The first thing Clara notices is his hair. It is thick and full, not empty on top like Eric’s. She knew it would be so of course, from the photos she’s seen online, but she did wonder if it were a wig, or those awful implanted clumps that remind her of the doll she had as a girl.
She waves at him awkwardly across the bar and he looks overjoyed as he waves back, causing a wave of excitement to wash over her. He weaves his way clumsily through the seats, apologising good-naturedly to the disgruntled diners and drinkers against whom he buffets, his pint of bitter sloshing and spilling a trail in his wake.
David is shorter than she remembers. His nose is large, red and cracked, and his waist bulges over his belt. As he draws nearer, his jaw gaping with glee, she sees that his teeth have not fared well, the edges worn down, the bottom half of his mouth now resembling a topographic map made of dentine and enamel.
‘Clara!’ he says, putting his pint on the table, grasping both her arms and shaking his head in apparent amazement. She tries to smile but knows it comes out as a grimace. ‘Good god, look at you.’
‘Yes.’ she says, resisting the urge to turn around and run for the door. ‘Here I am!’
He kisses her cheek and she flinches at the rasp of his skin on hers.
Their table is by the window, overlooking the tumbling, smoky sea. She wonders if she chose it on purpose, perhaps a sort of self-flagellation, which certainly sounds like something she would do.
‘How long’s it been?’ he asks, taking a seat opposite her. ‘Forty-odd years?’
‘At least. Closer to fifty, I think.’
‘Well, you look incredible.’
She blushes, but not because his words please her. Rather it appalls her to have him say something so ridiculous. True, she has plucked her chin hairs and rubbed some old lipstick onto each cheek, but the notion of her looking incredible is absurd. She is almost angry at him for saying it. She wants – and expected – some sort of mutual amusement and honesty at their obvious ageing. That would feel better than this.
‘You look very well yourself.’ she lies, wishing she had the guts to tell him what a horrible old mess he’s become, so they can both laugh at the fact.
Though, he is still handsome, in a way. His eyes are the same. They were always the thing she thought of when remembering him – dark brown at a glance, but actually amber, tiger-striped – and they drew her in with a gravitational pull that promised so much. Of course, she never quite got to the point of discovering if he could deliver on that promise. There were a few moments – in the back of the cinema; in his car on a country lane; in a quiet corner of the park – when she came close, but then Eric arrived and took charge of the situation and everything was resolved in a very different manner than she’d imagined.
She glances down at his hands on the table between them. They are fat and red. Those fingers like splitting sausages were once so slender and nimble, running up her leg. She feels a flutter of something as she remembers, and tries to transmute it onto this version of him, tries to overlay that handsome young boy with the slicked-back hair and the hard, lean waist onto the bulbous old man across from her.
‘I was so glad to hear from you.’ David says, his mouth stringy with nerves. ‘I thought about getting in touch so many times, but it never seemed appropriate, you know.’
‘Oh really? Well, that’s nice to hear.’
‘And I was so sorry to hear about Eric.’
‘Yes. Thank you. I miss him very much.’
Eric. The weight of his name falls in her chest. The loss of him is such a large, unwieldy thing, she is yet to figure out how best to handle it, in an almost physical sense. His name tugs at her lungs, the image of him claws at her gut. Sometimes she wonders if he has taken up residency inside her own body: disgruntled, confined, yet unwilling to leave.
When she met Eric, he had a steady job at the insurance company where her father worked, and had managed to purchase his own small studio flat just around the corner from her parents’ house. As a young man away from his family, he had been taken under the wing of Clara’s father, and was often brought home for tea, much to the annoyance of her mother, who never got any warning. More often than not, they would roll in an hour later than expected, with a distinct whiff of whiskey about them; but Eric never seemed inebriated or in any way lacking in manners or decorum, and Clara’s mother had doted on the young man, despite these sudden appearances. She would fuss around him, serving him extra mashed potatoes, complimenting his attire, asking him questions about his love life, which Clara found agonisingly embarrassing, though she couldn’t quite think why.
Eric had seemed very grown up to her then, much older than his twenty-one years. So much so that she thought of him as being of an entirely different generation, despite him only being four years her senior. He wore his hair in a neat side parting and his hands were soft-looking, pale and clean. Not like David’s, which always had dirt under the fingernails from tinkering with cars, the tips rough like sandpaper and the knuckles scuffed. She remembers the delicate scratch of them on her neck when they kissed, and the plump wetness of his lips, and the burn of his stubble that caused her mouth to swell, pink and hot.
Eric’s lips were thin and dry and he was always clean shaven.
David takes a sip of his pint, his hand shaking as he lifts the glass. He catches her looking at the quake in his fingers.
‘Nerves.’ he says. ‘Or maybe just adrenalin. I’ve been thinking about this for such a long time. I’ve thought about you a lot over the years. I’ve always wondered. What things would have been like.’
‘You were married though, weren’t you?’
‘Oh, yes. To a wonderful woman. Sheila. Three kids, four grandkids. We had some great times together. But she left me, in the end. I think maybe she knew my heart weren’t in it.’
‘Oh, surely not.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
He smiles at her with what he must imagine to be romantic adulation.
She feels sorry for David now. He came here with high hopes, that is glaringly obvious, and really that is her fault. So did she, truth be told. She imagined that seeing him again would somehow launch her back in time, into her supple, electrified, teenage skin, the skin he had touched and adored. The memory of her own body had been so alive when she thought of him.
Instead, his presence brings her crashing back down into her own sagging, aching, grinding jumble of flesh and bone. She feels older than she ever has before.
David was such a force of nature as a young man. So vibrant and sensitive. Her father called him pretentious, because he always carried a book with him, a novel or a collection of poems that he would sometimes read to her as they sat together in the park, her legs itching against the grass and the sun turning her neck pink.
Good god, those were wonderful days, so open-ended and liquid.
Eric hadn’t like to read, at least not fiction. He enjoyed biographies and historical works of fact. When they first met, she thought him much more intelligent than herself, but in hindsight this was mostly due to his own assertions in that regard. Fiction was frivolous, fact was useful and true. You need to get your head out of the clouds, Clara. Poetry never made anyone any money.
Her parents had hated David. David with his books and his roll-up cigarettes and his loud, clapped-out car and his tatty denim jacket and his dark hair and dark eyes. David represented sex: Clara had known that, and so had her mother, perhaps she had even felt it too, that heat in her gut, that rising ache. Clara still felt it every time she pictured teenaged David pulling up outside her house in his car, the window down and a knowing smile on his full lips. David was desire, and want, and lust, and that connection that happens between two people who see something inside each other that they recognise, something that brings them closer and closer until close just isn’t enough. He was her mind being allowed space to grow, her body being free to explore. If that was what sex was, then yes, that was what he represented. And to her mother, that was dangerous and dirty and bad.
Oh, the irony, Clara thinks.
There were many things about her life with Eric that had been wonderful. He had a gift for accruing money, and although cautious, he wasn’t mean. They had traveled all over the world together, after the children had grown up and left home. She had ridden a camel alongside the pyramids, watched a whale leap from the sea, driven down route 66 in an open-topped car. And he had been a good, if emotionally distant, father. Reliable, steady. Sometimes she does regret what she did, but only rarely.
‘Do you still write?’ David asks her.
‘You were a wonderful poet, as I remember.’
‘Me? Are you sure?’
‘Oh, yes. I still have some of the things you wrote for me.’
‘Get out. Do you really?’
‘Oh, aye. Want to see one?’
He pulls out a wallet, and from behind a tight flap he carefully draws a piece of pink paper, the sharply folded edges faded and thinned with age. He hands it to her delicately and she opens it to find her own handwriting from some forty-six years before: a rounder, more flirtatious script than the one she eventually called her own, with affected circular dots over her is and js, and a strange e like a back-to-front three, with which she vaguely remembers experimenting for a time.
It is a love poem, but also an introspective piece. She winces at the clumsy attempts at exposing some depth to her psyche, the references to depression, or at least deep melancholy. Did she really feel that way, or was she just very keen to impress him? Whatever the reason for its existence, the poem is awful, yet reading it she feels an echo of the pride she felt when first she wrote it.
‘You kept this all these years?’ she says, looking him in the eye properly for the first time since they sat down.
‘Of course. It meant a lot to me then and it still does now.’
‘Oh, but it’s so bad!’
He smiles at her in a way that shocks her: like he knows her; like he expected her to say that. ‘You always were hard on yourself. You’d no need to be. You were a wonderful writer. I expect you still are.’
‘Oh, I don’t do any of that these days. Not since…well, since I stopped seeing you, really.’
‘Well, that’s very sad.’ David says, and he appears to really mean it.
She draws a deep breath and prepares herself for the speech she came here to deliver.
‘I wanted to say something. I wanted to say…this might sound very silly to you, because perhaps it really wasn’t that big a deal to you and I’ve no need to say it, but still, I feel like I really should. I’m so very sorry, David. For the way I treated you. The way I left you like that.’
‘For Eric, you mean?’
‘Well, yes. I suppose so.’
David sighs deeply and sits back in his chair. He is silent for a while, staring into middle distance.
‘You really did just vanish on me. I thought maybe I’d offended you somehow.’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Well, that’s good to know. I mean, I got it. Why he was a better bet. I wasn’t much of a catch, was I?’
‘Oh, no!’ Clara says with genuine surprise, ‘That’s not true at all! You were absolutely a catch. You were wonderful. And I was so in love with you.’
And she means it. The feeling never left her. She kept a record of it in her mind, to play when she was lying in bed on her wedding night, shivering in the dark as Eric approached. She carried the residue of it through to her long, uncomfortable, claustrophobic marriage.
‘Were you?’ he asks, failing to hide his delight. Clara nods. ‘Then I’m confused. How come you went off with Eric if you were in love with me?’
She falters. So much time has passed. How can she possibly explain all that happened back then?
Seeing David was supposed to bring closure, to help her shift the stone in her gut, to take her back to a time before she was this person, so she could remember who she was before Eric changed everything. But the wounds in her heart still gape, and now, with the blood pumping harder, they begin to gush.
It is a terrible mistake, meeting him. Looking at him now, she feels ashamed and embarrassed at her previous excitement, knowing how naive it was, how desperate and lonely she really is.
Eric would laugh at her.
She feels the room closing in around her and grips the edge of the table.
‘Are you alright?’ David asks, reaching a hand out to cover one of hers. She sways in her chair.
‘No. No, I don’t think I am.’ she says.
She feels the swell of water beneath her, the turn of her stomach as gravity tugs her this way and that.
The boat had been Eric’s idea. He always claimed to love the sea, and to him this meant he wished to own it. He talked of conquering the waves, ruling the ocean.
It made sense. That was how Eric had always shown love.
It was a little wayfarer, just big enough to take out on open waters, and they took lessons together. Everyone told them it was crazy at their age, but that just spurred Eric on. It was a good time, being out on the sea, being a somebody with things to do, things that were far outside of her usual sphere. She felt vital and real. Her body became her own again.
Perhaps that was part of it, the way the sea made her feel. It forced her to remember. She reached down inside herself and found her body there waiting, inside the shell she had built, trembling and raw and beautiful. The way she felt when she thought of David.
When they were skilled enough to go out alone, Eric put himself in charge, of course. It wasn’t that he was better than her – in fact, she thought the opposite – but simply that he was Eric, and without the instructor to act as witness, his politeness evaporated and they were back to their usual dynamic. Eric was in charge. Eric took control. Eric told Clara what to do and when, and had little interest in her desires or discomfort.
She thought the sea might save her, a surprise doorway to a different Clara so late on in life. But when they finally made it out to open waters and she realised that even out here, even far away from the shore, where there was only weather and hands and voices, even then she still had to be Eric’s wife.
The thought was too much to bear.
The sea was black that day. Opaque and churning. She tried to lose herself in the water, to imagine what it would be like to swim away from him and just keep going until she hit land or drowned.
Clara, for pity’s sake, would you concentrate. Stop staring out to sea like you’re in a romantic novel and get your hands on that rope.
She shook her head and turned to Eric, and his face was so sour, so cruel and loveless, she may as well have been a stain on his perfectly pressed slacks. That’s how he thought of her. An embarrassing error that could never be rinsed out.
And standing out there on the boat, in the middle of the dark expanse of emotionless water, she thought back to that evening in her bedroom – the one she had told herself she would never think of again. His remote, functional manner, his air of authority that caused her to not question anything, the pressing of his hands on her shoulders until she was laid flat on the bed, like she was about to be examined, like he was a doctor and she had some hideous disease that needed exterminating.
‘Now, Clara.’ he had said as she tried to sit back up. ‘No, no. Down you go. Good girl.’
While it was happening, she had stared at the cover of the book David had given her that rested on the covers: 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda. They had not been her kind of thing, and she had found them schmaltzy and uninspiring, but some of it came back to her as Eric pressed down upon her.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
Did Eric love her? Perhaps this was love. Real, grown-up love. Dark, disgusting, uncomfortable, shameful, painful love.
‘Well, we shall have to be married now.’ he’d said afterwards. There was a jagged burning between her legs and she felt very far from happy, very far from everything in fact. Numb. Surprised. Ridiculous. She stared at him as he stood over her, his shirt untucked in a comical fashion and his hair slipped from its usual track, and she started to giggle.
‘Are you laughing at me?’ he had said, and leaned down low to her face. He stayed there for a while, his breath hot and damp on her nose, and Clara’s temporary madness had subsided and she had started to cry a little, the last of her defiance seeping out in wet trails down her cheeks. Finally he had pulled away and smiled down at her, satisfied.
‘Your parents will be so pleased.’ he said. ‘Cover yourself up now, there’s a good girl.’
There were many versions of Clara that died that day.
David is next to her now, his arms around her shoulders, and she leans into him heavily, her breath raking at her lungs and her heart swollen and flailing.
‘I’m going to call an ambulance.’ he says.
‘No, please don’t.’ she replies hoarsely, her hands finding his face and turning it towards hers. She can see him now. The boy she loved. She can feel the truth of him simmering beneath the layers of age.
The weather was turning and the sky became a blanket of grey. Eric was standing on the edge of the boat and the boom was on her side, the wind pulling hard at the rope that held it, the sail creaking and groaning at the strain. She took the rope in her hand and began to slowly unwrap it as Eric turned away to take hold of the winch handle.
That face. That hateful, smirking, all-knowing, all-having face.
The cloud came overhead, rain lashing down. The wind surged.
The rope slipped through her fingers, burning her palm.
She let go.
She expected him to sink with the weight of all he was, that dark core, like a ball of molten lead. Instead, she watched him float away, splayed like a starfish, his shirt fluttering in the current, and realised he had left the weight behind for her to carry.
She buries her face in David’s chest and listens to his heart. It is a good heart. He is not one of the dark things.
Maybe she doesn’t have to be, either.