I was happily married for seventeen years before I met you, I mean literally seventeen years of bliss. I’d met my soul mate, my other half; she completed me, made me whole. We met in a bar, a smoky jazz bar owned by a Turk with an Afghan chef and French bar tender. It was one of those ‘you had to know a guy who knew a guy’ kinds of places otherwise you wouldn’t find it, let alone get in.
It was late, smoky inside, misty outside, the witching hour when all good people are tucked up neatly in their beds. The band was packing up while simultaneously haggling over their pay with the Turk. An eagle eyed Afghan sipping green tea and rolling a joint that would render a normal person incompetent watched on from the sidelines. The Frenchman brought a bottle of Cognac over to my table; his fists were full of glasses that he effortlessly dispatched. I can’t remember who else sat at that table, a whole bunch of us, regulars, smugly anticipating a lock in. I do remember the Turk getting up to unlock the door however, someone he knew obviously, there must have been a complicated sequence of secret knocks that I’d missed. Through the blue haze of the Afghan’s thick, richly scented smoke I saw her for the first time. In she walked, blue dress, red hair, radiant, she radiated trust, kindness and beauty of course; I can’t deny that even now I think she’s without doubt one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I knew there and then that she was the one, the elusive, unattainable, almost mythical one. Calm settled upon me, in me, no need to rush this; it would all fall into place because it was meant to be and when something, someone is meant to be, fated in that way, it will happen.
You cannot change the course of history, you think you can, you think that if you make A decision over B decision then C won’t happen, yeah right, you have no more control over that then you do over this sentence. Fate is one stubborn shit of a spinster sitting comfortably in front of her loom, smoking a crack pipe and sewing the events that define your life into a much wider, infinitive tapestry. Once you have been stitched in, you’re in, the reasons why she chooses to set you on one indelible course may not always be obvious; not even to her. Funny thing the personification of immortality, old Father time, Mother Nature, Death, but no incarnation for life itself; it seems far simpler to explain what we don’t understand than what we should. Or maybe it’s because life is such a fleeting thing, not permanent at all.
Then seventeen years later you turn up with your tailor made smile and smug suits, all caring and considerate. You took her away from me, not immediately but slowly; catch a monkey slow. You crept and stalked, even pretended to be my friend, acted like you cared. You caught me off guard I have to admit, I just never assumed, never thought it possible that she could be seduced by silky words and kind gestures. But you did, you managed to turn a good, honest, radiant woman from bashful mother to blistering whore in the short space of a couple of months.
My shrink, she hates that, me calling her a shrink by the way, says it’s too American and as you know too American is not a good thing – she said: ‘write it down, how you feel’.
‘What do you mean write it down’, I said. ‘I don’t pay you large amounts of cash to then have you tell me to write it down!’ She pointed rather arrogantly I thought to the gilt rimmed diplomas on her sanctuary wall. Yes I know, if calling your office a sanctuary isn’t bloody American then what is? A safe place, we all need a safe place to go, somewhere that feels like home, my wife was my sanctuary until you ruined it. You violated my sanctuary; you marched in with your bloody great size tens and defecated right on the rug. Obviously I’m speaking metaphorically, you didn’t really shit on my rug but you did screw my wife, which is probably worse.
How do I feel about it, is that the question I’m supposed to answer, or is it why, why did you do it? Or for that matter why did I allow it to happen or why did she not stop you? How, that’s another good question, how do men like you, spineless defecators manage to seduce women like her, sophisticated, intelligent honest women like her? What’s the secret, how the hell does that work, have you got some sort of voodoo love charm picked up by chance in a Parisian flee market? Do you waft a desirable scent; do you reek of pheromones rendering your victims weak at the knees? I suppose I could almost forgive you if that were the case, what man could help himself if bestowed with such a remarkable gift of nature? But no, even if it were the case that you sweat seduction you didn’t have to point it in her direction! She feels the same way about Brad Pitt you know, she’s never met him, people like us don’t socialise with the Pitts. But it’s fine, because it’s fantasy and fantasies are healthy as long as that’s what they remain, fantasy.
‘Oh he seems very charming’, that was the very first observation she made about you, she didn’t notice the white shoes or she chose not to. Her mother always said, never trust a man in white shoes, and I have to say I concur. I was wearing black shoes the first time we met, she even commented on it, ‘oh good, black shoes, my mother always said…….’ Blah, blah you know the rest. ‘Yes, he does’ was my response to that, I suppose that Voodoo love charm was working overtime because I liked you too.
Nothing worse than wife goes off with best friend scenario is there, I mean if nothing else I feel like a character on one of those abysmal daytime TV shows. You know the ones I’m talking about, don’t pretend that you don’t, everyone’s watched them, if only once, if only because you’ve been rendered useless by man flu and haven’t the strength to switch channels. Perhaps that would be a far better answer to our problem than this; I mean get it all out in the open. Invite the rest of the world to join in with the debate, pass judgement and condemn whoever they see fit. A kind of gladiatorial demise, we could even bring on real lions, see how they respond to your sweaty love scent. I hope for your sake they don’t like it too much! I hope for my sake they do.
Ok this isn’t achieving anything, I’m waffling, I’m putting off the inevitable aren’t I, how do I feel, how do I feel? Why do men find it so hard to talk about their feelings, I suppose you don’t have any issues in that department do you, that’s all men like you do isn’t it, show your feminine side? Women like that, not too much, you don’t want them to think you’re gay, just sensitive. I bet you couldn’t really give a shit could you? You’re no more new age man than I am, you sir are a player. You sell an idea, isn’t that right? You act like you’re Mr Darcy come to rescue some poor suburban maiden from a life of drudgery and pain. ‘You might as well be dead’ you tell them over cocktails at the tennis club, ‘what’s the point of staying with a man who lacks your ambition, your imagination, he’s holding you back. Cut loose, free yourself from the shackles of servitude, of marriage, of the roles that have been forced upon you and fly’. Is that it, you point out the hidden truths, and then offer your services as chief liberator and defecator of sanctuaries, you treacherous dog you.
Don’t try to tell me it was Love; that will really piss me off. Well don’t think for a minute that I’m going to take that gag out of your mouth, not after the last time. You could have screamed for help or tried to reason with me but no, you cried like a fucking baby, you pleaded, begged and even tried a whimper or two, pathetic, I’m truly appalled I am. What was it you said? ‘It wasn’t me it was her’ was that it? Well it’s too late to verify that I’m afraid, she’s been taken care of. I wanted to squeeze the life out of her, put my hands around her throat and sqeeeeeze until I heard, no felt something go pop. That’s how I imagined it, like I was some sort of crazy person, some sort of psycho, grinning at her distorted terrified face as she realised there was no hope; she was going to die. Her eyes searching mine for answers, for mercy, for forgiveness but finding nothing but cold unequivocal hatred. Who’s pathetic now and who’s breathing oxygen, who’s seconds away from oblivion, who’s enjoying this, savouring every moment?
But I’m not a psycho, I’m a reasonable person, under normal circumstances I wouldn’t hurt a fly. So I hit her hard on the back of the head with a garden spade, she’s in a shallow grave now pushing up the daisies as they say. You can join her soon enough, don’t be impatient, first I need to figure out how I feel. This is very therapeutic actually, you know talking about my feelings; we should have done it months ago.
To begin with I felt numb, when she told me about your little arrangement, she felt cornered, felt that if she didn’t tell me I’d find out sooner or later but most likely sooner. I was numb, I didn’t say anything, I just sat down in my armchair and stared at my feet. She shouted at me, she went from vulnerable, ringing her hands and shuffling her feet to angry and frustrated. ‘For God’s sake say something, why are you so fucking decent, so civilized, I’ve just told you I’m having an affair. Is this your way of punishing me, to make me suffer, to stew in my own juices; no you’re not that creative are you? You are so bloody boring; did you really think we would just plod along together forever?’ She said that I was beige, I’ve never been compared to a colour before, I suppose you are red are you, or fuchsia, something exciting no doubt?
I blamed myself, If only I’d kept up the rhythm, the pace of those first couple of years we’d spent together. She was right I am boring, I’ve become boring, boring is not what she married. She married ambitious, caring, edgy, fun and spontaneous. What she ended up with is predictable, safe, failed and resigned to the drudgery, even likes the drudgery, drudgery and hum drum have become my companions, my fellow travellers. It got to the point where I was even considering the idea of allowing this nonsense to continue, I would agree to the affair on the condition that we just never mentioned it again, pretended like it didn’t exist. Swept under the carpet like her occasional bouts of depression, my fetish for spanking or our miscarriage; there’s a lot of stuff under that carpet but always room for more. Who are we kidding every marriage has a carpet it comes with the dowry, here you go son a tea set second-hand, a toaster, fifty quid and a metaphorical carpet unused.
My God you look absolutely terrified, I bet your mind is racing, has been racing since I bundled you into the boot of my car this morning. I thought why write it all down when I can just let it all out, tell her, tell you how I feel. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her, I wanted to; I paced it out in my mind a thousand times. But something just went snap! In my head you understand, snap and that was it I no longer blamed myself I blamed you. My God I went from passive doormat to furious and righteous in a blink of an eye. White rage, blinding white rage, have you ever experienced that? It’s incredible, you just loose total control, you let go and hand over the reins to delirium. I went from beige to red to white and I picked up that spade, vaguely aware of the consequences but not giving a shit I hit her with all my strength. She had her back to me, picking in the washing, neatly folding each item into her basket with practised detachment. She went down as if she were folding herself up, very slowly, very neatly she packed herself away. It felt liberating, like a great weight had been lifted from me, the high of breaking the rules, of taking control, my god most people go through their entire lives without ever experiencing anything like that. It tasted delicious like some forbidden fruit, a delicacy seldom served seldom sought.
The funny thing is you would think that I would suffer remorse almost immediately, that as soon as I committed the act the realisation of what I’d done would hit me. You know, like in the movies, the camera would pan out as I fell to my knees cradling her broken head delicately in my arms, then turn my face toward the falling rain and scream with agony as her blood washed into the drain. No none of that, I just stood there staring at her lifeless form savouring the moment, breathing in the now! You know we spend most our lives living either in the past or the future, I want to live in the now from here on, it’s a hell of a lot more fun I can tell you. I took the washing in, put it away neatly, collected the pegs and then dragged her body over to the shed and swapped her for the lawnmower. That night I got rid of her.
How do I feel now? Well I feel pretty good, I’m feeling pleased with myself, I know not an attractive characteristic but self esteem is important. I’m not happy with you obviously, but I’m in control of the situation as you can see.
Have you just wet yourself? How embarrassing for you if you were a dog I’d rub your nose in it. Feeling humiliated are you, intimidated, frightened, all the above? Good. That’s how I felt, when I found out you were shagging my wife. You know what? I just want to rip you apart with my bare hands right now, but no, too savage, even for me. No, I’ve got something even better in mind for you, I don’t want to spoil it by killing you, killing you would be fun but futile, it would be over, done and dusted, we wouldn’t ever have these little chats again and I’d miss that, wouldn’t you?
How do I feel? I feel pretty good actually. I did what you suggested and wrote down how I felt and you know what it really helped. It helped deal with a lot of issues and made me realise that it’s about time I took control of my life. I’m reconciled to the break up, have accepted it, not passively or submissively either, I gave as good as I got, but in the end I had to let her go. Letting her go released me in a way, you see another me, an alternative me has risen from the ashes like a phoenix. As for him, well the odd thing is that we get along rather well these days, yes strange how things turn out isn’t it. He spends an awful lot of time in my potting shed, actually he’s there now. We talk about all sorts of things; he’s a very good listener. The potting shed has become a sort of sanctuary for us, a safe heaven, rather like your office I suppose, but rather than yucca plants and pictures of waterfalls we have seedlings and a lot of sharp tools hanging on the walls. I find it extremely therapeutic, so quiet too, if I wanted to scream at the top of my voice no one would hear me, it’s that remote, ideal isn’t it?
Resistance 2983 words
I was dreaming a wretched dream, back in the field hospital, I couldn’t find a clean surface, everything was covered in ash and blood and shit. I held a set of gleaming surgical forceps normally employed to perform a tracheotomy. I spun around making myself dizzy trying to find somewhere to put them down. Eventually I opened my mouth to scream for help and, well nothing, silence. I had no voice, no one could hear me, I brought my blood stained hand slowly up to my throat only to discover a hole like a puckered arse.
Slowly the dream faded, went to wherever dreams go to sleep, to recharge their batteries, to plot and plan. I was, just for a moment, glad to see the back of it until my situation became apparent and then I thought, ‘shit, I’m still alive’.
First, before opening my eyes, I noticed two things, one, the coolness of the cellar floor, earth packed, damp and woody upon my face and two, silence. The kind of silence you can almost hear because of the absence of so many everyday sounds, silence roared like a sea shell pressed to my ear. The dogs -oh the poor dogs- weren’t barking, silenced. No cockerel competing with the feeble but enthusiastic singing coming from the bathroom. No dripping tap, embers crackling in the fireplace, clock ticking, kettle whistling, the subtle turn of a page; nothing.
I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see a thing, pitch black and my head hurt, I closed my eyes and tried to sit up. The good news was that I’d been left for dead so no one had bothered to tie me up. I hurt all over but managed to drag myself into a sitting position and assessed the damage. I had a searing pain in my left leg, femur, also a broken rib or two and some sort of head injury caused no doubt by a blow. My mind raced then, a sudden fear, a new fear, had I been raped? No, no I didn’t think so, why would they want to rape a woman in her fifties? No they weren’t interested in sex, they wanted information, information I didn’t give, I’d rather die.
What about André? Where was he, had they taken him somewhere, was he dead? Deep breaths, deep breaths tore into my chest, my lungs refused to inflate, shallow breaths, calm. Keeping my eyes closed I tried to remember.
André sat at the kitchen table reading from his dammed communist paper ‘Combat’, drinking home brewed ‘eau de vie’ and speculating on the allies’ invasion of North Africa. He’d given up trying to darn his own socks and the evidence of his frustration lay discarded on the floor. I stood at the stove trying to cobble together something credible to eat from last night’s leftovers. I had been dreaming of potatoes, I couldn’t quite remember when the last time I’d eaten a potato was! Since the German occupation all our potatoes were carted off to help with the war effort. There were men out there with potatoes that were rightfully ours sitting in their smug bellies while my son struggled to survive on chicken lips and tree roots.
‘That’s it’, he said taking another swig from his glass, ‘we have entered the end game; they’ll be here soon enough’. He meant the Nazis, here in Southern France, up until now we still liked to pretend that we were not occupied, even though it was obvious to all that really we were.
‘I pray to God it will be over soon, Jacques won’t last much longer’, I said feeling despondent. Our son Jacques had received drafting orders from the ‘French’ Vichy government to help with the manufacturing of munitions in Germany. He absconded, never turned up, never reported for duty, instead he’d joined the local resistance camped out in the hills. There were a whole bunch of them up there, hiding out playing soldiers, derailing German supply trains, harbouring English agents, printing propaganda and generally trying to be a nuisance. We both supported his decision to go, we weren’t exactly Vichy sympathisers and would rather he was fighting the regime than making bullets destined to kill more young men. Even so, being a mother, I just wanted him home safe with us, like it had been before this bloody war.
André stood, rather drunkenly I thought, and made for the door, he grabbed his hat and coat and said ‘I’m off to cut more wood for the fire, you pray all you like, I’m putting my faith in Roosevelt, you’ll see, it will be over soon’. I watched as he opened the door and stepped out into the night. I returned my attention to the soup and dreamed a little more about Pomme Dauphinoise when the dogs started to bark. I ignored them at first thinking either André’s presence had excited them or they’d been spooked by a badger. Eventually however I reluctantly discarded my soup and made for the door, but the door opened before I reached it and then things happened very quickly.
Back in the cellar I tried to stand, I reached out with both hands to establish where in the cellar I was, it wasn’t a huge space and I was confident I’d touch a wall or chair or something. I felt an empty apple crate with my right hand and with my left a garden spade. Using the spade to lean on I stood up and immediately hit my head on the cellar ceiling. Reaching out with my free hand I took a tentative step, pain shot up my leg, metallic, grating but I didn’t stop. I quickly established a mental map and using my fingertips I found the steps that would lead me out of the cellar and into my parlour. Each step sent a lightning bolt down my leg but with each step my resolve solidified, I had to get out of there, I had to find André dead or alive and I needed to know if Jacques and the others were safe.
I felt the door knob, porcelain, dainty and blue and I wondered for a moment why such a decorative door knob lived the wrong side of the cellar door? We had never put a lock or bolt on the door for the safety of our children, so the door swung open easily with a familiar squeak; the silence had broken. Moonlight spilled in through the parlour window washing my world in an eerie glow, I leaned on my spade and allowed my sight to adjust. What else could I remember, what happened?
The door had burst open and before I could make a sound I was punched in the face. I crumbled, passed out briefly and came to on my knees with a gag already tied tightly around my mouth and someone yanking my head back with my hair. A man dressed like a civil servant stirred my soup nonchalantly, whistling an unfamiliar tune; a third man stood by the now closed door waiting. I could hear André approaching, shouting at the dogs to ‘shut the hell up’. I glanced with panic over at the soup stirrer; he smiled a heartless smile and put his finger to his lips, ‘shhh’.
André opened the door and dropped his logs. If I could I would have laughed, his expression was priceless, his world had been totally turned upside down in an instant and briefly –very briefly – he struggled with the reality. But he recovered fast, he understood, made sense of the scene before him far quicker than I did. ‘My wife, let her go, she is of no use to you’. He insisted, directing his plea to the man, obviously in charge, the one stirring my soup like he was in his own home.
He moved the wooden spoon slowly to his mouth, all the while keeping his eyes on André; he blew on the spoon before tasting it. ‘Not bad, I congratulate you on your choice of wife, she can cook; given the ingredients she’s worked a miracle. What is this, a Jewish recipe?’ He spoke French in a heavy German accent. André continued calmly but forcefully ‘What are you doing here in my home, my wife, let her go and we can talk about anything you want’.
‘Where do you keep the bowls?’
‘What? My wife let her go’. Shouted André. My husband, he was a brave man but not a stupid one, all the while I knew his mind would have been racing, calculating, assessing, while stalling for time, time to think us out of this nightmare. André took a step forward and the officer with the spoon signalled to his colleague, a slight nod of the head and the man behind pulled me roughly to my feet by my hair and marched me over to the hotplate. The bastard pushed my unwilling head down to the stove, I could feel the heat on my cheek, my legs weak, my resolve cast, the dogs continued to bark; André please!
‘Ok, ok just tell me what you want?’ begged André.
‘I want to know where the bowls are you fucking arsehole’.
André hesitated only for a second. ‘Above your head, on the rack, just there’. He pointed.
‘Tie them up and silence those fucking dogs, and then we will eat some Jewish soup and get down to business. I will ask this communist scum where his son is, where he’s hiding and he will tell me, if however he refuses to tell me, we will soon change his mind’. Said the German in a slightly lilting sing song sort of voice; all the while looking at me.
They were Milice the not so ‘secret’ police in charge of rounding up conscription dodgers and renegade Jews. Why they were out of uniform I don’t know but the leader spoke to his men in French which –despite the fact that I never heard them talk – tells me that they were indeed French. I don’t know why but that shocked me, it upset me that our people were employed to turn on their own kind. Whether they willingly applied for the position to advance their career, for a better pay check or because they were Nazi supporters was all the same to me, they were quite simply, traitors.
I remember taking a moment to look into André’s eyes, I had to communicate to him that, no matter the pain or the punishment, I would not talk and nor should he. He needed to know that I was prepared to die in whatever manner, in whatever way but I would die silently. I wanted him to know that whatever happened, whatever horrors they inflicted upon us, our son’s location and that of his comrades would not, could not spill from our lips. I wanted to tell him goodbye. We stared into each other’s eyes, we didn’t blink or move a muscle; we just said what had to be said. A lifetime of apologies and seldom uttered appreciation, of gratitude, of forgiveness and of unconditional love passed between us. We remembered the joy, the singing, the desire and the laughter, we’d had a lifetime of laughter; we remembered it all until the moment was finally shattered with the sound of gunfire followed by silence. We blinked tears from our eyes and retreated.
‘Can you remove the gag from my wife please’, André asked with little hope in his voice.
‘Yes how rude of me, I forgot my manners, there, I do something for you, you do something for me, that is after all the way of the world these days’. I had a desire to bring the situation to its inevitable end, no point in begging or pleading or trying to invoke pity where there was none. As soon as the gag was out I spat in his face. He could not contain his anger; I saw it combust upon his face, the mask had gone and I saw the beast within. He pulled his pistol from his holster, fumbling in his hast to quench his thirst for revenge; all the while I smiled a mocking smile that only angered him more. My phlegm dripping from his chin he levelled the pistol between my eyes ‘That’s the last time you do that’, he said between clenched teeth. André begged him not to kill me but the other two men pulled him away, outside, I closed my eyes, heard the trigger click, took my last breath and…
I needed to wash; I used the spade for support and hobbled to the bathroom. I stripped off my clothes, tended to my wounds and washed myself as best I could. I dressed in a clean pair of trousers and one of Jacques old pullovers, it still held his scent and I breathed it in knowing he was still alive.
In the kitchen there was little evidence to suggest that a struggle of any kind had taken place. The bowls of soup sat untouched on the table, a pile of logs by the door, a few drops of blood on the floor but nothing else, no dead husbands spread out on the rug before the hearth. I went outside as the sun took its first tentative steps into the new day, lingering in a green light on the horizon. I dug two shallow graves in the parched earth behind the vegetable plot and buried my dogs; one at a time. I stood by the graves as daylight filtered through a blanket of cloud and felt the first drop of rain upon my face. I looked up at the turbulent sky and thought that if there was indeed a God he was probably a Nazi.
The exercise had loosened my muscles and the pain in my leg had dulled, I found it easier to walk, albeit small distances at a time. I drank a coffee sitting in André’s chair and followed it with a couple of large gulps of eau de vie straight from the bottle. The alcohol was bitter, tasted medicinal but warmed my belly and burned like a furnace inside me. I grabbed the shotgun from under the bed and left.
The village felt like a ghost town, deserted, not a soul in sight, not a sound but my own clumsy steps. The only light I could see came from above the bar door, a dirty reddish glow which sullied the street crimson. I looked for twitching curtains, for scared but curious villagers, vigilant watchmen behind field glasses scribbling every incident of the night in well thumbed notebooks. Friends, acquaintances; people I had known all my life hid from the reality behind bolted doors. Who, I wondered had pointed the Milice in our direction, which scared villager had said, ‘you need to speak to André’?
The rain continued to fall, clogged gutters erupted and storm drains burst; the drought was over. A shallow stream cavorted over cobblestones, over chalk etched on flagstones, over my worn out leather boots. I kicked the bar door wide open, pain erupted in my leg as the stained-glass saints rattled in their panes. The bell above jingled merrily, unaware, unconcerned that it was superfluous to requirements. The barman dropped a glass on the floor, he looked from the broken fragments around his feet to me, to the three Milice huddled drunkenly around the fire. And finding a balance between cowardliness and courage he walked out of his own bar with a nonchalant flick of his bar towel. The merry bell died with the departure of its owner and the silence that replaced it seemed even louder.
They were unarmed, too confident, too drunk; too easy. With a slight nod of his head the German instructed one of his subordinates to ‘deal with me’. I never gave him the option, I rammed the butt of my shotgun in his face as hard as I could, blood erupted from his nose dousing his colleagues, sobering them up. ‘You shot my dogs’ I shouted as the second man stood, reaching for his pistol only to realise it wasn’t in its holster. He glanced around himself stupidly until I nodded in the direction of the window, there below the window, on a card table, lay three pistols. ‘Sit down’ I ordered through gritted teeth, my legs felt that they were going to give way at any moment, pain returned to my body, fatigue rushed over me in waves.
The German spoke for the first time, ‘I should have made sure you were dead, school boy error on my part’.
‘Where’s my husband’?
‘Too late’, he said
‘Take me too him’, I ordered.
I gathered the pistols from the card table and emptied the cartridges onto the floor before throwing the guns out of the window.
‘All of you get up and take me to my husband now’.
They led me out of the bar, people started to gather on the periphery, keeping a safe distance, hedging their bets. We walked through the village and tuned into an orchard and there hanging by his neck, purple, swollen, broken was my husband.
‘Cut him down’ I screamed, spitting in the Germans face for a second time, but it was no good I’d run out of strength, I collapsed on the ground, dropping the gun, not caring anymore. I sobbed, I sobbed for all the wrong in the world, for the loss of innocence, for the dreams that have died with the last breath of a loved one. I felt strong arms around me, caring, loving arms around me, ‘It’s alright mum, we’ve got it from here, you’ll be ok’.
Jacques led me away, laid me down in the damp grass and washed my face with spring water. Three shots rang out.