Romantic Fiction

I met Ted Hughes at a poetry slam.  You played it down, but your name badge was a giveaway. Everyone called you Edward really, but as you said, tapping your chest, ‘I couldn’t resist.’ I looked down at your shoes. ‘Well, at least your surname isn’t Heath.’ I retorted.  Then we laughed knowingly, edging a little closer in the queue at the bar and you ordered us both a small Sancerre.  I sipped, still smiling, wondering uneasily if Ted Heath was actually who I thought he was.

We had both arranged to meet other people there yet neither of our blind dates had made it. We didn’t tell each other this at the time of course, but later it made us feel like Fate had played a hand, not happyeverafter.com. Anyway, if I had learned anything from my recent dating experiences it was to be more cautious about the kind of person who sings whimsical love songs on the ukulele.

We sat together in a small room beside the main theatre, entirely decorated with black curtains and small, uncomfortable chairs (also black). ‘All the better to convey the awkwardness of the human condition and the inevitability of death.’ you barked, shaking off your duffel coat.  So deadpan, even then. When I laughed you turned to look at me intently – passionately – and I knew then we had a connection.  Such a kind profile and just enough dark stubble to hint at inner turmoil. You barely spoke to me that evening, such was the intensity of our attraction.

I mainly remember the proximity of our knees on those tiny chairs. And that poem of course, called Selfie.  It made me think about how much confidence it requires to stand on stage wearing pleather, shouting the word vagina. It looked awfully hot under the lights. I completely missed the one about post-partum corrective surgery called Flap My Run because I was desperately trying to come up with another off-hand joke that revealed the depth of my political understanding. Or at the very least something witty and devastating about Syria.

Of course it was all too amateurish for you to contribute, but there was something that made me briefly, madly, think I could stand up and improvise. Thank God I didn’t. There was a woman there with green armpit hair who mispronounced patriarchy.  You were so scathing that I sensed then the depth of your commitment to the arts. ‘At least all bad poetry is sincere.’ I misquoted breathlessly.   ‘Bad poets don’t deserve second chances.’ You replied, so quietly that I had to lean in to hear.  I saw your fingernails whiten on the stem of your wine glass and tried to contain my excitement about how much we obviously had in common. I did start a poem later about how we met, but got stuck on a rhyme for nominative determinism.

 

So, after that we met often. Casually, carefully, platonically at first, in the cafes of independent bookshops and the bars of boutique hotels. Of course, if the coffee was abysmal (which it so often was) we would just leave – how refreshing to always be trying somewhere new.

We talked about everything. Food, family, relationships, feminism and consumer culture. I bought a lot of new tops. We talked about what coffee machine we would buy if money were no object.  I shared my bad date stories, even the Really Bad Date, and now I found them genuinely funny – giddy with relief that they could be a thing of the past.  We both loved the personal ads in the London Review of Books but had never sent one in, even as a joke. We wondered about the man who never let the impudence of a junction box go unchallenged.

As our shared interests emerged one by one I allowed myself a small measure of private glee, smiling to myself in the mirror as I reapplied my lipstick. Finally, someone I could really talk to about literature and  philosophy and Victoria Coren-Mitchell.  You pointed out that the only actual connection on Only Connect is that everyone on there looks like a serial killer. ‘Ha! Twisted Flax!’ I mumbled adoringly through a mouthful of sugar free polenta cake.

 

And while I talked, you looked. You were always looking at me. You didn’t say much, but that was a relief, to be honest.  You had such a depth of understanding about so many issues, it must have been rather tedious to keep explaining things to me. And yet you listened so closely to what I said. You had a way of narrowing your eyes and putting your face close to mine that unnerved me at first.  I stumbled over familiar phrases and lost faith in my conclusions.  I clutched at half-remembered news items, garbling about how dyed armpit hair was a thing now – even murder victims were sporting them – that poor woman found in Hampstead stabbed in the neck with a Mont Blanc, of all things, and a friend of mine said Jennifer Lawrence was going to make a thing of it at the Oscars so we must literally be the zeitgeist but really, where was the intersectional feminism these days? God, I talked rubbish. You were wolfish, unwavering. You pinned me with blue stares while I flapped helplessly over unfinished sentences. I felt it was as if you were really trying to see me, somehow.

 

I suppose it’s true that I can never go back to that yurt art space and cafe again. The Yart, it was called.  You always were heroic in the face of the badly blended – and I would never have had the courage to complain about almond milk.  But you said the waitress was obviously trying to make a point and stood up to call her back, abruptly unfurling to 6 feet 2 inches of Scandi knitwear and clipped imperatives.  It’s hard to sound authoritative when you have just head-butted a ceiling installation of picnic hampers (ironic and empty, of course), but you managed it.  In the silence that followed I heard nothing but the thud of blood in my face, the soft creak of wicker and the music of a local dub-step collective.  As the waitress’s red ponytail swished a retreat to the counter, I watched the rise of your shoulders and was suddenly filled with the insane notion that you were about to pick up my cup and throw it at the back of her head. But of course you didn’t. Instead you sat down and quietly raised your own cup to your lips, eyes fixed on the table, then on my face. I saw the muscles in your forearm tense, dark against the rolled-up sleeve, and placed a hand over those long, clever fingers of yours. Above all, I mustn’t seem too impressed.

‘What did you think of Benedict Andersen’s work on frameworks of comparison in the social sciences?’ I dropped in lightly. How utterly still your body became as you paused to consider my question; consider me. ‘There’s certainly a lot to unpack there’, you murmured, squinting into the middle distance. I knew then, it was love. I made a mental note to take the rest of my Times Literary Supplements out of their plastic wrappers, leave them somewhere discreet yet obvious and invite you over.

 

It was the perfect time to take things to the next level. You chose the plays, of course – I would probably have gone to see something inauthentic that had actually been reviewed in the Guardian.  Instead we sat on tea chests in disused railway arches listening to blistering monologues. I enjoyed watching your broad silhouette and the span of your outstretched hands as you bumped into a troupe of mime artists on the way to the eco-toilets. You apologised so masterfully, even in silence.

You took me to see a searing satire on our obsession with social media that had a cast of 140 characters and was live tweeted by all 17 members of the audience (except you). Like many of my dates, it was a hot and confusing experience that involved piercing leg cramps, but for the first time I found this thrilling.

 

I loved that you weren’t on Facebook, wouldn’t be photographed, ever, and didn’t even own a mobile phone. An unfiltered existence, you called it.  Never again would I have to spend 3 hours and two glasses of wine deciding whether to include the word ‘maybe’ in a whatsapp message.  Now it was just the notes you would send me; actual, handwritten notes.  Terse, understated poetry in that most seditious of mediums: the love letter. ‘Saturday, 7pm, Pimlico station.’. I could feel in the depth of your full stops how much you had been thinking about me. ‘Burn after reading.’ you would write.  Our little joke.  I kept them all.

 

I took to re-reading Bronte (all of them) and imagining how I would later tell friends about how we met. You did meet them once, my friends. Just once. I was worried that they wouldn’t really understand you, and obviously I naturally shied away from introducing you to environments involving drinks served in mason jars. However, I knew that Sean The Shit would be there with his child bride Selina, her probably looking en pointe and fabulous in shoes I didn’t understand. I badly needed you to be there with me, just once.  To be tall and clever and bored by everyone’s gluten allergies, like Byron leaning against a mantelpiece.

But they were wrong: you weren’t rude.  Far from it.  Only I knew that it was your barely concealed loathing of loft conversions and She Sheds and above all the decor that made you sound so disdainful at the end of each brief sentence. And you did know a lot about colour schemes. Only I saw the magma shifting beneath, the hot looks that oozed across the Chesterfield, seeking out my face. Too late, I spotted Effie had cornered you by the kitchen island and was taking pictures of her macarons. Your face was a polite mask, your jaw taut, your mouth a livid, thin line.  Rex was there, ostentatiously using catering quality kitchen knives to fine tune his salsa verde.  Time to leave.

 

Two days after that, unannounced, you whisked me away on one of your adventures, as only someone researching a novel about Dante’s influence on the Romantic Poets can.  A whole week of out of season self-catering in places with obscure literary connections; just us.  I packed in a state of delirium.

We would go off-line, off-grid, you said: no phones, no safety nets, just us; our creativity free to express itself.  We would feel nature more fully.  You placed a reassuring hand around the nape of my neck as you said it, goose flesh running out like the tide from your touch.

 

In breach of our agreed media blackout, I bought the paper at King’s Cross, just for us to share the crosswords through the suburbs. You were cryptic, I was quick.  Emboldened, I also bought Heat magazine and stuffed it into my handbag. And moleskin notebooks, in case we became inspired on the Pendolino. We both wrote, of course, sporadically in my case, ceaselessly in yours. Your stories didn’t have titles; you were subverting the genre. I glimpsed inside your writing book once and saw your hardy little slanted words creeping over every inch of the page and hanging like knotted rope down the margins.  This level of insight requires a great deal of underlining. No wonder you got through so many pens.  Once we got north of Doncaster I would write down snippets of conversation I overheard and use them as dialogue in a play about Brexit. I sighed happily and sank down into my seat, shiftily adjusting my hold-ups like a sexy Alan Bennett.

As we tilted on I tried not to read the news. The print press: already such an anachronism. It’s depressing that the only things you read on paper now are the things you have to sign, like divorce papers or restraining orders.  I try to atone for my kindle sins by buying all my gifts in a local bookshop that also funds a performing arts workshop for refugees in Calais.  Not that you read about that in the mainstream press. Nothing but cabinet schoolboy scrapes and house prices and historic sex and mundane horror like this woman scalded to death with a Gaggia coffee machine.

I paused.  I brought the pages up sharply, shielding my expression and looking more closely at the two grainy pictures. An old Facebook photo of a young woman with auburn hair, dressed as a waitress.  Taken in the summer, she was smiling guardedly at the camera, one hand holding a tray of drinks, her other arm around a man, unseen except for his shoulder.  And floating, circled next to it: the guilty Gaggia.  There was something horribly familiar here.  Uneasily, I rocked back in my seat to glance up at you quickly, engrossed in a travelogue about Tibet.  The penny dropped.  I looked back at the picture.  That was literally the exact same fucking coffee machine we had talked about buying!  The one that I had mentally placed in the Quaker kitchen of our carefully dishevelled cottage, probably near the sea. We were going to drink out of ceramic mugs made by artist friends, and slow dance around the kitchen to music on our vintage record player, our muddy boots happily abandoned by the Aga.  Obviously, I hadn’t told you any of this – I didn’t want my desires to seem pedestrian, like those couples on Grand Designs who order the glass from Italy.

But now it seemed, even indirectly, tragedy pursued us. Only the DECCO3A Twin Steam Auto Espresso would have the kind of steam power capable of – I peered closely at the text – ‘rendering her unrecognisable’. I stared unseeingly out at the rain and the ploughed fields and thought about the physical strength required to kill someone this way.  I imagined the initial scuffle, the desperate, unbelieving screams. It must have taken a long time, even with dual boiling water outlets and electric cup warmers.  I wondered what she had done.  My reflection in the train window was pale.  I tilted my head up and tried to look sad and wise but without a double chin. I must remember to de-tag any unflattering pictures, I thought. Those are bound to be the ones they use on the news if I ever get murdered.

 

That week seemed like one long, spring day. We read, we wrote, we cooked for hours, we lay in bed and dozed like cats. I had never known such comfortable silence. We could say literally nothing for hours and hardly even notice.  It was like blissful solitude, but with another person – such a good idea of yours to not even tell anyone we were there.  Subject as I am to the social disease of nostalgia, I bought Eccles cakes from corner shops and munched around local museums.  I creaked and rustled in silence before yellowing letters and gloves for the tiny, vanished hands that had held them, entombed now in Perspex.  I left a trail of pastry crumb offerings and re-joined you outside in the sun.

Off we set in pursuit of nature and our truest selves, along clearly marked National Trust footpaths. We tripped through hazy birdsong and I tore off my jumper in triumph. You carried it for me.  Sometimes on rough ground you took my arm, such an old-fashioned gesture; I actually giggled.  You whistled once and it startled me. It was so out of character it was as if I had caught you doing something vaguely indecent.  We kissed.  You tasted of water, clean like the cold earth below us. I tasted of that mint Club biscuit I had surreptitiously eaten earlier.

Higher we climbed, past those golden hosts and up to gorse and beds of heather.  I looked out at patches of light slipping smoothly across ragged moor and wished I had bought more Eccles cakes.  We walked for hours.  I tried pretending I was a fleeing Jane Eyre, hungry and unbidden.  Given the option, she would definitely have worn this much Gore-Tex.  I glanced up at you ahead, and saw you had started climbing a rocky outcrop that hung on the peak of the hill.  My throat felt dry.  I was drinking too much wine in the evenings.  In all that comfortable silence, it was only a matter of time before my Kate Bush impression slipped out.  I followed you up those rocks, panting and slipping and hanging on.  It crossed my mind that if I fell and twisted my ankle you would have to carry me all the way home – John Willoughby to my Marianne.  No facial injuries, just something that would leave me lying feverish yet attractive in bed while you refused to leave my side.  You were certainly strong enough – as you climbed I looked up at the ripple of muscles in your back.  Reaching the highest ledge I saw you standing on the far side looking out away from me, a thumb mark on the horizon.  I decided this was the moment to sneak a look at my phone, smuggled along in the least visible of all the pockets in my hiking trousers.  No Fear, reminded the logo.  It was only to check for reception, for emergencies – you would understand.  I was greeted by so many little red dots that my screen looked gratifyingly diseased.  It wouldn’t do any harm to see my notifications and post a photo of this stunning view so everyone knew I was bloody well winning.

 

So, that was when I saw it.  Her, I should say, but it took me a free-falling minute, swiping back and forth between badly lit macarons, to make sense of what I was seeing.  Effieloo24, mercifully face down on the original wooden floorboards that had cost so much to restore.  I recognised the skirting boards before I recognised her. For above her Joules tweed, where the back of her head should have been, was the murder weapon. The lid flung off, the can twisted, dented, buried into her skull.  It squatted there, mocking and ridiculous: a tin man head on a real body.  It’s not often you find out on Instagram that someone you know has been beaten to death with a can of Farrow and Ball paint.  Most people could barely have identified what it was, but I would have known it anywhere:  Effie’s hallway ran unmistakably Radicchio Red.  With a vintage chrome filter it was hard to tell if it was paint or blood that had been smeared up the walls and pre-loved Victorian door handles with outstretched, scrabbling fingertips.  It made it look as though it had happened a long, long time ago.  Poor Effie. I thought of her relentlessly cheerful food blog. She had always wanted to go viral.  Who would have done this?

You know, I sensed you behind me before I heard you, your shadow slipping over my feet and into the emptiness beyond, your hands, your heft, spread so assuredly across the middle of my back. You had moved unusually fast. Still in shock, I half turned and stepped back, throwing my arm up to balance myself as my heel slipped nauseatingly into nothing.  My hair whipped across my eyes and I saw only light.  The wind sucked at my mouth.  I felt my phone fly out of my hand, heard gravel tripping and bouncing below me into an airy pool of echoes.

You must have known I was going to fall, and in that moment, so did I.  My back arched, tendons straining as I reached, flapping for your wrist, and found only the world tipping sideways away from me.  I hung for an ageless second, lips parted, twisting up to look into your eyes.  They were blank, blinding me – reflecting the sun back from a thick rimmed pair of glasses I had never seen you wear before.  You no longer leaned forward to be close to my face.  I heard only the slap of my shoe and the sharp inhale of the rocks waiting to catch my breath.  And your voice calling, prodding me like the end of your clever fingertips, a hand hard to my chest.  ‘I couldn’t resist.’ you said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Romantic Fiction

  1. This is VERY GOOD. Turn it into a novel, get it published and start thinking about who will be cast in the Hollywood version. I veto Jamie Dornan. I’d be happy with Benedict of course. X

    Like

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