The city, where we used to fly through the night like bats, is a ninety-minute train ride away. How we live now is an assumption, and today will be no exception. At 8.15 sharp I watch Richard leave the house in a freshly ironed suit. He cycles off with his trouser legs clipped to his ankles, and as soon as he’s out of sight I change from my pyjamas into my new burgundy dress. I brush my hair, braid it and drape it round my head like a Victorian maid. I put on mascara, open the curtains in every room, then slip into my boots to go and feed our birds. As usual, they make eye contact but stay in the far corner of the aviary, side by side, like Siamese twins. They were already here when we bought the house. About to move abroad, their former owners didn’t know what to do with them. Part of me believes these birds understand everything about me. They don’t mind my German accent, they get my facial expressions, the rings under my eyes. On top of that, they are lovebirds, the real thing. I watch the sun rise and blend with the southern Cotswolds beyond the stone wall at the far end of the garden. March is nearly over; the birdsong in the nearby forest gravitates towards spring. Our birds love it. Their gentle swaying is almost unnoticeable, but it isn’t lost on me, and I have a feeling that this could turn out to be a good day yet.
Back inside I pour myself a glass of water, then switch on the video with the volume up high. There he is, Christopher Walken, in the large, empty hotel, wearing a tired suit and tie. For the umpteenth time he twitches his neck. Before long he dances through endless, mirrored corridors like a bird released. His wedding ring reflects the lights everywhere. In the background, shiny marble floors contrast with garish carpets, rubber trees with poinsettias. He swaggers through massive doors, rings the brass bell at reception. He sways up and down escalators, mounts tables and trolleys with the ease of a cat. Then, in the grand* *finale he soars through the huge, empty space above the lobby. Suspended from wires deleted in post-production he zips back and forth with signature grace, as if different magnets are competing over him. Finally he’s back on his feet, looking both chuffed and a little downhearted. I hit replay just then, don’t wait for him to sit down again in the fake antique chair, his head hanging low against the bottle green floor and the blurred vertical blinds. The second and third time around I join in. I always need a little warm-up, but then I, too, dance to ‘Weapon of Choice’, and as soon as I’m genuinely out of breath I pause the video on a close-up of his face. It’s easier to talk like that.
‘Christopher,’ I say, ‘oh Christopher. Can I tell you my story again?’
We’ve been doing this for three weeks now, and I have a feeling that today there’ll be some kind of breakthrough.
‘I’ve known my husband for seven and a half years,’ I start, ‘we met in a London pub.’
Christopher’s eyes widen. It’s subtle, but I’ve got used to it.
‘He wanted to act like De Niro,’ I continue, ‘and I wanted to write novels. But mostly we did other things. I scraped by on a scholarship studying literature, working as a waitress on the side. Richard was trying his luck with casting agencies. When he hit a tight spot financially, his parents stepped in. His father is a retired banker, one of those who received big bonuses long before people talked about them on the news all the time. His mother works for the Royal Opera, she’s a milliner. I know…’
At this point Christopher smirks. It’s a friendly smirk, and he knows what’s coming of course, the sheer scope of my dilemma.
‘I’m sorry I only discovered your video last month.’ I say all kinds of things to keep him sweet.
‘I remember somebody talking about it when it first came out, but never actually saw it. I’ve always liked your films, though, the early ones especially.’
There it is, that faint glint in his left eye, practically a nod in my direction. ‘Richard’s parents smile at everything he does. They smile at me just as much.
In the beginning I loved the Englishness of it all. The fact that Richard went to private schools seemed like something from a movie. When I was eleven, my mother and I moved into social housing. My father had died just before I switched to secondary school. He simply dropped dead in the street one day, something he clearly hadn’t expected. There was no life insurance policy, no savings. He’d been an accountant, but also, according to my mother, a bit of a gambler.’
Christopher almost shakes his head in disbelief. I take a sip of water.
‘My mother had threatened to leave my father over the gambling, but then he was the one who left us. Do you get why I hate numbers?’
This time it’s a definite nod.
‘I dreamed about speaking English instead, paid attention in school and got the grades. I’ve been a goody-two-shoes my entire life. My father never travelled anywhere. Like Richard he used to wear suits. He also bought me a budgie once, and then of course he got me a library ticket, oblivious to what it would make of me: an Enid Blyton sucker, a sucker for all things English. Years later, when I met Richard, I worked as a waitress in Leicester Square so I could pay my rent. I smiled and toiled for tips from across the globe.’
The computer screen has gone black. I slide my finger across the touchpad to make him reappear, Christopher, with the same spaced out expression as before.
‘Do you want to know how we ended up living here?’
I don’t wait for his response. These are the things he needs to get his head around. Repetition won’t do any harm.
‘Four years into our relationship we were living in a flat Richard’s parents had paid for. Like me he’s an only child. By then I’d seen him in ads on TV, stage plays and a handful of short films. He was pretty good, but never quite the first choice for the parts he wanted. Over time that got to him. He started having this nightmare about a giant mouse breathing down his neck. He was convinced it meant he didn’t have enough talent. Soon after, and without much ado, he gave up acting and decided to be a photographer instead. I’d never seen him take a picture before. His father bought him the best camera on the market. Then, somewhere between the thousands of pictures that followed, we got married. We kept it low-key, invited close friends and family only. It was an overcast day in March, more or less exactly two years ago. There’s nothing surprising about a cloudy sky in England at this time of year, but I remember thinking that we should have gone to a place with more sun. Everything suddenly seemed different from what I’d thought it would be. In the lead-up to the wedding, once more, Richard’s parents insisted on paying for everything. I didn’t like it, refused to let them pay for my dress, and they were okay about it. In fact, they praised my second-hand aubergine-coloured dress as if it were something by Chanel. They smiled all day and I kept thinking about my personal bank balance, how pathetic it was, and how I was marrying into money in an Oxfam dress.’
I take a deep breath and check if Christopher is still listening. He is. ‘Anyway, I suddenly felt scruffy-looking at my own wedding, and then,
over the course of the day, after years in England, my German accent became really strong. I could hardly string a sentence together. Even my mother, whose English is minimal, seemed to notice. She shot me these looks all day. Richard’s mother had designed a hat for her, which made her look strange, like a spy or something. It wasn’t that the hat was ugly or didn’t suit her. It suited her very well, in fact, but I had never before seen my mother wear a hat. She stayed close to me all day, her face shiny and a little perplexed.’
Christopher is smirking again.
‘Sorry, I’m digressing… About six months after the wedding, around the time of Richard’s birthday, he and I began to speak about London as if the city were a person. I can’t remember who started it. She’s freaking me out, Richard said. It’s a he, Richard, I said, the city’s one hell of an extravagant guy. We scrawled lists as to why and how we needed the quieter life, but we didn’t get anywhere. I always just see myself sitting at a desk, writing. I can do that anywhere, Richard. But the countryside would be nice. Yes, I did say stuff like that, and I did worse. To help us with the decision, I told Richard to ring his parents. They’d recently relocated to Somerset because his father had retired.’
I can tell by the sudden change of light on his forehead that Christopher would rather dance again. We do another two rounds of the video. This time I even copy the more difficult moves. Doing all this in a West Country cottage is some feat, but I’ve been practising of course.
‘Before he rang his father about leaving London, Richard procrastinated for nearly a month,’ I pipe up again. ‘I spent whole days watching him shuffle around our London flat. Eventually he reached for the phone. And within the hour, once again, my father-in-law took his thirty-one-year-old son under his wing. He rang a few contacts and soon found a space for the thing he’d told Richard to do, open a photographer’s studio for the wealthy set. A week later he found us this house. Richard’s mother said she would help us decorate it. The whole thing was like a painting by numbers prescription, and Richard loved every minute of it. The idea of following parental guidance as a man in his prime was like a new part for him, an unlikely return to acting. I hovered in the background. As always, everybody smiled a lot. The studio opened nine months ago, in the old centre of Bath, a thirty-minute bike ride from our cottage. Richard mostly takes pictures of weddings and babies. Even August Sander did it, he says when it bugs him. In the first three months he shrugged a lot.’
I suspect Christopher’s smirk is something he was born with. It’s not that he’s condescending. In fact, I have a feeling it’s his way of reassuring me. This guy means business. I move a little closer to the screen, as if I’m about to withdraw a large sum of money, bracing myself to state the exact amount. It’ll be good for Christopher to hear me breathe. I too mean business.
‘Things became more serious when Richard took to wearing the suits. One day he came home with this large and fancy-looking bag. They remind me of my father when I was a kid, and, guess what, honey, they’re actually quite comfortable, he said, standing in front of our hall mirror, clad in his new finery. A week later his hairstyle also changed. Suddenly there was a side-parting like a newly paved road along his head. Even then I didn’t say anything.’
Christopher looks exhausted, and not in the least bit interested in hearing more. I close the laptop. There’s a tightness in my chest. I lie down on the rug in front of the fireplace and look up above me. As a teenager I would have swooned over Cotswold cottage ceilings in general, and this one in particular: the rough plasterwork contrasting with the dark wooden beams, undeniably charming. Why on earth would I want to leave here? To date, telling things to Christopher has been a breeze. I’ve never told him the entire story, though. I get up, walk past the kitchen basket full of empty glass, and go back into the garden.
I’m the one who recycles our glass. Vitrics, Richard sometimes calls it, grinning like a Cheshire cat. When I first heard the word I had to look it up in the dictionary. Leaving that aside, I don’t see the connection between empty jars and bottles, and the urge to smile. It’s stuff like this that gives me nightmares, the kind I don’t remember. Three weeks ago, for instance, I woke up screaming, not having the slightest recollection of a dream. Richard wasn’t beside me. I found him in the kitchen, sitting with a strip of banana peel across the table in front of him, his freshly trimmed hair sticking up in all directions.
‘Fuck bananas for insomnia. They don’t do a bloody thing,’ he said when I walked in.
‘But you were knackered when you went to bed…’ ‘Did I just hear you scream?’
I nodded, peeled a banana for myself and went back to bed. There were things in my head I would have liked to say but didn’t. They sounded too much like the climactic, final minute of an episode of *Hollyoaks *before *Channel 4 News *comes on. The following morning, however, I danced to the video for the first time, and by noon there was some kind of a thing between Christopher and me. Then, a fortnight ago, Richard caught me dancing. With my legs split, and my mouth open, I was flying through the double doorframe between our living room and kitchen when he came home early, appearing at my side like a slow-moving wolf, bicycle helmet in hand. Our eyes met, and I blushed like I hadn’t in years. Christopher was about to launch himself into the angel bit at the end. Richard looked at me, at the screen, and back at me. He smiled his very loveliest smile, walked into the kitchen, dropped his bag on the floor and filled the kettle.
‘Hi,’ I whispered, my voice like a leaf in the breeze, and after Richard’s usual cup of green tea we made love in front of the fireplace.
It’s not all bleak yet, and inside the house, on my laptop screen, behind Christopher’s video, there’s a half-written article about the promises of spring and the joys of country living.
‘With the days stretching, and the scent of the earth becoming more noticeable, we yearn to be outdoors. There are endless opportunities for bringing these sensations into the cottage…’ I wrote yesterday.
I must have walked up and down the back garden a dozen times by now. My footprints have left deep marks in the wet ground. The birds are watching my every move. I smirk at them like Christopher, feeling guilty. It’s not fair, they don’t understand any of this, and it’s still early in the day. Richard will be at work for another seven hours. I could drive into Bath, take a walk around Victoria Park, or brush past the tourists on Queen Square, copies of *Pride and Prejudice *sticking out of their pockets. There’ll be more of them in the summer, but there always are some. They don’t seem to mind that Jane Austen didn’t even like this town. In the past, Richard and I joked about stuff like this, and I can’t remember when exactly we stopped. The fact that I haven’t written a novel is another conundrum. It just so happened that Richard’s parents had a few contacts, and before I knew it I found myself penning articles about curtains, staircases and tiles. Considering my background, I have no idea what made me take to it. I spent a few weeks teaching myself the jargon as I walked around antique shops and interior design stores. The magazine people seemed to like what I presented them with.
‘You have a different way of looking at things, it’s rather charming,’ they said. On top of that, seeing my name in print was lovely. Melanie Mason, my English name, sounds like a mysterious, more triumphant version of the one I was born with, strangely at odds with people assuring me that I still look German. I never know what exactly they mean when they say it, and I haven’t changed my maiden name with the authorities. For magazine writing purposes, however, I was told that Melanie Stumptner would be a bridge too far.
‘Your English is so good, nobody would even suspect you’re German,’ the first editor said. I left her office feeling chuffed and confused.
‘What are you dreaming of, Melanie?’ Richard’s mother asked me around the same time. It was a grey day, not unlike today, not unlike the wedding day. What I do remember most about her question, though, is that, once I saw the* *sky, I didn’t say the thing I wanted to say: I want to be a lovebird and fly away. Instead, I took my time and noticed how her eyes and Richard’s were the same soft brown. Finally I said something about a literary career. It was the next best thing that popped into my head.
‘Lovely,’ she said, ‘let’s have some tea.’
My mother-in-law and I have coined a language for ourselves to fill the silences about all the other things: money, children, the past and the future. It’s a language not entirely different from birdsong, a lifesaver when it comes to sitting in Richard’s parents’ light-flooded lounge.
‘Why don’t you write a bestseller?’ she asked when she returned with a tray of designer tea things. Richard didn’t come to my defence. He was slouched in an armchair by the door, like a replica of one of his forefathers. My husband knows I’m serious about my writing. I would never set out to write a bestseller. Writing articles about interiors is bad enough.
‘You’re as stubborn as your father,’ my mother used to say, even after he’d died. In fact she’s never stopped saying it.
And still, if anyone is up to tackling Richard, it’s Christopher, slightly scary American that he is. Against a backdrop of Cotswold stone, he’d cut to the chase and confront Richard about the suit and hair business.
‘You’re fucking up, Mason. Seriously!’
Richard would walk away with the sense of having experienced some kind of epiphany, I’m sure of it. My husband loves listening to Yanks.
‘Go for a spin,’ Christopher suggests out of the blue, and, sucker that I am, ten minutes later, changed into my red trench coat and a pair of vintage pumps I bought to remind myself that I can look professional despite working from a cottage boxroom, I pull out of the drive in our Skoda. The sky is the same grey it has been all morning, the street is empty. The kitchen wicker basket is in the passenger seat. I drive slowly to keep the chinking of our Chianti and Malbec empties to a minimum. It’s unlikely that I should bump into Richard. He hardly ever leaves his studio. Melanie Mason, here I come.
It’s a ten-minute scenic drive into town, even at this time of year, with the trees still bare. The narrow, winding roads, bordered by mansion houses, cottages and endless stone walls, interrupted mostly by evergreens, not to forget the views of Prior Park; all of this taken together never ceases to lift something inside me, some small, crazy thing I cannot explain. I cross the river, turn into the Bath Recycling Centre on Midland Road, park and check my make-up in the mirror. On close inspection the mascara is fine, the lipstick and foundation are not. I’m the worst applier of make-up to walk this earth. I fix it as best I can and scramble out of the car. At the far end of the grounds two men in fluorescent coats wrestle with a mattress. It looks as if it’s about to rain. I walk over to the passenger side and slowly lift out the basket. I have a feeling that to the men in the distance it looks like I’m holding a baby. They’re staring now. I make the bottles chink a bit, and before I know it I’m catapulting empties into the bottle bank’s small opening as if there’s no tomorrow. The sound sends shivers up and down my spine. All the shattered pieces, like people in a war, oblivious to the bigger picture that got them there. My eyes fill with tears I haven’t felt coming. I stop for a moment, stare into the container opening. It’s black in there, hard to make anything out, let alone a single piece of broken glass. I toss the rest of the bottles in with even more force. The tears are running down my face, and with the rain starting, and quickly turning into a downpour, all of this wetness combined feels like the start of a symphony. The men in the distance escape into a portacabin.
‘Where will I go next?’ I ask, climbing back into the car, my coat and shoes glistening with rain. No answer. The car windows are steaming up. I wipe the windscreen with my palm, start the engine, head towards the Avon and across the bridge. On an impulse I turn right rather than left.
‘Sorry, what?’ I say and look behind me. The voice sounded familiar. It clearly came from the back seat, but there’s nobody there.
‘I don’t think I understand…’ ‘Honey pie, don’t act stupid!’
I can’t make up my mind whether he sounds nasty or playful, but decide to go with the latter. I’m now on Lower Bristol Road, heading west rather than south where we live.
‘I haven’t lived in Germany for almost nine years, Christopher. I could never go back. There must be a better way!’
I turn around once more, and there he is, wearing the suit from the video, in the back seat of my Skoda. I almost miss a red light. Had there been a car in front of me I would have crashed right into it.
‘There is,’ Christopher says, ‘there is.’
The lights turn green again. I slowly turn a corner, and there it is, the shop sign: blue and red type on a yellow circle, a blue square behind it. Lidl. People have asked me about its pronunciation many times.
‘No, Leedl,’ I correct them, ’like Leeds, with another l at the end.’
I give Christopher a mournful glance, all set to explain the misery of German supermarkets. He looks utterly disinterested. We pull into the car park all the same.
‘Fuck you!’ I say, instantly feeling awful, but Christopher’s face lightens up. My parents-in-law love the Christmas sweets Lidl stock from October right into the new year, the nougat marzipan bars and the gingerbread, not to forget the glühwein. They serve them as eccentric treats. In my family we used to go to Lidl because we needed to shop cheaply.
I stay in the car and watch the shop entrance. People come and go almost constantly. They struggle with trolleys, umbrellas, grocery bags. Under a sign detailing the opening hours an old woman unties her little white dog from one of the metal poles. The dog yaps and jumps, but when the woman, who has neither umbrella nor hood, walks out from under the shop’s roof, it doesn’t budge. I open the window and hear her shout as she pulls the dog towards the rain.
‘Oh, Bradley, will you wise up? It’s only rain!’
With no immediate response, she hits the dog hard with the lead. This is followed by the briefest of yelps from Bradley, who without further ado follows the woman into the pouring rain, tail held high.
‘Good boy,’ she praises and walks off.
If this is home, I’d rather be dead. I don’t need anything from Lidl. I shop ahead, the fridge is full, it’s only Tuesday. If I go in, chances are I’ll get seduced by the tables with special offers: underwear, notebooks, fluffy towels. If there are wellington boots, as there sometimes are, and I guess it’s that time of year, I could buy a pair for Richard so he’d step into the garden with me. For a moment, the thought of it is comforting, but the realisation that he wouldn’t wear them comes crashing down like Bradley’s lead. Richard would merely smile; the boots would go straight to landfill, he’s ruthless that way. He might even say something like, ‘If you want, honey, we’ll get a gardener.’
‘Did you see Bradley?’ I whisper without turning around. ‘Poor little sod of a dog.’
Part of me still imagines a happy ending. I could leave the car right here and walk into town. There’s a golf umbrella in the boot. Fast walker that I am it would take me less than half an hour. I could surprise Richard in his studio, set off the old-fashioned doorbell. He’d be at the counter in his freshly ironed suit.
‘What a rare surprise,’ he’d say. ‘Yes.’
‘Are the birds okay?’
Our birds always seem to worry Richard. They never worry me; I just love them, and that’s something I would not have expected to say about myself, that I have a genuine love of birds.
‘Of course,’ I’d assure him. ‘Are you?’
To this, regardless of my husband’s polite emphasis, I wouldn’t respond, because, to be honest, I’m not sure what exactly is wrong with me.
‘Were you with Christopher Walken again?’ he’d ask next. ‘My little secret,’ I’d say.
‘I take it that’s a yes.’
‘He’s in the back seat of our car at Lidl car park.’ ‘Liddel car park?’
‘Leedl car park, yes.’
If I were writing a suicide note today, it would read something like this: Sincere apologies to everyone, but Melanie is a fool. She’s been labouring under a misapprehension for a long, long time. Wearing red didn’t serve her. There are novels inside of her like broken bottles. Other than her ignorance she has no excuse. Please cremate her and spread her ashes as you see fit.
I guess one way of continuing with the day a little less dramatically would be to ask Christopher how many more innocuous conversations he thinks my marriage can take.
‘Do you fancy going into the shop with me?’ That’s an easier question to start with.
‘We could make a grand entrance, tango past the sales tables, look for leftover marzipan,’ I say. ‘It’s been three weeks, you and me! Perhaps we could crank things up a bit, let the world know or something…’
I open the car door, grateful for the cold, wet air. Christopher climbs out and follows me, good man that he is. I take his hand, and there we are, heading into Lidl.