All Stories, General Fiction

Alabaster Conjugal by Mark Burrow

I walked into the kitchen and saw that Marnie had turned to stone. The door of the fridge was wide open and I could see she had been removing my last scotch egg when she transformed.

I closed the fridge and took the egg from my wife’s rigid fingers and realised it was edible. I put it in my lunchbox, along with my wrap filled with salad leaves, hummus and black olives. I also had a healthy nut bar. I put the plastic box in my rucksack with my laptop, headphones and chargers. I set the house alarm and headed to the train station.

Too many people lived in this city. It was a dead-cert that the platform would be packed with the bodies of commuters. A couple of trains went by before I was close enough to the platform’s edge to push my way onto a carriage. I listened to my music through the noise of the train. I liked the Gnossiennes by Erik Satie and Songs of a Wayfarer by Gustav Mahler, especially the part where it switches to a waltz. I could picture myself living in Berlin during the Weimer Republic, drinking in smoky basement bars with ex-soldiers, their various limbs missing from injuries suffered in the Great War, clanking heavy steins of frothy beer and shouting rude comments at a middle-aged woman in a cheap red dress who stood on a low and softly lit stage, her face caked in heavy make-up, singing into a large microphone in a slow and lugubrious voice about heartache, poverty and madness.

The train arrives at my station and I step off, scan myself through the barrier and then I queue for a medium white Americano and head to the office. I start to wonder if I should have called an ambulance for my wife and if I will get into trouble for not doing so. It didn’t occur to me that doctors might be able to treat her condition, but then I work in car insurance so what do I know? If I dialled now, I might be judged poorly. Was it possible that I could be accused of turning my wife into stone? That I was some kind of deviant, homicidal alchemist?

I’ve noticed that when a person tries to explain themselves, it only makes matters worse. They sound defensive. If anything, they’re guiltier than if they stayed silent.

***

Joe was hungover. He sat at his desk and drank from a large mug of instant coffee with the US-owned company’s decal on the side. He nodded at me as I placed my Americano on my desk, hung my suit jacket over the back of the chair and then sat down to open my laptop and log-on.

“I’m broken,” he said.

I looked at my emails and the calendar reminder of the seminar I had to attend on automated vehicles and why they didn’t signal the end of the car insurance sector as we know it.

“What excitement did you get up to last night?” Joe asked.

“I had a row with Marnie about her trying to eat my pack lunch.”

“Marital bliss.”

“When I woke up this morning, I went into the kitchen and found her transformed into stone.”

Joe was reading his phone and grinning.

I read an email from my supervisor, who was younger than me, about a claim that needed to be rejected as it transpired the driver’s MOT had expired before a collision. I logged onto the claims system and then filled in the boxes and submitted the rejection.

Fact Number One: I was a coffee drinker. Marnie liked tea.

Was that one fact or two? 

My thinking wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. The synapses of my brain aren’t firing properly. I would lie in bed and try to recall aspects of my life, such as my first school, and experience a sense of panic as I struggled to think of its name. I had also forgotten the name of the street where I was born. There was no-one left alive in my family to remember those places. 

I took my shiny tablet from a drawer, pressed for the power to come on, and took a lift with branded motivational slogans on the walls to the seminar on the 15th floor, where I joined a cohort of my ‘colleagues’ in a room of high glass windows that overlooked the city. I listened to a plump woman from Missouri tell us about connectivity in the fourth industrial revolution and how the driverless roads would be filled with quiet, eco-friendly electric cars, buses and lorries. We were on the cusp of the autonomous age, where vehicles would never break the speed limit or take a wrong turn. Passengers would input their journeys and technology would ensure they never had to stop at a single set of traffic lights.

In the future, we would live in a world where everything was synchronised.

The tone of her voice was upbeat, like she was describing Utopia.

***

At lunch, I sat alone in a graveyard where William Blake and his wife were buried.

I ate my wrap and a healthy nut bar.

Blake loved his wife and she loved him.

She used to make his pack lunch before he did his drawings or wrote his poems.

I stared at the scotch egg, summoning up the courage to take a bite.

I swear, it felt like I was devouring Marnie’s soul.

***

I pressed the buttons to deactivate the alarm and entered the house, putting my bag down, removing my coat and shoes.

I went into the kitchen, half-hoping to see Marnie drinking wine and texting a so-called male friend. “How was your day?” I said to her, reaching passed her into the fridge for a bottle of fizzy water.

She was made of stone and couldn’t answer.

I drank the water and studied how she had changed. I wasn’t sure what type of stone she had transformed into. It wasn’t white like the statue of David in Florence, or black like the Burghers of Calais in Westminster Gardens, or thin and metallic grey like the painful, anonymous pipe figures of Giacometti. I touched her arm and felt the surface, seeing how she was an auburn colour. I wondered if she was made of alabaster.

I sniffed her frozen waves of hair and the crest of her neckline, checking for the whiff of decay in her new flesh.

“I wish you hadn’t tried to eat my scotch egg.”

I sat on a chair by the kitchen table. Marnie had no respect for my pack lunches. She told me that they made her question my masculinity, or words to that effect. I guess her behaviour revealed heaps about the state of our relationship.

Fact Number Two: Marnie wanted a divorce. I did not.

I think I am doing it again. Presenting one fact when really it’s plural. Marnie had told me on our holiday to Spain that she wanted to end our marriage. We had gone for a meal in a restaurant by the harbour and barely exchanged a word. The two of us sat at an outdoors table and there was noise all around us. A family of six talking loudly. The lilting rhythms of a woman sitting on the seawall, playing a Spanish guitar. A young couple looking at photographs on a phone and giggling. The buzz of life vanished in the space between me and Marnie on that tiny round table.

I couldn’t bear the lack of conversation, so I said, ‘What’s the matter?’

‘I’m alright.’

‘Something’s the matter.’

‘What are you saying that for?’

‘You seem off.’

‘Off how?’

‘Even when I ordered my food, you seemed to pull a face.’

She sipped her wine and lit a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked in years.

‘Are you going to reply or are you ignoring me?’ I said.

‘It’s embarrassing.’

‘What is?’

‘What you ordered.’

I looked at my plate. ‘Lasagne?’

She gestured for a waiter to come over. ‘Another glass,’ she said, watching him place a plastic ashtray for her on the table. She nodded at him and I noticed how she eyed his bum in his tight black trousers as he walked back into the restaurant.

‘What’s wrong with lasagne?’

‘It’s what you have at home.’

‘I like it.’

‘Why don’t you try something else?’

I looked at her paella and wondered why she thought it was exotic.

‘You’re in a mood.’

‘I’m not in mood, although you’re doing your best to put me in one.’

I sipped my water, asked for the bill and gave a generous tip. I watched Marnie stand and put her cigarettes in her handbag and wrap a patterned silk scarf round her neck she had bought earlier in the day at a market. It didn’t suit her.

We walked along the promenade, packed with the bodies of holidaymakers and people trying to flog the touristy tat of trinkets, tea towels, hats, fridge magnets and tie-dye clothes. ‘Did you want to stop for a cocktail?’ I said.

‘I’m tired.’

‘It’s early.’

‘No, it’s not.’

We walked onwards, passing a taxi rank where the drivers stood in a huddle. I wondered if Marnie was having an affair. She was far more successful than me. She had a career in media and kept getting promoted. From the start of us going out together, I had this nagging sense that she would outgrow me.

We stopped at a crossing, waiting for the lights to change. The smell of sewage wafted up from a drain, mixing with the odour of sugary donuts from a stand on the corner. Halfway across the road, Marnie said, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore.’

‘Do what?’

‘This. I can’t do it.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘Us – this marriage.’

By the time we reached the other side of the road, it was over.

Fact Number Three: I sobbed on the boulevard. It made her angry and she walked off. I called out to her, asking her not to leave me.

She kept walking.

I’m doing it again. The synapses of my brain are misfiring.

Fact Number Four (and this I am sure of): Only death is everlasting.

***

My wife’s skin is the colour of a Spanish sunset.

I kiss her sangria lips and stroke her shoulders, smooth as a shoreline.

Songs of a Wayfarer plays from the speakers.

I fill her glass to the rim. Just how she likes it. I realise that she is sorry for what happened.

I adjust her scarf.

I tell her it’s okay.

I forgive her.

Life, it’s asynchronous. 

***

I was relaxing in the kitchen, talking to Marnie about us relocating to Berlin, when the phone rang. I saw it was her mother, Bridget, and I must have momentarily lost my mind as I decided to answer. The thing was, I didn’t realise she was video-calling me.

“Finally,” she said, “that’s such a relief. I’ve been trying to reach Marnie. I can’t get through and have been calling you.”

“I’ve been busy. We both have.”

“I’m worried sick. Is everything okay?”

I laughed. “Yes, we’re fine.”

“Marnie’s phone keeps going to voicemail.”

“Does it?”

Bridget gasped and said, “What’s that behind you?”

I realised that Marnie was in view over my shoulder. I tilted the screen and did my best to act relaxed. “How are you doing? We should arrange a visit.”

“What was that?”

“It was nothing.”

There was an urgency to Bridget’s voice. “Can you put my daughter on, please?”

“We should go down to the seaside for the day.”

“I’d like to speak with Marnie.”

“One second,” I said and I called out to Marnie and then fake nodded, pretending to hear a reply. “Bridget, she’s going to call you back ASAP. She’s right in the middle of something.”

Bridget was breathing heavily. She never believed a word I said, which was partly understandable as I often found myself lying to her. She seemed to see right through me. I remember the wedding day and overhearing her talk to one of her haughty friends, saying that she thought I was beneath Marnie and that the marriage would fail. ‘What can you do?’ she said, tipsy on prosecco. ‘One of the hardest parts of being a parent is standing back and allowing your children to make mistakes.’

“It’s nice to hear from you, Bridget. We really do have to meet up soon and go to the seaside.”

***

Fact Number Five: In this country, it’s against the law to engage in conjugal relations with an alabaster wife.

I’m improving my ability to relay a singular fact. After speaking with Bridget, it dawned on me that there was a fundamental issue with my marriage and that I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I was falling into the trap of thinking that a change of location, like moving to Berlin, would reinvigorate us as a couple, that we could rediscover our younger bohemian selves, drinking in basement bars, waltzing together to the rowdy cheers and cries of sozzled phantom soldiers from the heady days of the Weimar Republic.

At passport control, I would say, ‘This is my wife, Marnie – she is made of alabaster, similar in tone and texture to the statue of Jacob and the Angel by Jacob Epstein.’

And they would spread their arms and say, ‘Welcome to Berlin.’

Living in a foreign city would lift our spirits. We’d be around more carefree, open-minded types. We’d be known as the ‘Epstein couple’ and would be invited to underground soirees in the cooler, East side of the city. 

I had enough grey hairs to know that the novelty factor of living in a new place would eventually wear off. As the months went by, we would come back to the underlying and serious problem that Marnie was stone and I was flesh and, whether we lived in Berlin, Paris or New York, the two of us were incompatible living partners in the eyes of the vast majority of people who abided by the bland norms and values of a modern consumerist society.

I was forced to conclude that the only solution was for me to exist outside of time. I had to turn myself into stone like Marnie. We would merge into one single hulk of alabaster, bound in a silent union that went beyond earthbound marriage vows. This was a future I could understand, where we held each other for eternity, a place where the traffic lights were forever green, and our immaculate love was synchronised.

I embraced Marnie, kissing my angelic wife fully on the mouth, ready for Utopia.

I sat at the kitchen table.

Satie’s the Gnossiennes played from the speakers.

Fact Number Six: Museums are where the greatest statues go to die.

I wonder which one will house Marnie and I when we are laid to rest.

Mark Burrow

Image: https://www.hervecuisine.com/recette/recette-des-scotch-eggs/

12 thoughts on “Alabaster Conjugal by Mark Burrow”

  1. Hi Mark,
    There are some stories that you feel you should know what it all means but for the life of you, you just can’t grasp it.
    For me, this is one of those.
    However, for whatever reason, it doesn’t irk me like some and I don’t know why.
    I found it well written and weird. I have no understanding of it but for whatever reason, I really enjoyed reading it.
    Very intriguing my fine friend.
    Hugh

    Like

  2. Hello Mark–
    The opening line hooks a reader. The casual mention of the situation, as though she had changed her hairstyle, sets the nonchalant tone of a decidedly far from mundane circumstance. Be damned if I can figure out what it’s supposed to mean–but I guess that is a part of what makes it work. If she had gone Mrs. Lot, he could have sprinkled a bit of Marnie on his egg.
    Leila

    Like

    1. The danger of looking back. I love the idea of sprinkling Marnie on the egg. Thank you for reading and hopefully it was enjoyable, even if it does lack clear meaning and resolution. This was written as a short story in its own right, but I’ve ended up building it into a novella (each chapter as a short story) as I liked the freewheeling flights of fancy of the narrator. Got about 10,000 more words to go. Will need a massive edit….

      Thanks again for the comments. Really appreciated as always looking to improve.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Hugh — well, firstly, thanks for reading it and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I guess the main thing — from my side — is that it didn’t strike you as just being weird for its own sake or deliberately obtuse (I find such stories a bit frustrating too). I’ve always liked the dreamy, dislocated atmosphere that Ishiguro went for in The Unconsoled — I’m not mad enough to think this holds a candle to that book, but I wanted that kind of mood…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Weird and wonderful – nicely creates an out of kilter atmosphere and leaves the reader wondering not just what happened but what will happen next.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not really appropriate, but I kept thinking Metamorphosis while reading this. Lack of insanity accepting the unacceptable. Other story I read of turning to stone was in response to the person’s evil nature. A good entry into a small genre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and the comment. I guess the extraordinary is presented as mundane and everyday, which makes you think of Gregor awaking from his uneasy dreams.

      Like

  6. Very entertaining! If things seem out of control, there’s always a pack lunch….The narrator went along with everything as if it was all “normal,” the only thing that really upset him was Marnie wanting a divorce.,, and now he wants to turn to stone with her. He’s quite a romantic! ….sort of existing in this ongoing present moment with his bad synapses, trying to cope. I like it when he goes to a seminar where the facilitator hints “we will live in a world where everything is synchronized.” Kinda reminds me of the style of Kurt Vonnegut… one of my favourite writers.

    Like

    1. That’s lovely to read — thank you.

      Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers too. As a complete aside, I recommended Breakfast of Champions to a colleague at work a little while back as he was asking for a book to read on holiday. He returned and said it was the worst book he’d ever read in his life and told me KV must be a communist. Rather than being in 21st Century London, it felt like I’d been transported into the McCarthy era of the US.

      “Did it make you laugh?” I asked.

      “Not once,” he replied, grumpily.

      So it goes.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.