“Look at me!” he demanded as they walked through the park. “I’m talking to you. This is important. Focus on me. Be present in this moment. Here. Now. Look at me. Do you know how to be present? I thought you’d have learnt by now.” Again his companion had to attend to the toddler she was with, the toddler in a grown body who refused to be denied.
“I told you not to say no to me.” He spat the words through tightly clenched teeth that were nearly perfectly aligned. That was all part of his image of perfection. Everything had to look right, even Alex. He tried to change her as well. He knew what looked best on her, and told her so. “Wear this,” he’d suggest, taking something from the wardrobe. It was usually something that he had chosen for her. Something he liked. To save arguments she usually did wear it, because he always suggested a change when there wasn’t time to discuss it. “Hurry up and change, I’ll be waiting in the car.” Then he’d leave her standing there with her outfit on and his choice in her hand.
Alex stood her ground and stared at the raging mass in front of her. “Here we go again,” she thought to herself as a wry smile played on her lips. She was used to this but didn’t like it. It was starting to happen more and more frequently and Alex wasn’t sure what to do about it any more. So she stayed quiet as usual. Even though she was biting her lip the smile that she first manufactured was more evident than she had anticipated and Frankie saw it and started to seethe. This happened every time he didn’t get his own way. It was either the hands going up and down at increasing speed or the feeling that she was being attacked by a WWII Spitfire as the words hurtled towards her faster than the speed of light. When it was bad it was both. This time is was bad.
Like the time Frankie said he wanted to talk about a trip they were planning to Amsterdam one summer, but then when they had sat in the quiet graveyard, beers in hand, Frankie asked Alex a series of questions about what they were going to do without giving her time to answer any of them. When she eventually opened her mouth to answer she was hesitant, it was in a brief lull in his monologue as he sat staring at her. His sometimes kind eyes had turned icy.
“Um, well …”, she knew there was something that kept drawing her back to him, something that she couldn’t quite shake. Was it that one summer that they had been blissfully happy? That was almost nine years ago. She felt stuck in a time warp with old, faded memories. It felt like holding on to a postcard of a childhood holiday.
Everything in her life had lost its shape and balance since he came into her world nearly a decade before. Her first instinct was to say no to him when she had first met him. But there was something in his eyes that changed her mind. It was still there. Those cornflower blue eyes were reflecting the depth of the sky. She sat there trying to think of what would make him happy to hear. She knew that what she wanted to say would make him even angrier and so she hesitated even more. “I don’t know …”, she trailed off weakly. What she really didn’t know was why she was still with him. Why after all the horrible things he said and did to her, then each time he called and said that he wanted to talk – because they were ‘soul mates’ – she forgot her own advice to herself and dropped everything and went to meet him. It was her own fault, she thought, as she sat crossed legged on the green grass surrounded by a circle of gravestones. When she started the walk to meet him her determination to be herself, to be strong, was clear. Now everything was a blur like she was on the spin cycle of a wash. The blue sky above them was dotted with a small series of clouds that were to be her only companions in a few minutes, but she didn’t know that then. Her eyes looked from one grass patch to another trying to find something to focus on instead of her own rapid breathing. Her heart felt like it was on a down hill ski slope, without any poles to help the descent.
“Answer me,” he demanded. Alex looked up at him, hoping to find some kindness in his face, but there was nothing there that would comfort either of them. All she saw was that he hated her. It was clearly written all across his face. What had she done? What hadn’t she done? Had she done anything? She was confused.
“I’m thinking,” she said. “You asked me so many questions I don’t know which one to answer first …” As her words quietly fell from her lips it didn’t taken long for Frankie to show his frustration at her again. “Speak up! Stop mumbling. You’re like a fucking child! You can’t have a decent adult conversation for one moment, can you?!” With that he got up with one smooth movement. Alex looked at him as he moved away from her. He cared for his body most of the time. He had an athletic build that he liked to case in clothes that showed off his shape. He courted admiration for his looks, he admitted on several occasions that women were always after him as he was attractive to them. He strutted like a peacock when he was in public, he was never shy in blowing his own trumpet.
“You can fuck right off!” he shouted at her as he strode across the open patch of grass to the shade of the nearby trees, “you fucking make me sick!” And then he disappeared. Frankie didn’t understand why Alex just didn’t listen to him. Why did she have to make everything so difficult all the time? They had a good way of being together if only she would agree with him. Hadn’t she learnt that yet?
He didn’t look back. He had no need to. He would let her stew for a while until she saw his point of view then he would let her into his life again. Until then he would leave her alone to think about her stupidity. Yes, she needed time to think. Then she would see he was right as usual. It was at times like this that he wondered why he bothered with her. Did he even like her? This was one of the many times he didn’t. He hadn’t told her how deep his dislike of her went at times. Maybe one day he would.
He had told her what worked for him, she should just stick to their agreements that he dictated, pay attention to his feelings and his requests and everything would be alright. Was that so hard to understand? “Stupid fucking bitch!” he thought as he slammed the car into first and drove away. He’d left his beer on the grass but he was going to go to the pub to have another one, and a joint. That’d relax him and make the thoughts of that silly cow go away.
“Fucking dozy mare!” he slammed his hands onto the steering wheel as he parked haphazardly outside of the nearest pub. He didn’t know why he bothered with her. Soul mate? She was a head-fuck.
Alex had sat there for hours wondering what had just happened before she got up, brushed the grass from her shorts and started to walk back home. Her leg was numb at first, from being sat in one place for all that time. People walked along the paths around her as they exercised their dogs in the graveyard. Children laughed as they chased each other through the tombstones. They were living lives of happy moments that anyone around could see. She wished she had more of those moments to remember.
While she had sat still on the grass she had wondered whether or not to take off the ring that he had given her and leave it there on the ground. It can’t mean anything to him after all. Why should she keep it? Was there any point … in any of it? The thoughts came in sequence. Her memory was good. It was initially a great relationship then he seemed to tire of her without letting her go. She first noticed his see-saw moods after a concert they had attended together. She remembered that they were having fun. They laughed, kissed and went home together. He had cried in her arms that night after they had made love. He’d never done that before. Cried in front of her. He had opened up and let her in. She was happy and felt close to him. They had cuddled all night in their sleep. The next day, after she got back to her flat he had text her and said he needed some breathing space. He’d be in touch with her when he had time to think. Alex hadn’t heard from him for two weeks then he called as if they had spoken the day before. “Hey, wanna go for a drink?” Of course, she’d said yes. Of course she never mentioned the nights in the preceding weeks when she’d stared at her phone willing it to ring, or spent nights crying because he didn’t respond to her calls or text.
She didn’t cry any more. There was no point. She used up all her tears in the first three years when she had thought that something was wrong with her. Now she was numb. That’s why she smiled and held it all in.
Standing in the park with Frankie, Alex sighed. She was the only one who knew she had sighed. She wasn’t about to let him know that, he had already seen her smile and that was enough to enrage him. When had it all gone wrong again? She asked herself. Frankie continued to stare at her. Even though it was winter Alex felt hot. She couldn’t figure out which one of his personalities was present at that moment. It scared her into silence.
When he was in a good mood, more often than not recently that was usually after a drink and a joint, he was pleasant and more like the man she had met nearly a decade before. Was it just that they had had an extended ‘honeymoon period’ because they lived in different cities? Nothing made sense any more. The attentive, kind man he had appeared to be was nowhere to be seen any more. When he did bring her flowers it was obviously a token to make himself feel good. Everything was a show for Frankie. He was all about public appearance. Even here in the park, he was performing. People passing by discreetly lowered their gazes. Alex focused on Frankie’s face and cried inside. There in front of her was her puppet master, he was the controller of her life and had just stepped back up on stage again and she didn’t know how to escape, and worst of all she didn’t know why she ever went back to the circus every time he called.
Alex’s only act of resistance was to stand still and be silent.
Today nothing was going to work. Not even her silence could protect her. He turned away from her and walked on, expecting her to follow as he talked. She usually did. He loved to stop and start as they walked. He talked. Then stopped. She had to stop too. That was their way. His way. But not today. She stood still. He took a step back towards her. He looked puzzled. Why hadn’t she followed him? She was afraid. But she did not move.
From the Life in the Cracks collection, now available here: