© BM 2008
Chapter Eighteen – Episode 26
He awoke, and groaned as he opened his eyes once more in an unfamiliar room. The curtains did not fit properly, and a gray light struggled through the window, reminding him of an other time, in an other place, where he had lain awake watching the sunlight streaming in. He groaned again, louder and more agonized on this occasion, as he remembered where he was and why he was here. She had left him and he had not been able to watch as the pieces of his life, the core of that life, went out the front door.
It was a small, rather scruffy hotel, only two or three miles from his home, but it had served as a shell hole in which to shelter from the war that had engulfed both of them. He groaned again, and turned over, seeking solace in sleep, which would not come. He rose, dressed, paid the bill and drove home, hoping, vainly he knew, that she might have changed her mind and stayed. It could, it would be different. He would make it different.
He knew, as soon as he pulled up outside the house, that she had gone. The place had a melancholy, hangdog and apologetic look about it. It seemed to be saying to him, “I’m really sorry, mate, I tried to stop her, but she left.”
He opened the door, and immediately the alarm sounded. He crunched over an envelope as he went to enter the alarm code. The sealed envelope contained the house keys, and a handwritten note. He screwed up the paper, without even looking at it. He couldn’t bring himself to read what would only inflict more pain. He never did read her note, although it lay in a drawer for years.
Alex walked around the empty, echoing, house, staring in horror at the gaps left by her departure, like teeth missing from a once beautiful face. He started in the kitchen and saw the space left where the fridge freezer had stood. The vinyl he had laid five years before did not extend all the way through to the wall, and the bare wooden floor, about a yard square, stared accusingly at him. A small white tablet lay in this space, and he bent and picked it up. He did not know what it was, but could vaguely remember dropping and losing a painkiller some years ago. Now he knew where it had gone.
“I could sure as hell use you now, but I suppose you have gone past your sell by date.” He dropped the little pill in the waste bin, and added morosely. “Like me.”
A spice rack holder had been taken off the kitchen wall, apparently violently, removing pieces of plaster with it. Foolishly, he picked up the plaster pieces from the serving surface and placed them back in the gaps. They fell out again at once. He stared at them foolishly, and used the side of his hand to collect the little flakes of plaster to deposit in the waste bin with the white tablet. The significance of pieces of his home going into the bin struck a chord.
“Your life is going in there, too,” he told himself.
The cutlery and the crockery had been decimated, including some things he could have sworn were his. The big Continental style cup she had always used to drink her tea was gone. Daina’s ’bucket’ he used to call it. They had bought it in Port Merion, in Wales, during a visit to his sister.
“It’s me who’s kicked the bucket now.” He spoke aloud.
All the paintings and pictures from the hall had been removed, leaving as a memory a series of different sized patches where the paint had not faded. He touched them, one by one, as he went past, trying to remember the images that had once lived there. Already they were fading from his memory. On the other hand, her image remained sharp and clear. He could see, feel and smell her presence in these rooms.
“I can replace these, Daina. I can paint the walls again. How do I replace you? How do I repair the scars you have left inside me?” He believed that he knew, even in this very moment of loss, that he never would, never could, replace her. He did not think, he knew, there would never be another woman in his life. Even now, he could imagine the platitudes that people, his family, his friends would use. There would be talk about time healing everything, about there being another bus along in a minute, more fish in the sea all that kind of cliché. His mind told him, rationally, that he would get over this. The pain inside him was too sharp, much too acute, to ever believe that he would get over it.
Francesca had been the best thing to have happened to him in his life. He had learned more about life, and about love, from her, in five years than in all the time with Anne, or Charlie.
And now she was gone.
He went into their bedroom, and the shock of seeing the room almost totally devoid of furniture made him close his eyes and shake her head. It had all belonged to Francesca, and she had been entitled to remove it. He had sold what bits and pieces Anne had permitted him when Francesca had moved in with him. Only one item remained, a large pine wardrobe. He remembered the day in 1991 when he had assembled it, and its identical twin, in a lather of sweat and misunderstood instructions, just prior to leaving for Cote d’Ivoire. Now it remained, forlornly, and its twin had gone, where, he did not know. He had phoned her on his arrival in Abidjan, and had enquired anxiously, “How are the wardrobes?” as if expecting them to have collapsed.
She had laughed with that throaty little chuckle. “Never mind ’how are you, darling’, just ask about the bloody wardrobes. They are OK, and so am I.”
Beneath where the bed had stood, dust lay thickly on the skirting board and the cluster of electrical plugs. He bent and took a sample of gray fluff on his finger, his mind a blur, his eyes brimming.
All the light fittings had been removed, leaving naked light bulbs dangling from the ceilings. He could not remember who had owned, or paid for those. He was glad he had not been there when she was removing them, it would only have led to arguments. A Marti Webb song came to him. “Don’t want to fight, day and night, it’s bad enough you’re going. Don’t leave in silence, with no word at all”. He shook his head, as if in pain. Last night’s whiskey had not prepared him for this.
The lounge was also gap toothed, but at least some items had been left behind, all of which he had brought into the relationship. Their stuffed animals remained, the elephant, the various deer, the lions, all staring accusingly at him from on top of the CD cabinets. He felt hurt by this. He had bought all of them for her, and she had left every one, as if to increase the pain he would feel. It was like abandoning your children. They all had names, for Christ’s sake!
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said guiltily. “I didn’t want her to go either.”
The little room she had used as an office, where her desk and computer had stood, was bare, all the shelves he had painstakingly erected now gone. The marks of the desk, and the swivel chair, which he had bought secondhand from his office, were all that remained, indented into the carpet. Again he bent over to touch them.
“I can take the marks out of the carpet, Daina. How do I get them out of my heart?”
He went back to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and while standing next to the kettle, he began to cry. The tears welled up and rolled down his cheeks, until he was weeping uncontrollably. He switched off the hot water and sat down on the remaining settee in the lounge. How long he stayed there he did not know, but he go up at last and went into the bathroom. He stripped off and got into the shower, letting the water hit him until it started to run cold. He kept altering the setting until there was no more adjustment to make, when he got out of the shower.
The days that followed were lost in a blur, a hazy mix of grief, anger and frustration. Alex took a week’s leave and redecorated the house, doing each and every room in turn. He would get out of bed at six thirty, or seven, have an orange juice and a tea, and then begin to grout, paint and paper until be got too tired to continue, breaking only when the dictates of his stomach became insistent. He would eat thick sandwiches, and drink strong coffee, while standing in the middle of the room in which he was working, staring at his handiwork, and contemplating what more was required. He had to remain occupied; he could not allow his mind the freedom to dwell on the storm that had overwhelmed them. They had seemed so strong, so secure, and so right together. They had never envisaged this. Well, he hadn’t. So, don’t think, keep working, stay busy, do not stop or the demons will return. He did not always succeed, and at least once a day they returned, submerging him, tears streaking his paint spotted face.
At night he would step out of his overalls, leaving them on the floor, and have a shower, before climbing, naked, into bed. He did not shave, and each day his beard roughened to the touch, until at the end of the week it was quite luxurious, and soft, even if streaked with gray. He had grown a beard at University, but that was a gesture of renewal. This was a cry of despair.
He never left the house in the entire period, just worked, Radio Two, Terry Wogan, Ken Bruce, Jimmy Young, all of them, in the background to deaden his thoughts, from the moment he awoke until sleep eventually claimed him. That did not happen easily, or often, or for more than an hour at a time. He would wake at three or four every morning, and toss and turn in uncomfortable anger until he could take no more, and would get up bristling with frustration, to start the whole thing all over.
He transformed every room, removing wallpaper, where it had been papered, and applying it where it had not. The colours of each room were altered. He grouted until his fingers bled, turning the filler a light pink, and painted until his hair and skin were speckled with various emulsions. At the end of the week, nothing looked the same; he had decorated out every trace of Francesca from the place. Yet he knew as he walked around the house on a final inspection, he was only too painfully aware that he had failed to eradicate her traces inside himself, or even from the house. They were there indelibly, and even at that time, when he felt most anger towards her, he knew that they would never be removed.
At times, he would find himself sitting, tea poised at his lips, or standing, paint roller in hand, facing the wall, just staring into space, his mind full of her, his imagination replaying old conversations, or playing out new ones. Then he would shake his head, and get on with drinking or painting. The shower was the worst, and if he could have avoided it he would have done so. His own smell and the paint legacy in his face and hair would not permit this, and he was forced to get in each evening. It seemed that all his restraints, his carefully constructed defences, washed away with the hot water, and he just stood there and cried.
With the redecoration at last completed, he went out for the first time in a week, almost blinking in the September sunshine. “You’re like a bleeding pit pony,” he told himself, “not accustomed to the light of day.”
He bought light fittings, and furniture, and cushions and curtains, and a series of other items which had departed with Francesca, and which he had barely considered until they were no longer around. One such item was a corkscrew. Desperately he tried to replace the teeth so roughly torn from his home, to hide the gaps and cover his shame and anguish.
It did not work. He had not really believed that it would, but he had to try. It was also made worse by his inexpert masculine choice of some items, which did not match, and which Francesca would never have selected. He could envisage her saying, with that musical Italian accent she used at such times, “Darling, do you really think those curtains match this paint?”
“Daina, Daina, what will I do without you,” he asked himself as he looked at a particularly inappropriate set of drapes.
The time came at last to return to work, and he kept his beard, shaving at the throat to make it more comfortable with a collar and tie. His eyes were sunk deep in dark circles, and his face set. No one dared to broach the subject of Francesca, and he did not either. Even Neil Willis, not usually noted for his discretion, said nothing. As with five years earlier, Alex once again sought some solace in work, taking every assignment that was on offer, and some which were not. Julie Willis phoned him on one occasion to invite him to dinner. He declined.
“Alex, it might help to talk about it.”
He couldn’t talk about it. The wounds inside were still open, still raw and bleeding. He couldn’t share any of that with anyone, not yet, perhaps never, and certainly not with Julie.
“Thanks, love, but I won’t if you don’t mind. I can’t. I know you want to help, but I, I….” He tailed off.
“Alex, you will meet someone else. There are lots of nice ladies in the world, and you’re a nice guy.”
He wanted to scream, and did so, internally. “I don’t want anyone else, I just want Francesca, not anyone else. And if I am such a great guy, why did she not see it? Why did she leave?” Instead he said, “Thanks, Julie.”
She persisted. “Alex, believe me, you’ve just got to forget Francesca.”
Again he shrieked inside. “You stupid bitch, don’t you think I know that. When is someone going to tell me how to forget her?” But he simply said, “Julie, I have to go now. Thanks for calling.”
He hated his own house, which he had stopped calling ‘home’, and referred to as ‘the house.’ It held too many memories. He stayed away as much as possible and got back as late as possible. It had become simply somewhere to sleep, or rather, somewhere not to sleep, as that comfort was still denied to him. He decided that a glass of whiskey before bed would help him to sleep. It didn’t and was increased to two glasses, and then three. He was on a slope and this one led only downwards. If he recognized that, he ignored it. He did not care. He would eat out on finishing work, usually fast food, and normally in a pub. He had taken to leaving his car at home, so he could have a drink, which frequently became several drinks. At home, he would drink some more, to deaden the pain and dull his thoughts, and hopefully to buy him some sleep. It did, but not much, and not always in his bed. Many times he woke up, cold and stiff on the floor of the lounge room, at three or four in the morning, to stagger into bed and lie awake until six when he got up, unrested, and still half drunk. He found that he was consuming half a bottle of whiskey most evenings, and hating it. He continued to drink, because he did not know what else to do.
Chapter 18 – Episode 27 – Part 2 Soon