyone else again.
He says, “So tell me about last night?”
and it is hard to tell if it's a question or a grown man’s high-five.
Anyway I tell him the way he likes to hear it, eye-rolling the ridiculous — Zara’s boyfriend! My boss’s silk kimono! The transparent manners and the painted eyebrows and the snide ex-partner and the bloopers, all the bloopers. Men like this fall in love with the bloopers. Those little errors to which they can relate, like when I lost my left shoe on our third date and he had to carry me home after spending forty minutes looking for it while my head spun and my foot froze. We’d been dancing in the local not-locked park and he picked me up and swung me, causing it to fly off: we were being stupid, we were being teenage, and I felt reckless. I said, Let’s forget it, let’s go home. So we did.
I wanted him that much.
Now tonight after dinner we won’t take the scenic route because it’s Thursday and the shops are open late and there’s a pair of boots he has his eye on in the Clarks sale and after this long together, we don’t rush home for many reasons.
He laughs at my story like that is all he needs from me and under the table his fingers press against my knee and I think, Maybe this is all we need.
Then the food arrives. James offers me morsel tastes of his, slid onto my plate like examinata. Our utensils never mingle — saliva now exchanged only in the bedroom. I try not to think about the way it was written on the menu.
Later we share dessert and it is puffed and open like smacked lips, thick clouds of cream glinting up, strawberries calling out for wandering tongues. The single plate sits in the middle of the table. Except then James calls Derek back.
“Could we get a spare plate, please?”
And I wish we’d stayed in bed and ordered pizza.
We fill our mouths with portioned-out tiramisu in the silence of our separate sugar-rushes. Then our plates are empty — mine slick-clean with my needy greed, James’s still littered with the flecks he would never see.
“I’m stuffed,” he says.
Derek takes our plates and spoons and brings the bill, which we split, of course. Then James looks at his watch and he is pleased: not nine o’clock! — we’ll be home in time for Newsnight. He helps me into my coat.
“Well this was a find,” he says.
He hands me my umbrella and I think of Margaret Atwood and the ‘70s and the woman with her fiancé and all the things she doesn’t have the words for not wanting, and the way that every time she grasps at something that might explain it, the man stuffs something else in her mouth, like a lobster or a piece of chicken or an invitation to be grateful.
“Fresh air,” James announces. Like it’s a spell he’s casting.
The air is fresh yes, it blasts us into December and out from beneath the blanket of mid-range wine. He is putting on his gloves, straightening his scarf that is dove-tailed around his neck, pushing a hair from my lip with his leather-coated finger like it is a piece of spinach caught in my teeth and kisses my child-head.
He says it with a sparkle in his eyes which he has put there on purpose as a semiotic to something he does not know, but has witnessed on TV, in second-hand anecdotes, in recommended novels.
For a second he offers up his armpit in a side-folding hug and for that second — so abrupt, so filled with relief — I am in love again, folded against his torso so close to the heart that I am drunk in warmth.
But he releases me. He shakes his arm free, looks up at the Christmas lights. I slip my arm through his elbow and look across the street to where there is a man pulling the shutter down on a shop and he is wearing just a t-shirt but he doesn’t look cold and I want to run over and stand beside him like he is the fire for all of us.
Then James says, “I could do with a hot coffee, what do you think?”
So I have to look at him instead.
We set off, walking side by side in the over-lit streets and talking about the leak in the bathroom ceiling and how he wants to fix up his bicycle this weekend and buy a new lamp for the kitchen.
Then his pace slows and he clears his throat with a theatrical a-hem and keeps flicking his head around to look at me so I will start to think he is going to say something, which he is.
“Emily,” he says. “It’s been lovely tonight. Really lovely. Hasn’t it?”
I try to say Yes, but it comes out as an, “Aymm.”
He nods, takes methodical steps and clears his throat a second time.
“Sorry I’ve been such a grump of late,” he says.
Then he chuckles, lightly and decidedly, like that is the end of the matter, and I am nodding and mmm-ing and all the time still walking along whilst my brain says, What? what does he mean, of late?what does he mean such a grump? He has been exactly as he always is. Stoical. Level-headed. Emotionally mute.
And then I wonder if this is what he is apologising for — this lack, the felt-shape of all the things he cannot say, and that this is all he has to offer in the way of intimacy or love or vulnerability: this one chuckled out phrase, shop-bought and too neat, tossed onto the high street like a guilty pound-coin into the hand of a man too young and too sad to be living cold, on the pavement.
It is not enough, I want to tell him — it is not even the beginning of enough.
Then he takes my hand and gives it a squeeze and it feels as empty as his words sounded and my hand shrinks away whilst I hear his voice echo in the vacuum of my not speaking and know, in all my drunk and treacherous flesh and in the way the Santa and reindeer lights have taken on a mocking shade and seem to be glittering solely as a backlight to what is now a cruel parody, that I have been lying all along and never loved him.
He is not mine to love.
It's like the lights have been switched on.
“James, I can’t do this.”
He looks at me like I'm mad and it makes me dizzy, to think that I’m saying it, that the words are rushing out. I say,
“James, I’m sorry, I can’t do this, I don’t want to marry you, I don’t want to live with you. I don’t even know you. I don’t think you know me either. Most of the time I don’t feel like you even like me, except in the way you might like a circus animal, or a mad great aunty, or a baseball hat with a stupid slogan on it and I can’t take it any more, I can’t breathe, I feel like I’m dying here. I feel like I’m just dying. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I have to go.”
My mouth is open and my eyes are pinned on him and I can see in his face some crumpling, some unbearable hurt, that turns my stomach, gives me vertigo, because it is like seeing him realise the base has fallen out of everything and that this life we are living has just died on its feet and my hands are at my sides and I am thinking about where I can go, to make this easier for him, to Zara’s, or a hotel, or even my mother’s, but then he's not looking at me. He is looking past me, staring into the window of Marks & Spencers.
He says, “Teal socks, you’re joking?”
But he is not joking. He has wanted those socks for so long.
(c) Xanthi Barker, 2014
Xanthi Barker's fiction has appeared in Open Pen, Notes from the Underground and One Throne. She is currently studying for an MA in Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London and working on a novel.
Gloria Sanders's work includes audio-book narration for the RNIB and frequent collaborations with Cabinets of Curiosity. She's performed The Clock, her devised one-woman show with Hide and Seek Theatre, at the Brighton Fringe, the Pleasance Islington, & the Artscene Festival in Ghent. She's fluent in Spanish.