At first she loved him for his looks, the way he spread himself across the room, the way he shined into the darkest corners, illuminated the place with his illustrious silences and smirk. My god, how she had grown tired of complicated conversations. All those grey areas. Step out of the discourse, he said, only he did not use the word discourse, he used no words at all, he just cocked his chin and winked. Like the devil would have done.
It was as if she didn’t remember her friends, as if they had been erased from her mind. There was a time when she was first to the bar, last to go home, she was the source of the cigarettes and she was never sure if the shirt she was wearing was tailored for a man. He complimented these aspects of her, said it was this earthiness that drew him to her, but he had his own cigarettes and they smoked them in bed, or at the window looking out over the river, watching as the narrow boat swanned past to drop people at the theatre.
When she first said I love you he said that’s nice I love you too and adjusted the knot of his pink tie. He usually didn’t drink but one night they were celebrating something she only really comprehended as a slogan and he got drunk and said I cannot live without you. She cried, briefly, alone in the bathroom but didn’t know why as that was not like her at all. Her mother said he was the best thing that had ever happened to the family and put her hands on her daughter’s face at news of the engagement, and her father shook his hand and then hers.
She began explaining to people now that they had known each other since school and how remarkable it had been that they had found each other once again, in adulthood and with all those separate mistakes behind them. They had met at the right time, and she would explain this and top up her wine at the breakfast bar and cross her legs on the stool. She had always wanted to work in a bookshop, or perhaps a library, something gentle that would give her conversation topics and put her at a counter where she could face thoughtful people for just a few seconds at a time. She became a director of his company instead, and tried, without luck, to start a book club from the front room.
His parents never liked her. They tolerated her. She always looked too pale for the suburbs. They always assumed he tolerated much about her too. That must have been it. A shame that tolerance was such a chore. His first extra-marital affair was with a woman with a golden tan who pushed her ponytail through the strap in her cap when she played tennis. She also golfed. He denied it to her face, denied it loud and eventually with a snarl. This is the life, the snarl said. Two birthdays later she was given extra shares in the company and a box of chocolates, gift-wrapped, and he offered to pay for her mother’s cancer treatment on private health.
And what about children? Yes, let’s give them some children. A boy and girl. Their father was a king to them, but one of the medieval ones, a warrior on a wall, a figure of strength and honour but never something they could hold in the palm of their hands. He was a stained glass window. And their mother was a friend in the early days but became more like staff, and they ended up both off to university and then to their own startups. The daughter opened restaurants with French names, and the son sat at a computer and told other people how to understand consumer habits from online behavior. Their father didn’t like them. Their mother would not have known how to answer such a question if asked.
She said to him one night that she had been reading a book about how life’s patterns can mimic larger historical patterns, and then she said it had been a long time since either of them had said that they loved the other. She said she was thinking of visiting her hometown for the first time in the years since her parents died. He said it was a myth people should always remember where they hail from, invented by the poor to trap their children in poverty of the soul. She overheard him describe himself in a phone call as a self-made man. She did not read the interview when it came out.
She cut her hair short, and it took years off, he said. She spent more and more time at the stables, and he spent more and more time abroad. She signed some papers in a dark room with ruby leather chairs with ruby leather buttons, her husband opposite and a solicitor at each elbow – the men informed her she was ensuring investments for the web of businesses in Switzerland, Panama and a sprinkling of tropical island she had only perhaps heard of before. Just a few months later they dined with the Prime Minister and his wife, whom she felt had a practiced charm rather than a sincere charm, as with so many people she met for the first time nowadays – those who had any charm at all – and she drank a little too much wine and by the end of the evening, all four of them laughing, she had agreed to buy apartment property on the Solent from the Prime Minister’s wife.
Becoming a member of the House of Lords meant a peculiar morning in which she had to stand around a great deal and wait for ceremony. His knighthood was a similar affair, with less garb, and she thought a great deal that day how much her mother had liked the Queen. When telling stories of the two days, at functions and dinner parties, she could never remember which had happened first. But if nothing else she now understood what was important in a story and what was not. And lying was not a problem either. Her son, for instance, had died in a skiing accident, not from a heroin overdose.
They celebrated the billionaire milestone via a phone call across continents. He was in Brazil and she was at the stables, mucky and sweaty rushing the call to an end so she could take a shower and go to dinner with her daughter’s best friend, Veronica, who was a ballet teacher now in Paris, and with whom she had recently started her first affair. She imagined it would be her only affair, but she was counting nothing out. With Veronica, who was twenty years her junior, she could laugh, she could relax, she was listened to. She sometimes felt as if she was being unpeeled by Veronica’s words, by her smile, by her soft pale skin and strong broad shoulders. They had complicated conversations and she reveled in them. She had never been so happy, and Veronica told her that she had fallen in love with her.
After his second stroke he moved to the Alps. He denied it was brought on by the FBI investigation, stating a knighthood had to be worth something. He breathed with a wheeze and he had spread at his centre and he struggled to get around. He began to consult mystics, and whenever she visited him he spoke of conspiracies and Marxists and how his old friends had turned on him and were trying to take his money away. He was ashen, splintering, surrounded by servile medics and fly-like solicitors. But he had been right about his knighthood.
She lived in Paris by this point, and even though her daughter had cut off all ties with both her and Veronica, she would not have given up anything for the apartment they shared. During this time they travelled Europe by train, and explored spiritual India, and in Calcutta it was when Veronica asked her if she ever felt guilt at the wealth she had accrued and had she ever thought about the imbalance and unfairness of the human world, and she said angrily in response that Veronica did not understand and that things are complicated and that her husband had been responsible for many great things that have affected a great many people during his life.
When her husband died in the crags of the mountains she had not seen in him three years, but when Veronica died on the streets of Paris she had seen her just that afternoon silhouetted at the window of the sitting room as she stretched her back and sighed that it was going to be a beautiful evening. Her daughter came to the funeral, and she saw her mother’s heartbreak, the greyness to her eyes and the blood gone from her skin, and the two of them stood muted as the conversation around and over them was all about terrorism and the Caliphate and how we could and should make the world a smaller place, and how castles should be built with piles of money and how seas and oceans should be filled in with dirt and gold, and how the skies should be made lead with the manic whistle of lethal rockets.
She could not listen. She would have given all her money for Veronica to walk back through the door. But instead, as she did not have a knighthood, the FBI came calling, and her days were numbered. It seemed she was to answer for her husband, now her husband was gone and his castle in the Alps was empty and abandoned. She had many lawyers, but she herself had no fight, and she had even less insight into the tunnels and turrets she had put her name to. Her days were numbered and she counted them down. She had dreams where the sun was setting over Veronica’s shoulders, and the dreams became longer than the days, and the courtroom grew dry and sand gusted up from the horizon and she knew, at the very end, that she had clasped a moment of worth in a vast waste.
Illustration: Claire Palmer