For an ugly man making minimum wage in his thirties – okay, then, mid-twenties – it is a hard life – for a man who could do with a change of apron, you’re full of mucky questions. Rather than stare at me and pepper my face with questions, you could be busy changing blown bulbs, or turn up the café’s heating, maybe put the clock right, or making a decent cup of coffee. Maybe you’re simply the curious kind, or have learned to believe I am, as your only customer, late at night, your business. Perhaps my being alone is nothing less than an invitation for you to make enquiries while you run your eye over me. What’s the unshaved old man doing out so late at night in Brighton on a wet weekend in March? Shouldn’t he be thinking about escorting his accent back to Lincolnshire? Has he no home to get to? Where is he staying?
Reverse order answers: Backseat of a Corolla; No; I’m seeing the sights and there is no need to head back. I came to be so far from home because I yearned for a softer sea, it being about time to please myself, to head off and have a solo late life adventure.
One day you might stare at your blackened hands and wonder where the ash of you is headed before the crematorium says, ‘Next please!’ Then you might head off on a little adventure, too, and be questioned by a waiter chancing his luck.
Four months ago, a reedy voice intruded for the last time on my life. ‘Man, since when did you lock the bathroom door?’ she demanded, drumbeating on the paintwork, wire-tapping my inhospitable life.
Well, that evening a novel thing joined me in the bath water: hairy indifference. It’s a rare creature, one I thought extinct in my life, but truly beautiful when it catches you unaware. Its coming had been hinted at by brief moody visitations in the months before bath night, making her uneasy with its tranquil ferocity. Mind you, despite learning to hesitate at meals and in our bed, despite her toning down a few of her demands, there were still plenty of times that she didn’t seem to want to help herself. The bathroom became my sanctuary.
Good God, she must have thought, what if his mind follows his body and declares itself independent? What if the Queen is replaced as head of state? Shouldn’t a man want sex all the time? I’m sure that’s what she thought. But by then we were speaking different languages, and there was no translator.
‘Honey?’ she repeated. ‘Why lock the bathroom door on me?’
As if everything was about her. I felt at that moment able to turn slowly in the tub, shove over to pet hairy indifference, cooing in animal satisfaction. I admired my walrus-bristle flesh breaking the water tension and as I did so, wondered how to respond to my wife outside. Having spent the last few months engineering my body to appeal to me not her – having claimed my skin for myself, and thrown away the wax, the razors and the shaving foam she worshipped – I calmly said to my none-the-wiser and soon-to-be-ex, by way of pouring cold water over her question, ‘I began to lock the bathroom door when you began to treat it as your aquarium.’
Man? Honey? She is a middle-aged librarian merrily going to seed in Skegness and hardly a gangster. I wanted to go to seed with her, at a push visit the Norfolk Broads or pop in on unknown Garden Centres to have a pot of tea. I thought we were happy as we were. She knits, rambles, attends Sunday morning service, and has, to my knowledge – not that a husband can know everything about his wife of thirty-nine years, I’m not saying that – no experience of County Line drug gangs, exploitation or swinging clubs, but honestly, since the menopause and the discovery of advice columns in The Guardian, she has become increasingly demanding, says she’s liberated. From what, I’d like to know.
She’s become conjugally right-wing.
It’s a challenge for a left-leaning diabetic older gentleman to keep up.
I was quite content to settle into the comfort of the age of respectable cardigans, a bit of fishing on a Sunday, and evening hours at a spreadsheet quietly contemplating my pension. The many quiet years of our marriage had given me no hint of her growing interest in sexual domination. I told Harold next door that it was much like falling asleep beside Mother Theresa only to wake next to Stormy Daniels, or waking to warm thoughts of a light continental breakfast only to discover she was demanding a Full English with extra portions on the side. Harold said, ‘Lucky sod,’ but being a widower, why wouldn’t he think it grand? His evening is full of solitaire and tea spoons.
I’d peruse the bulbs and hardy annuals in the J.Parker Plants brochure, or at a push The Cotton Traders clearance leaflets, while she’d groan her way through well-thumbed editions Fifty Shades of Grey and the Love Honey catalogue. I learned to turn off the television before the watershed, and bang on the wall, shout, ‘Harold! Stop listening.’
‘Can’t we simply enjoy a simple dinner of Dover Sole followed by Spotted Dick?’ I once asked innocently, only to discover her pushing me upstairs and demanding I talk dirty.
She intentionally misinterpreted my favourite pudding, and was not amused when I spoke at length concerning cobwebs and dust. It was like speaking French in China, hopeless for helping each other understand, I said to Harold. He said, ‘There’s life in the old dog yet,’ and I said some cultures eat dogs and make soup from bones.
I’d got into a little exercise at the time, just to take the edge of my arthritis, but in the end, I dare not touch my toes in the bedroom.
The night I eloped with my dignity, as she knocked on the door saying she wanted to ensure I’d thoroughly washed those bits I hoped had taken early retirement, my second-worst obscenity gathered in the air as my breath billowed in the heat. At times that bath was the only warmth to be had in a house that wasn’t much but was all we could afford at the time. But right there I thought how I might prefer to pirouette upon my own postage stamp-sized life than succumb to swimming in her specimen jar.
The bath’s hot water tumbled mist upon cold tiles and silvered mirror. No thrum threat could pick its way between my body and the water. She had become all dry and envious elbows over the years. Growing breathless only if I was the self she desired. She was the kind of wife willing to drown joy in order to perform an autopsy. To solve the algebra of the thing she said she loved by murdering it. By the time she gets my measure my spine would long be chalk, I thought. Which was pretty profound for four on a Sunday afternoon, let me assure you.
She always struggled with the language of househusbands, and she claimed its compounds excluded her. Give her one splinter to complain about and in next to no time she’d build herself a soapbox. She loved words, she said, hated science, which is why I guess she disapproved of my periodic table. She wanted to banish my grammar, allow me only the syntax she understood. Being unable to pronounce me, she spent her time translating me into a tongue she could comprehend.
‘You’ll make your lovely skin a prune,’ she warned, trying the door handle. And I thought, I would give you nothing but the shits.
She enjoyed water when she saw it falling from my body, before handing me a towel to cover up the hair she hated. Arm pits, chest, shoulders, groin provoked a shudder. Twice-weekly shaves, a monthly wax. I should have owed shares in the manufacturers of soothing balm. She saw in me her desire, she said – actually said, can you imagine? She added how she admired my strong knees that might look less threatening in hose. My body made her feel alive, which I suppose is good, given it made me feel the opposite.
She said, ‘Throw me a line, won’t you, honey? Give me a chance to get you?’ blind to her owning the whole nine-yards of my life. What entitled her to my little yard, my edge, the ledge of me? Just because she went out to work, she expected me on all-fours and dressed in silk when she got home.
You know what she bought me for my last birthday? I can’t even pronounce it, but it hummed. I showed it to Harold but he was none the wiser, though he paled.
‘For you, my honey love,’ she said, smirking, her mouth open and hungry. ‘Does it fit?’
It bloody did not. Harold said – but never mind what he said, it was what he meant that hurt.
In the tub that night I understood, maybe for the first time in my sixty years (I’m always fashionably late), that as a man I flow not only in baths too full, too hot, but through all oceans. I am overflowing with yearning for a world tinted by wonder, namely, my own good self. And cardigans.
I’ve never wanted children, and now I know, having enjoyed four months of wider horizons, of driving from town to town as their names take my fancy, that there is no need for children because I have always been pregnant with strange poetry from a tongue she cannot speak. I swallow garlic butter verbs, chew borage nouns, celebrate the astonishing larder of long song-filled days. She sings hooligan hymns. She sought to correct my vocab until I spoke like her.
Four months since I opened the window. For myself. I climbed outside without the aid of a safety net or her guiding hand. It was my doing, the slipping into the car she did not like me driving, and if I ever did she simply heckled, hated being a passenger. Two suitcases stowed and waiting, containing clothes that I chose, comfortable, functional, not thrilling. A little money I’d put aside in the glovebox.
And for all I know, she’s standing there still, imagining the silence coming from the bathroom means that I have drowned, or have no answer to her questions, and all she has to do is wait me out. That she’s won the whole last yard.
That’s what love is at our age: The soft closing of doors behind you, so as not to disturb the neighbours, as you retreat into your own dreams.
Image – Pixabay.com