I always return to the blue slip, with a sway. But things do grow in my body. Faint, but foreboding things. I have a sweet face. I’m very Belle De Jour, this way. Gently violent. A steak knife beneath a lilac pillow. A garter lined with snow. Pink slippers with a trace of yellow at the heel. I’d requested both coffin and carriage for my thirteenth birthday, but returned with a Vienetta instead. My mother’d called me exotic. Miss’d called my manner, my doodles, faux naif. Pink bonnet meek with a hard blue castle in her mouth; something splinter big, but militant, in my gut. It’s all about gracious subtlety.
I’ve been orally fixated since birth. The rattle; the spade. The stick figures I drew were always open mouthed, and multicoloured. Always fixing each other. Big neon hair; bold dresses; a hammer at a girlfriend’s face. Viciously practical. The reddy brown scribble above these figures gave the impression of something sacramental; the faces seemed to kneel at it, in supplication.
I loiter by the chopping board, leaning. I sway. I love to-ing, don’t you? I hate fro-ing. This place has a chandelier. It’s a remarkable feat of human nature. I feel relief beneath it. I’m always looking up at these occasions. It’s the Apollonian logic of a simple, square ceiling; the spectacle of a five fingered pentagon hanging heavy, but defiant, from the centre. You’ve seen this wardrobe? These heavy coats; leather jumpsuits; wired, circular flounces, curled flat and hung an inch off the carpet. They’re all compressed and contained by a series of simple yet remarkable contraptions, like us.
Julia makes the comment with quiet pleasure every time: Hannah is not thinking; she’s ordered the chowder again. She enjoys big death in my bowl; any stench and disorder upturned, and wafting across my face. She’s the soft onion you have to brave before you reach the the drain.
When I hear him say my name, I scan for the other Hannah. I’m hopeful, this way. George fell in love with this lost look. When my name is called I glance left and right, before lurching, as if I’ve discovered an ingenious method for clearing my ears. My hair is still wet when he leaves the house.
Here’s the pink suit with the paired flounce. Under the flickering chandelier, she breathes. I had a friend at drama school with my name, who’d decided to try her hand as a stripper. She required a more generous form of sublimation, a jolting, quick fix. I was begging for it. I needed her to quit clinging. She was always teething on my things.
The two images always merge when I’m at the dos. I strip off the flounce as a healthy young woman. It brings on a physiological response that makes it difficult to hear glasses chink together; the sudden laughter. The cradle rocking in the next room.
This is Frances, with her sixth husband. I’m always happy to be at the table with Frances. She couldn’t justify a strip off anywhere, not even within the confines of a dark wardrobe. What a relief.
I want to inspect her up close, but she conceals everything in buttoned up cardigans and bolted jackets. I know of her genius solely through these men. Each one has been slightly better than the last. We share a sandwich each evening. When she leaves her crusts, I can expect a decision has been made. Unaffectedly, she’ll begin tracing the window sill, my fork, some fabric. I wish Peter were braver. He’s smart, eccentric, but he’s no brave cat. Three weeks later, she has a fearless husband who purrs. Frances is a striver; a conqueror; and she manages all this in a grey turtleneck.
George, then me, then twenty-eight years of marriage. He has deceitful thoughts, and they’re projected in these orgiastic scenes: each year he gathers people round to celebrate our private intimacy.
I wish that Julia would kiss him. I feel that her splayed cutlery is an indication of a lack of bravery. Go on. She always leaves her potatoes. Halfway through a chat, she runs a finger around the lip of her glass; forgetting to look at the potatoes for comfort. That’s why she’s unnecessarily faint; why her tantrums are all elbows and knees.
She demands the waiter to leave her plate, as if to say: take a good look. Faceless hunchbacks lying prone in the cold, brown swamp of your marriage. She doesn’t know what we’re supposed to look like. She taught a young jailer to waltz.
She’s interested in George’s telling of how we met. Frances couldn’t care less. Her husband is feeding her a roast. He’s got the airplane method down pat. Each flight from the plate is unique; each piece has better functionality than the one before. Corn hover like bees; slices of meat dive, landing on some remote part of her that she can’t reach without physical exertion. Such a tease. Soon, her cutlery kiss, and her plate is cleared. It’s like these foolish games never happened.
It’s like this: I slow dance alone in a blue dress. Just sway back and forth; the same blue dress, night and day. He returns to me, from far-off places, to find me swaying. Julia is glad I’m wearing a blue dress in every scene. It brings her relief. She’s always wearing new colours, new designs, brave or discreet patterns. You never know what you’re going to get. I turn the catalogue over and over, and there she is, wearing a different skirt, lounging on a new sofa, jumping for a new ball, in a new garden, with new children. Little does she know, it’s not how you fall in love. It’s about, each day, opening the same page.
He can be rude. Says sweet things while pointing left and right. It’s a trick; a tease. My years as a waitress taught me that the gesture of an upturned palm is less abusive, no matter the customer you’re serving. When he points this way, I raise my eyebrows. I look away. Julia is no brave friend.
Let’s draw the pink flounce skirt from the hanger, once, twice. You see? She always returns them: you’re no retired clitoris, she says. Not yet. What do you think? That’s why the hangers always swing back and forth, then jolt still. I know what you think. But this is one of very few gestures she makes nowadays. This dress. The contraceptive taken with trepidation, at six in the morning, while George stirs up trouble in the bathroom. He’s always writing out invitations for our next anniversary. In these moments, she approaches as an insubstantial flicker. Then you arrive, Sir.
This was the panama hat I wore to and from school, irrespective of the weather, indoors or out. Like a guinea-pig, I stored these counterintuitive habits in my cheeks. I felt the comfort of a smart smile. Smiles on young girls are foolish, unintelligent. They smile while they sing about death. For me, it was a stock of all the things I’d have to unlearn later.
But, give her her dues, she’s always been sensible, reasonable, presentable. She tells me: wear this hat; wear this dress. She’s suffocating, but scrupulous. The first time I’d felt her waver, I was returning from the choir. I’d felt relief. Then, I’d felt loveless.
I’d spotted a cake that was garnished in chocolate flowers. I said, go on, eat them. That chocolate cake was only the beginning of me. I felt high over myself. It was the lying. You ate the cake, said Miss. I did not eat the cake, Miss. I knew, lying or no lying, the consequences would be the same. Both God and lying require an exceptional imagination: but I’d been conditioned to expect the same pink-headed Christian, regardless. What a bore.
Often, I’d look at him and think: kneel at his feet, with your palms flat on his knees. Change the outcome. But this hat kept landing on my head. Sorry do gooding thing; so the outcome was always the same: his appropriated biblical references reiterated on the blackboard about sheep and shepherds.
As George’s general associate, she keeps me in line. Each time the flounce remains on the hanger. They both know so little about me, and the notion that arbitrary morality is the only kind that exists. You know how good I became; on what amicable terms she and I were on, when I left his office, beaten, dishevelled and damp faced. Then look who returns…
Of course, when, after dinner, I am putting lotion on my hands, and he is leaning against the door, I look at my husband’s reflection, and I feel that he definitely knows me. In this blue slip, she feels content to disappear. So do you. I strike some balance for all of us…
I’ve seen this theme recur many times, in film: there is discord everywhere, except the marriage.
After I have taken off my earrings, and laid them on the bedside table, I apply lotion (always to the hands.) I make a dive for the chest. Will we discuss our son’s failures at the chess board? The fact that our daughter is too thin? Do we, then, agree that more potatoes at dinner might help her situation? All is done for; we’ve dived through the bed like Olympic swimmers. But we rise to the surface, to touch.
There is something solid in this ideal; these moments are worth making a ritual of. Some semblance of constancy that yields reprieve, and a customised idiosyncrasy, within that ritual. Something minutely animal: a lick of the lobe, a bite of the chin, to give those reasonable people some airtime; to rest oneself backstage, so to speak.
Really, we have no son. No daughter either. We are cleaning up no muck as a team. We are in no rush for children, having ourselves—each in our own right—been miracle births.
We do not contain enough of that protective instinct. Babies are a thing had easily; without struggle; without labour. One thinks them up, and then, during some quiet moment, shared over a nice meal, we swallow them.
Then my daughter is off to formal. It’s a frivolous, hurried exit. He doesn’t check the fellow is fully stocked with car and corsage, etc. He leaves her at the door and returns to loiter by the toaster, to inspect the sherry. I slam the cup down. Make a shepherdess of me, Sir. His unwarranted surveillance; my theatrics borne of repressed creativity; our daughter fleeing the house in beige fishnets, while an empty cradle rocks back and forth in the next room with the help of no hand.
But the parts of those scenes that have always bought me reprieve have been the lotion on the hands, and the going to the chest. It’s like slipping into a hot bath after a walk in the snow—there is no fear there, only minor ambivalence. The tingle, the expectation of brief suffering, followed by the rise, the fall.
As I’ve mentioned, George and I were both a surprise, so we take life for granted. He taps his chin with an index finger when he’s thinking. He has the gift of being precisely all the things I’d written on my waitering CV. His best attribute, really, is patience: a kind of frantic peace. I understand how these things work, intellectually; but I’m picking daisies while uprooting whole gardens.
He pats his pockets before he leaves the house. It’s all about George have you got a spare… can you do… etc. When I dive to the chest, these are his ruminations, spoken with ample concern: people need me; they rely on me; I’ve got to be at the top of my game. It’s like the commentary on an ad for MensMulti: the broad brilliant man, pouring good water into too many glasses.
We were both accident births; each born from pure intentions. The child shits in the sink, then walks away. The mother points to the shit, but the child keeps working on her jigsaw mat. The mother points to this shit, and shouts. We refuse to look at our shit, while sipping warm milk.
My parents can’t recall the precise moment when the winning team won at the ugly sport. I’m nearest to being borne of immaculate conception. No sweat, no secretions, can be traced back to me; no memory recalled. I could be the consequence of no act. Hence swaying, so often, by the chopping board, indecisively. I could’ve fallen into hay, or a soft blanket. Some days I fall into both in close succession.
If Hannah were here, she’d throw cleavage at everybody, not just a brief dip at my husband—she was brave like that. Julia bends over the chowder; just enough time for the steam to begin emanating from her chest. This is the fool we found dancing her way down the dairy aisle, in nothing but a bridal lace curtain. Then later, prostrate beneath the cutlery drawer.
Has he forgotten her splayed out on the kitchen floor and pointing at her baby for God’s sake act like a lady. The baby cried louder and louder. We’d tried to make an intervention of it. When she stood, all the elements fell from her hair. She’d mistaken them for pick up sticks; began arranging them in colours around the room; stacking them, corner to corner. George’d carried her upstairs, and across threshold. Save me.
Now she’s dipping her cleavage at him as if it never happened. How desperate. That’s twenty-eight years of marriage. Frances inclines her head toward a dessert at the thought. It’s a slow drive through the mud, she says. She breaks the surface with remarkable deliberation.
Let’s recall the scene, together, you and I. George and I open it up like a picture book, each night. I smell far-off places on his body. I bite his chin. Where has he been? I look over my shoulder to examine the place.
I look left, then right. He kisses each cheek. I make a dive for the chest. But then there’s a slow stir.
I hear the rattle, rattle. The cradle rocks. I swallow, but it keeps rocking. The baby keeps weeping. I swallow, and swallow. Then draws open; and cutlery splay. The choir smiles. Then Hannah strips. She breathes. Taps turn. Endless crusts; Frances scoffs and scoffs, but she keeps on dragging them out the drain. Who next? She says. The chandelier. It flickers above the stench. The hangers swing back and forth. Julia rises. You say the usual. Don’t give her the credit. It’s George pouring water over the flounce. You still keep drying everything. But he keeps on wetting it; the heavy coats; leather jumpsuits; wired, circular flounces. They to; they fro. I rise; I fall; I return in the blue slip, with a sway.