Short fiction by Julie Bull
After the affair, I wanted to eradicate all traces of him. Lucky there were so few mementos. In the box at the bottom of the wardrobe, I found only two tickets to the Barbican, a small book about beach huts presented to me on our second date and a birthday card depicting a cat wearing a tiara – a strange lapse of taste that I decided to overlook at the time in the interests of love. The only other thing I had to remember him by was the glove – a single pink leather glove with a buttoned strap and black stitching marching vertically from wrist to knuckle, just the left hand.
I should explain the beach hut thing. I had told him of my affection for them very early in our electronic courtship and he had written a lengthy reply detailing the scenario in which we would one day be in a beach hut together, a hut the colour of a baby blanket at the far end of a pebble beach. It would be a cold day, with low winter sun glancing off the shingle and we’d be wearing thick sweaters and drinking fizz from enamel mugs while looking out to the horizon as if we were the only two people in the world. We’d be celebrating something – he didn’t say what. To think of him sitting somewhere typing this, knowing so much about me even though we hadn’t met, it threw me somehow. It was like a sudden rush of something to the brain. ‘My situation is complicated’ is how he put it and even that didn’t scare me off. That he was older than me and had accumulated enough life experience for things to get complicated was alluring if anything. I was just twenty-four, I yearned for complication, for something to put its stamp on my adult life. Looking back, that beach hut message clinched the deal. Soon after, I met him for lunch, then the second dinner date and bed.
There were many other versions of our fantasy future after the beach hut; our large Georgian house in Islington, a wooden cabin on the shore of a Swedish lake, a houseboat moored somewhere, complete with wood burning stove. Sometimes we worked these stories up together but mostly it was him and what a gift he had for being fanciful, each iteration unlocking something long held in my happy-ever-after chest. For this and many other reasons, he was impossible to resist; the crease round his eyes as he smiled, a sudden far-away look, his penchant for fizzy drinks – all of it made me giddy, too giddy to care much about the marriage he said was all but over, was just an arrangement for bringing up their children. Not once did I think about these children, how could I?
For a whole year we lived from one intoxicating meeting to the next, taking it in turns to construct surprising and lavish dates. Sometimes it was hard to maintain the intensity of our feelings but I knew that we must. We had to be on our guard for any diminution of them by inventing new ways to delight and hurt each other. Not a moment of boredom could be admitted, so as well as candlelight and picnics and lingerie, there was always our trump card; the ever present threat that our love could be extinguished. This we held up as a shield against the enemy of advancing familiarity.
The thing about a clandestine affair is that it shrinks time. This means that all the hours you might spend away from the person, all the simple nothingness of life without them, is large and long and then suddenly the fleeting hours you spend together are like bullets. The bullets are weekdays and weekends and high days and holidays all at once. They come hard and fast and shoot right into your heart. You have to fit everything in like you were in a fast- forwarded film. We usually had about five hours every week in which to eat dinner, drink, argue, have sex, go to the cinema, ruminate on the tragedy of our circumstances and in this case, celebrate Christmas.
‘Let’s do Secret Santa,’ he said.
It was a difficult shopping assignment. I pondered luxury male grooming products – too impersonal. I ran my hand over ties and sweaters, surely more his wife’s domain. In the end I settled on a book about Bevan – one of his political heroes – and two Eurostar tickets. Bold, certainly, but also understated in a way. He got it right on this occasion too, even though the receipt showed he had bought my gift just an hour before we met. The pink leather gloves were chic, with a touch of retro glamour. They came unwrapped but nested in tissue paper and a carrier bag from Liberty, which spoke of their timeless opulence louder than any gift-wrap could have done.
‘I love them.’
I kissed him while I thought about how to handle the fact that they were tiny and my hands were not. I mean really kissed him.
‘Put them on then,’ he said, coming up for air.
I held them up and laid them out and began to push my clearly too large hands into them. I managed to squeeze my fingers into each of the gloves with the rest of my hands held in a paralysed claw position.
The leather will stretch,’ I said, taking them off again.
I had not quite realised before this evening how much he liked to think of me as tiny. He would often say ‘there’s nothing of you’ or refer to me as if I were a waif or a slip of a girl. I was indeed small if you were thinking only of height – but I was a size fourteen and even my mother used to wonder at my large hands. I was ashamed of them on this December night. I wished I could shrink them for him, shrink all of me down to fit into his pocket and go with him everywhere. Most of all I wanted us to go to Paris to spend our first night away together. It would be like a long holiday but condensed – boiled down to the very essence of the thing with no need for any longer or anything more. I imagined us there, me wearing the pink gloves but sliding them off to pick up my glass of Kir Royale in some dimly lit café in the Marais.
‘Not in the spring,’ I said, ‘Too obvious. Let’s go in January.’
He said he’d look in the diary and see if he could get a pass out, meaning, I suppose, that he must think of a lie that would work.
There is only one glove left now. I took the first pair to Liberty and exchanged them for a larger size without telling him. Soon after that I lost the right hand and didn’t want to tell him that either. It didn’t matter as it turned out, because barely a fortnight in to the New Year, he ended our affair and without the trip to Paris. He couldn’t live with himself is what he said, found himself suddenly burning with conscience. He would never forget me though.
In the end I went to Paris with my friend Paula. She had three whole days to spare so we could experience the city at a more leisurely pace than if I had been with him. I felt time begin to slow and lengthen as we walked around the wide boulevards, looked at paintings in the Musee D’Orsay and drank chocolate chaud in various expensive cafes in St Germain. Everything was easier and slower than I imagined it would be- even the skaters on the rink outside the Hotel de Ville, gliding round and round, making small furrows in the ice with their blades, seemed suggestive of a serenity I did not associate with Paris. I blew into the mittens I had bought at the station and felt the breath warming the flesh of my hands.
It was comforting to have someone to talk to and Paula was a good listener. I took pains to recall and recount for her, all the romantic things he had said to me and how I would feel slayed by his endearments and turns of phrase. She looked and listened for two days. On the third, I told her how he always sent me a text only hours after we had parted company and in one of them I recalled, he had said ‘each time I am deeper in’. Paula said nothing but dipped her head slightly and I saw her tremble a little as if she had been very moved by my story. It took a few seconds for me to realise that she was actually shaking with silent laughter.
Just then I saw myself outside of this moment and as if from a great distance. What I saw was the real smallness of me – all my carelessness and longing, all the stories I had conjured from nothing and all the words I had spoken that I could not take back. I saw his family, sitting round a table eating dinner on this winter evening; a brother and sister lifting a fork, sharing a joke, kicking their legs under the table. I felt my yearning spinning out like mist into the atmosphere and evaporating there. I looked at my right hand, still curled in one mitten, feeling somewhere in my distant body, a heart beating out the rhythm of my life, a pulse quickening.