Living Without The Other – James Lawless

A pecking sound wakens her. With the duvet still encasing her to dispel the rawness of the March morning, she pushes out the frosted window of her bedroom and, looking up, locates the source of the sound to the eaves: a minute green bird banging with his beak at a cotton wool chrysalis. She blinks in syncopation with the wing movement, and then the bird is gone like paper caught by a breeze.

She’s gone too, from her other. She upped and flew away. And who is she now? she wonders. Who is somebody when not appended to another?

Boring, he called her; said he was bored with her. Never in their twenty years together, did she show initiative, never once – he was inclined to repeat himself like he was an orator and woe betide her to interrupt his monologues. It was sexual of course, all the innuendo.

That was the beginning; they were just the words. But frigid was the damning word that led to the excuse for his roaming. That gamey eye of his undressing nubile women, flattering them with his good looks, a dapper dandy with sleek black dyed hair. He had no shame; in the supermarket, he doodled women onto his brain while she stacked the trolley, or in the parking lot while she loaded the car-boot; wherever a curvaceous female appeared, he salivated. He got a kick out of it like he was saying, Look what real women can do, frigid Brigid; they can turn me on, and he’d continue in that vein when he had her home, grabbing his testicles lewdly, trying to provoke her.

At his age, forty four, behaving like that.

And all she ever did all her life was to please the other. Like it was something anointed, a role for her to fulfil sent down to her from on high. All during her childhood and even into those repressed teenage years it was her father, the pleasing of him which was transferred lock stock and punctured barrel on marriage to her new other.

But now for the first time in her life she is free from all that and she is unsure what to make of it. This freedom is a new language that she will have to learn like a child starting again. A self-generating woman? Is there such a thing? What words can she use? What was the past, just weeks ago? An age ago. What is different now? She looks at her hands; it’s like they have lost their use, hands that were in the service of the other, and she examines the long fingers, dry and wrinkly before their softening with the morning lotions. Like down there, that other part of her so ridiculed, she never had dominion over it.

When things are stripped away – layers of herself – she is open to ponder: who is Brigid? Where is the core of her? One thing is clear: she can no longer be boring except of course to herself. But she is not boring to herself. On the contrary, she is a very entertaining lady. Her mind can put on shows that would do Broadway proud. She is multichannel, black and white – she can do film noir – or Technicolor romance. Press the button of your choice. Inside the lady sings.

There’s a pounding on her front door. Her calico dressing gown she ties with its silky strap as she goes to greet Maite the Argentinian neighbour, a petite dark-haired woman in her thirties, calling with her dappled duck eggs which Brigid has yet to taste. The ducks belonged to the earthwatch woman who had met Maite while giving a talk at the refuge for battered women. The earthwatch woman generously lent her log cabin to Maite when the South American explained her predicament about her violent other who could come after her. He’ll have a job finding this place, the earthwatch woman said, and if the snows come, the way will be impassable.

But Maite is still living nervously, twitchingly, fearful that her other will come and find her despite the reassurances of the earthwatch woman. Maite keeps vigil from her eyrie camouflaged by rock and prickly furze and wild holly. She looks down on the valley like a rebel of old watching for the redcoats, expecting her other anytime of day or night to come snaking around the bend in his Opel Corsa with the dent in its bonnet that caused such a furore. It was from a stone thrown up by a truck when Maite of course was driving. He never got the dent fixed, she told Brigid, because it was his excuse, every time he felt like it, to practise on his punch bag.

‘There’s a hare,’ Maite says. ‘Did you see it bounding through the woods? The cheeky fellow has eaten the heads of your daffodils. Did you see?’

‘What would Wordsworth have made of them?’

‘Wordsworth?’

‘The poet. What would he have said on beholding a thousand headless daffodils?’

‘They will sprout again,’ Maite says when she sees the forlorn look she has induced in her friend.

‘The eggs, they make a fine omelette,’ Maite says. She places the eggs, a half dozen in their cardboard box, on the rising red Formica of the kitchen table.

‘And how are you?’

The shudder, shoulders concaving, breath catching in Brigid, brings Maite closer. ʻI’m like the daffodils out there,’ Brigid says, ‘I lost my head too.’

‘You can tell me in your own time.’ Maite strokes her arm.

‘Those strange animals.’

Maite laughs. ‘Animales, sí.’

‘They do not know us.’

‘We are just their prey.’

‘Like the hare.’

‘When the hunter comes.’

‘Yes. When the hunter comes.’

‘We are like the hare.’

‘You are like the hare,’ Brigid says. ‘Mine won’t come.’

‘No?’

The briars are thick around the cottage. She will go at them with the slash hook, thinking how those prickly things paradoxically yield such succulent fruit: the blackberry tart that Maite had heated from the freezer, oozing its purple juices as if the thorns were still there lurking in the pastry prodding, piercing like…

‘We’re not hiding, are we?’

‘Of course we’re hiding,’ Maite says. ‘That’s what women do.’

‘Yes, but what are we hiding from exactly?’

‘You know.’

‘I know the obvious. I know he may come after you at any time. I know all that surface stuff.’

‘Surface stuff?’

‘If we could leave those fears aside…ʼʼ

‘How could we do that? How could we leave things aside?’ Maite says, and her cheek starts twitching to the right of her mouth. ‘Night and day I watch with mucho miedo.’

‘Strip it away, that miedo. Forget about him.’

‘How?’

‘Think of your own life.’

‘It is easy for you to say. Your other is not going to pursue you.’

‘He may not come,’ Brigid says, ‘but others may.’

‘Others? What others?’

Brigid doesn’t answer but looks out the window instead where the light has shifted now into a dull grey envelope, and Con Buckley in a south field is tilling, his red woollen cap bobbing like a distant poppy.

She turns towards her diminutive friend. ‘Do you find me boring, Maite?’

‘Of course,’ Maite says. ‘Who isn’t boring? What did I do today? What did you do? The sum of all our actions. Anyone who thinks he is not boring is arrogant.’

‘You said he.’

‘I did. I wasn’t…’

‘Did I tell you about the lamb whose eyes were plucked out by the carrion crow?’

‘You told me that before about Con Buckley telling you about his lamb. You keep going back to that. Why?’

‘Can you see the fork in the road?’ Brigid says.

‘Where? What fork?’ Maite strains, squinting towards the window. ‘There’s no fork. It’s a bend, a curve.’

‘It’s a joke,’ Brigid says.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘He got his dessert.ʻ

‘What are you saying, Brigid?’

‘Delivered with a fork.’

‘Oh my God. You mean…’

‘I’m full of hate, Maite. Can’t you see all the hate in me?ʻ

‘Do you hate me?’

‘Of course not.’

Their sounds are drowned out momentarily by the snarl of the tractor drawing nearer; the spring ploughing; Con Buckley, sculpting the heavy blackgrey mounds into shapes.

‘My other, he will come,’ Maite says. ‘I feel it in my bones. It’s like they’re waiting for him, waiting for his fists to…’

‘He may not come. Don’t keep thinking he will come.’

‘No, I am telling you. He is that tipo that will go to the end of the earth for…ʼ

‘Validation?’

‘Yes exactly, that is it. He has to validate himself by beating me black and blue. He needs me to do that. Isn’t that extraño? I am his validation in el mundo.’

‘Why are you putting in these Spanish words when you can speak English perfectly?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why can’t you go back to Argentina? I mean he would hardly follow you that far.’

‘No, I can’t go back. That part of my life is over. We had to elope you know, would you believe it? How innocent I was to elope with such a one.’

‘What brought him all that way in the first place?’

‘Real estate, land, pipe dreams.’

‘Ownership.’

‘Exactly. And I thinking he cut a swagger coming through the pampas grass. My family disowned me for not marrying their chosen one.’

‘They chose for you?’

‘Oh yes, a distant cousin. They had him picked out from his First Communion photograph in his shining white suit. Could you believe it?’ She raises her voice. ‘Could you believe it?’

‘Yes.’

‘They disowned me for marrying an extranjero. If I were to go back they would say, oh they would boast, they would feast in their boasting, that they had warned me, had told me. So you see, it would be recrimination for the rest of my life. Who wants damaged goods?’

She is on the point of tears.

Brigid goes close to her and raises her by her elbows up onto her toes.

‘What are you doing?’

Brigid is a full head higher than Maite. She hears the straining groan of Maite’s leather boots, the soft, sensual leather, she thinks, from the rich pampas grass of Argentina. She feels the physicality in herself, a strength surging through her just like she did that last moment with her other, that last supper when the plates were still bloody with bolognese sauce and she was holding her fork, something rose up in her as never before to counter those mocking eyes. Some waitress he was boasting of in her presence, sparing nothing in the detail: the wonderful curves to behold. ‘Oh, I can tell you frigid Brigid, she’d put you to shame’.

The two women hold, life panting in them, as they trace the landscape of wounds in each other’s face.

‘We are sad.’

‘No, no we will refuse to be sad,’ Brigid says, and like a bird descending, she swoops and plants a ripe kiss on Maite’s unresisting mouth.

‘Those curls,’ Maite says, says fondling Brigid’s hair.

‘I must use the eggs,’ Brigid says, breaking away as if suddenly embarrassed at what she has just done. ‘Maybe this evening I could make an omelette.’

‘There is elderberry wine up in the house. I could…’

‘We could do a lot of things with all our coulds.’

The cottage had been the summer retreat of her parents where Brigid’s childhood was etched. She can still locate the marks. Her height measured on the architrave of the kitchen door, notched from her first other’s penknife. And in the bedroom, the child bed with its cold metal frame that she cannot bring herself to move, as if it is bolted to the floor. The single bed, she thinks, where dual things happened. And Maite saying she keeps harping back to that story, she hadn’t realised. What’s the big deal about a bed anyway? For Sneezy or Dosey or Snow White or… Mary with her little lamb or whoever… whoever the other may be, as they go, as they ho ho ho on their merry way, as her father used to say with that sandpaper chin of his chafing her child skin. What is it to Maite whether it was Con Buckley or not who told her that story? Mary had a little lamb, its feet were white as snow, and everywhere the lamb went, there followed the big black crow.

That bedtime story, forcing her to cry out.

She rushes to the kitchen door, feeling nauseous, and opening it, inhales deeply the cool evening with its first star and she thinks of another mark: the stars on the ceiling of her bedroom. Those knowing stars. She trembles and she knows, yes, it is the fusion of her two others that is happening now. The fields that were green are now turning to a dusky grey as the light changes; a stealing of light from some superior source, stealing her light, the universe telling her something, the night, as it approaches, is goading Brigid to hood her eyes, to hood her mind to the sleety rain that is beginning to fall. But with snow impending, she thinks, as the earthwatch woman forecast, the ruts in the field, all the slimy marks could be covered over, yes, as if they were never there.

A city slick was the second other with his pinstriped suit worn to conceal that hirsute back of his. A caveman that she had to cling to through the years, as with ice cold perfunctoriness he grunted and pumped inside her. One should be allowed to preview one’s other naked, she concludes now, to see how he goes, before consenting to be his chattel. The city is a clean-shaven concealment. It’s the way of survival among the teeming hordes, on a train or a bus where people breathe each other’s foul air. How else could one live other than by pretending that the elbow in your ribs was never there? Funny, it took all those years for her to realise she was not a city girl. Nobody is a city girl deep down, only those who pretend that the primeval does not exist. His banking jargon, his figures and statistics rained down on her like hard hail.

She looks out on the fields. She is bare now like those trees waiting for their leaves, part of an interim.

But she will not go forward, not yet, as nature is dictating, but back to a time when daffodils wore their heads with pride and nodded in affirmation at a gangly freckled young girl in her curls and sun-kissed cotton dress with that overwhelming desire to please, to long for the pat on the head, to suffer terror, to sacrifice an innocence for the approval of another. And for the first time, she wonders startlingly, is it possible, is it really possible for a child to survive the games that adults play?

Her mobile phone vibrates in her handbag on the kitchen table. She takes it out and looks at it throbbing through her fingers, knowing it is him. She presses the button, banishing the interloper and draws breath as the room returns to silence.

She has no children. She is glad of that. Less complication for what lies ahead. The inevitable course of events. She is forty three. Does it matter, and what is she? Something sawn off like the cut wood from the tree, something left oozing like a half eaten blackberry cake or like eggs, yes, like eggs that were never cooked, that never hatched. She looks at the worn cardboard box on the rising Formica, the incubator with the tear, the slit in its middle and one of its breast mounds pushed in, like a flattened pugilist’s nose, like Maite’s, yes, on the receiving end of her other. The contents of that box untried. Her eggs are in that tattered body, something used but not used up. The term, she had heard it from the coarse, vehicular mouths of his cronies: ‘She has a good mileage on her.’ Those who were so polite otherwise behind a desk or a grid smiling obsequiously out on a world of actors queuing, nudging one another who were not nudging, who were not pushing. Ar chuir tú é isteach aréir? The Irish words abused, reduced to vulgar codes. ‘Did you stick it into her last night?’ She overheard that, the quip of his crony addressed to her other. We’re a species not meant to be monogamous perhaps except in the sober pretence of day. The false daylight of cities. The false stars in the sky that she can never wish upon. But at least there is the consolation: he will no longer boast, her other; his eye will never roam again. And she looks out towards the undulating valley and the breasted mountain, which he will never see, and the grey holed rock in its womb glory.

A cow has mounted another in the west field. Have they mixed up genders? It is just a form of female caress. Of keeping the rain off the other’s back.

Maite will come and Brigid will open the box. She will make an omelette for Maite and for her. Yes, she thinks, we will drink the elderberry wine and pray for snow.

 

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JAMES LAWLESS was born in Dublin and is an award-winning author of six well-received novels, the latest American Doll, a collection of children’s stories The Adventures of Jo Jo, a study of modern poetry Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world, and a poetry collection Rus in Urbe. http://www.jameslawless.net

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Image: Domenic Hoffmann

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