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Love Needs Arms

posted Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Craig started by staring directly at Susan. She was wearing a silver-encrusted starfish brooch at her throat dangling from the finest thin chain of gold. It looked decidedly dangerous, but she’d always worn the most aggravating decorations, ever since she had every part of her body pierced as a young girl. Most of that had gone now, except for this hanging brooch.

She was now just like any other middle-aged woman of her generation, inscrutable and cold yet with feasibly stylish winsome ways which she was able to use, as ever, to get her own way.

People never changed, he thought.

He felt that no new words spoken between them could possibly add to or subtract from the past. The climate of their relationship was fixed – a thing frozen in a vast jar of emptiness, yet hanging there within a consistency slightly thicker than air: viewed from all sides at all times. Except Craig felt that this image in a jar was a rather avant garde concept – difficult to understand.

He felt he was twirling on a hang-rope in a cold wind.

Suddenly, he heard a slight noise upstairs. At first, he thought he was imagining it, but as soon as he saw Susan looking equally startled then he knew that the noise was indeed a specific noise and not an accidental quirk of wall or floorboard or ceiling.

How many ceilings and floorboards were above them before one arrived at the sky?

In a hotel, it would possibly be very many. In a bungalow, only one. But in this house – which neither of them knew at all – it was impossible (now they were indoors, and not outside) to guess.

They had arrived together in separate vehicles and parked them in a large empty driveway. The house, when outside, had left the impression of being quite tall – but neither of them had time or inclination to worry too much about the venue of their meeting. They were too caught up with actually meeting. Shaking hands, lightly brushing a single communal kiss from cheek to cheek, skating over a few cursory words: the meat of the meeting was for later. They were at best, simply at the fish course.

With many things to sort out, the meeting and the meeting-place were merely a means to an end – arranged by meddling friends: the absent owners of the house now being used as a neutral cross-section for Craig and Susan.

Meddling friends, maybe, but well-meaning ones. And the meaning of the meeting was never to be misunderstood, even though it had been planned with oblique aims. Someone’s house as a Way Station for someone else’s marriage.

Their marriage as a single entity to be recreated, hanging in fine isolation in the same way as the insulated light-fitting did from the intricately carved ceiling above them: crystalline and clearly etched in the darkness, in the very darkness that the light itself diverted towards the corners of the large drawing-room.

A meal was part of the house’s welcome. The friends who owned it had long since departed, before Craig and Susan had arrived. They had left stir-fried starters, cold meats, skewered cheese and pineapple chunks, mussel vichyssoise, vaguely and incredibly still warm baked apples with syrup and cloves (not a dessert), shaken salads still crimpling in their dressings, shellfish stained with a cochineal that carried no flavour it would seem. Curries as a last minute favour to the guests: all served on nans: unappetising, by contrast, for being cold, or perhaps they were from recipes that were meant to be cold.

No desserts to speak of.

But, most important of all, a box of fine wine, if it wasn’t foolish to believe it to be anything beyond sheer plonk. The difficult mechanics of opening several bottles were however not to be recommended during such a sensitive meeting of minds as Craig’s and Susan’s. They needed their wits, as well as their hands, about them.

“You were always selfish.”

These were not the first words she had used. They had fenced with too many polite ones, at first.

Halfway through the wine-box. He felt like getting the silver bag from inside the cardboard container so as to ensure they would eventually wring out the last few drops. Both knew there was another box in the fridge. A different wine. The meeting could go on all night at this rate, this ever-lasting neutral night.

It was as if the suspect noise or sound upstairs had created a pivot of moods. Hence, the more frank accusation. Craig, selfish? He knew the word was waiting in the wings, unaccountably resonating, as it did, with items of the food they had consumed. He shrugged. Weren’t all men selfish? Indeed, he believed all people – whatever their gender – were unavoidably selfish. Human nature. Even the most selfless person did things for selfish reasons. Or so he believed.

“Selfish? A strange word to use, Susan.”

He almost added something else, but thought better of it for fear of appearing pretentious. What is a self for but to be selfish with? A self had several hands, some to give, some to take, some to do both. But a hand, even in this metaphorical sense, was designed physically for cupping the palm and receiving – and then the crab of the fingers quickly pouncing its grasp to grip the thing that was received. For a hand to give, it needed its own arm to stretch out and become more intrinsic to the act: almost an unnatural physical manoeuvre.

Giving needed lateral thinking as well as lateral muscle movement from chest side and armpit. Selfishness needed only the hand in cupped mode as near to the body as possible – not giving the appearance of greed but certainly a sedate acceptance mode of receiving what was given to it.

Craig shook off these thoughts. They were crazy. He tore vigorously at the cardboard wine-box and released its silver bag that came out like a floppy muscle-fish with plenty of metaphorical meat still on its bones. It was like snatching a bodily organ from its conch shell. He pushed the tap as he squeezed the wobbly innards of the box, allowing the white wine to spurt fitfully into his glass. He was almost half-cut, already.

“Yes, selfish, Craig. It’s give and take that all marriages need.”

At that point, there was a loud crash upstairs: unmistakeable this time as an intrusive noise. Simultaneously, they looked towards the ceiling. There had been no build-up of fear. They may have felt a shudder or frisson – with this being a house set in its own acreage of empty countryside. A house neither of them knew at all well, a fact which could obviously bear repeating, Craig thought.

A ready-made double bed upstairs somewhere, they had been told, but with choice of single ones in separate rooms, if things should not reach the optimum. The situation was laughable, Craig had thought. And no doubt, Susan had thought this, too. But an experiment they had agreed they would try, at the insistence of their so-called friends.

Neither Craig or Susan had had infidelities or even casual affairs in the past. It was just that they needed welding back together again. Like the neatly parked vehicles outside, directly next to each other, despite the huge choice of parking spaces.

An evening in this house was the make or break. Cliché, but true. Or so it had been trailered. Now the fear they had not felt at all – about this house – they suddenly thought they should have felt all along. They saw it in each other’s eyes, with a new-discovered omniscience. A fear that had become terror, without having been felt as fear at all in advance of this transformation into terror. The house was empty. So what?

But there was a strange stain slowly spreading across the ceiling like the map of a developing country.

“What’s that?” they both abruptly said in perfect timing. They were indeed made for each other. During their marriage, they had even grown to look like each other, although neither would have admitted this. It took a moment of terror to bring full realisation of their togetherness and how they were meant for each other. Too many words to say or mean the same thing.

Terror, the unexpected orgasm of fear?

Nobody thought any such thing – certainly not in those words. Yes, meant for each other. In fact, their only meaning.

The terror had by now returned to the simple undercurrent of fear that it should always have been felt to be. The house had grown silent again – too silent, in fact. A breed of silence that teetered on the edge of something even more silent as the concept of death is often considered to be.

Craig shrugged to himself, as if he had concocted this narration via himself: a character in charge of the strings as puppet-master. A story-teller by default.

Susan smiled as she could read his thoughts now, in a rush of disgust at being so close to him again. The first time in years. She tugged at her necklace to avoid idle hands.

The story had come together with a surge of nerves – and they could almost foresee the ending, as their arms tentatively held hands (now free) across the remains of the food and tattered wine-box between them. The archipelago of strange forbidden lands staining the ceiling were only visual shudders thrown by the slowly shadowing light-fitment hanging from the ceiling as it reflected off the empty silver muscle-fish that swigged and swaggered with a deep winy gurgle … its ‘tap’ hidden beneath it like vestigial genitalia.

Their conversation had not been a real conversation, with interchange imparting and re-imparting items of information or endearments or recriminations or false politenesses or even real politenesses.

The atmosphere was one that belonged to silence. Selfishness a word or weapon used to instil a new unselfishness that some called death. A communion wine left for all to share in their last moments by unforgiving friends, meddling friends who were Craig and Susan themselves: trapped by the only selves that knew them better than they did themselves.

So they lifted themselves slowly from their high-backed chairs and left for the beds upstairs, leaving the final choice of which bed or beds to use until when they reached the moment of final decision. Neither knew of the giant crippled slowly caramelizing starfish that was even now settling down into the gooey mattress of the double bed, its remaining feelers as upon a loom of encrusted jewellery.

Craig and Susan would not understand the ending they had forged together. The symbolism would be lost on them, surely. A waste of words. And tomorrow they may leave on their separate paths in life.

They can’t leave one of the vehicles behind, after all. One may crash, one may not. Or they may not leave together. Or one of them may stay behind to face the so-called friends (owners of the house, if not of the narration). All depended on the dreams that the night had left in store for them. Nights fed on silence and gave little back. The starfish had lost its arms.

(unpublished)

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